Hymns and Stolen Children: Lessons from Indigenous Australians | Art


Margo Neale, proud. “Here we are,” she says, “250 years after the British set out to colonize and civilize us, bringing our culture to the British – to teach them how to survive in this fragmented world. Neale, an Australian native of the Gumbaynggirr and Kulin nations, is just warming up. “He is our civilization, ”she continues defiantly,“ that has had the resilience to survive over the millennia: the ice age, rising sea levels, drought, invasions, violence, all kinds of oppression and pandemics . So we are the ones who show Britain that we have the knowledge to survive – knowledge contained in the songs. “

Neale, who is also of Irish descent, talks about plans to bring the National Museum of Australia’s extraordinary Songlines exhibit to Britain in 2017, which she co-curated. The show will have its European premiere at the Box in Plymouth – where, Neale can’t help but point out, Captain James Cook set sail in 1768, becoming the first European to set foot on Australia’s east coast. .

Songlines is among many highlights of this month’s launch of the UK / Australia 2021-22 season, the largest cultural exchange ever between the two nations, embracing just about all types of art forms, hymns of the uprising sung by the strikers to a pair of shells. covered slippers from Sydney that ended up in a closet at the entrance to Buckingham Palace.

Epic stories… the songline project. Photography: Annieka Skinner

The notion of songlines was widely – and reductive – introduced to the UK and non-native Australia by British writer Bruce Chatwin’s 1987 book The Songlines. Yet these phenomena are considerably more complex than Chatwin could describe. They embody the stories of ancestral beings and their creation of the landscape which churinga (or dream) the paths have wisdom engraved in each of their parts.

Subtitled Tracking the Seven Sisters, the show is both metaphor and allegory, as a lewd wizard pursues the fleeing sisters. He is a “shapeshifter”: he becomes a tree to tempt them with shade – and a snake that they can kill and eat. The story even goes underground, as the women dive into a waterhole to escape. They can also fly, take off from Earth to become one with the constellation of Orion and other star systems.

But stories of native culture aren’t all that the UK / AU season is about. The vast artistic extravaganza will also pick up on the latent generational tensions between British colonialism and the painful Indigenous experience. Take, for example, this extraordinary find at Buckingham Palace: a pair of delicate and richly decorated baby booties that were made by a native Australian woman. These distinctive seashell slippers were made and sold by women in La Perouse, Sydney, at the turn of the 20th century to help their families as they battled postcolonial oppression. This included the widespread theft of their children by the state, motivated by the racially eugenic “white Australia policy”, which lasted until the 1970s.

This brutal backstory gives a dark resonance to these slippers, which were presented to the Duchess of York during her visit to Australia with the Duke (later King George VI) in 1927. The royal couple had left their baby Elizabeth – now the queen – home for their six month tour and have been inundated with baby gifts. The slippers, now on permanent display at Windsor Castle, are the first artefacts featured in Ancestors, Artefacts, Empire, a new book released by the British Museum to coincide with the season which explores 160 indigenous Australian artefacts held (though rarely seen publicly ) in Great Britain. and Irish museums.

Shellwork shoe… found in an undocumented stray items box at the Warrington Museum & Art Gallery.
Shellwork shoe… found in an undocumented stray items box at the Warrington Museum and Art Gallery. Photograph: © 2020 The Trustees of the British Museum, courtesy of Culture Warrington (Warrington Museum and Art Gallery)

The general theme of the season – “Who are we now?” – is rightly ambitious, given how empire still looms over Australia. The monuments and names of white British men – some who murdered indigenous peoples – still dominate the commemorative topography of the country. It has more monuments for animals than indigenous peoples, despite the latter’s 60,000-year history on the continent, the longest continuing civilization on Earth.

Highlights of the country’s national commemoration remain Australia’s Dividing Day on January 26 (when Arthur Phillip’s first fleet arrived in 1788 to establish a penal colony) and Anzac Day on April 25 (when Australians under British command participated in the disastrous invasion of Gallipoli in 1915). . Last year, Covid-19 thwarted plans for a lavish celebration of the 250th anniversary of the arrival of James Cook, Australia’s most commemorated historical figure. Cook has been hailed – until too recently – as the “discoverer” of the continent, even though the earth had been occupied by humans for tens of thousands of years.

Generations of mostly white Australians – from artists to intellectuals and writers – have felt Britain’s allure just as Britons still long for a taste of Bondi, the outback or the Great. Barrier Reef. The UK-Australia relationship also remains symbiotic in terms of trade, diplomacy, defense, and (white settler) history. But at a time when Australia has repeatedly proven its inability to recognize First Nations peoples in its British-style constitution, or embrace a national truth process about the British invasion, violent dispossession and a legacy of oppression continues, UK / AU The season is deeply resonant.

Next year Jessie Lloyd begins a six-week residency in London with the Border Crossings Origins Festival, which explores First Nations culture. Lloyd, an indigenous Australian celebrated for her rediscovery and interpretation of folk music through the Mission Songs Project, will collaborate on the Brixton Music Map to rediscover and trace the music of the London area uprising in 1981 – or ‘riots’, as they were misinterpreted at the time.

Hymns of the Uprising… Australian musician Jessie Lloyd will begin a six-week residency in London next year.
Hymns of the Uprising… Australian musician Jessie Lloyd will begin a six-week residency in London next year. Photography: Luke David Photography

Michael Walling, of Origin, invited Lloyd after hearing her perform a song written by her grandfather, Albie Geia, who led a strike in 1957 (also mistakenly presented as a riot) on Palm Island in the extreme north of Queensland. Palm Island has a dark history as a place where the natives of Queensland – including stolen children and those who have committed the most minor crimes – have been banished. They worked and lived in appalling conditions, with their wages often withheld.

“Michael saw my show and heard the song,” she recalls. “He said it reminded him of the ‘riots’ in Brixton. The two events have been labeled as riots in order to exaggerate their supposed threat. But people were protesting for their human rights. This therefore gives the inhabitants the opportunity to tell their version, through music, of what happened, as opposed to the newspapers and the police who call it a riot. “

Being in Brixton has a special resonance: one will not have the impression of “working with the motherland”, she says. “So I can avoid that colonial thing a little bit, if you know what I mean.” I’m not going there to work with England so to speak – I’m going there to work with people that I relate to who may have had the same oppressive stories.

Is there any other common ground? Well, rivalries aside, this is often found in cricket. Apart from aficionados, however, few people are likely aware that the first Australian team to tour England in 1868 was entirely Indigenous. In 2015, Gaye Sculthorpe, of native Tasmanian descent and head of the Oceania section of the British Museum, rediscovered the artifacts from this tour at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. They include shields, spears, and boomerangs left by the team. The museum had no idea of ​​the stories behind them. “People were amazed when they started hearing the story,” says Sculthorpe, who co-edited the book on Rediscovered Museum Objects.

“People were amazed when they heard the story”… the Australian cricket team visited England in 1868.
“People were amazed when they heard the story”… the Australian cricket team visited England in 1868. Photography: British Museum

The Times in 1868 wrote of cricket visitors with sharp praise: “Having been raised in the bush for agricultural purposes under European settlers, they are perfectly civilized and know the English language fairly well. Sculthorpe adds: “And one of the men on the team died while he was here in London. It was Bripumyarrimin – known as King Cole – who could not recover from a chest cold and is buried in Bethnal Green. “So, through the objects they brought,” Sculthorpe explains, “Britain is rediscovering its colonial past in Australia”.

Many similar objects have been rediscovered, including spears taken by Cook at Kamay (Botany Bay) in 1770 and an emu feather skirt tied with wire, taken in Victoria in 1836 and now in the Ulster Museum. in Belfast. It would not be surprising if their current location raises questions about the ownership and repatriation of cultural property.

“We described these objects as having both Aboriginal and Imperial history,” Sculthorpe explains. “Now we’re trying to reconnect them in time and space – to give them back meaning, to make them more accessible to people. Their status is recorded in Ancestors, Artefacts, Empire. “We see the book as an opening of these collections so people know what’s here and discuss their importance – and what should happen to them. “

Perhaps other treasures from around the world will be found among the royal bric-a-brac in the lobby cupboards of Buckingham Palace.


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