IAP Exercise 3.3: A Reflection on Unhelpful Aboriginal Por(be)trayals


How might being an insider help combat the bad or unhelpful portrayal of marginalised or underrepresented groups?


The disgraceful killing of George Floyd and the resulting increased global influence of the Black Lives Matter movement hopefully will have increased public awareness of the historical context of these inequalities in the US. One practical example being the intensified scrutiny of the Confederate flag in the southern states.

But I will focus on a lesser discussed example of historical racism namely the colonial invasion of Australia and the multi-generational attempts to whitewash history in that country.

Partial unhelpful portrayals

I will touch on three unhelpful portrayals; the attempted erasure of Aboriginal existence in Australia, the treatment of children, and the export of ‘collectable’ body parts.

In 1770 James Cook mapped the eastern coastline of Australia. He named it New South Wales. In commemoration of his work, a substantial statue was erected in Hyde Park, Sydney. It bears the patently incorrect inscription ‘Discovered this territory 1770’. Indigenous aboriginal people pre-date Cook’s arrival by some 65,000 years.

Initially motivated by a wish to ‘breed out the colour’ and then by policies of assimilation, one particularly insidious aspect of Australia’s colonisation was the forcible separation of children from their families. As this 1934 advert portrays, homes for these ‘half-caste’ girls were sought to ‘rescue them from becoming outcast’. When in fact, having been forcibly removed from their families, they weren’t outcasts in the first place.

[Detour: The handwritten note reads: ‘I like the little girl in the centre of group, but if taken by anyone else, any of the others will do, as long as they are strong.’ End of detour]

As one adult reflects on her institutional kidnapping:

I was at the post office with my mum and auntie (and cousin). They put us in the police ute and said they were taking us to Broome. They put the mums in there as well. But when we’d gone (about 10 miles) they stopped, and threw the mothers out of the car. We jumped on our mothers’ backs, crying, trying not to be left behind. But the policeman pulled us off and threw us back in the car. They pushed the mothers away and drove off, while the mothers were chasing the car, running and crying after us. We were screaming in the back of the car. When we got to Broome they put me and my cousin in the Broome lock-up. We were only 10 years old. We were in the lock-up for two days waiting for the boat to Perth.

If forcible removal was the fate of part-descent (or half-caste) Aboriginals, what could be done to their full-descent counterparts? They were regarded as part of a dying race, a link to the prehistoric. As a result, in the 19th century it became fashionable to collect their body parts, often heads, for export to cultural and educational institutions and private collections in the US and Europe.

Combating unhelpful portrayal

I will discuss the ways in which these portrayals are being combatted in Australia from two perspectives; firstly the institutional response to historical archives and then the contemporary artistic response.

In her essay ‘Photography, History and Place: Reconciliation in Australia’ Melissa Miles, when considering the institutional response, suggests that place has different connotations in Australia encapsulated in the term ‘Country’ She quotes Tasmanian Aboriginal elder Jim Everett:

To me, European concepts narrowly defined place as landscape, with a land-view that is devoid of understanding the holistic life of a place. Country, as I read it, encompasses many facets of life and relationships, with histories and memories of time. 108

Miles goes onto to discuss the ‘Bringing the Photographs Home’ project, started by Berndt Museum in Western Australia. This and other such programmes recognise the moral rights the Aboriginal people have over images in which they feature. The State Library of Victoria went a step further. In consultation with aboriginal communities, it took down digital photographs from their online catalogue and made further access a permission-based procedure.

In concluding her essay Miles (1:170) states that ‘Australia’s history of appropriating Aboriginal material culture, the historical misuse of photographs of aboriginal people, and contemporary recognition of the critical importance of Aboriginal cultural self-determination means it would be highly inappropriate for a non-indigenous artist to use photographs of Aboriginal people or photographs that tell Aboriginal stories without consultation and/or collaboration with their owners.’

To illustrate a contemporary artistic response I will consider the work of Aboriginal photographer (and therefore insider), Ricky Maynard. In particular, I will describe his thoughts on two of his images from the work ‘Portrait of a Distant Land’.

The first image is entitled ‘Traitor’. He uses a caption to contextualise the scene:

In a small forest west of the Bay of Fires our chief Mannalargenna and his people made an agreement with George Augustus Robinson for a temporary stay on the islands of the Bass Straight. If only they knew, not only of their imminent death but of the future of the surviving tribe. We still remember. A site that changed the course of history. (1:115)

According to Miles, Maynard’s ‘historical authenticity’ comes from his extensive engagement in place. She quotes Maynard:

… That’s where it becomes those layers of cultural memory, of place and people in place. I think that’s what gives it that level of authenticity. (117)

But perhaps the importance of Maynard’s role as an insider can be best illustrated in the image Vansittart Island, Bass Straight, Tasmania 2005).

Maynard’s text accompanying the photograpgh quotes his Grandfather who in 1975 said:

As late as 1910 men came digging on Vansittart and Tin Kettle Islands looking for skeletons here. We moved them where none will find them, at the dead of night my people removed the bodies of our grandmothers and took them to other islands, we planted shamrocks over the disturbed earth, so the last resting place of those girls who once had slithered over rocks for seals will remain a secret forever (1.117)


In this brief essay, I have illustrated the portrayal of marginalised people and the institutional and artistic responses to that portrayal.

Hopefully, the indigenous people of Australia and Black Americans can both benefit from the current increase in global awareness surrounding issues of race and inequality.

If not, George Floyd’s death will become just another statistic.



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