White Australia has a black history “ white middle class Mosman has a black history. Aboriginal people are everywhere and Aboriginal people do everything. I came to work on this project to emphasise the Aboriginal history of the southeast and the fact that Aboriginal people lived all through the natural resource rich Tubugowle basin, and not just in Redfern or La Perouse.

In a bold essay entitled (for no apparent reason) ‘Bungaree’s Circumcision of Australia’ , Indigenous curator Djon Mundine has gathered together 15 NSW Aboriginal artists to consider the lives and influence of the Guringai man who was happy to play ball with the newly arrived Colonial invader and ended up being given farmland on Middle Head (in today’s Mosman), being taken by Matthew Flinders on his pioneering circumnavigation of Australia to treat with the tribes they’d meet on the way, and was actually the first man ever to be called ‘an Australian’.

It sounds like a useful life embracing the inevitability of the new settlementt “ though the farming never caught on, Bungaree being much happier rowed around by two of his wives to fish or greet ship arrivals in Port Jackson! But Mundine points out the problems for more political minds today: Contemporary Aboriginal people struggle with our colonial period antecedents. Were they complete cowardly sell-outs to the colonial invaders (and what would we have done)? Many believe so and dismiss the need for much deeper research (see Adam Hill’s piece “ illustrated – and he’s certainly not alone). Perhaps they are afraid of what they will see looking back at them. A binary of sorts has been created in some minds around Bungaree’s contemporaries Bennelong and Pemulwuy “ Bennelong surrendering and being assimilated, and Pemulwuy resisting and dying in action. Ironically in fact there was only a few years of extra life between resisting and acquiescence. In taking a kind of ˜third path’ Bungaree lived longer still.

What is good or bad in Aboriginal morality? Who is to judge? My own thoughts of him were of a youthful innocent who bravely stepped forward to engage with the strangers, to travel out of sight of land, to put himself in their hands, He was to have the biggest adventure of all; of travelling around the continent and meeting Malays, meeting his kind all over the land, our land!

The Mosman Art Gallery proposed the project – and was funded by the Federal Government to the tune of $35,000 – and has facilitated many of the artists to have residencies on Middle Head so that they could get close to their subject-matter. The artists involved are Francis Belle-Parker, Merv Bishop, Daniel Boyd, Karla Dickens, Fiona Foley, Adam Hill, Warwick Keen, Gary Lee, Danie Mellor, Peter McKenzie, Caroline Oakley, Rea, Gordon Syron, Leanne Tobin and Jason Wing.

After appearing in Mosman from 1 September until 25 November, the exhibition then follows Bungaree’s travels around the country for more than 2 years “ up through Lake and Port Macquarie (Governor Macquarie used Bungaree to introduce him to the first Annual Meeting of Native Tribes in 1814), Rocky and Mackay, round to Darwin and Bunbury, across through Adelaide to Launceston and back to Canberra before coming home with new insights into Bungaree from Indigenous artists as it travels.

Amazingly, there are 18 contemporary portraits of Bungaree extant “ more than any other individual in early Sydney. They range from noble savage to drunkard. Now there are many more “ including Merv Bishop’s mock-ups, which extend the range: Garingal Man, Sailor Man, Farmer Man, and the mimesis Fool-King.

If nothing else is achieved by this exhibition, Djon Mundine’s fascinating thoughts about certain parallels between the Enlightenment world Sydney’s colonials had left and Aboriginal systems that preceded the Enlightenment by 40,000 years, which, naturally the new arrivals totally failed to understand, are worth leaving you with:
Around the time of the British coming here in 1788, Europe had just passed through the period called ˜the enlightenment’ “ the age of reason, when man broke with God (or just as correctly saw the god within themselves). It was also the age of ˜discovery’, the age of plagues, also the age of colonization, and the new age of slavery along race lines. Part of this development was to ˜discover’, list, investigate, and therefore possess, if only mentally, each new species of man, beast, and society.

They also attempted to redraw, rename the map in their own, often accidental image. It impressed with the power and control of naming, to a large degree ignoring the idea that these societies may have already mapped the land themselves, and had their own taxonomy and methods of maintaining its memory. In Aboriginal society the world begins with the sunrise and a creative being traversing the land or sea, sighting and naming animal, plant, all living things and climatic forces, fixing them in landforms and sites. The naming animates them and brings them into being.

BUNGAREE: the First Australian Exhibition:

Where: Mosman Art Gallery, cnr Art Gallery Way & Myahgah Road, Mosman, NSW
Exhibition on view: Saturday 1 September “ Sunday 25 November 2012
Open: 7 days, 10am “ 5pm
Admission: Free
Phone: 02 9978 4178
Information: www.mosmanartgallery.org.au