Kent Buchanan, 2013
Curator, Western Plains Cultural Centre
Mathieu Gallois’ project Wellington asks us to re-examine contact between the European colonists and the Indigenous peoples of Australia in the early 1800s. Wellington is a regional New South Wales town, once the furthest point of the burgeoning colony in 1817. Known as binjang to the local wiradjuri, the Wellington Valley sits at the junction of the Bell (bilabang) and Macquarie (wambool) Rivers, and is nestled at the base of Mounts Arthur, Wellesley and Duke.
From its beginnings as a Government outpost (1820s) to site of significant Missionary activity (1830-1842) Wellington’s establishment and growth offers the opportunity to examine the beginnings of the colonial diaspora – the slow push west from the colonial insertion point of Botany Bay. Gallois, an artist and architect, has chosen to examine Wellington through his familial relationship to the town – his maternal Grandfather Ernest Moulton was the proprietor and editor of the sole newspaper, The Wellington Times from 1945 – 1966. His editorship saw great cultural change in the region.
Gallois’ practice has variously examined the notion of home – as place, space, idea; as a construction, way of life; and a contested space. His early architectural sculptures examine the commodification of architectural templates. Frontier (Polystyrene House) (1998), and Drive Thru (2001) are life-size replicas of a standard Australian home and a drive-thru Take Away restaurant respectively. Their clean white surfaces appear as if drained of colour, reduced to a generic semblance sitting exposed in the Australian landscape. Caravan (2003) – a life size caravan rendered out of clear Perspex – allows us to see the inner workings of a transportable home. The object’s ghost-like appearance resonates with Indigenous movement through Country, whilst still remaining very much at “home”.
Gallois’ examination of the home also extends to notions of comfort and aspiration. Flesh (2001) examines fictive notions of paradise, as explored by a replica desert oasis. Each element in the installation (tent, palm trees and sand) has been encased in a chroma-key blue that once calibrated on Film reads as a non-space. As Jeff Gibson states: “If Frontier registers the antiseptic dreariness of generic housing and manicured estates, Flesh links its desirous other to the cinematic dream machine.”2
His practice has also engaged with the psychological and political implications of displacement from home. Colonisation is the ultimate form of contested space – the wiradjuri nightmare of the obliteration of home/country versus the colonists’ dream of the establishment of a new home/country. Containment (2006) is a (now extant) exploration of the psychology of the Australian Federal Government’s policy of mandatory detention of “unlawful non citizens”.3 The work has particular resonance given the politicisation of the issue at the recent Federal election.
Gallois’ humanist / activist leanings are at the heart of his artistic practice and Wellington presents a further recapitulation of home as a cultural construction. The Wellington project has multiple aims – it is in art exhibition, research project, and museological instrument for the discussion of home as a contested space/land. The project is multilayered and participatory. The viewer becomes reader, consumer of information, and agent of change, at its heart is the idea of the exhibition-as-activism.
The Wellington project engages with the town of Wellington and its indigenous history via four elements – a suite of digital prints that feature the front pages of The Wellington Times from each year of his grandfather’s tenure (1945-1966), a 1955 Assimilation brochure dismantled and laid out for our examination, a Modernist portrait of Ernest Moulton (the artist’s maternal Grandfather) and Wellington a facsimile of the Wellington Times newspaper.
The first To Move Forward To Destiny of Full Epuality: The Wellington Times 1944–19654 (2012) is a series of 21 reproductions of front pages of The Wellington Times. The familiar columns of news that would ordinarily contain information pertaining to (white) life in Wellington have been censored so as to allow only the stories relating to Aboriginal life to remain. By removing our access to this information we are left with the reality of news reporting on Aboriginal affairs during this time. Gallois’ black voids of ink, reduce the information to a Malevich-ian minimalism.
The prints become windows through which we seek to view the recorded (official) narrative of the daily life of the people of Wellington, in the 120 years that separated the wiradjuri from the freedom of their ancestral lands. This censorship tactic resolutely pushes the Indigenous stories through the cloying black, whilst in some instances it does not appear at all. The news that was once deliberated over by the people of the day has been rendered illegible, blocked by the impenetrable ink.
Gallois’ contribution (or intervention) is a deliberate obfuscation – a censorship of the status quo to focus on the marginal. Are we surprised there is so little reporting of Aboriginal affairs? Are we surprised there is any at all? To be confronted with this reality of history is to bear witness to the historical agenda that has led us to this point.
Assimilation (2012) features an official Government document: Assimilation of our Aborigines. The brochure was produced by the Minister for Territories to celebrate National Aborigines’ Day on 11 July 1958. This souvenir folder contains postcards exploring ideas of assimilation, examples of assimilation successes and Government data pointing to the aims of the Government policy. Each ‘postcard’ has been affixed to a mirror with a standard office bulldog clip by the artist and arranged on a mantelpiece-like shelf. The viewer is forced to witness their own reflection when examining the documents, as an acknowledgment of our own role in the assimilation process and our presence within country.
The minimal installation of Wellington highlights the consistent repetition of black and white prints, and is accented by the staunch Modernist portrait of Ernest Moulton by Judy Cassab. Painted in her usual muddy colour palette, Cassab presents Moulton as an upstanding citizen – a founding father whose legacy lies in the collective memories of the Wellington community. Adjacent to Cassab’s portrait is In Transit (2012), a wooden pallet supporting 2400 copies of the Wellington newspaper. The Judd-like cube of bound newspapers sits below Ernest Moulton’s gaze, a gift from the grandson to his grandfather and at the same time as an offering to the wiradjuri people. Moulton’s patriarchal visage looks over the installation as a mute protagonist. The meticulously researched articles contained within the publication, allow us to hear clearly the wiradjuri voices of the past and present. Utilising considerable resources, the publication provides a thorough overview of the history of Wellington as well as many of the social and political issues facing the Indigenous community in 2013. Its backbone is the considerable data provided by the letters and journals of the Missionaries who arrived in the Wellington Valley in the 1830s.
Gallois’ publication is not a mere stylistic facsimile, but a reification of the instrument itself – providing a new articulation of our difficult past. It is a broad and inclusive presentation of the history, and current state of the life of Wiradjuri people living in and apart from the Wellington community. The document is an exhaustive examination of nearly two hundred years of forced cohabitation, featuring the perspectives of many wiradjuri and non-wiradjuri people, referring to the past and ideating the future. By using the format favoured by his grandfather, Gallois has created a document that ignores the 24-hour news cycle, its ready disposability and , but is instead brimming with important well-researched contributions to wiradjuri history and culture, allowing a serious and balanced examination of the facts.
The three iterations of the project have seen it presented at Artspace, Woolloomooloo; as part of Don’t Rope Me In curated by Jody Chester at Macquarie Theatre, Wellington; and at Dubbo Regional Museum, Western Plains Cultural Centre, Dubbo. Woolloomooloo’s history as a hunting site for the gadigal people; grazing land for the cattle of the colony, its mangroves eradicated for a maritime port, elite residential suburb in the early 1800s, and transformation into a waterside workers and auto industrial precinct, has seen the eventual disappearance of the features that would have once been imprinted in the gadigal peoples minds. Its presentation at Artspace Visual Arts Centre from 31 January – 3 March 2013 places it within an urban arts institution, – a sanctified space for contemporary art and ideas. Housed within a heritage building (previously known as The Gunnery (c1900)) the exhibition responded to the Federation Warehouse function, due in part by both its original use as a bulk store for the Sydney Morning Herald and its location at the heart of the harbour, where the first conflicts between control of black and white history were played out in the early 19th Century. Presented alongside two other exhibitions – Pat Hoffie’s exhibition you gotta love it featured skilfully carved wooden reliefs depicting slogans that explore Australian identity as filtered by the Indonesian tourist trade – a vision of our own character, as translated by someone else. The phrases indicate a hardened notion of the Australian character – a stoic cruelty that resonates with the issues explored in Wellington. Daniel Boyd’s exhibition History is Made at Night engaged with the dot painting style as a mirror of the sky. His paintings and digital works expand notions of ‘country’ and its role in understanding creation and origin. For the Wellington wiradjuri, the sky was a huge expansive template from which the earth below took its form.5
The second iteration of Wellington was on 27 May – 4 June 2013 (Reconciliation Week) at the former Macquarie Theatre, Wellington. The project was included in the exhibition Don’t Rope Me In curated by Jody Chester. Chester’s rationale references the segregationist practices in Australia which saw Aboriginal people treated as second-class citizens and forced to sit within roped off sections in movie theatres, et al. Gallois’ works were presented alongside artworks by young Aboriginal artists from Wellington: Jacob Forrest, Tjanara Talbot, Brooke Thompson and Tara Stanley. The artists’ works resonated with a shared vision of country, its physical qualities, and its history.
In Dubbo the project was presented from 6 July – 13 October 2013 in the Dubbo Regional Museum within the Western Plains Cultural Centre. The Museum straddles the original Hall of the former Dubbo High School building (c1917) which sits at the corner of Victoria Park. Dubbo High School was the “official” seat of learning for the inhabitants of the west, and yet another authoritative institution for the control of the peoples of wiradjuri country. The site was significant to the local wiradjuri people as it had once been the wingewarra swamp until it was drained in the early 1900s and converted into parkland. The swamp was an important hunting ground for the local wiradjuri, whose prized ochres were traded across countries.
The link between each exhibition opening was the presence of Joyce Williams, a Wellington Wiradjuri Elder. Aunty Joyce is an important figure in Wellington – an elder to whom the fight for justice and opportunity are hallmarks of her life. Her heartfelt hand written speech delivered at each opening acknowledged the struggles of the past and looked to a positive future for the Wellington wiradjuri.
Gallois has, through a monochromatic, research-oriented aesthetic created a platform from which the dissemination of new wiradjuri voices can spring forth. The thorough research at the heart of the project allows the viewer to gain knowledge and galvanise our collective understanding of the past, and assist with the tools to articulate our shared future. At the heart of the project is a sense of urgency – it is a firm full-stop. It urges us to pause and consider the past, its legacies and opportunities and move forward to ensure equality6 for all.
I have been helping out anthropologist Dr Gaynor Macdonald put together, in book form, her latest 500 page native title report (for a claim on the lands around Brisbane), and whilst I was in her office at Syd Uni last week, I picked up a book on NSW Aborigines – the index lead me to page 55 where I found the mystery article that alluded my research over 2 years – the 1955 article that changed race relations in Wellington.
My Granddad reported on this article in the Wellington Times in 1955 (saying a major Sydney paper recently reported on the deplorable living condition out on the mission – I can see why he did not mention the title…). By 1957, Granddad was publishing regular, serious articles that tackled many of the big issues facing Wellington’s Aboriginal community. The article was published in TRUTH (of course) on 5 June 1955. At the time TRUTH was Australia’s biggest selling paper. I wonder if a clever activist invited TRUTH to the mission?7