The following blog looks at Waanyi artist Judy Watson’s artwork, the gulf in Defying Empire at the National Gallery of Australia
Archives and records are powerful tools in regards to informing the memory, identity and narrative of this nation, but historically these sources have been exclusionary of many voices, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. As such, archives and records have been a tool to tell only one side of history or in many cases rewriting history.
For example, South African archivist Verne Harris, often talks about if we were to only rely on South African government records to tell the story of Apartheid, we would never know the extent of the oppression and atrocities. Additionally, Worimi archivist Kirsten Thorpe talks about how many Aboriginal people would access missionary records about themselves or family members would state how the records were inaccurate , however these records are what people use to write and tell history.
Because of this, archives and records can be seen as tools of oppression so it’s interesting Judy uses these tools to tell a story of Aboriginal massacres.
This leads to an interesting statement on one of the sheets on the artwork.
The fact that the sources are open access and not restricted means that they are publicly accessible. If that’s the case, then why is this information not well known? Why are people are people shocked when I tell them about the stories, like the ones that lie within Judy’s work?
In addition to this, it needs to be considered why Uncles and Auntys stories are considered heresay, but these massacres that are documented are contested. It is a contradiction that is at the heart of current debates around history.
Another aspect of the work is the fact that it is in an X formation of the artwork. This has multiple connotations. Firstly, the idea of X marks the spot which connects the massacre to place, reaffirming that these atrocities happened at a time and place. They are real.
Furthermore, the X has a loaded meaning in regards to archives as one of the first Aboriginal contributions to archives was the signing their name for blankets and because many Aboriginal people were not literate in the Western context they would sign their name with an “X” This speaks to the anonymity of Aboriginal people in records. Especially when discussing Aboriginal people in massacres, as while the perpetrators are maybe named in records, the Aboriginal people were rarely documented. Instead, records and reports would just contain statements like “14 Aborigines killed”
In summary, this artwork speaks to the many ways colonisation reinforces itself through archives and records, but exhibits the contradiction of the history debates. Maybe it takes a work like Judy’s to create this discussion. Additionally maybe it is also needed to ensure that this information that is publicly available actually enters public consciousness.
By Nathan Sentance