Given the post-Referendum efforts of the likes of Tony Abbott and News Ltd to roll back progress made in recent years to understand and appreciate Aboriginal history and culture, this story from just yesterday – well 1926 – should be salutary.
For then, the major intellectual institution in Sydney, the Australian Museum commissioned three Aboriginal figures to be sculpted by one of the leading artists of the day – Raynor Hoff – he of the Sydney War Memorial in Hyde Park. Justifying the work, Mr. Ernest Wunderlich, FRAS, President of the Board of Trustees of the Museum, told the Museum’s magazine, “It will not be many years before the aborigine in New South Wales and Victoria at least will be an entity of the past”. Somehow these scientists came up with a figure for 1924 of precisely 74 Aborigines surviving in Victoria – all without “the counting of natives” in a census, of course, thanks to the 1901 Constitution.
I suspect this number must have been based on those who were still not of mixed-race, for the article goes on to quote Dr Herbert Basedow, anthropologist, geologist, explorer and medical practitioner, whom the Australian Dictionary of Biography describes as “one of the few men of his time actively interested in recording traditional Aboriginal life”, authoring both a book, The Australian Aboriginal, and a 1500-word dictionary of the Aranda language.
“Every year the number of people who have seen the unsophisticated savage is dwindling. When l look back to the time of my first meeting with the tribes of central Australia, just twenty years ago, and compare the condition of then and now, I shudder to think how quickly the romance of aboriginal affairs, together with all the scientific treasures it encompassed, has vanished and is now irretrievably lost to the world. Bones, stone artefacts, and wooden implements will be in our Museums for ever, but the habits, laws, beliefs, and legends are doomed to rapid extinction”.
How very unscientifically assimilationist.
Weirdly, the Australian Museum was so proud of its sculptural efforts at the time that they even named the models for Hoff’s figures, having assured themselves that “the individuals were pure blood, and to the Aboriginal Protection Board and the Police Department of this State thanks are due for the valuable assistance rendered by them”.
How terrifying for “Yangar or Jimmy Clements, son of Gayan-Blouer-Galoom, the late King of Orange” to receive his call-up from the Police! “Jimmy is an old man, but well preserved”. He became the boomerang thrower. Equally disturbing for “Nellie Walker, a daughter of Geri-Bungul, and a native of Bombala, Monaro District, southern New South Wales”. And “the boy is Harold Marsh, aged nine years, who was born at Kinchela”, the notorious Aboriginal Boys Home, moving later to Brewarrina.
Since the statues were long-ago removed from the Australian Museum’s Bayala-Nura Gallery, you may well ask why all of this misery is in the news. Well the descendants of Nellie Walker got to know of her involvement and sought to give her memory some dignity. For, to be honest, Raynor Hoff made remarkably little effort to achieve ‘the noble savage’ in portraying her unkempt and stark naked – though a possum skin came to her rescue from the start it would seem.
So proud was her family of this resurrection that film director Daniel King has documented the process of clothing her more elegantly, and his film was shown at the recent Adelaide Film Festival. Her Name is Nanny Nellie features his mother Irene Nellie Ridgeway and gives his great, great grandmother a proper history, living for 67 years under the Aborigines Protection Board, loving and bearing three children, all of whom were taken away.
Attempts have been made to trace descendants of the other two statues’ models without success so far.
No news about other screenings for the film or about a public appearance for Geri-Bungul’s now-famous daughter. But we should appreciate how far we’ve come in the last century, and not retreat now at Mr Abbott’s behest.
And given the awfulness of the recent Referendum campaign, it seems right to add these comments from the National Association for the Visual Arts: “In a country in which First Nations artists – and in particular visual artists – contribute half a billion dollars to the Australian economy each year, there is a particular irony in the Referendum outcome. First Nations visual artists contribute directly to the identity of Australia globally in terms of culture, arts and tourism but have now formally been prohibited from having agency and representation over those contributions – as well as their own health, social justice, education and other facets of life”.