Tag Archives: Australia

(Art) History Matters

Dr Sarah Thomas, from the Department of History of Art, shares her experience of museum curation in Australia and discusses how we should interrogate the ‘hidden histories’ that underpin current debates. 

In 1993 when working as a curatorial assistant in a public gallery in Sydney I was involved in a project which I’ll never forget. Yamangu Ngaanya. Our Land Our Body was an exhibition of paintings by a group of Aboriginal artists from a remote desert community in Warbuton, Western Australia. The dazzling canvases, derived from ancestral ‘Dreaming’ stories that were traditionally painted onto the body, were accompanied by forty-five Ngaanyatjarra men and women, most of whom had never visited a city in their lives and who had travelled to Sydney by coach over several days and nights. Besides the paintings they also brought with them sixteen tonnes of red sand from their land, which over the course of several days was dispersed over the gallery floor. What had been a standard ‘white cube’ interior was radically transformed into a space for ceremony: over several days and nights separate groups of women and men prepared and performed Dreaming ceremonies, filling the space with traditional song, language, dance, swirling dust, bodies painted in ochre, the smell of smoke and sweat. This was not what an art historical training had prepared me for: ‘performance art’, ‘installation’, and ‘body art’, even ‘painting’, were all wildly inadequate terms for what I observed over the course of that week.

I am reminded of this moment by the global repercussions recently of the Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests. The Australia I grew up in was deeply racist, and it remains so. Sadly, despite years of protest, public and scholarly debate, and a government apology in 2008 for the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families by national and state agencies, Indigenous Australians remain the most incarcerated people on earth. Leading Aboriginal artists have long been highly critical of Australia’s colonial past, and the pervasive hold it has on the present. Daniel Boyd, for example, critiques the nation’s foundational myths by reworking white Australian imagery, from heroic depictions of Captain Cook (statues of whom are currently the subject of heated debate) to encounters between Aboriginal and European settlers. I included Boyd’s painting We Call Them Pirates Out Here (2007) in an exhibition I curated in 2015 called Colonial Afterlives, which brought together the work of contemporary artists from former British colonies including Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, Canada, New Zealand, as well as Australia.

: Colonial Afterlives exhibition catalogue cover. Image by Christian Thompson, Trinity III, from the Polari series, 2014. Christian Thompson is represented by Sarah Scout Presents (Melbourne) and Michael Reid Gallery (Sydney and Berlin).

Colonial Afterlives exhibition catalogue cover. Image by Christian Thompson, Trinity III, from the Polari series, 2014. Christian Thompson is represented by Sarah Scout Presents (Melbourne) and Michael Reid Gallery (Sydney and Berlin).

Over the past decade, I’ve been researching the European representation of enslaved people in the 18th and 19th centuries across the Caribbean, Brazil and antebellum America (the subject of my book, Witnessing Slavery: Art and Travel in an Age of Abolition). More recently, I’ve been talking to museum professionals and scholars across the UK about how their institutions might publicly acknowledge the cultural legacies of slavery. The work of UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership project has uncovered a wealth of data about slave-owners at the moment of British emancipation in 1833, when a grant of £20 million (40% of Britain’s national budget) was paid in compensation, by British taxpayers to slave owners. My research draws on this work, focussing on the impact of slave-owners as art connoisseurs, collectors and patrons on the early history of British art museums.

There’s no doubt that such ‘hidden histories’ are troubling. The toppling of the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston on 7 June was not simply a spontaneous action born out of collective rage, but one with a long and more complex history of thwarted community attempts to acknowledge publicly Colston’s role in the slave trade. Madge Dresser points out that when the statue was erected in 1895 (over 170 years after the subject’s death), it coincided with the building of monuments which glorified the Confederacy in the United States, and others in Britain and across its Empire, which: ‘similarly extolled the virtues of British imperial figures whose relationship with colonised people of colour ranged from the paternalistic to the genocidal’. Historian Nick Draper is right when he says: ‘Historians need to be realistic about their reach and influence. But for more than 30 years scholars have worked towards an adequate post-colonial account of Britain’s history as a colonising and imperial power.’ He cautions: ‘We have tried to establish an evidence base that can be drawn on by all parties. The hegemonic view of British exceptionalism, its unique commitment to liberty and its glorious imperial past, has been challenged, but it has survived. Had we collectively succeeded, then some of the paths not taken would have been pursued. The binary of leave it alone/tear it down might have been avoided’. There is a sense of disappointment in this statement, as if historians themselves have in some sense failed in their attempts to challenge the status quo. But it is this ‘evidence base’ that is so vital to what we do as art historians as well, and why in our teaching we often speak about ‘authoritative sources’ and the importance of primary archival research.

Australia has a longer history of grappling with its colonial (British) past. As a curator in a big state art museum in the late 1990s, I was part of a generation that began to question the traditional separation in collection displays of ‘Aboriginal art’ and ‘Australian art’, interrupting Euro-centric chronological displays by introducing works of contemporary Indigenous artists, such as Boyd. (European visitors had no doubts about what constituted ‘Australian art’: they headed straight for the Aboriginal art collections.) My first sustained encounter with Aboriginal art and its makers in 1993 was profound, and its complexities and contradictions have stayed with me over the course of my career and feed now into my teaching. In Britain, museums are starting to engage more directly with the deeper implications of empire (see, for example, The Past is Now: Birmingham at the British Empire, 2017), but there is still much work to be done.

Art historians today are attentive to the complexities of social context, and careful to avoid the simplistic dualisms that newspapers, politicians and much social media commentary thrives on. Public statues have garnered attention across the world as lightning rods for heated and often bitter debates about national identities, yet the very fabric of our cities and countryside  – street names, public buildings, museum collections, archives, country houses, to name just a few examples – is steeped in the residue of history. This reminds us that colonial business is unfinished, its legacies are raw; history is now, and it matters.


Sarah Thomas is Lecturer in Museum Studies and History of Art in the Department of History of Art, and Director of the Centre for Museum Cultures. In Autumn term 2020, she will be teaching the seminar ‘Slavery and Its Cultural Legacies’ as part of the MA Museum Cultures and MA History of Art.




Australia is playing a dangerous game with Sri Lanka

This post was written by Dr Stewart Motha, a Reader in the School of Law. It originally appeared on the Guardian’s Comment is Free on 21 February 2013.

It’s election year in Australia, and that means open season on boat migrants. Last year, 17,000 people arrived by boat, with a massive surge of 6,500 from Sri Lanka. These numbers have an alarming impact on Australia’s human rights record as the government puts in place draconian domestic measures to deal with the increase, and plays a foolhardy game of building military and security links with Sri Lanka to stem the flow.

Harsh measures for dealing with people arriving by boat are nothing new in Australia. The Howard government set the tone in 2001 by mobilising special forces to seize the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa after it rescued more than 400 refugees from a sinking vessel and brought them into Australian waters. The “Pacific solution” was then introduced, whereby outer islands were excised from the Australian territory for the purpose of migration and judicial review. Refugee claimants arriving by boat at excised territories were mandatorily detained and transported to harsh offshore camps administered by Australia in countries such as Nauru – a practice stopped in 2008, but reactivated last August.

The Australian government is now constructing permanent facilities in Nauru to detain boat migrants, and also runs a detention camp in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. The PNG opposition were in court last week, challenging the legality of the Manus Island detention centre.

The migration amendment (unauthorised maritime arrivals) bill 2012 now seeks to implement the Pacific solution throughout Australia. What was an exception is to become the norm. A new category of “unauthorised maritime arrivals” will discriminate against people on the basis of the mode of their journey to Australia. If you arrive by boat, you face mandatory detention in a harsh and remote place. Travel by plane and you will be able to apply for a protection visa on arrival. Given most maritime arrivals are from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka, the legal regime effectively implements a de facto form of apartheid based on country of origin (and here, let us note that article 3 of the 1951 refugee convention obliges Australia to fulfil its protection obligations without discriminating on the basis of “race, religion, or country of origin”). As such, the migration amendment bill seeks to implement a staggering legal artifice for a nation that claims to walk tall among the civilised.

The Australian government has also introduced the dangerous practice of forced repatriations of people it claims are not refugees (last September, Human Rights Watch documented the torture of Tamil men and women repatriated to Sri Lanka by the UK Border Agency). These people are returned within 72 hours of arrival, and with “screening” taking place offshore, this happens without any provision of legal assistance for the returnees, or transparency in relation to the work of immigration officials. The risk of refoulement – the return of refugees with a right to protection to their persecutors – is increased, thus flouting the fundamental obligation under the refugee convention.

Australia’s extreme measures have been prompted by a curious surge in the number of people arriving by boat from Sri Lanka. In 2012 around 6,500 people made this arduous journey. In the previous year the number of Sri Lankan arrivals was a mere 211. Department of Immigration statistics indicate that 5,215 of the 2012 arrivals were Tamil, and 1,027 Sinhalese. In the last month, the number arriving has dramatically reduced to a trickle. What explains these fluctuations, and what is to be made of the Australian reaction to it?

Earlier this month, the Australian reported that Australia’s intelligence agencies suspected an official with a high profile close to President Mahinda Rajapaksa was “responsible for authorising numerous boats in the past 10 months, fuelling the surge of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka”. The Sri Lankan government has denied the allegations. The suggestion is that Sri Lanka can “turn on the tap” and “unleash untold asylum boats”. Australia has chosen an unreliable security and surveillance partner.

The politics of people smuggling is hardly ever only about the people being trafficked and those exploiting their desperation. Because of its hysterical attitude to those seeking asylum, Australia has potentially walked into the trap of being held hostage by any authoritarian regime that colludes in people smuggling. The currency they will demand is a blind-eye to human rights violations, favourable diplomatic attention and security partnerships.

The Australian minister for foreign affairs, Bob Carr, visited Sri Lanka in December and announced training for Sri Lankan naval officers on surveillance and intelligence gathering. The shadow minister for foreign affairs, Julie Bishop, visited Sri Lanka last month and praised its postwar reconciliation and reconstruction efforts. It’s one thing for Australia to throw the refugee convention out the window, and another to weigh in on issues such as reconciliation and militarisation in another country. If they want to do the former they should do it honestly; the latter is gratuitous, unnecessary and harmful.

As Australians look ahead to the renewal they deserve in an election year, is it not time to imagine a different, better Australia? Let’s not add another episode of “unutterable shame” to Australia’s archive of atrocity. Instead, let Australia summon up the sentiments of Henry Lawson’s iconic 1891 poem, Freedom on the Wallaby, for today it is not the rebel’s blood but a callous disregard for the vulnerable that “stains the wattle”.