is The Aboriginal Memorial a work of art?

On 6th November last year Djon Mundine gave a talk at the National Gallery of Australia about the place of The Aboriginal Memorial in the context of contemporary Indigenous art, following its relocation and redesign in the new wing. One of his key claims was that the historical moment of transition between art museums’ treatment of Aboriginal artefacts as works of art coincided with the recognition of authorship. According to this criterion, Indigenous artefacts in museum collections were recognised as works of art by the act of naming their authors.

In the discussion that followed his talk, one of the members of the audience noted that the 43 artists who created The Aboriginal Memorial were not named, which, by Djon’s criterion, called into question the status of the Memorial as a work of art. Both Djon and the Senior Curator, Francesca Cubillo seemed to agree that this was a problem which should be fixed. Two months later, all that has been changed is the addition of a short wall-text edited from an excellent brochure, written by Susan Jenkins in 1997 (which did name all the artists). The new additional wall-text reads:

The Aboriginal Memorial

The Aboriginal Memorial is an installation of 200 hollow log ceremonial coffins from Central Arnhem Land. The Aboriginal Memorial was created for the National Gallery of Australia in 1988 in response to the Bicentenary of Australia, a celebration of 200 years of European settlement. The path through the Memorial imitates the course of the Glyde River estuary which flows through the Arafura Swamp to the sea. The hollow log coffins are situated broadly according to where the artists’ clans live along the river and its tributaries.

The Aboriginal Memorial was conceived by Djon Mundine, a member of the Bundjalang people of northern New South Wales and at the time art adviser in Ramingining in Central Arnhem Land. Originally Mundine approached a small group of Senior artists including Paddy Dhatangu, George Malibirr, Jimmy Wululu and Dr David Daymirringu. However the project grew to include forty three male and female artists from Ramingining and its surrounds in Central Arnhem Land.

The Aboriginal Memorial with its 200 hollow log coffins – one for each year of European settlement, in the words of Mundine, represents a forest of souls, a war cemetery and the final rites for all indigenous Australians who have been denied a proper burial.

In 1987 the National Gallery of Australia agreed to commission this installation to enable the artists, most of whom were professional painters, sculptors and weavers, to complete the project. The Aboriginal Memorial was initially shown at the Biennale of Sydney in 1988. It was then brought to Canberra where it is now permanently displayed in the National Gallery of Australia.

The Aboriginal Memorial marks a watershed in the history of Australian society. Whilst it is intended as a war memorial, its is also a historical statement, a testimony to the resilience of Indigenous people and culture in the face of great odds, and a legacy for future generations of Australians.

The label remains the same, which itself perpetuates a historical mis-attribution. If you go to the website – here – to find the artists’ locations, clans, names, and stories, you will see that a significant proportion of the work was made by artists who live/lived somewhere other than Ramininging.

Elsewhere, the Gallery claims The Aboriginal Memorial as “one of the most important works of art in the national collection”.

Yet the question remains: does the absence of attribution – the artists’ names on the label which accompanies the work – render ambiguous the status of The Aboriginal Memorial as a work of art?

P.S. As noted in an earlier post, the right of attribution is recognised within Moral Rights legislation in Australia. And see other related confusions at the NGA here.

P.P.S. Links to the thread on this topic may be found here. Or type Memorial in the search box.

P.P.P.S. And for a wider perspective, read Melinda Hinkson (who describes herself – in this instance – as a “disgruntled anthropologist”) on the NGA’s lack of a relational approach to its presentation of Indigenous art. You can download her on-the-button essay from Arena 109 here: For Love and Money.

P.P.P.P.S. You can find the NGA’s own YouTube video here, which in a new description gives a account of funerary practices in the present tense, as if that is the way burial ceremonies still take place. A more nuanced account might say: “In the past…” or “Traditionally…” Otherwise, aren’t we getting a little more ethnographic than the Director might like?

STOP PRESS: 27 June 2011. At last the National Gallery of Australia has taken a step toward remedying the problems outlined above. It has only taken seven months.

But wait! Naming the artists is one thing. But it perpetuates the myth that these are all artists from Ramingining. Ramingining artists and others is the more accurate attribution.

At last the Australian equivalent of Picasso’s Guernica has been recognised by the National Gallery of Australia as the preeminent work of art of the Australian colonial era.

Another P.S.: Let’s see how long it takes to make some corrections? Jimmy Moduk is listed twice, Neville Nanytjawuy is missing.

A final P.S.: In June 2016 I published the following essay: Relational Agency: Rethinking The Aboriginal Memorial. https://emajartjournal.com/2016/06/15/nigel-lendon-relational-agency-rethinking-the-aboriginal-memorial/

3 comments ↓

#1 Megxx on 02.12.11 at 12:34 pm

Shame job, Nige. Why on earth can’t they just put up one of those effective and readable ‘maps’, as illustrated in the brochure….or have they jumbled up the arrangement?

#2 wamut on 04.04.11 at 9:42 am

Sorry Nigel, you are wrong. Lorrkon ceremonies are still held in Arnhem Land, so it is hardly “in the past…”

#3 Nigel on 04.04.11 at 12:46 pm

If you say so. It wasn’t happening in Central Arnhem Land in the 90s…

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