Koiki (Eddie) Mabo (1937-1992), Torres Strait Islander man, initiated a legal case for native title against the State of Queensland in 1982. Along with his fellow Meriam people, Mabo was convinced that he owned his family’s land on Murray Island (Mer) in Torres Strait. By contrast, Queensland Crown lawyers argued that on annexation in 1879, all the land had become the property of the Crown. In 1992, the seven Justices of the High Court found 6-1 in favour of Mabo and his co-plaintiffs, overturning the accepted view that Australia had been terra nullius (empty land) before white settlement. Mabo died before the historic decision, which was to lead to the Land Title Act of 1993, and permanently to alter the way Australians think about Aboriginal land ownership.
Gordon Bennett (1955–2014) grew up in Nambour, Queensland and only learned of his mother’s Indigenous heritage in his early teens. He went to art school as a mature student. Stating early in his career that ‘the bottom line of my work is coming to terms with my Aboriginality,’ he continued to engage with questions of cultural and personal identity, interrogating Australia’s colonial past and postcolonial present through a succession of allusive postmodern works. He won the John McCaughey Memorial Art Prize of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1997, and the NGV mounted a touring exhibition, Gordon Bennett, in 2007–08. Bennett said that when he began to think about Eddie Mabo he ‘could not think of him as a real person … I only [knew] the Eddie Mabo of the “mainstream” news media, a very two-dimensional “copy” of the man himself.’ So, in making his portrait of Mabo, he used a newspaper image and headlines from newspaper articles about the Native Title furore, and combined them with an image by the American artist Mike Kelley, in which a black man is hauled by the neck towards enlightenment. ‘To me the image of Eddie Mabo stood like the eye of a storm,’ he said, ‘calmly asserting his rights while all around him the storm, a war of words and rhetoric, raged.’