Communist Party of Australia

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Issue #1874      June 26, 2019

Hidden history unveiled

With its perfectly fitting title Tense Past the new major exhibition by acclaimed artist Julie Gough has no intention of bringing comfort to viewers. “Tense past, things are not comfortable in here, not for us either, this is a period where we nearly didn’t make it as Aboriginal people,” says Gough, referring to what is now known as Tasmania in the early 1800s.

“It’s not meant to be relaxing for anyone to come in here, that’s the point, it’s uncomfortable for everyone.”

Tense Past casts a light on attempted genocide, child theft and slavery, massacres, the Black War and its legacy.

Spanning four galleries at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and representing two and a half decades of artistic practice, the exhibition brings together 33 of Gough’s works, some new, others borrowed back from institutions, alongside archival documents, colonial artworks and colonial objects.

Gough says it is important for First Nations people to openly access museum and archival collections, so Aboriginal artists can reverse the gaze and challenge the mainstream given perspective of things.

The Koori Mail visited the exhibition during the final stages of installation.

The title at the entrance of the exhibition hints at what lies ahead – shadows are cast from cut out lettering mounted onto the wall at a right angle.

“If you turn off the lights it’s not there. That’s the problem with hidden history,” Gough explains.

“What lies beneath, what we might not see, is it there, do we need physical evidence for truth?”

Julie Gough is a Trawlwoolway (Tasmania) artist, writer and curator from Hobart. Her ancestor Woretemoeteyenner (aka Margaret and Bung) was one of the four daughters of east coast leader, Mannalargenna. Her extended family has lived in the Latrobe region of Tasmania since the 1840s. Gough’s paternal heritage is Scottish and Irish.

Having grown up in Western Australia and Victoria and moved back to Tasmania as a young adult, she does not hesitate to confess she is obsessed with and possessed by the research she does.

“I feel like I’m making up for lost time,” she said.

Her research and art practice involves uncovering and representing conflicting and subsumed histories, many referring to her maternal family’s experiences as Tasmanian Aboriginal people.

Moving through Tense Past, at regular intervals, a haunting voice can be heard. It is Gough singing lyrics of a Tasmanian Aboriginal song transcribed in the 1830s. In a display cabinet sits the hand drawn sheet music and words, thought to have been transcribed in 1832. There are other historic objects on loan from institutions, including a grandfather clock that belonged to Quaker anti-slavery advocates – the Walker family – in the 1830s.

“What did this witness, what did those owners see, did someone who looked at this clock shoot someone in that artwork there, an Aboriginal person?” Gough says, pointing to a colonial painting about to be hung as part of the exhibition.

“It feels like they are all having a gathering in here, these objects and these artworks.”

She ponders what might happen at night when the doors are closed.

Tense Past has nine separate film installations. For Gough it’s a way to bring the outdoors in, and also spend time on Country. Some feature reproductions of colonial artworks, modified from Gough’s perspective, contemporary footage of Country and words from archival documents.

There are cut outs of crows and letters spelling “annihilation” on another wall. Gough explains that she has come across references in the journals of government appointed “conciliator” George Augustus Robinson and newspapers where colonists spoke of how many “crows” they had killed in a day – it was a “code word” for blacks.

It is heavy viewing, forcing the viewer to stop and look at evidence of what has happened all around them, reflect on the foundations of contemporary “Tasmania” – the massacres, forced removals of children, racism and government sanctioned attempts to dissolve an entire 40,000-year-old culture.

Mounted on another wall are a curious bundle of long spears held together in the frame of an antique chair, each spear has a small section of bark shaved off and a name inscribed.

They are the names of Aboriginal children who lived with non-Aboriginal people before 1840.

“Some were in the orphan asylum, some were baptised and we don’t know what happened to them, others we’ve got death records but nothing else, but most of them have an English name or don’t even know their name,” Gough said.

Over the past two decades Gough, who is just as much historian as artist, has searched births, deaths and marriage records, orphan asylum records and other archival material and has been able to piece together 185 of these children, and is still counting. She will honour them in an ephemeral (lasting for a very short time) artwork in Hobart’s remnant bushland.

“Some survived longer than others, some were just missing, so I’m calling it Missing or Dead.”

185 small posters, one for each child, will be tied to a tree. They reference the proclamation boards that were mounted on trees toward the end of the Black War (1824-31) depicting white men being hung for killing black men and vice versa – the idea of punishing whites was never honoured.

Coincidently, alongside the same bush land are 533 permanent plaques honouring soldiers, mainly from Hobart, who died in World War I.

Some of the posters honour those that survived the western system – the orphanage, Wybalenna or living with colonists, such as Dolly Dalrymple and Fanny Cochrane Smith.

Only some – there are no known records for others.

“If you’re missing, you can’t say you died without children, if we’ve got 50 or 70 (missing or dead), you don’t know what happened after their baptism, or when they were released from the orphan asylum, then they may have descendants.

“How they see themselves, how they identify or don’t – their life journey is a matter for themselves to work out. These people were living amongst our ancestors, with our ancestors, I don’t see them as different. They may have been lost – to me they are still lost until we figure out where they are, but maybe they don’t want to be found.”

With her forensic research of archival material Gough has no doubt some of the “missing” have descendants.

“Do they want to be found, do they want to be part of contemporary political Aboriginal life or not?

“What does it mean if you are bought up completely isolated as a child servant?”

She said there were attempts in Tasmania to replicate the slavery system used in the south of America in the same era (early 1800s) using Aboriginal children, but it is rarely discussed.

It is a big story, and a big exhibition – steeped with facts, reflections, symbolism and wonder. Julie hopes Tense Past will inspire audiences to be willing to approach the past and look at it from different perspectives.

The exhibition runs till November 3, including other late opening night during the Dark Mofo festival. Missing or Dead will be in bush land on the Queens Domain from June 14-23.

There were several artists and curator talks, and guided tours scheduled between June 13-23. On June 10, there was a panel discussion with Julie Gough, TMAG senior curator of Art Mary Knights, National Gallery of Australia senior curator Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Franchesca Cubillo and Macquarie University research director Professor Joseph.

Koori Mail

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