Lessons from a forgotten past

Julie Gough’s art takes us to places we’d rather forget, but must come to terms with.

Julie Gough. PHOTO National Gallery of Victoria

“The aborigine is gone but you are here instead. The reason for this is because you belong to a more highly civilised race of people who came, settled and multiplied while the poor aborigine perished.”

The words are startling now, but that was the sort of history I learned in primary school. The text, published 70-odd years ago in a little book called Our Isle, is the basis of one of many installations in Tense Past, a major exhibition of works by celebrated artist Julie Gough.

This wonderfully intelligent, thought-provoking, witty, sad, shocking, visually stunning show at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) opened in June and continues to early November. But you should not delay going because you will surely feel, as I do, the need to go again.

Gough, whose mother was from country Victoria and father from Scotland, lived in many places but never Tasmania until she moved here in 1993. But she sees this island as her ancestral home by virtue of her maternal descent from Mannalargenna, an Aboriginal elder of the Ben Lomond people.

Unlike Gough, I was born in Tasmania. I thought I knew this place pretty well, but after a couple of hours immersed in Tense Past I knew I didn’t.

This Melbourne-born city girl whose youthful comfort zone, by her own admission, was “interiors and interior worlds found in books”, has radically transformed herself and her way of seeing things. She is now utterly of this island, in a way that I have never been. I have much still to learn.

Tense Past is about people, landscape and the connection between the two on this island which Europeans named Tasmania. I mention that because, as the show makes crystal clear, names, words and language really do matter in the relationship between Aboriginal and European cultures.

Our British colonial overlords held that identifying original Australians as “uncivilised” meant that all inhabitants of this land were subject to English law only. In 1992 the High Court threw this out, ruling that customary Aboriginal laws still held where they had not been specifically expunged.

Yet that word, “uncivilised”, and all associated terms applied to Tasmania’s indigenous peoples – savages, blacks and crows are three of many labels referenced in Gough’s work – were used to relegate our first people to a footnote of history, best forgotten.

Gough has written that “place is tenacious; it always eventually reveals its history”. This is a lesson that after centuries of forgetting, non-Aboriginal Tasmanians are just beginning to learn.

TMAG is ahead of most of us. It has been steadily shifting its focus toward full recognition of indigenous people and culture since the mid-1970s, when it handed the skeletal remains of Truganini, of Bruny Island, to the Aboriginal community for ceremonial cremation.

Tense Past is not a comfortable experience; if it was I doubt I’d be writing about it. But I don’t believe any visitor would regret that experience, or remain unaffected by it. The impact is surely greatest for Tasmanians, but its messages are universal ones.

We have seen our first people as two-dimensional caricatures. Gough challenges that perception with stories woven into sculptural forms, still images and beautifully-recorded moving pictures which leave us in no doubt of the reality, the flesh and blood of these people.

Tasmanians are now starting to take that on board in acknowledging our land’s first custodians in public events and protecting their traditional gathering areas and sacred places. This is good, but no substitute for a full and widespread understanding of what happened here in early colonial years.

Our “forgetting” of those times, our failure to fully account for the slaughter and mistreatment of the “savages”, is a product of the kind of society that emerged out of the old Van Diemens Land, where the new Tasmania’s landed establishment sought to close the book on indigenous people.

It was a failure repeated on a larger scale elsewhere in Australia, where the displaced, the diseased and the dead numbered not hundreds or thousands, but tens, maybe hundreds of thousands. Gough’s Tasmanian stories are also the stories of countless other Australian communities.

Our Isle, part of that process of forgetting, told its readers that “your race in the last century had certain advantages over the aborigine. The whites had large ships with which to bring in food from other lands when they were short. The aborigine, when he went short, starved…. The whites tilled the land and… provided food for many thousands…. The aborigine hunted and collected… only those who were fit enough to find enough food, lived – these were few.”

A thought: if the British hadn’t been so full of themselves they might have learned from the “savages” about living sustainably off the land. The civilisation they were said to lack has destabilised our climate, threatening food supplies to millions. But as Julie Gough would say, it’s never too late.

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