Dr Melinda Man
First Nations Arts Officer, Rockhampton Museum of Art
The phrase ‘reimagining representation’ ought to give pause to the speaker and listener alike.1 Allowing time to sit in the complexity of the thoughts invoked by the words singularly and collectively. Imagination necessitates intentional thought, creativity and sensation. To reimagine requires first knowing something and then to change the way we know it; to pull ourselves out of the space of temporary familiarity and confront the discomfort or the excitement of change.
It evokes seamless connection of the ancient, the present and the future through depictions and interpretations of ourselves, our peers, our experiences and our environments. It unravels layers of colonisation, assimilation, past and present injustices to reveal collisions at intersections of Indigenous and non-Indigenous. Courage is needed to step into catastrophe yet it is in these spaces where First Nations people contend daily. As uncomfortable as reimagining might be, it is here where art can lead communities where such collisions remain unheard and invisible. Connection between thought and sense, intention and impact can be reimagined.
From Pamela Croft’s Transgressing Cultural Boundaries 2006 to Paul Ryan’s polarising history of colonisation in his painting Cook and Hounds II 2017, the Rockhampton Museum of Art Collection reminds us of the contrast between Indigenous and Western laws that govern movement through territories. Both works prompt a reflection on the doctrine of terra nullius—its permeation through all aspects of Australian identity and culture and its impact in the space and time that span worlds of Indigenous and Western nations. The transgression of multiple boundaries reverberates with marked impact, as seen in Croft’s undulation of beige etched ripples across the deep ochre red brown surface, while Ryan’s Cook stands in blue jacket, three-cornered hat, hounds at side, with arm raised progressing foreign interest.
Movement across lands and the motions of sound, air, light and darkness in Croft’s and Ryan’s works utilise the dark reds and earth browns of Country with Ryan’s addition of greys. These social, political and environmental shifts and changes are depicted by both artists above, on and under the earth’s surface. Another work by Croft in the Collection, Sandhills 2003 shows movement of elements of Country onto paper—clay, ochre, pigment—as well as oil paint. Likewise, Tjapangardi George Tuckerbox depicts movement in his similarly titled work on canvas Sand Hills Country 2002, with angled lines using space and gradients to move one’s eyes across the repetitive ridges of sandy earth iconic of the Great Sandy Desert. Making these works at similar times, thousands of miles apart, both artists are unified in their representation of Aboriginal societies being connected to and in ceremony with sand Country.
Sand hills are a significant topographical characteristic of Darumbal Country—where the Collection is located—the following section takes a closer look at a handful of works of the early Rockhampton settlement through the lens of First Nations representation. The works portray tranquil and genteel settlements (Ester H. Bate, Lakes Creek Hotel, Rockhampton 1896). Graceful bridges, stately buildings and sprawling residences contemplate European towns. These images are observed in Jens Hensen Lundager’s Moore’s Creek 1890 and a painted work by an unknown artist titled The Fitzroy River Bridge 1890. A First Nations lens allows one to note the omission of Darumbal people in land and townscapes. Similarly, the stillness in the imagery of late 1800s’ Rockhampton draws picturesque silence of the ‘dispersals’ and removals of Darumbal people while the blackbirding of South Sea Islanders is unseen. Yet, in the backgrounds and foregrounds of photographs, sketches and watercolours, Darumbal Country rises majestically and flows relentlessly in their own soundless acts of representation.
Whereas the human Darumbal is absent, the Country Darumbal is flaunted by Lundager and others, in their creations of images of Darumbal and neighbouring Gangalu Country around the turn of the twentieth century.
Representations of First Nations people across the next five works from the Collection assemble narratives from artists and curators influenced by layers of European standards, interpretations, expectations and motivations. The works signpost the Collection’s foregrounding of non-Indigenous perceptions of First Nations people in Central Queensland and beyond. It reveals how Central Queensland symbolises First Nations and the impressions that inform these representations (Lindsay Scott, Bolsover Street c.1986; Jack Kilgour, Aboriginal Boy Drawing Totem 1975). Lundager’s Aboriginal Woman and Child 1884 in staged colonial dress acquires a single moment during Central Queensland’s frontier times. Reimagining this image as the aesthetic disruption of First Nations peoples’ physical appearance also leads us to speak of our persistence to exist despite it. Keith Looby’s print History of Australia, Part 1 1978, is a confronting characterisation of First Nations people in a Collection limited in its portraitures illustrating us in relationships with each other, our environments, as well beings, fully sustaining our own agency and humanness. These gaps are hesitations in representation, raising questions about how and why images of First Nations peoples are situated as they are in the imaginary of regional Australia (William Boissevain, Aboriginal Boys 1976) and whom these presentations might serve.
If we contend that representations can and indeed should be reimagined, how can we redress imaginaries of land and townscapes to portray us who have been present for millennia but omitted from regional biographies? Is it possible for the Collection to tend to these tensions? What can be achieved by unsettling narratives in contested spaces (e.g. art) and colonised places (e.g. regional areas). When reimagining representations is not rendered as concession or conciliation it can serve as an effective reminder that First Nations people continue in unique relationship with this continent – unparalleled (Moreton-Robinson, 2015). In locale, it is a call to address the absence of works in the Collection by First Nations people of Central Queensland observing celebration of beauty and presence and the visibility of our traumatic dispossession.
The Collection in its entirety is hugely significant. In its next chapter and new home, it presents the opportunity to increase First Nations representation starting from the lands of the Darumbal where it is located. The Rockhampton Museum of Art offers the opportunity to unlearn and learn Indigenous realities of Central Queensland and beyond through various mediums. It can elevate depictions of continued presence and practice by First Nations people in relation to and in relationship with land (Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, Dibirdibi Country 2011). Public spaces can be used for additional articulations of the memories of Country and its holding of the living and non-living, human and non-human (Uncle Tosi Cora, Barramundi 2019). Ultimately, the Collection can demonstrate that First Nations people and representations of us can be reimagined in uncompromised, immutable and powerfully visible ways (Mabel Edmund, On Jowalbina 1990).
Terri Janke, First Peoples: A Roadmap for Enhancing Indigenous Engagement in Museums and Galleries (Sydney: Australian Museums and Galleries Association, 2018)
Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The white possessive: Property, power, and Indigenous sovereignty (University of Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2015)
1 ‘Reimagining Representation’ is a key element of the First Peoples: A Roadmap for Enhancing Indigenous Engagement in Museums and Galleries (Janke, 2018). It is also the title of the First Nations project at the Rockhampton Museum of Art, aiming to increase staffing, programming, audiences and engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities.