Sep 12, 2017

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Activists

National Portrait Gallery

Stories of Extraordinary First Australians

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Activists
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been living in Australia, connecting with the land and telling their stories for 60,000 years. The abrupt arrival of white settlers, starting with the First Fleet in 1788, has had a drastic and often devastating impact on Indigenous Australians. The activists included in this resource have fought for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights and changed the course of Australia’s history. Their stories reveal their determination and perseverance amid social and political upheaval, but also their pride in their diverse cultures and connection to country.
Trukanini
Our story begins with Trukanini, arguably the most celebrated Aboriginal leader from the 19th Century and a powerful symbol of Indigenous resistance and survival. 

At a young age, Trukanini (c. 1812–1876) experienced the loss of her mother, sister and intended husband due to the violence of white colonisation of Tasmania.

Believing she could help her people, she decided to join George Augustus Robinson who was appointed to remove Tasmania’s Aboriginal people to Flinders Island in Bass Strait.

In 1847 Trukanini and other Aboriginal Tasmanians from Flinders Island were moved to Oyster Cove, south of Hobart, where Trukanini’s traditional lands were.

They lived in a former penal settlement considered unfit for convicts.

Trukanini was able to dive for shellfish, visit Bruny Island and hunt in nearby bush, returning to many of the activities of her former lifestyle before white settlers arrived.

By 1866, when this photograph was taken of Trukanini, she was wrongly famous for being one of the ‘last’ of her people.

Photographs and busts of Trukanini ended up in museums overseas and engravings of them appeared in various publications.

The myth of Trukanini accompanied that of William Lanne, who was also wrongly considered one of the last Aboriginal Tasmanians.

After he died, William Lanne’s body was taken and used for scientific purposes.

Trukanini feared the same would happen to her. In 1876, Trukanini died in Hobart.

Her skeleton was removed and placed on display in the Tasmanian Museum until 1976 when she was laid to rest according to her wishes.

Although Trukanini is depicted at different times in photographs, sculptures and drawings, she often has something special with her.

Can you see what it is?

Trukanini frequently wore a necklace made of
maireener (or marina) shell.

These necklaces are very important to Aboriginal Tasmanians. Although Trukanini learned English and the customs of the colonisers, she held to her traditions including stringing and wearing these precious necklaces.

Aboriginal Tasmanians have continued their tradition of stringing maireener shells to form exquisite necklaces.

Why is continuing this tradition important for Tasmanian Aboriginal people?

Can you think of some objects that are important in your family?

Maybe there are photographs of your ancestors or handed down war medals. Draw yourself with these objects.

William Barak
William Barak (1824-1903) witnessed rapid colonisation of the area now known as Melbourne. He grew up with Wurundjeri traditions, but as the tribe dispersed as a result of white colonisation, he was not fully initiated. In 1863 he settled permanently at Coranderrk, a site chosen by the Board for the Protection of Aborigines.

Barak became the leader at Coranderrk and a respected spokesperson for the Aboriginal population, arguing for his people’s rights and culture.

He used ochre and charcoal to depict ceremonies and aspects of Wurundjeri culture as it existed prior to colonisation. These drawings were collected by European museums as early as the late nineteenth century and have served as a record of Wurundjeri culture.

Examine Barak’s drawings:

Corroboree, 1895.


Figures in possum skin cloaks, 1898.

Dancers and women in possum skin cloaks, 1880s.

Discuss with others what you think they represent. Find clues in the paintings and in the text that tell you something about Wurundjeri culture.

Kath Walker 
Kath Walker (1920-1993) was an Aboriginal activist who promoted pride among indigenous Australians through her work. 

What is a clue in the portrait that might tell us about how she was an activist?

The book in her lap is a symbol of Kath Walker as a poet, writer and educator. She published the first book of poetry by an Aboriginal Australian in 1964 titled 'We Are Going'. Her poems often explored Aboriginal culture, connection to land and feelings of loss shared by Aboriginal communities.

In 1988 she changed her name to Oodgeroo Noonuccal in protest of the Bicentenary celebrations of white settlement in Australia. Oodgeroo means paperbark and Noonuccal are her peoples from Stradbroke Island.

You may have some of Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poems and stories in your library. Find a story or a poem to read and discuss with others.

Some stories to search for include ‘Carpet Snake’ from Stradbroke Dreamtime, ‘Aboriginal Charter of Rights’ from 'The Dawn is at Hand', ‘Albert Namatjira’ from 'My People' and the titular poem from 'We Are Going'.

You might like to create an artwork about the poem or story you read.

Albert Namatjira
William Dargie won the Archibald Portrait Prize a record breaking eight times including for this portrait of Albert Namatijira (1902-59). Dargie described Namatjira as having ‘tremendous inner dignity’, which contributed to ‘the most wonderful face for a portrait I’ve ever seen.’ 

What elements in the portrait share what Namatjira is known for?

Albert Namatjira’s watercolour paintings of his beloved land at the Hermannsburg Mission are some of the most celebrated Australian landscape paintings of the 20th Century.

Notice the pinks, oranges, and blues of the landscape.

See how these colours are reflected in the background of the portrait. This is the desert in central Australia where Namatjira and his Arrernte people are from.

Namatjira’s father’s country lay towards Mount Sonder and Glen Helen Gorge, in the MacDonnell Ranges, this is where he painted many of his works.

Axel Poignant took this photograph of Albert Namatjira and his wife, Rubina. During the three months he spent with them he observed the strong connection between Aboriginal people and their country.

Formally known as Ilkalita, Namatjira’s wife was christened Rubina. She and Namatjira had five sons and three daughters together.

During his lifetime, Namatjira became a successful artist. He was the subject of a biography and a film, 'Namatjira the Painter'.

Namatjira met many influential people. Here he is with politician Herbert Vere Evatt and poet Dame Mary Gilmore.

In 1954 Namatjira was awarded citizenship when he met the young Queen Elizabeth II in Canberra. His citizenship allowed him to buy alcohol, unlike other Aboriginal people who did not have Australian citizenship.

He shared alcohol with other Arrernte people, in accordance to their custom, but was later sentenced to prison for it.

Namatjira never fully recovered and died the following year.

Within the following decade, Aboriginal people were granted the right to vote and given citizenship, and the 1967 Referendum led to better rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Eddie Mabo 
Eddie Mabo (1937-1992) also brought attention to the significance of Indigenous Australians’ connection to land. He fought a 10-year-long battle against the Queensland Government for the legal right to own his family’s land on Murray Island (Mer) in the Torres Strait. 

When Captain Cook sailed up the eastern coast of Australia in 1770, he arrived in the Torres Strait.

There he claimed possession of the eastern coast of Australia on behalf of King George III, King of Great Britain and Ireland. He declared Australia as ‘terra nullius’ which is Latin for ‘land belonging to no one’.

This was the legal basis of colonisation, which Eddie Mabo challenged.

The legal case was long and featured in newspapers, journals and television media. Gordon Bennett painted this portrait four years after Mabo’s death using material from these sources, having never met him.

Bennett said that when he thought about 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.’

The background features headlines from newspaper articles about the Native Title furore.

Mabo’s face is pixelated, like a newspaper print, and is taken from a photograph of Mabo which was regularly used in the media.

Bennett explained ‘to me the image of Eddie Mabo stood like the eye of a storm, calmly asserting his rights while all around him the storm, a war of words and rhetoric, raged.’

Mabo died 6 months before the High Court ruled in favour of him, which lead to the Land Title Act of 1993.

This is often referred to as ‘the Mabo decision’ and has permanently changed the way Australians view Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land ownership.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, like Albert Namatjira and the Arrernte and Eddie Mabo and the Mer Islanders, have a special connection to land stretching back many thousands of years.

We see evidence of this in our communities.

Can you think of some examples in your community?

Richard Walley 
Richard Walley (b.1953) has used his creativity as a performer, artist and writer to advocate for Aboriginal culture and rights. 

Aboriginal people from around Australia have worn the kangaroo skin for many generations.

Nyoongar men would hunt kangaroos and use their skin to make garments that kept the wearer warm and dry.

The skin could also be made into bags, which women would use to carry children or food they collected.

Walley devised and performed the first ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremony in 1976, drawing on existing protocols and traditions of thousands of years.

Walley has won numerous awards including Order of Australia Medal and works as a cultural advisor.

In 2003 Walley released Two Tribes, which blends didgeridoo and other indigenous sounds with hip hop.

Have you seen a ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremony?

What do you think it’s about?

Research and write a paragraph about the importance of the ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremony and the ‘Acknowledgement of Country’.

How are they different?

This guideline from Reconciliation Australia is a good starting point.

Marcia Langton 
Brook Andrew’s portrait of Marcia Langton (b.1951) is made of cut out shapes of screen-printed thick paper. Andrew deliberately intended this portrait to be open to interpretation and he used many symbols. A symbol is something that represents or stands for something else, such as the colours green and gold represent Australia.

What do you think the symbols are in this portrait?

Let’s have a look at some of them.

Andrew explains this symbol as a sun or a diamond and it hints at Langton’s work with Aboriginal communities and mining companies.

Andrew says the skulls could be interpreted as symbolising human politics.

Maybe they could represent Langton’s interest in Anthropology, which is the study of different aspects of humans in the past and present.

The six-armed representation of Langton sitting with her legs crossed is linked to her interest in Buddhism and Hinduism.

Perhaps she has many arms because she has many interests and does many things.

What do you think the fire could symbolise?

It’s up to you!

Langton has published on Aboriginal land rights, art, film, and culture.

She was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 1993 for her advocacy of Aboriginal rights and her work in anthropology.

Marcia likes this portrait of her because it’s not a typical ‘portrait of an Aborigine’.

This is one of many art works Andrew has created exploring the diversity of Aboriginal cultures and histories.

Locate some of his works online. Curate an exhibition of 5-10 of these art works exploring ideas about Aboriginal identities.

Write a wall label explaining your discoveries.

Lowitja O’Donoghue 
Lowitja O’Donoghue (b.1932) was one of many Aboriginal children removed from their families in what is now referred to as the Stolen Generation. O’Donoghue became the first Aboriginal nurse in South Australia before championing Aboriginal rights and welfare through leading different public service departments and commissions. 

How does Lowitja declare her identity in this portrait?

O’Donoghue chose her clothing carefully for her portrait, making sure they were the colours of the Aboriginal flag.

Where else can you see the flag in this portrait?

O’Donoghue explains her choice of clothing and jewellery in this interview about how the portrait was made.

Cathy Freeman 
Cathy Freeman (b.1973) was only 16 years old when she became the First Aboriginal runner to win a Commonwealth gold medal. A few years later, she draped Australian and Aboriginal flags around her shoulders for her victory lap after winning gold at the 1994 Commonwealth Games. There were some who criticised her, believing all Australian athletes should compete under one flag.

Freeman explained:

‘This was my race and no one was going to stop me telling the world how proud I was to be Aboriginal. Somewhere deep inside, I’d absorbed all the pain and suffering my people had endured, turning it into a source of strength.’

David Caird, a press photographer, took this photograph of Freeman just before the start of her legendary 400m final at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. It was fortuitous this photo exists, capturing a candid moment.

Freeman glanced to the sky for a fraction of a second, surrounded by a stadium full of 110,000 people, moments before the race began.

After she won the gold medal for this race, solidifying her as one of Australia’s greatest athletes of all time, she once again donned the Aboriginal and Australian flags.

O’Donoghue and Freeman both use the Aboriginal flag as a proud representation of their identity.

Explore the history and meaning of the Aboriginal flag.

Have you seen the Torres Strait Islander flag?


Create a poster about the symbols, use and importance of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags.

The AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia 
The individuals represented here from the National Portrait Gallery of Australia’s collection are leaders in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activism. Their stories reveal some of the ways Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have changed Australia and achieved rights for their peoples, from Trukanini in the far south of Tasmania to Eddie Mabo in the Torres Straits in the north. By doing so they have ensured the survival and diversity of the oldest continuous living cultures in the world. 

This map attempts to represent the language, social or nation groups of Aboriginal Australia. It shows only the general locations of larger groupings of people which may include clans, dialects or individual languages in a group. It used published resources from 1988-1994 and is not intended to be exact, nor the boundaries fixed. It is not suitable for native title or other land claims. David R Horton (creator), © AIATSIS, 1996. No reproduction without permission. To purchase a print version visit the AIATSIS online shop.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Activists - Stories of Extraordinary First Australians
Credits: Story

This exhibit was written by Tamsin Hong, Learning Facilitator at the National Portrait Gallery.

This exhibit was edited and produced by Alana Sivell, Digital Learning Coordinator at the National Portrait Gallery.

Thanks to all artists and organisations for letting us include these works.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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