Saturday, May 28

‘We are tearing that wound apart’: First Nations artists reclaiming Tasmania | festivals

LAunceston is one of the oldest and perhaps most characterful cities in Australia. It’s filled with Georgian, Victorian, and Federation-era buildings that are largely untouched by wrecking balls or developers, often with a year of construction dating back a century or more.

With manicured lawns, flower beds and a classically inspired 1859 fountain, Prince’s Square packs all that heritage charm. But this week things are a little different. The shoe polish around the fountain is painted in giant red letters spelling out messages of sin, theft, and scars, while an ominous soundscape engulfs parkgoers.

A collaborative project between Tasmanian Aboriginal artist Kartanya Maynard and Kuku Yalandji, Waanji, Yidinji and Gugu Yimithirr artist Vernon Ah Kee, Hot Takamuna! (we get up) is a simple but poignant intervention: it is disrupting the heritage façade of the plaza, the city and the neighborhood from the inside out.

Hot Takamuna!  by Kartanya Maynard and Vernon Ah Kee
Painting the city red: Waranta Takamuna! by Kartanya Maynard and Vernon Ah Kee. Photography: Jesse Hunniford/Mona

For Maynard, Prince’s Square is “soaked in colonialism.” “When I look at parks like Prince’s Square, I see this profound manipulation of the landscape into something almost too unreal: everything is a little too perfect, and to me that is deeply uncomfortable,” he tells Guardian Australia. “One of the trees in the park was even planted by one of Queen Victoria’s sons.”

Along with Ah Kee’s quotes from Shakespeare and Kipling, Maynard uses sound to reach into the past. “Waranta Takamuna! it was our chance to look at Launceston, this space and what it means to Tasmanian Aboriginal people,” he says. The 10-minute audio loop goes through different time periods and emotions, from the early violence of the Black War (the brutal colonial genocide of First Nations peoples that took place in Tasmania in the 19th century) to the waves of assimilation, when Maynard’s ancestors were eliminated. to islands in the Bass Strait by authorities or kidnapped by seal hunters.

We hear screams, tears and desperate pleas. And then a campfire singing along to the survival and community forged on those islands. “It’s not just a song, it’s a feeling,” Maynard says of Born On Old Cape Barren, sung by the late singer Uncle Ronnie Summer. Maynard herself interprets the version that is heard in the square.

“In one of the soundscapes, I talk about how my heart was broken even before I was born, leaving pieces in different places: one on Cape Barren Island, one on Launceston, Hobart, South Australia. Waranta Takamuna! It’s a love letter to the island, but it’s also a love letter to telling the truth about the difficulties of how we got there and how they got us out of there.”

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The hills and plains between Launceston and Hobart also bear the mark of settlement, their pre-invasion landscape cleared and replanted into pastoral views. In another installation for Mona Foma, metal silhouettes appear to the east as you drive down the Midland Highway: a woman with a child on top of a golden hill, and violent scenes between settlers and Aboriginal men.

Trawlwoolway artist Julie Gough based these figures on a series of illustrated boards produced to accompany a Proclamation of 1828 by Lieutenant Governor George Arthur. Intended to explain British justice to First Nations peoples and illiterate settlers alike, around 100 copies were painted and nailed to trees around the island. Today, in Gough’s installation The Missing, images distill truths and fictions about his past in ways that language cannot.

“It’s not my artwork, it’s a government document that I’ve republished, like a reissue,” says Gough. “It’s coming back to create a larger conversation in a landscape that has been absorbed and owned by newcomers, settlers, particularly since the 1820s. So, in a way, I’m subverting the government’s intended use to remind everyone whose country is it?

George Frankland (attributed) (1800-38).  Governor Arthur Proclamation Board, 1829
George Frankland (attributed) (1800-38). Governor Arthur Proclamation Board, 1829, oil on board. Presented to the Royal Society of Tasmania by Mr A Boltar, 1867 Photograph: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

in a audio tour that accompanies the route, Gough chronicles the experience as we drive through the “epicenter of violence” and the psychic and physical scars left on the landscape. “Those figures are looking for something that is quite different from when they were first produced, like panels to be [nailed] in the trees, now there are not so many trees in the Midlands of the island”.

The silhouette of the woman and child may seem less violent than other figures in the series, but not to Gough. It is from the first scene on the proclamation boards, depicting Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal men and women in European dress, with an Aboriginal woman holding a white child and vice versa.

“That to me is incredibly violent, but not Appear violent,” he says. “It’s meant to be, ‘We’ll live happily ever after,’ but we don’t know what happened to some 200 Aboriginal children taken by settlers up until the 1850s who were destined to become farm and domestic servants. Many of them are unaccounted for. The collateral damage of that is us, those of us who come from children who lived with settlers. One of my ancestors was such a child, Dalrymple Briggs, so that figure, of the woman and the child, is close to my heart.”

The Missing (2022) by Julie Gough on the side of Midland Highway as part of Mona Foma.
The Missing (2022) by Julie Gough on the side of Midland Highway as part of Mona Foma. Photography: Jesse Hunniford/Mona

It’s kind of like a recovery, too. For more than a decade, the route between Launceston and Hobart has been dotted with 16 silhouettes created by local artists Folko Kooper and Maureen Craig. Featuring convicts, soldiers, settlers and surveyors, they represent an Anglocentric view of the region’s folkloric history, something that had long preoccupied Gough. “They were a scratch that couldn’t itch,” she says.

Gough and the project’s curator, Trudi Brinckman, consulted with Kooper and Craig before embarking on the project. “They were totally supportive of this new inclusion, for a broader dialogue and mentioned that they had tried so many years ago, to work with people, to come up with Aboriginal figures,” says Gough. “But it just wasn’t the time.

“Now, when I drive down this road and I see those figures, I think, wow, we are opening that wound so we can heal it better.”

At the other end of the road, another work by Maynard and Ah Kee, titled Warr! – will take over the Parliament House gardens for the Hobart leg of the festival. Following the controversy that engulfed Mona Foma’s winter counterpart, Dark Mofo, in the wake of Spanish artist Santiago Sierra’s ultimately canceled Union Flag project, works such as The Missing, Warr! and Waranta Takamuna! underline the value of empowering Aboriginal artists to tell their own stories.

Gough doesn’t know how long his figures will stay in place, and he doesn’t care either: “I hate the word permanent, it’s like colonial monster statues in public parks. Leave the scenery be permanent; let’s find out we humans how to be less. Let nature be able to work on things.”

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