What if? Re-imagining Pacific Encounters in a Postcolonial present

Today I was privileged to give a floor talk at John Curtin Gallery at Curtin University. This short essay summarises my talk.

Lisa Reihana’s immersive wall video Emissaries is a stunning re-enactment of eighteenth-century Pacific encounters that brings the Indigenous participants to life, with the effect of questioning Western-centric histories. National debates about the past are often one-sided and rely on narratives produced by European historical actors such as Captain Cook and his companions. Through immersive video art, Lisa Reihana reveals the Indigenous side of these encounters, challenging any unified account of the past and creating a path towards reconciliation.

Her artwork ‘Emissaries’ is inspired by a magnificent wallpaper produced in France in 1805, intended to plunge bourgeois Europeans into the newly-discovered sights and cultures of the Pacific. Entrepreneur Joseph Dufour, with painter Jean-Gabriel Charvet, produced the largest panoramic wallpaper of their time, titled Savages of the Pacific (Les Sauvages de Ia Mer Pacifique). It was inspired by exciting new discoveries in the Pacific, particularly those made by Captain Cook, which captured the imaginations of many Europeans. In our own time, the discovery of life on other planets might spark such excitement and the expansion of horizons.

On Cook’s first great Pacific adventure (1768-1771) he travelled with botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, surviving disease, shipwreck and encounters with a range of Indigenous peoples – some apparently manifesting Rousseau’s arcadian vision of ‘noble savages’ living in a tropical paradise. On Cook’s third and final voyage (1776-1779) he ‘discovered’ the Hawaiian Islands. At first welcomed by the Hawaiians, who were fascinated by the Europeans’ ships and their use of iron, Cook then left for almost a year while he searched for a northwest passage from the North Atlantic to the Pacific. On return, coincidentally midway through a festival dedicated to the fertility god Lono, the British sailors were welcomed as gods. But after their departure, damage caused by rough weather necessitated their return just a week later: this time, their reception was unfriendly and violent, and the theft of a small cutter prompted an angry confrontation in which the Hawaiians overwhelmed the British and killed Cook.

In her staging of this and many other encounters, Reihana’s immersive video peoples the magnificent painted settings with living Maori, Hawaiian, Cook Islands, Samoan and Aboriginal actors alongside Western heroes such as Cook, Banks and Solander. Emissaries is a form of visual re-enactment – and like all re-enactments, it is written in the past conditional: it asks, what if we had understood both sides of the exchange? What if these meetings had been conducted between equals, in full acknowledgement of the richness of their different cultural traditions?

Postcolonial scholars have pointed to imperialism’s reliance upon notions of the belatedness of the non-European world, as all ideas, energy and progress were assumed to emanate from Europe. Historians have now challenged the view that the colonies and their Indigenous people were always following behind, their savagery and primitivism needing to be uplifted and transformed into European civilisation. Reihana’s speculative re-enactment mirrors the recent concern of historians to bring metropolis and colony into a shared space of exchange, posing a profound challenge to one-sided imperial histories that celebrated conquest of Indigenous peoples.

In these encounters our view is no longer governed by British assumptions or interests: by bringing alive the Indigenous actors, we are shown their world view – their side of the beach – and they move from being props to playing main parts. The death of Cook can be seen as a terrible misunderstanding rather than a brutal attack by savages, a tragedy to be respectfully and ceremoniously acknowledged, commemorated, mourned.

Reihana’s meticulously researched re-enactment does not re-write the course of history- rather she opens it up to understanding the previously silent or hidden Indigenous side of the encounter. How does she do this? Emissaries is about more than simply seeing history come to life, as Reihana translates these encounters into the mode of traditional performance: through rhythm, music and ritual these well-known events are imbued with Indigenous meaning. She slows down the pace of these events from action-packed Hollywood drama to gracious ritual. The amazing soundscape governs our emotional response – for example when a Hawaiian sings over Cook’s dead body, violence transcended by spirit and recognition.

Like many Indigenous cultures, Reihana uses performance as a way of telling a shared story and giving the past meaning in the present. There is often a moral logic at work within traditional performance that conveys an Indigenous world-view. In this way Reihana employs re-enactment to de-colonise Western historical narratives, stripping away notions of primitivism, revealing the richness and beauty of Pacific tradition, and bringing both sides into the same shared space of encounter and uncertainty.

In the present, Emissaries’ irruptions of the past offer haunting counter-narratives to our stories of national progress that rely on Western dominance and progress. In her own words, Reihana explained ‘I was really inspired to create a work that kind of spoke back through time. Just kind of readdressed some of the look of the wallpaper and certainly to put a stake in the ground. And say yes Indigenous people are strong and yes we are still here.’Lisa-Reihana-Emissaries-02


Seeing Ms Dhu

Seeing Ms Dhu: how photographs argue for human rights

Jane Lydon, University of Western Australia and Donna Oxenham, University of Western Australia

Ms Dhu was a 22-year-old Yamatji woman who died in custody in the South Hedland Police Station in August 2014. Arrested for unpaid fines, she was already suffering from pneumonia and septicaemia caused by a broken rib, inflicted by her partner some months earlier. She became very ill overnight and died.

The 2015 coronial inquest into her death heard that police officers had believed that Ms Dhu was “faking”. At the inquest, footage was shown, reportedly revealing that police treated her roughly. Her family has asked that the CCTV footage of Ms Dhu’s final, agonising hours of life be released. So far, the coroner has refused this request.

For her family, the grief of seeing their girl die is outweighed by the need to demonstrate the injustice of how she died. An internal police investigation into Ms Dhu’s case found that 11 police officers failed to comply with police procedures, but none were fired or suspended.

It is time that authorities listened to the Aboriginal people most closely concerned, and agreed to release this footage.

Ms Dhu’s grandmother, Carol Roe (left), and mother, Della Roe, speak to the media before the inquest.
Angie Raphael/AAP

Ms Dhu’s family’s demand to make her treatment in prison public echoes the argument of many visual theorists today: if others are forced to undergo suffering and pain, surely the privileged observer has a moral duty to witness, acknowledge and respond to what they see? But even more than this obligation to witness injustice, today photographic evidence has come to stand as proof.

Critic Susan Sontag famously argued that “without photographs, there is no war” – meaning that we need to see distant events to be convinced of their reality. There is no doubt that such images have tremendous power, serving as witness to atrocity, heartbreak and injustice. Following WWII in particular, the horrors of war were effectively conveyed via photography – with the revelation of the treatment of Jews in concentration camps such as Buchenwald in April 1945 shocking the world.

However, such images are not straightforward in their effects. In Australia, as many Aboriginal people have argued, such imagery may disempower their subjects, showing them as abject, distant or less-than-human. For example, one of the most effective critiques of Aboriginal treatment during the 1950s was a film, Their Darkest Hour (1957), made by West Australian MP William Grayden about Ngaanyatjarra people in the Warburton Ranges area, on the south-eastern fringe of the Gibson Desert.

This film included graphic, shocking imagery of ill and malnourished Aboriginal people. It successfully mobilised public concern across Australia and overseas well into the 1960s, contributing to a growing international concern about racial discrimination.

Specifically, it is credited with fuelling a wave of public support for the Aboriginal rights movement. This eventually led to the successful 1967 referendum to empower the Commonwealth in Aboriginal affairs. Yet, today, its subjects and their relatives resent the film’s shameful exposure of their lives and question the benefits that have ensued for them personally.

Light graffiti, Perth.
Ethan Blue

Aboriginal people now demand control over their own representation, using photography to assert a strong identity. They demand change on the basis of rights, rather than pity, with its overtones of patronage and condescension.

The Bicentennial was a turning point that forced the nation to acknowledge Indigenous dissent, as protests and marches literally demonstrated their demands. Visual symbols such as the 1972 Tent Embassy, a stroke of media genius, could not be denied.

The sovereignty sign at the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra repainted in January 2012 on the embassy’s 40th anniversary.
Alan Porritt/AAP

Last week, Queensland Aboriginal man Noel Pearson tapped into this history of imagining Aboriginal suffering, in accusing the ABC of “racism”. Pearson suggested that the ABC needs:

blacks to remain alienated from mothers’ bosoms, incarcerated in legions, leading short lives of grief and tribulation – because if it were not so, against whom could they direct their soft bigotry of low expectations?

But many advances in the status of Aboriginal Australians have been prompted by revealing atrocious conditions and ill-treatment. Most recently, the ABC’s Four Corners revelation of a pattern of abuse, deprivation and punishment of vulnerable children within the Don Dale youth detention centre aroused intense public sentiment, prompting an inquiry into juvenile detention in the Northern Territory.

While we cannot – yet – see the CCTV footage of Ms Dhu’s treatment in custody, her family and supporters have tried to keep her presence alive in the city of Perth through clever use of light graffiti. Since 2015, they have been projecting night-time images of her face onto skyscrapers to assert her continuing memory and visibility. These storeys-high portraits of Ms Dhu and her family disrupt the urban landscape.

We believe that authorities must listen to her family and release the footage of Ms Dhu’s final hours. In revealing to all the injustice she suffered, her family hope that this graphic proof will arouse public opinion so that finally some good may come from her tragic death.

An Indigenous-curated exhibition, Rightfully Ours, Rightfully Yours, will open at the Perth Centre for Photography on Thursday, December 8. This exhibition will focus specifically on photography and Indigenous rights in Australia. It will open alongside a recreation of a historic photographic exhibition originally mounted by UNESCO in 1949 to explain the new Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These issues will also be the focus of the Visualising Human Rights Conference on December 5-6 at the Maritime Museum in Fremantle.

The Conversation

Jane Lydon, Wesfarmers Chair of Australian History, University of Western Australia and Donna Oxenham, Research Assistant, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The ruined ruins of Ninevah

The world is shocked at the destruction of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud – as the BBC reports, bulldozers have ‘looted the valuables in it and then they proceeded to level the site to the ground.’[1] It is understandable that ‘local tribal sources’ are distressed and angry about this- but why such an outcry about a place most will never visit, and whose on-going scientific significance has not been examined in this debate? The archaeological remains of Nimrud have only been known to the West since the 1840s, and considered as world heritage even more recently. Beginning in 1845, young British wanderer, Austen Layard, visited the ruins of Nimrud for the first time and began to dig there. Since then, much of the art and artefacts from the site’s archaeological investigation have been removed to national or international centres in Baghdad and London- and specifically, the British Museum, where many photos used to illustrate the news stories over the last few days have come from. That’s if the heavy-handed excavation techniques employed by Layard and his ilk can be termed ‘investigation’: at first glance, this engraving showing the removal of the famous winged lions, from Layard’s 1852 Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh, could be mistaken for the recent activities of the Islamic State. Many archaeologists would look at this image and shudder at the thought of the evidence lost in prising out the loot. (I for one would rather have a go at the pile of ‘rubbish’ lying in the foreground than gaze admiringly at the statues.)


(Layard, A. H. (1852). A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh. London: John Murray.)

The arrival of these winged lions at the British Museum confirmed the view that London was the centre of the world’s newest and greatest empire, and the natural home for such historic works of art. For some, this trophy raised fears of hubris: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1850 poem, ‘The Burden of Nineveh’, envisages future travellers from Australia digging up the massive Assyrian bull-god sculpture from the British Museum and assuming it to be a British god.

For as that Bull-god once did stand
And watched the burial-clouds of sand,
Till these at last without a hand
Rose o’er his eyes, another land,
  And blinded him with destiny:—
So may he stand again; till now,
In ships of unknown sail and prow,
Some tribe of the Australian plough
Bear him afar,—a relic now
  Of London, not of Nineveh!

Rossetti was drawing on a literary conceit popularised by Thomas Macaulay in 1840 that pictured a distant future ‘when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.’ This scenario evoked Britain’s temporal evanescence within a historical imagination that had been greatly enlarged by a growing appreciation of the time-depth of human civilization. Equally significant was a complementary awareness of the global diversity of humankind –largely prompted by Enlightenment exploration- that located Britain within a global community of nations. This temporally and spatially expanded historical consciousness entailed the assumption that Britain’s colonies would grow, prosper and eventually succeed her, as part of the cycle of imperial growth.

This notion of a globalised, shared culture originated in Layard’s time and was an integral aspect of imperialism, but has over the intervening century or so developed into a global system of heritage management, and the categorization of places such as Nimrud as ‘world heritage’.[2] On a personal note, I love it too, and I am sad to think that now I may never see this fabled place.[3] However some heritage scholars have pointed out that the concept of ‘universal value’ is fundamentally flawed, because it implies a shared, homogenous set of cultural and moral principles – that in practice, always seem to protect Western and European monuments and sites. So ‘world heritage’ was long an elitist Western ideal. Despite the more recent efforts of many knowledgeable and committed practitioners to correct this inherited bias, state and party politics continue to shape the way value is defined and certain traces of the past are protected and interpreted.[4]

Most important, current outrage overlooks the way that sites deemed to be of world heritage value actually form part of a broader field of values and rights. Although some reports note the Islamic cultural proscription upon ‘idolatrous’ or representational human figures, most media stories ignore this factor. Most commentators argue that these are politically motivated acts of destruction by thugs. They are probably quite right. But logically, why should Islamic State not make use of any weapons to hand? Why should they protect or value ruins, sculpture and art that means nothing to them and that clearly means a great deal to their enemies? In the context of full-scale war, with all the terror, violence and death such conflict entails, IS’s priorities lie elsewhere- for a start, with protecting their own people and inflicting damage on the enemy.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has also condemned the destruction, stating that ‘nothing justifies its destruction’ and that ‘the deliberate destruction of heritage is a war crime’.[5] It is not that I wish to defend the destruction of such relics, but I believe that such critique is ridiculously narrow and Western-centric in refusing to acknowledge what is at stake for the people caught up in this conflict – that is, their very lives and futures. It dismisses world views that do not share UNESCO’s values. One normally insightful observer, Guy Rundle, actually argued that Iraq’s heritage is more valuable than human lives, because heritage gives human life meaning.[6] I could not disagree more. Where we now understand that cultural heritage is not a fossilized inheritance but rather a ‘dialogic medium for promoting discussion about social justice’ in the present, such critique is more harmful than useful.[7] It assumes that cultural heritage is a possession instead of acknowledging the wider range of practical resources that emanate from understanding culture as a political and social resource.[8] It echoes the forces of Western imperial greed that defined Nimrud as important in the first place – and overlooks local priorities and needs, that have been notably absent in reportage. It obscures the irony that current potentates exploit this Western-endowed value for their own ends.

So as Nimrud’s ruins become even more ruined, we should remember that its romance and mythological power were conferred by imperial decree less than 200 years ago, at the inception of our current system of ‘shared’ heritage and culture. Rudyard Kipling’s lament for declining British power and faith rendered Ninevah as a symbol of the hubris of ancient Mesopotamian civilisations: ‘Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!’

It seems that we won’t be forgetting Nimrud – as contested symbol of a shared human civilisation – any time soon.

[1] Nimrud is the Arab name for the ancient Assyrian city of Kalhu, situated on the River Tigris, near Mosul. Nimrud was the capital of Assyria during the reign of the king Ashurnasirpal II in the ninth century BC. ‘Islamic State Accused of bulldozing ancient city of Nimrud’, March 6, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-06/is-bulldozed-ancient-assyrian-city-of-nimrud-iraq-govt-says/6284994. Thanks to Tracy Ireland, Steve Brown, Liz Conor and Denis Byrne for comments and encouragement. Any outrageousness is all down to me.

[2] ‘The Ancient City of Ninevah’ is on the World Heritage Tentative List (since 2000) for Iraq; and hence not currently on the World Heritage List. See http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/1465/ Thanks to Steve Brown for this information. And see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Table_of_World_Heritage_Sites_by_country-

[3] Video evidence is unclear:  ‘bulldozed Nimrud’ has made headlines but few of the videos actually show anything like this, instead showing the site fully conserved, or else the video of destruction of the Baghdad Museum statues, many apparently plaster casts. Some ‘released by IS’ show barrel bombs and a large explosion but we await clarification about exactly what has been destroyed.

[4] For a review of recent shifts toward a more inclusive approach see Kristal Buckley 2012, ‘International and Regional Perspectives on the State of World Heritage’. In Penelope Figgis, Andrea Leverington, Richard Mackay, Andrew Maclean and Peter Valentine (eds) Keeping the Outstanding Exceptional: the future of World Heritage in Australia. Australian Committee for IUCN, Sydney.   pp. 48-53. For analysis of world heritage and its implication in socio-political and especially state regimes of power see Sophia Labadi, UNESCO, Cultural Heritage, and Outstanding Universal Value: Value-based Analyses of the World Heritage and Intangible Cultural Heritage Conventions, AltaMira, 2012. For example Africa still lags much behind in the ‘tally board’ of numbers of listed World Heritage properties.

[5] UNESCO Director-General Condemns Desctruction at Nimrud, 13 April 2014 http://www.unesco.org/new/en/media-services/single-view/news/unesco_director_general_condemns_destruction_at_nimrud/#.VTILMktC_Ro

[6] Guy Rundle, ‘The complexities of Islamic State’s cultural destruction’, Crikey 13 March 2015, argues ‘without our heritage and a commitment to it, there is no ground to life, to meaning’.

[7] Neil A. Silberman ‘Heritage interpretation and human rights: documenting diversity, expressing identity, or establishing universal principles?’ International Journal of Heritage Studies 2012, 1-12. Quotation p. 7.

[8] Jane Lydon ‘Young and free: The Australian past in a global future’, in Lyn Meskell (ed) Cosmopolitan Archaeologies, Duke, 2009, pp. 28-47; Rosemary J.Coombe and Lindsay M. Weiss, ‘Neoliberalism, Heritage Regimes, Cultural Rights’ in Lyn Meskell (ed), Global Heritage: A Reader, John Wiley and Son, 2015, pp. 53-54.

Colonial utopias and British cosmopolitanism: ‘Telescopic philanthropy’ and Macaulay’s New Zealander

Recently I have been extending my research addressing the representation of Australian Aboriginal people, and of Australian colonialism more broadly, to consider how this visual field sits within global visual culture. I spent much of 2014 in the UK, where I gleaned much of anthropological interest- including the way that relations between Britain and Australia are imagined and pictured today. For the first time, the ‘new imperial history’, bringing together the histories of colony and metropole into the same analytical frame, became concrete to me. It is easy to focus on one or the other – still so geographically and politically distant in many ways- while providing a skeletal, shared, social or temporal framework. It is much harder to find the points of intersection between Australia and Britain that really did shape each other’s world view(s).

So I returned to many studies I had already read with renewed interest – and discovered several more. Coral Lansbury’s wonderful Arcady in Australia (1970) examines how the new antipodean colonies provided a fertile vehicle for literary visions of an idyllic rural way of life already lost in Britain, while Deirdre Coleman’s more recent Romantic Colonization and British Anti-Slavery (2005) traces the influence of humanitarianism in giving colonisation a utopian inflection. Optimism characterises the earliest imagining of the antipodes, during the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth, and before the reality of convictism and conflict with Aboriginal people had made themselves felt. A late example of this genre is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1850 poem, ‘The Burden of Nineveh’, which envisages future travellers from Australia digging up the massive Assyrian bull-god sculpture from the British Museum (that had been recently excavated by Austen Layard) and assuming it to be a British god:

For as that Bull-god once did stand
And watched the burial-clouds of sand,
Till these at last without a hand
Rose o’er his eyes, another land,
And blinded him with destiny:—
So may he stand again; till now,
In ships of unknown sail and prow,
Some tribe of the Australian plough
Bear him afar,—a relic now
Of London, not of Nineveh!

By the end of the 1840s, however, Australia and especially its indigenous people were more usually regarded with pessimism. Disappointment characterised the humanitarian movement more generally, and the army of evangelical missionaries sent to Africa and Britain’s other colonial territories were increasingly criticised by those arguing for the pressing needs of those at home – the urban poor. Two iconic images – Dore’s New Zealander (1872) and Tenniel’s ‘Telescopic Philanthropy’ (1865) express competing visions of Britain’s place in a cosmopolitan world, her responsibilities to the colonised Indigenous peoples within her empire, and the relationship between Britain and her colonies.
The New Zealander was a literary conceit popularised by Thomas Macaulay in 1840 in picturing a distant future ‘when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.’ This scenario evoked Britain’s temporal evanescence at a time of growing appreciation of the time-depth of human civilization, as well as an awareness of the global diversity of humankind, largely prompted by Enlightenment exploration. This temporally and spatially expanded historical consciousness entailed the assumption that Britain’s colonies would grow, prosper and eventually succeed her, as part of the cycle of imperial power. In 1872 this motif acquired iconic status with Gustave Doré’s powerful frontispiece to London: a Pilgrimage by Blanchard Jerrold: the engraving’s delicate lines project a melancholy beauty as the (doubtless white) New Zealander, a lonely figure in a cloak, gazes across the Thames at the distant ruins of the great metropolis. The future colonial tourist had become an icon of Britain’s relative frailty and instability within a vast and ancient world – and of its utopian future.


‘Telescopic Philanthropy’, Punch, Volume XLVIII, 4 March 1865, Page 89. Little London Arab. "PLEASE 'M, AIN'T WE BLACK ENOUGH TO BE CARED FOR?" Gustave Doré, The New Zealander, 1872, frontispiece to London: a Pilgrimage.


‘Telescopic Philanthropy’, Punch, Volume XLVIII, 4 March 1865, Page 89.
Gustave Doré, The New Zealander, 1872, frontispiece to London: a Pilgrimage.

Tenniel’s cartoon represents the nationalist, anti-missionary stance perhaps best-known through Dickens’s novel Bleak House, in which he coined the term ’telescopic philanthropy’ to sum up his argument that humanitarianism should not be extended to those on the other side of the globe at the expense of those close by, in London, such as homeless children. Britannia is shown peering through a telescope at a distant Africa, where a missionary delivers a sermon to a crowd of Africans, while at her feet, three small street ‘Arabs’ crouch, one asking plaintively ‘PLEASE ‘M, AIN’T WE BLACK ENOUGH TO BE CARED FOR?’
To an extent Dickens’s and his fellow domestic reformers’ critique constituted a backlash against foreign philanthropy of the kind practised by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which had received great support up to and during the 1840s, for example in establishing the colonial bishoprics. Bleak House was also seen by many as an attack on the American anti-slavery cause. And the urban problems caused by modern industrialism were indeed very real and pressing. Yet what is perhaps most significant is the global scale of comparison established/ drawn in these debates: metropolitan London’s black ‘Arabs’ are shown as equivalent to the foreign heathen in their humanity and need, even as proximity and familiarity lends their cause clarity by contrast with the distant, vaguely perceived foreigners.
Visually, these two remarkable images both adopt a distant view to express the relationship between Britain and her colonies: in Tenniel’s case, to convey the vast gulf of geography and civilization between the British and African peoples; in Doré’s, to evoke the passing of centuries and the eventual ascendancy of Britain’s colonies. Both take London to be the centre of the world – yet the power of Britannia’s surveying eye is reversed in Doré’s engraving, as the imperial heir enjoys London’s picturesque ruins. Less explicitly, each asks questions about the ties that bind parent and colony: historically these relationships varied across time and place, animated by sentiments ranging from fond paternalism to deep embarrassment.


Today, these images remind us of the strength of familial and humanitarian ties between Britain and Australia, even as they continue to be shaped by our distant locations and perspectives.

Half-lives: Photography, history, memorialisation


© Anne Ferran, 30 from the series 1-38, 2003. Image courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney.

On 17 March 2014 I spoke at a symposium, SHADOW LAND: MEMORY AND COLONIALISM, at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, UWA. This event was a campus partnership between the Gallery and UWA departments of History and Archaeology, tied to Shadow Land, a survey exhibition of photo-media artist Anne Ferran’s most significant projects and series, spanning more than 30 years. It runs 8 February – 19 April 2014. Here is my paper – we also heard from Alistair Paterson, Alison Atkinson-Phillips, Tracy Ireland, Jessica Neath and Sandra Bowdler.

In 2008 Anne Ferran wrote that ‘Australia’s past is full of unacknowledged ghosts; by waking them up we can hope to wake ourselves as well.’ She was talking about the forgotten past and its implications for us now, in the present. She was reflecting on the relationship between past and present, like historian Greg Dening, who once wrote ‘The dead need history for the voice it gives them. The living need history, not to be made to feel guilty for a past they are not responsible for or cannot change. The living need a history disturbing enough to change the present.’

Ferran’s work intersects with that of historians and archaeologists who aim to recover forgotten or absent aspects of the past, and the experience of those considered marginal or less important than the white, male, elite members of society. This is often called history from below- in other words, exploring the experience of the forgotten and uneducated from a grass-roots perspective.

Today I want to talk about some of the strategies Ferran has used to evoke the vanished lives of women and children in Australian history, in part by producing memorials. I want to reflect on the power of the tangible to bring the past into memory – and in doing so discuss new ideas about photography. Photo historian Geoffrey Batchen suggests that Ferran’s work raises a central photographic issue: how can photography bring the past into the present? He reviews the strategies she has used to transform Australian history ‘into a kind of séance, into a direct communion of past and present’, in creating ‘history brought back to life not as the truth of the past but as a ghostly presence that still haunts and entrances us today’.

In her 2008 series Lost to Worlds, Ferran records the site of the former Ross Female Factory that operated in Tasmania between 1847-54. It was one of four female factories established in Tasmania as part of the probation system (that replaced assignment to settlers). Through a regime ordered by authority, work and surveillance, these women were supposedly transformed and reformed. Their lives were circumscribed and even cut short: their babies were removed not long after birth and historical records testify to shockingly high infant mortality- the focus of another of Ferran’s series.

Nothing now remains of this place but an undulating grassy sward, that Ferran recorded over a decade. Ferran’s dispassionate, semi-scientific recordings remind me of many photographs I have taken over the years on archaeological sites. We’re not quite sure what it is we’re recording sometimes, but something once happened here so we are going to make sure it is preserved. We subject our ‘data’ to later analysis, looking for patterns that are latent – at first sight invisible. Like a crime scene, such sites witness or evoke the aftermath of passion and feeling.

This sense of detachment and distance is enhanced by Ferran’s application of the images to metal: like headstones these images are now literally solid objects, or more accurately, memorials: objects that serve as a focus for memory. The emotions they evoke are very much present-day feelings, of shame, or sorrow, or outrage at the wasted lives of these convict women and their babies.

Anne Ferran’s practice grapples with and challenges the medium of photography even as she exploits it for her own purposes. Since the 1970s photo theorists have pointed out the limitations of photography, arguing that the medium appropriates the experience of those it portrays, without explaining their situation, or challenging injustice; some theorists in fact suggest that images of the marginal or the suffering simply act to shore up the status quo.

Anne Ferran avoids this approach. She herself has commented of her ‘aftermath’ series that while they ‘Don’t capture time or bear witness’, nonetheless, ‘they possess a formal assurance that says they are sure of something. Initiates into their own inadequacy is how I like to think of them, fully aware of their limitations.’ Here I think she exploits the medium’s tension between its indexical authority- that is, its status as evidence or proof – and its tremendous undecideability.

Again, her series ‘Soft caps’ alludes to the ‘unprotected’ immigrant women housed at Hyde Park Barracks, in Sydney, built as a convict barracks.

Inspired by a historical photograph, she created a series of ghostly cloth cowls, seemingly empty, that nonetheless conjure up the presence of these long disappeared, little-known women. Through Ferran’s images, these soft, shadowy objects assume a symbolic resonance that as Batchen suggests, ‘restores women to a ‘speculative half-life’, creating a space to be filled with our own imagined stories.

Again, the 2003 series, 1-38, focuses on details of photos of female inmates of Gladesville Mental Asylum, in Sydney, avoiding intrusion upon these pitiable women’s already scrutinised and circumscribed lives by averting our gaze from their poor exposed faces, glancing instead at their nervously clasped hands, the straitjacket that physically contains them, or the restraining clutch of their warders. These decontextualised photographic fragments evoke the oppression and sadness of these marginalised women’s lives.

Yet I return to Ferran’s comment that these photos have a ‘historical distance from us, a distance we can survey endlessly without it diminishing; if anything we can only watch it widen. … They know there is no living memory there to reach for and – subdued by this knowledge – they don’t try.’ In other words, they picture absence or loss.

In this sense they also act like memorials: like a memorial, they prompt memory where none existed before. They are objects that provide a coat-hanger for our histories to hang off. Their very existence signifies an absence. One of the criticisms of monuments is their sluggishness, their stolid inability to hold our attention in the active, ever-moving present. Austrian writer Robert Musil famously drew attention to the paradox between their ostensible function, to attract notice, and their impregnation ‘with something that repels attention, causing the glance to roll right off, like water droplets off an oilcloth, without even pausing for a moment.’ Sometimes they remain self-contained and detached from our lives, absolving us personally of the need to remember, simultaneously reminding but also boring us.

Yet as many have noted, the ever-swifter transformations of modernity have generated materialist forms of memory that fetishise tangible relics. As Andreas Huyssen argued, the spread of amnesia is matched by a relentless fascination with memory and the past: the museum, the monument and the memorial have taken on new life in part because they offer materiality. Their permanence and weight is reassuring.

In recent years many scholars working under the label of ‘posthumanism’ have argued for a world view that de-centres humans, exploring the agency of the material and non-human. Archaeologists have long argued for the power of the material to shape human life- often below the level of consciousness. The irony of material culture is that its very inertia lends it an objectivity and autonomy that appears to evade ideology, seemingly reflecting the natural state of things, yet its meaning is mutable, altering according to circumstance. Its very durability allows its meanings to be interpreted and re-interpreted over long periods of time, in processes of revaluation and re-inscription.

Ferran’s work serves as a series of memorials to the forgotten dead, in part by turning images into objects. Where scholars such as anthropologist Bruno Latour, for example argue that objects may acquire agency within performative social relations, assuming fresh meanings as they circulate through ever-changing contexts, we can see photographs act in the same way. Rather than ‘reading’ them for their discursive meaning, we can examine their social uses. As historian Elizabeth Edwards has argued, this sense of the images as objects too is enhanced by the indexicality of photographs — their physical relationship as a trace of the real. Ferran’s symbolic objects stand in for artefacts, actively creating and expressing human relations and emotions.

So drawing on the power of photo to make real, she successfully calls forth these ghosts of the past through their material remains. Through what I would call an ‘archaeological aesthetic’, she works with fragments and overlooked details, transforming them from rubbish or wasteland into solid, important, memorials. This aspect of the medium of photography – its reification of the material, its status not just as sign or representation but as object with social uses and agency- brings the marginal lives of women and children into the present.

For me, reflecting upon the lives of the women and especially their babies, removed as a result of nineteenth-century ideas about gender and morality, I am reminded that such attitudes remain in our own time. I am aware that women are still judged as unfit mothers on the basis of their marital status or class, and that their control over their reproductive choices is still limited and contested. To take just two examples of views that continue to belittle and circumscribe women’s role in our society: As recently as March 2004 our current Prime Minister Tony Abbott notoriously stated that ‘abortion is the easy way out’, expressing a view that certain categories of women are incapable of making choices about their own bodies. In February 2011, Abbott again used the language of nineteenth century reform in stating that ‘I think if the Prime Minister [Julia Gillard] wants to make, politically speaking, an honest woman of herself, she needs to seek a mandate for a carbon tax.’ Australian women’s choices continue to be governed by inherited attitudes about women’s proper place and behaviour. I’m not suggesting that Ferran’s work explicitly sets out to argue for women’s rights now- but she draws attention to these very telling absences in our historical and contemporary landscape, defining historical blind-spots that map present-day concerns. For those of us concerned with women’s experience in the past- and now – in this oblique way, we can perhaps see the moving and insistent ‘half-lives’ Ferran’s work evokes not merely as traces of the past, but as gentle ghosts still haunting the present.

Disturbed dreams: ‘In Plain Sight’ at the Perth Writers Festival

I have never been to a writer’s festival before: they always seemed a bit … well …. self-indulgent, actually. But last weekend I went to the Perth Writer’s Festival to hear my friend and colleague Clare Wright talk about her new book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (Text, 2013) in conversation with Rabia Siddique, author of Equal Justice (Macmillan 2013). It was fantastic!

Decorative or decorated?
Decorative or decorated?

The University of Western Australia’s beautiful gardens teemed with eager crowds – much as during the teaching semester, but representing a much hoarier demographic wearing sensible shoes and hats rather than micro-shorts and flowing locks. There would have been several hundred people in the audience for our session- ably chaired by the redoubtable if gloomy Anne Summers.

Clare’s book tells the story of the women who participated in one of our nation’s founding events, but were almost immediately erased from public memory. At 3am on 3rd December 1854 in Ballarat, British troops and police stormed a rough barricade thrown together by a mob of armed gold-diggers protesting the colonial authorities’ tyrannical miners licenses, required whether one had struck pay-dirt or not. At least 27 people- as she shows, including at least one woman – were fatally shot by the authorities in the clash. Clare’s gripping narrative fleshes out the people of the goldfields – how they got there, what they saw when they did, how this strange community worked- and especially, what Eureka’s many women wrote, said and thought as events unfolded. As she explained at the festival, her historiographical method was akin to panning for gold, washing the same old dirt through the sieve that many ‘Eureka-freaks’ have sought before her – but with the difference that she was asking a new question that yielded new results: where were the women? What were they doing? Her answer is that they were there too, from the beginning.

As she notes, if we understand the rebels not as ‘lone hands’, single, unattached men with a political agenda, but instead as would-be breadwinners trying desperately to protect and feed their wives and children, the way we see this event totally changes. Rather than a battle over abstract ‘rights’, this was a conflict about survival and the bonds of family.

Women were wounded and died at Eureka. So why were they forgotten? Perhaps because everyone wanted to forget Eureka in the aftermath: certainly the government that had brutalised and killed the rebels, and the diggers who had failed to protect their families and win their struggle. As the Age lamented in September 1856, ‘That dreadful Eureka episode seems more like a disturbed dream than an actual historical reality.’

Rabia’s autobiographical account tells her story of joining the British army as a lawyer, and being sent to Iraq in 2005. She was ordered to negotiate the release of two British soldiers held hostage in Basra, in the notorious police station al-Jamiat, headquarters of the Serious Crimes Unit and actually staffed by a murderous Shiite insurgency group. Her colleague, Major James Woodham, had already been sent in but his negotiations had failed, and he was waiting for her arrival. Over previous months, her Muslim background and a little Arabic had allowed her to develop a rapport with a range of figures in the Iraqi judiciary and administration, and on this occasion the Jamiat police had insisted on dealing with her. It was a very tense situation because a rumour had spread that the British soldiers were actually Israeli, and a large crowd had gathered outside the prison, rioting and trying to break in. Following a polite but wary conversation inside the jail, they were led to see the soldiers, and make sure they were ok. It was agreed that they would be released to the British. But at this dramatic moment the heavily armed forces outside stormed the compound, and all hell broke loose. Her negotiator, a respected judge, was quickly led away and she was left surrounded by her increasingly hostile Iraqi captors.

Without spoiling this exciting and slightly horrifying story, it had a happy ending – in the short-term. However, I found the larger tale of how Siddique was treated AFTER she escaped even more gripping and suspenseful. It is a story of moral courage and strength. Inexplicably, back in the British camp, she was treated almost as if she had not been present during the incident, while her male colleagues were de-briefed, congratulated, and one (Woodham) was eventually even awarded a medal. Her request to have her role in the incident recorded in her file was rejected with no explanation, and as time passed she became increasingly unhappy and unsettled. Her brave decision to prosecute the British Army for discrimination resulted in a high-profile case that made headlines around the world.

While both of these books – that I have now voraciously devoured – are excellent in their own right, the synergies prompted by combining their authors in conversation were quite remarkable: an inspired bit of programming presumably on the part of the Festival’s Program Manager Emily Mann. Some astonishing parallels between the two stories emerged. Perhaps most notably, they revealed the enduring shame and embarrassment in our culture of having women actively fight – rather than be fought for.

Aboriginal camps, drunken Brits, and other marvels: Carl von Hügel in Swan River, 1833 (Part 2)

Almost exactly one hundred and eighty years ago, Austrian nobleman and plant collector Carl von Hügel woke up in Fremantle for his first day of exploration. In the early morning cool of the 28th November, 1833, he ‘roamed the countryside’ before a hasty breakfast, spending ‘just enough time there to savour the pleasure, long missed, of coffee with cream, fresh bread and butter’. Then he wandered inland, finding ‘many a beautiful spot and as great a diversity of plants as I could have wished.’ For lunch, he ‘partook of a piece of very ordinary cheese and a glass of brandy’, and then continued on his way until evening.

Having decided before reaching Swan River that he would stop keeping his diary, on arrival von Hügel changed his mind, reasoning that ‘here of all places’ where ‘both the natives and the immigrants are equally unfamiliar to us … my own experiences and observations might be of particular interest.’ He wrote about the British settlers, the natural wonders he encountered, and of course, the Nyoongar, still living in traditional camps across and beyond the colony. He indulged in the usual fantasies about Aboriginal social life – such as marriage, childcare, ‘no thought for the future’ and so on – based mostly on speculation.

With sympathy, he described the history of engagement between the first white settlers and the ‘peaceably disposed’ band of thirty or forty Aboriginal men and considerably fewer women. ‘However two men Jäger (Yagan) and Mijijerao (Midgegooroo) were especially active and excelled in throwing spears. Unfortunately these good relations did not last long.’ The settlers had arrived in winter, when Aborigines depended more than ever on hunting. So a night-time storehouse raid marked the end of friendly relations. Further violence followed, until eventually the Government organised a ‘daily distribution of grain’, of which von Hügel observed, ‘not only wisdom and humanity required that this be done, but justice itself.’ Already, however, the Nyoongar completely avoided Fremantle, where fatal collisions were fresh in everyone’s memory.

Otherwise, new arrivals and Nyoongar still shared the space that became Perth, before the Aboriginal people were displaced. On the 2nd of December, for example, he noted a ‘large number of Aborigines walking through Perth to collect their daily ration at a particular spot near Mount Eliza.’ They all understood some English. ‘They greet all Europeans in a most friendly manner and are far less mistrustful than I had expected.’ He welcomed encounters with the Nyoongar, telling how, ‘by chance I walked past one of their camps’, protected against the wind by screens woven from twigs and bark. He asked them to show him how they threw the spear, made from peeled shoots of what might have been Melaleuca rhaphiophylla Schauer, or Swamp paperbark, ‘simply sharpened at one end and slightly hollowed out at the thick end’. He wanted to give them something but found he had no money, so promised them something another day, ‘but then returned and took them with me to my lodgings and gave them some bread.’

Despite his own pleasant exchanges, Von Hügel found the close physical proximity between black and white an omnipresent threat.  When visiting the Bull’s farm, fifty miles up the Swan toward the Darling Range, he witnessed Mrs Bull, a ‘pretty young wife’, standing ‘by a ground-floor window looking out into the open country’. Suddenly a Nyoongar man,

‘came up to the window and stroked her cheeks with both hands. Greatly alarmed, she sprang back into the middle of the room amid the loud laughter of those present. But I myself was saddened by the thought that, for at least one whole generation to come, the hard-working settlers in the interior will be entirely dependent on the goodwill of the Aborigines; that is, for that length of time they will still have it in their power to destroy hearth and home and every living thing.’

For von Hügel the heat was intolerable, the sand with its black residue (from the Aboriginal fire regime) troublesome, and the flies unbearable (‘Moses could have visited them upon Pharaoh with the greatest success’), but he simply adored the plant life: on Monday 2nd December he ‘set out to walk to Mt Eliza’ (the peak of today’s King’s Park and still the most popular tourist vantage) but did not make much headway as ‘there was so much that was beautiful and new to me.’

Contrasting with these fascinating people and landscapes were the British, whom the noble – and Catholic – Austrian did not like very much. Von Hügel was very critical of the British government, for example, which he felt had inadequately equipped the first white settlers, especially lacking food for the first hungry years. He described the ‘heterogenous’ population attracted to Swan River, with delusions of finding ‘roast pigeons’ sitting ‘waiting in trees’. One settler arrived ‘claiming 335 square miles by virtue of the goods and personnel he had brought with him. Others came with carriages of all sorts, pianos and harps and sumptuous wardrobes from the most exclusive fashion houses for their growing daughters.’ He pictured their reactions to the ‘gloomy landscape’, abandoned without shelter on their first night, and tormented by cold, wind and rain. ‘The courage of most of the new arrivals sank and instead of working, most of them lay weeping on the seashore, anticipating the ruin of their possessions as well as of their hopes.’

He was especially caustic about Post-Captain William Townsend Dance, given an independent command to assist the colony at his discretion. Instead of assisting Governor, Captain James Stirling, claimed von Hügel, instead Dance ‘employed his men in building a good house and establishing a garden for himself. He watched the trading vessels run aground in Gage Roads without taking any steps towards finding another anchorage.’ While the colony starved, the Dances holed up on Garden Island, eating their own provisions and ignoring the plight of the settlers.

Although accustomed to the heat of India, he noted on 3rd December that he found Perth more oppressive – but this was perhaps because he had accidentally drunk a mixture of brandy and gin for breakfast – rather than brandy mixed with water, as was his custom: ‘Being exceedingly thirsty, it was only after I had swallowed a few mouthfuls that I noticed the mistake.’ Despite his own liking for brandy, von Hügel was disapproving of English habits, claiming that ‘The only thing standing between the English and their rapid progress toward world domination is the fascination alcoholic beverages hold for them. This is where the high wages of their lower classes go, without exception, and this is where the larger portion of the high salaries (high in comparison with the Continent) of their upper classes go.’ On the other hand, he argued that this made them capable of enduring long expeditions, where ‘every man had his bottle of brandy or claret, to compensate him for all other joys of life.’

Calling upon Lieutenant Governor Captain Daniel, they caught him in the act of pouring himself some ginger beer, and ‘even without being a qualified physiognomist, it was not difficult to conclude, from his shiny red nose and ditto cheeks, that Captain Daniel himself fully appreciated the charms of this and other spirituous beverages.’ At an official dinner Daniel became so incapable that he ‘fell flat to the floor’ and von Hügel concluded that ‘he is said to be a splendid soldier and wears a medal, but alas this type often turns out to be useless in peacetime.’ He argued for the need of convict immigrants to perform necessary labour, suggesting that while it might be repugnant to share one’s house with a felon, it was better than most of the lazy British who, ‘having led an indolent life in England, emigrate[d] solely to find greater opportunities for drinking’.

On Thursday 19th December von Hügel left Swan River, and sailed south on the Alligator. They had hoped to spend Christmas in Albany, but had so much trouble with contrary winds and currents that they barely sighted Cape Leeuwin before having to stand off the coast again. Christmas and every significant day in the calendar made von Hügel miserable, reminding him of his far-away loved ones and his present loneliness. Musing on the colony he had left behind, he wondered (like others more recently) ‘to what extent this settlement has hastened the transformation of New Holland as a whole into a powerful, independent nation’ – but decided that it was an unanswerable question and would take ‘hundreds of years’ to establish. In the meantime, he summed up his Western Australian acquaintance, somewhat grudgingly perhaps, as ‘good, energetic individuals’, whose hard work and strength of character had won his respect and liking.