Activism: Forces for change in Canberra. Canberra Museum and Gallery, Civic Square, Canberra City. Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm. Until November 2.
This exhibition asks: is Canberra a bubbling cauldron of activism for social and political change?
For those of us who have lived in Canberra for longer than a short employment cycle, there is nothing more apparent than a clinical schizophrenia that lies at the heart of our administration and our social and political life. We are in the nation's capital, answerable to the demands of our federal masters, but, at the same time, we are ruled by a local government that has its own agenda. When the interests of the two collide, it is the will of the federal authorities that prevails.
Traditionally, at least since 1930, Canberra was administered by the ACT Advisory Council (later rebadged as the ACT House of Assembly) that had an advisory role to the Department of the Capital Territory. The federal government, in a show of democratic intent, organised in 1978 a referendum on whether the ACT should be granted self-government. When 63.75 per cent of the voters said "no" to self-government and voted to preserve the status quo, the paternalistic federal government said that it knew better and by 1989 the ACT became a self-governing territory. Local Canberra activism does not have a brilliant success record when it confronts the federal bureaucracy.
Activism is an interesting and engaging exhibition that examines this dual role for the Canberra community as it struggles with issues of national and local significance. Assembled within a general chronological framework, the show is arranged thematically and is punctuated with an array of colourful protest posters produced in Canberra.
Possibly the most poignant section of the exhibition deals with the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. On Australia Day 1972, four Indigenous men set up a beach umbrella on the lawns opposite Parliament House and declared that as the McMahon Liberal government made them aliens in their own country, they had set up their own embassy. After 20 years of struggle, demonstrations, demolition of tents by police and arson attacks, in 1992 the Tent Embassy became permanent and soon was protected by law.
Because of its political status, Canberra has always been a national magnet for activism and although many of the instigators of the Tent Embassy came from interstate, local Indigenous people quickly joined. The remarkable Indigenous artist, playwright, poet and activist Kevin Gilbert was a mastermind behind the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, but he could not physically attend on account of parole conditions.
In 1992, now a resident of Canberra, Gilbert spearheaded the move to make the embassy permanent. As possibly the first Aboriginal printmaker, Gilbert was responsible for a number of historically significant prints, including Colonising Species (1989).
In this colour linocut, a white swan, designating European colonial powers, clutches in its beak the neck of a lifeless black swan, denoting Indigenous peoples. Blood drips on the British crown, while Aboriginal sacred figures look on from the background. The colours of the print may suggest the Aboriginal flag.
Dedicated, well-intentioned Canberrans have fought for nuclear disarmament, typified by the strong screenprint poster by Pam Debenham, No nukes in the Pacific (1984). There were also campaigns for women's rights and marriage equality, as well as local issues such as opposing school closures.
The ACT is known for its high level of education and community-mindedness that collectively spells activism, which becomes a thorn in the side of governments of all political persuasions.