We sing for all these people too ...
I would like to thank the Ngunnuwal people of this land [Canberra]. They also had ceremonies like this—like all Aboriginal people all over Australia. Here you see something very special. Our art is not just for looking at—it has meaning. It is about our land and our history. We care about the land. Each clan has a job looking after each part of the country and the people. But this Memorial is for all the dead Aboriginal people all over Australia. In some parts of Australia people have lost their song. In this Memorial we sing for all these people too. We were happy to make this in 1988, and happy that the world will now see this and understand our history and culture. — Djardie Ashley, 1999
Since 1788 at least 300 000, perhaps a million, Aboriginal people have died at the hands of white invaders. Some years ago, Paddy Dhathangu, an elder artist in Ramingining, brought me several videotapes belonging to his dead son. Not having a video-cassette player, he wanted to play the tapes and show me. The son and the artist were very close to me. The tapes were battered and dust ridden. I hesitated to run them through my machine, but our relationship and my curiosity made me play them. Paddy’s son had been a member of the Northern Land Council Executive, and in the course of his work had been given some more ‘political’ videotapes as background briefing for himself and the community. One of these was a John Pilger documentary called The secret country. In the opening precis of the program Pilger talked of the decimation of a tribal group who owned land on the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, and who died ‘to the last man, woman, and child defending their country’. He continued that, throughout the land in every country town, there was an obelisk to those who had fallen in this war or that, but nowhere was there a memorial to those first Australians who died defending their country.
Within a year of the arrival of the first settler fleet in Sydney, Aboriginal deaths from introduced diseases spread along traditional trade routes well inland, decimating societies along the way. And right up to the early decades of the twentieth century, massacres of Aboriginal people occurred throughout the land. Death came swiftly and was so widespread that in many cases there was no-one to bury the dead. This is still ‘secret history’ for most of Australia.
In 1988, Australia celebrated the bicentenary of European settlement. For Indigenous people this was no time to celebrate and a number of artists withdrew their work from related exhibitions.
Yet the day-to-day realities of running an art centre meant that avenues still had to be provided for artists to make a living. The bind was to present Aboriginal culture without celebrating—to make a true statement. As, historically, practically all Aboriginal art expression is personal in nature but event-oriented, the white Australian Bicentenary celebrations in 1988 presented an opportunity to make a strong statement about a national event.
The idea of so many people for whom proper burial rites had not been performed led me to think of the painted hollow log coffins made by artists today. In the Dupun ceremony the bones of the deceased are placed in the hollow log coffin, which then embodies the soul. The idea for The Aboriginal Memorial was born: a memorial consisting of 200 hollow log coffins, one for each year of European occupation. The installation would be like a forest—a forest like a large war cemetery, a war memorial for all those Aboriginal people who died defending their country.
David Malangi and Tony Dhanyula (1935–2005) were among the first to start painting hollow logs for the installation. They were two of the eight senior artists expected to complete the project. However, the community’s great interest meant that many more wanted to contribute and, in the end, the Memorial included the work of 43 artists.
As the project developed, I was encouraged to approach James Mollison, the founding director, who said that the National Gallery was looking for powerful and inspirational works of art to match in iconic status Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles 1952, and Constantin Brancusi’s Birds in space 1931–36, in the Gallery’s collection. Mollison agreed on the spot to provide funds to complete the project, in effect commissioning the work for the Gallery.
For the artists, the placement of the Memorial at the Gallery, in the Parliamentary Triangle, the centre of Australian government, is poignant: a memorial to the victims of settlement and a symbol for an egalitarian future, in the heart of the nation.
The idea for an Aboriginal memorialwas conceived in the mid 1980s by Djon Mundine, then the coordinator of the arts cooperative in the community of Ramingining in central Arnhem Land. This text is his personal account of the development of the idea for a memorial, through the process of its realisation in the form of The Aboriginal Memorial, which today is regarded as one of the nation’s most important works of art.
From the press conference at the National Gallery of Australia 27 April 1999, announcing the tour of The Aboriginal Memorial to the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, the Sprengel Museum in Hanover and the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
 John Pilger is an award-winning Australian journalist, author and documentary filmmaker.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010
The Aboriginal memorial installation commemorates Australian Indigenous people who, since 1788, lost their lives defending their land. It consists of 200 hollow-log coffins, one for each year since European settlement up to 1988, representing a forest of souls, a war memorial and the final rites for all Aboriginal people who have been denied a proper burial.
The Aboriginal memorial is inspired by the hollow-log coffin mortuary ceremony of Central Arnhem Land, which ensures the safe arrival of
the spirit of the deceased in the land of the dead. A tree, hollowed out by termites, is cut down, cleaned and painted with the clan’s totemic designs. The bones of the deceased are painted with red ochre, and during special dances are placed inside the log, which is then stood in the ground and left to the elements.
The work is unified by an array of common themes: celebration of life, respect for the dead and mortuary traditions, and people’s connection with ancestral beings. Themes of transition and regeneration within Aboriginal culture pervade The Aboriginal memorial. Yolngu people believe that to achieve a shimmering brilliance in painting through cross-hatching and line work—giving a ‘singing’ quality to the imagery—is to evoke ancestral power.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008
The Aboriginal Memorial commemorates Aboriginal Australians who have lost their lives defending their land since the beginning of European settlement. The 200 hollow-log funeral poles or dupun—one for each year from European settlement in 1788 to 1988—represent a forest of souls, a war memorial and the final rites for all Aboriginal people who have been denied a proper burial. It is also a celebration of the survival of Aboriginal culture after two centuries of colonisation.
The memorial was inspired by the hollow-log or second mortuary ceremony of Central Arnhem Land, which marks the safe arrival of the spirit of the deceased in the land of the dead. A tree trunk, hollowed out by termites, is cleaned and painted with the clan’s totemic designs. At the end of the mourning period, the bones of the deceased are collected, painted with red ochre and placed inside the log, which is then left to the elements standing upright in the ground. At no time did the dupun in the memorial contain bones, nor were they used in a mortuary ceremony; they were made as works of art for public display, to be preserved for future generations.
Forty-three male and female artists from nine different, but neighbouring, groups worked on the memorial and, while clan designs depicted on the logs follow strict conventions ruling the artists’ custodianship of subject matter, each individual hand is apparent. The dupun in the installation are placed in relation to the artists’ traditional lands on the Glyde River in Central Arnhem Land—which is replicated winding through the installation. The memorial is unified by common themes within Aboriginal culture: celebration of life, respect for the dead, mortuary traditions and people’s connection with ancestral beings—themes of transition and regeneration.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014
The Aboriginal Memorial is without doubt one of the icons of Australian art. Made in 1988 it commemorates all the Indigenous people who, since 1788, have lost their lives defending their land.
The Aboriginal Memorial was inspired by the political climate of 1988. That year marked the Bicentenary of Australia – a celebration of two centuries of 200 years of European settlement – yet many Aboriginal people felt there was little to celebrate.
At the time, Djon Mundine, now a freelance curator, was Art Advisor in the small community of Ramingining Central Arnhem Land. Mundine initiated The Aboriginal Memorial project – an installation of 200 hollow log coffins, one for each year of European settlement, representing a forest of souls, a war cemetery and the final rites for all Aboriginal people who have been denied a proper burial. Mundine approached a small group of senior Ramingining artists, including Paddy Dhathangu, George Malibirr, Jimmy Wululu and David Daymirringu, who decided to mark the event with a memorial to Aboriginal people, for all Australians, past, present and future. The project grew to include 43 artists, both male and female, from Ramingining and its surrounds.
In 1987 the National Gallery of Australia agreed, under the initiative of curator Wally Caruana, to commission the installation to enable the artists – most of whom are professional bark painters, sculptors and weavers – to complete the project.
The Aboriginal Memorial installation is inspired by the hollow log coffin mortuary ceremony of Central Arnhem Land. The purpose of the ceremony is to ensure the safe arrival of the spirit of the deceased on its perilous journey from the earth to the land of the dead. A tree, naturally hollowed out by termites, is cut down, cleaned and, in a ceremonial camp, is painted with the clan’s totemic designs. The bones of the deceased are painted with red ochre and, during special dances, placed inside the log which is then left to the elements. Many of the hollow logs have a small hole either carved or painted towards the top. Yolngu (Aboriginal people from Arnhem Land) believe that this provides the soul of the deceased with a viewing hole to look out through and survey the land.
Whilst the function and purpose of the ceremony is intact, to an extent mortuary practices increasingly adapt to contemporary realities. At no time did the log coffins in the Memorial contain bones, nor were they used in a mortuary ceremony. Like sculptures from Aboriginal Australia in galleries, they were made as works of art for public display.
The path through the Memorial imitates the course of the Glyde river estuary, which flows through the Arafura Swamp to the sea. The hollow logs are situated broadly according to where the artists’ clans live along the river and its tributaries. The different styles apparent in groupings are related to the artists’ social groups (sometimes described as clans) which link people by or to a common ancestor, land, language and strict social affiliations. As you move through the Memorial, you will witness the imagery from changing environments – from the lands of the salt-water people, further inland to the country of the freshwater people. The natural environment and its phenomena are vital to the Yolngu’s clan identity.
Yolngu believe that to achieve a shimmering brilliance in painting through crosshatching and line work – giving a ‘singing’ quality to the imagery – is to evoke ancestral power. Artists from nine groups worked onthe Memorial and, whilst clan designs follow strict conventions ruling subject matter, each individual artist’s hand is apparent.
The work is unified by an array of common themes: celebration of life, respect for the dead and mortuary traditions and a people’s connection with ancestral beings. Themes of transition and regeneration within Aboriginal culture pervade the Memorial. On a wider scale, The Aboriginal Memorial also marked a watershed in the history of Australian society. Whilst it is intended as a war memorial, and is a historical statement, its relevance, however, does not rest with the past. It symbolises a period of transition in Australian society and speaks of life, continuity and a new beginning; a testimony to the resilience of Indigenous people and culture in the face of great odds and a legacy for future generations of Australians.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002