30 years on the Aboriginal Memorial as powerful as ever
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30 years on the Aboriginal Memorial as powerful as ever

Thirty years ago, Djon Mundine and a group of artists from Ramingining in Central Arnhem Land set to work on a project to mark the Bicentenary of Australia.

Djon Mundine, conceptual producer of ‘The Aboriginal Memorial 1987-88.’

Djon Mundine, conceptual producer of ‘The Aboriginal Memorial 1987-88.’Credit:Jamila Toderas

While the nation celebrated 200 years of European settlement, the indigenous community was looking for a way to demonstrate the resilience of their culture.

The Aboriginal Memorial is a collection of 200 hollow log coffins, each representing both a year of settlement, and the indigenous people who have died fighting for their country, in a dedicated gallery off the foyer of the National Gallery of Australia.

But 30 years on, questions are being asked about what Australia has since achieved in terms of reconciliation and the recognition of indigenous communities.

The NGA’s senior curator of indigenous art, Franchesca Cubillo, says it’s time to reflect not only on how remarkable the memorial is, but on what has been achieved for indigenous people in those 30 years.

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The Aboriginal Memorial is still a very political, provocative piece,” she says.

“People outside the Aboriginal community, potentially outside the art community, aren't aware of its importance.

“It’s a reminder even 30 years later we still have so far to go.”

Mundine, in Canberra with senior Ramingining artists Roy Burrnyila and Bobby Bununggurr, said the memorial was created to honour the “hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal people who died at the hands of white invaders”.

“It is for these unnamed, unrecognised, peaceful, normal, average Aboriginal victims – men, women and children – and not just warriors, that this memorial was created.”

The log coffins reflect the mortuary practices of the regional people. When an individual died, their body would be painted with clan designs and placed on a burial platform and left to the elements. After a mourning period the skeletal remains were collected and broken up and placed within the hollow logs.

Artwork by Ramingining artists. 'The Aboriginal Memorial', 1987-88.

Artwork by Ramingining artists. 'The Aboriginal Memorial', 1987-88.

Ms Cubillo said while the memorial was a powerful contemporary artwork, a lot of its significance was due to its ties to these traditions.

“It's very empowering for me, as an indigenous woman, to be connected this piece,” she said.

“It reminds me of our indigenous collective past, it reminds me of the trauma, the loss, but equally it reminds me of that remarkable resilience.

“It inspires me to ensure that the hopes, the visions, the passions, of all of the ancestors and their determination, that I have a responsibility to carry them on.”

But at the same time, she found herself asking what had been done in those 30 years.

She talked about then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, movement on Native Title, the establishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, and its subsequent abolishment.

“John Howard called it an experiment,” she said.

Both Ms Cubillo and Mr Mundine said the memorial was all about the recognition and acknowledgement of the contribution - and the losses - of the Aboriginal people.

“It’s not about compensation or recompense,” Ms Cubillo said.

“It’s about recognition as the original owners of this land.”

The NGA is hosting an Aboriginal Memorial 30th Anniversary Symposium on October 12-13, from 10am-5pm daily.