We sing for all these people too ...
I would like to thank the Ngunnuwal people of this land [Canberra]. They also had ceremonies like this—like all Aboriginal people all over Australia. Here you see something very special. Our art is not just for looking at—it has meaning. It is about our land and our history. We care about the land. Each clan has a job looking after each part of the country and the people. But this Memorial is for all the dead Aboriginal people all over Australia. In some parts of Australia people have lost their song. In this Memorial we sing for all these people too. We were happy to make this in 1988, and happy that the world will now see this and understand our history and culture. — Djardie Ashley, 1999
Since 1788 at least 300 000, perhaps a million, Aboriginal people have died at the hands of white invaders. Some years ago, Paddy Dhathangu, an elder artist in Ramingining, brought me several videotapes belonging to his dead son. Not having a video-cassette player, he wanted to play the tapes and show me. The son and the artist were very close to me. The tapes were battered and dust ridden. I hesitated to run them through my machine, but our relationship and my curiosity made me play them. Paddy’s son had been a member of the Northern Land Council Executive, and in the course of his work had been given some more ‘political’ videotapes as background briefing for himself and the community. One of these was a John Pilger documentary called The secret country. In the opening precis of the program Pilger talked of the decimation of a tribal group who owned land on the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, and who died ‘to the last man, woman, and child defending their country’. He continued that, throughout the land in every country town, there was an obelisk to those who had fallen in this war or that, but nowhere was there a memorial to those first Australians who died defending their country.
Within a year of the arrival of the first settler fleet in Sydney, Aboriginal deaths from introduced diseases spread along traditional trade routes well inland, decimating societies along the way. And right up to the early decades of the twentieth century, massacres of Aboriginal people occurred throughout the land. Death came swiftly and was so widespread that in many cases there was no-one to bury the dead. This is still ‘secret history’ for most of Australia.
In 1988, Australia celebrated the bicentenary of European settlement. For Indigenous people this was no time to celebrate and a number of artists withdrew their work from related exhibitions.
Yet the day-to-day realities of running an art centre meant that avenues still had to be provided for artists to make a living. The bind was to present Aboriginal culture without celebrating—to make a true statement. As, historically, practically all Aboriginal art expression is personal in nature but event-oriented, the white Australian Bicentenary celebrations in 1988 presented an opportunity to make a strong statement about a national event.
The idea of so many people for whom proper burial rites had not been performed led me to think of the painted hollow log coffins made by artists today. In the Dupun ceremony the bones of the deceased are placed in the hollow log coffin, which then embodies the soul. The idea for The Aboriginal Memorial was born: a memorial consisting of 200 hollow log coffins, one for each year of European occupation. The installation would be like a forest—a forest like a large war cemetery, a war memorial for all those Aboriginal people who died defending their country.
David Malangi and Tony Dhanyula (1935–2005) were among the first to start painting hollow logs for the installation. They were two of the eight senior artists expected to complete the project. However, the community’s great interest meant that many more wanted to contribute and, in the end, the Memorial included the work of 43 artists.
As the project developed, I was encouraged to approach James Mollison, the founding director, who said that the National Gallery was looking for powerful and inspirational works of art to match in iconic status Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles 1952, and Constantin Brancusi’s Birds in space 1931–36, in the Gallery’s collection. Mollison agreed on the spot to provide funds to complete the project, in effect commissioning the work for the Gallery.
For the artists, the placement of the Memorial at the Gallery, in the Parliamentary Triangle, the centre of Australian government, is poignant: a memorial to the victims of settlement and a symbol for an egalitarian future, in the heart of the nation.
The idea for an Aboriginal memorial was conceived in the mid 1980s by Djon Mundine, then the coordinator of the arts cooperative in the community of Ramingining in central Arnhem Land. This text is his personal account of the development of the idea for a memorial, through the process of its realisation in the form of The Aboriginal Memorial, which today is regarded as one of the nation’s most important works of art.
From the press conference at the National Gallery of Australia 27 April 1999, announcing the tour of The Aboriginal Memorial to the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, the Sprengel Museum in Hanover and the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
 John Pilger is an award-winning Australian journalist, author and documentary filmmaker.