Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Activists

Stories of Extraordinary First Australians

By National Portrait Gallery

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

Self portrait (1999/ 2005) by Tracey MoffattNational Portrait Gallery

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this resource may contain images or names of people who have passed away.

Bungaree, late chief of the Broken Bay tribe, Sydney (1836) by William FernyhoughNational Portrait Gallery

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Activists

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the custodians of land, water and sky in Australia, connecting with country and maintaining cultural practice for at least 60,000 years. Colonisation, beginning with the First Fleet in 1788, disrupted the lives of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The impacts of genocide, segregation and dis-empowerment continue to this day. We look to the activists included in this resource who stand strong for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights and changed the course of Australia’s history for the better. We celebrate their stories to reveal determination, resilience and perseverance amid social and political upheaval.

Truggernana, a native of southern part of V.D. Land (1835) by Benjamin DuterrauNational Portrait Gallery


Our story begins with Trukanini, one of our celebrated Aboriginal leaders from the 19th century, a leader of her people and a reminder of our complex shared history.

Trucaninny, wife of Woureddy (1836) by Benjamin LawNational Portrait Gallery

At a young age, Trukanini (c. 1812–1876) experienced the loss of her family including her mother, sister as well as her intended husband due to the violence at the hand of the new settlers who were in the process of occupying Tasmania by force.

In a peaceful act of negotiation she joined George Augustus Robinson who was appointed to remove Tasmania’s Aboriginal people to Flinders Island in Bass Strait.

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

Aborigines at Oyster Cove, Tasmania (1858) by Francis NixonNational Portrait Gallery

They lived in a former penal settlement, this place was considered unfit for convicts.

Trukanini dived for shellfish, maintained her country on Bruny Island and hunted for food sources. It is clear she maintained her cultural knowledge, returning to many of the practices of her former life before the new settlers arrived.

Trukanini (dry plate negative (1890s) copy of original wet plate negative (1866)) by Charles WoolleyNational Portrait Gallery

By 1866, when this photograph was taken of Trukanini, she was inaccurately labelled as the ‘last’ of her people. The Aboriginal peoples of Tasmania (Palawa) continue cultural practices today, living in the legacy of their ancestors.

Trukanini by Charles Woolley and J.W. Beattie (printer)National Portrait Gallery

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

Aborigines, the last of the race, Tasmania (1866) by Henry FrithNational Portrait Gallery

In 1876, Trukanini passed away in Hobart.

Without her permission and as a direct violation of the cultural protocols of her people, her skeleton was removed and placed on display in the Tasmanian Museum.

In 1976 her remains were laid to rest according to her wishes across the D'Entrecasteaux Channel near her country.

Trukanini, Charles Woolley, dry plate negative (1890s) copy of original wet plate negative (1866), From the collection of: National Portrait Gallery
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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.

Trukanini, Charles Woolley and J.W. Beattie (printer), From the collection of: National Portrait Gallery
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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 who wear something that has been passed along. Draw yourself with these objects.

William Barak at work on a drawing at Coranderrk (1902) by Johannes HeyerNational Portrait Gallery

William Barak

William Barak was a Wurundjeri clan member of the Woi wurung people, (1824-1903). He witnessed colonisation first hand in the area now known as Melbourne (Naarm). He was raised with Wurundjeri
practices, unfortunately his initiation did not take place due to disruption during colonisation. 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, defending and speaking strong for his people’s rights and culture.

He used ochre and charcoal to depict ceremonies and aspects of Wurundjeri culture as it existed before colonisation. These drawings were collected by European museums in 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, Aboriginal Poet (1965) by Clif PeirNational Portrait Gallery

Kath Walker 

Kath Walker (1920-1993), a Noonuccal woman from Queensland, was an Aboriginal
activist who promoted pride and resilience among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through her work. 

What is a clue in the portrait that might tell us that 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 her lived experiences as an Aboriginal woman, her connection to country and feelings of loss shared by her community.

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 (1958) by William DargieNational Portrait Gallery

Albert Namatjira

Albert Namatjira (1902-59) was a descendent of the western Arrente people of Northern Territory. William Dargie won the Archibald Portrait Prize a record-breaking eight times including for this portrait of Albert Namatijira. 

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 Ntaria (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.

Albert and his wife Rubina, Macdonnell Ranges (1946) by Axel PoignantNational Portrait Gallery

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.

Albert Namatjira, Artist, Alice Springs by Ern McQuillanNational Portrait Gallery

During his lifetime, Namatjira became a successful artist. There are many books about his life and work, as well as films and a play.

Dr HV Evatt, Albert Namatjira and Dame Mary Gilmore having a meal (1950)National Portrait Gallery

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 from his time in prison, he passed away the following year.

Within the following decade, Aboriginal people were granted the right to vote and given citizenship. The 1967 Referendum led to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being counted for the first time ever in the census.

Eddie Mabo (after Mike Kelley's 'Booth's Puddle' 1985, from Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's profile) No.3 (1996) by Gordon BennettNational Portrait Gallery

Eddie Mabo 

Eddie Mabo (1937-1992), a Meriam man from the island of Mer (Murray Island) in the Torres Straits brought attention to the significance and injustices of the governments assertion of land ownership in his community. He defended his people in a decade-long battle against the Queensland Government for the legal right to own his family’s land. 

Portrait of Captain James Cook RN Portrait of Captain James Cook RN by John Webber R.A.National Portrait Gallery

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

He claimed possession of the 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’.

Eddie Mabo (after Mike Kelley's 'Booth's Puddle' 1985, from Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's profile) No.3 (1996) by Gordon BennettNational Portrait Gallery

The lengthy legal case featured in newspapers, journals and television media. Gordon Bennett had not met him and painted this portrait four years after Mabo’s death using material from these sources.

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 that 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 passed away six months before the High Court ruled in favour of him, which led 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 custodianship.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, such as Albert Namatjira and Eddie Mabo, along with their families and communities demonstrate a connection to land, water and sky, where people and place are connected.

Richard Walley (2015) by Julie DowlingNational Portrait Gallery

Richard Walley 

Richard Walley (b.1953) is a Nyoongar man from Western Australia. He 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, called a booka by the Nyoongar people.

Nyoongar men hunt kangaroos as a food source, using the fur pelts to make cloaks that kept the wearer warm and dry.

The pelt 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 cultural practices of his people.

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

In 2003 Walley released a CD called Two Tribes, which blends didgeridoo and other cultural sounds with modern elements such as hip hop.

Have you seen a ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremony?

What do you think it’s about?

Research and write a paragraph about the meaning behind performing or hearing a ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremony and an ‘Acknowledgement of Country’.

How are they different?

This guideline from Reconciliation Australia is a good starting point.

Marcia Langton Marcia Langton by Brook AndrewNational Portrait Gallery

Marcia Langton 

Marcia Langton (b.1951) is a descendent of the Yiman and Bidjara peoples of Queensland. This portrait has an Aboriginal subject, as well as artist, Brook Andrew, a Wiradjuri man of New South Wales. This portrait is made of cut out shapes of
screen-printed thick paper. Andrew intended this portrait to be open to

What are some symbols 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.

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 five to ten of these art works exploring ideas about Aboriginal identities.

Write a wall label explaining your discoveries for the intended gallery audience.

Lowitja O'Donoghue (2006) by Robert Hannaford AMNational Portrait Gallery

Lowitja O’Donoghue 

O’Donoghue (b. 1932) is a Yunkunytjatjara woman from South Australia. She was one of many Aboriginal children forcibly removed from family in what was originally part of the Protection Act, 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 a variety of public service departments and

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 (2000) by David CairdNational Portrait Gallery

Cathy Freeman 

Cathy Freeman (b.1973) is a Kuku-Yalanji and Birri-Gubba woman. She was only sixteen 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.

Just before the race began, Freeman glanced at the sky. She was surrounded by a stadium of 110,000 people.

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

AIATSIS map of Indigenous AustraliaNational Portrait Gallery

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. We are proud to tell the stories of these activists as holders of memory, knowledge and representatives of the survival and maintenance of the worlds oldest continuous living culture. 

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, or the boundaries to be 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.

Credits: Story

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

This exhibit was edited by April Phillips, Wiradjuri-Scottish illustrator, visual arts educator, and researcher based on the south coast of NSW – Yuin country.

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

Thanks to all artists and organisations for permitting us to 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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