A painting by a renowned Indigenous artist depicting what is known as the Mistake Creek Massacre has been displayed at the National Museum of Australia for the first time since it was purchased in 2005.
The artwork, by the late Queenie McKenzie, was bought by the museum in 2005, but due to disagreement and controversy about what actually took place almost a century earlier, it was never hung.
Now, it is on display as part of a new exhibition titled Talking Blak to History, which aims to add more Indigenous voices to the narrative of Australian history.
Academics and art historians say the reappearance of McKenzie’s work is a significant moment in the national record.
Warning: This story contains images of an Indigenous person who has died.
‘A significant part of people’s psyche’
Disagreement persists about what happened that day in 1915, when seven Gija people were killed near Mistake Creek in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia.
Some say a white man called Constable Rhatigan was the instigator of the slaughter, because he believed the people had killed and eaten his cow.
Others claim no European men were involved.
Queenie McKenzie learnt of the massacre through oral stories told to her by her people, and her painting features both white and Aboriginal men as the perpetrators of the crime.
According to the National Library of Australia, a small monument was erected at the foot of a boab tree at Mistake Creek as a memorial to those who died, and in 2002, then Governor-General of Australia William Dean apologised to the Gija people for their deaths.
Anthropologist and art historian Cate Massola said the decision to display McKenzie’s painting legitimised Indigenous voices.
Dr Massola spent time with Gija people while working on her thesis.
“I think it’s a really important part of Australian history, that story.
“There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing around 2005 about what was accurate.
“What’s happened now with research is that there is a better acknowledgement of history from people who aren’t in the mainstream — oral and visual histories challenge mainstream and colonial representations of what happened.”
Dr Massola said it was more important than ever that every perspective on a contested moment in history be heard.
“What happened with George Floyd and people filming that now — it was always there, it’s just that now, people can see it.”
Painting’s re-emergence a positive step for art history: experts
Brenda L Croft, an Indigenous Art History and Curatorship Associate Professor at the Australian National University who has Gurindji, Malngin and Mudburra heritage, said it was “fantastic” to hear the painting was on display again.
“And that’s the role of the museum, a social history museum, to present different aspects of Australian culture.”
She said massacres were a part of Australia’s history and should be acknowledged.
“This was the experience of the artist, Queenie McKenzie, and that was her experience that was handed down to her from her community,” she said.
“It’s certainly been the experience for myself in working with members of my own Gurindji community.”
Professor Ian McLean, the University of Melbourne’s Hugh Ramsay chair of Australian Art History, said the return of the painting could be seen as a fitting end to the era of the History Wars, which rejected many Indigenous accounts of massacres through the 19th century and early 20th century.
The most notable among those was historian Keith Windschuttle, who argued against a number of others in the field, by saying that the colonial settlers of Australia did not commit widespread massacres against Indigenous Australians.
Professor McLean said the decision not to display the painting, made by the committee overseeing the museum in 2006, had been a political one.
He said the museum was now following a similar trajectory to other institutions in engaging more with contemporary issues and debates.
And while the painting had no doubt been forgotten in the years since 2005, its re-emergence represented a conscious step on the part of the NMA to give agency to the perspectives of McKenzie and other artists.
‘We were removed, we were massacred’
Principal Indigenous Advisor to the director at the National Museum of Australia Margo Neale said the inclusion of the painting was a way of tackling some of the more traumatic and difficult aspects of Australia’s history.
She said some of the pieces in the exhibition were brought out after she was inspired to see “what was lurking in our storeroom”.
“Our knowledge system is embodied knowledge. It’s how we move, how we speak, what we say, walking country, reading off country.
“Unlike the western system which is basically in books and other elaborations of it.”
Ms Neale said there had been both conflict and cooperation since European settlement, and that Australia’s shared history was more complicated than conflicting accounts might lead us to believe.
“Talking Blak to History is a way of reclaiming our experiences in the story of Australian history and we’re doing it in our own voices,” Ms Neale said.
“You’ll see and hear us through our objects, our art and our possessions. In other words, we’re speaking through these things.”
The exhibition features works that not only challenge mainstream narratives but also tell more nuanced stories.
Another painting, by Alison (Milyika) Carroll of Pitjantjatjara in South Australia, depicts a crucifix.
The crucifix is embodied by traditional designs, and was painted by Carroll for Deaconess Hilliard, who ran the craft room at Ernabella Mission in South Australia. The Deaconess hung the painting over her bed until her death, and it represents the relationship between the two.
Ms Neale said aspects of the exhibition were confronting, but needed to be acknowledged.
“We were removed, we were massacred, we were put onto missions to be bred out as black,” she said.
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