The Federal Government has announced $100,000 to support the acquisition of a rare 19th century Murlapaka (also spelt Mulubakka) shield, attributed to the Kaurna people from the Adelaide Plains, by the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA). Minister for the Arts, Paul Fletcher said the Government is pleased to support this important acquisition, which is the first shield of its kind to join the Gallery’s collection and one of only seven known examples from the 19th Century.

The Art Gallery of South Australia has a close relationship with the Kaurna community established over many years through ongoing connection with community and an artist-led approach to acquisitions. This shield will be a visual reminder for all visitors to the gallery that they are on Kaurna land, explained Minister Fletcher.

Senior Kaurna Man, Mickey Kumatpi O’Brien said to have the shield back on Kaurna lands is Paitya (deadly). The Murlapaka shield shows strength in its design, protection in its history, connection to country in its image, and the spirit of its creator in its life. We know the land is the oldest living thing, the trees are connected to this land, the knowledge and wisdom of the land is in the trees, Kumatpi said.

The shield itself was cut from a tree and its shadow remained in the tree and the shield took with it the knowledge and wisdom of the land, culture and people. It returns to its home of the Kaurna Miyurna “ the Adelaide Plains People. And now it tells many stories, when we listen, observe and share its journey and place, thanks to the support of the Gallery.

Barkandji artist and Art Gallery of SA Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, Nici Cumpston said the Murlapaka is made from the inner bark of a Eucalyptus tree with remnants of red earth pigments over the shield surface. It is one of two types of shield made by the Kaurna people and a powerful symbol of Kaurna identity. And it is the first shield made by a Kaurna person, dated to the early contact period, to enter the Gallery’s collection. Through its significant acquisition, the Gallery continues its commitment to building and sharing understanding of Kaurna culture while acknowledging that AGSA Kaurna yartangka yuwanthi, the Gallery stands on Kaurna Country, Cumpston said.

Art Gallery Director, Rhana Devenport said AGSA is immensely proud to now be home to this revered Murlapaka, made possible through the support of the Australian Government’s National Cultural Heritage Account and through the Tarnanthi Festival funding supported by BHP. To celebrate this milestone acquisition, the Gallery is committed to having the Murlapaka permanently on display for all visitors to Kaurna Country to appreciate and acknowledge, she said.

It’s an interesting decision to house the Murlapaka in the Art Gallery at a time when plans are well developed to open a national Aboriginal Art & Cultures Centre is just down the road from the Gallery housing the extensive current First Nations collection based in the SA Museum. A little competition, perhaps! The Gallery’s installation offers little explanation of the shield’s significance or history. Much is made instead of the non-Indigenous artefacts from the same era such as German immigrant household items, the work of a women woodcarver from Wedge Island and the paintings of John Glover. Oddly, this is described as picturing “an English garden imposed on the Tasmanian landscape”, when much recent research suggests that he captured realistic, Aboriginal-shaped landscapes.

The Australian Government’s National Cultural Heritage Account helps keeps items of cultural significance in Australia so they can be preserved and made available to the public. Public cultural organisations can apply for funding to purchase and provide permanent public access to these items.