UQ Art Museum explores the history surrounding the Wave Hill Walk-Off of 1966, which sparked the national land rights movement in Australia.
Running until 29 October 2017, the exhibition brings together works by artists created in response to the Walk-Off, including photographs, a multichannel video installation, paintings and archives, and was developed in partnership with UNSW Galleries, UQ Art Museum, and Karungkarni Art and Culture Aboriginal Corporation.
The Wave Hill Walk-Off: the beginning of Australia’s land rights movement
The Wave Hill Walk-Off, also known as the Gurindji Strike, is a walk-off and strike by 200 Aboriginal Gurindji stockmen, house servants and their families that took place in August 1966 at Wave Hill cattle station in Kalkarindji (formerly known as Wave Hill), Northern Territory, Australia. The Gurindji’s traditional lands in the territory first saw the passage of Europeans in the 1850s, and several other explorers traversed their land until the 1880s, when large pastoral operations were established.
Wave Hill cattle station, which included the Kalkaringi and Daguragu area, was first stocked in 1883. The Gurindji and other Aboriginal people found their waterholes and soakages fenced off or fouled by cattle, which also ate or trampled fragile desert plant life, such as bush tomato. Dingos and kangaroos were also routinely shot, as they competed with cattle for water and grazing land. This intense period of colonisation severely impacted the lives and homelands of Aboriginal peoples culturally affiliated with, and responsible for, the region. The situation finally culminated on 23 August 1966, when led by spokesman Vincent Lingiari, the workers employed in the pastoral companies and their families walked off Wave Hill and began their ten-year strike.
The strike was first interpreted as a demand for better working and living conditions, but soon it became clear that the Aboriginal people were protesting in order to get their land back. In 1975, the Labor government of Gough Whitlam finally negotiated to give the Gurindji back a portion of their land. This was a landmark in the land rights movement in Australia for Indigenous Australians.
The Walk-Off is a landmark moment in history in the struggle for Aboriginal land rights in Australia, and as the first recognition of Indigenous people’s rights and responsibilities for the land, and their ability to practise their law, language and culture. It contributed to the establishement of the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory). The Walk-Off’s anniversary is celebrated every year in August and the walk-off route has been entered on the Australian National Heritage List.
Art in response to the Walk-Off: fifty years on
“Still in my mind: Gurindji location, experience and visuality” is curated by Brenda L. Croft, who is also a participating artist in the exhibition, which brings together the work of 15 artists looking at the Walk-Off and the history of the national land rights movement. Croft developed the exhibition through long-standing practice-led research with her father’s community, Karungkarni Art and Culture Aboriginal Corporation and UNSW Galleries, UNSW Art & Design. Quoted by UQ Art Museum, Croft says:
The 1966 Walk-Off was a trigger point in the national land rights movement in Australia, so the events of this time and place are significant to me as a Gurindji/Malngin/Mudburra woman, through my direct family connection to the area, and through my family’s experience as members of the Stolen Generations. […] Lingari’s words, ‘That land … I still got it on my mind’ have resonated with me for some time – both inspiring the exhibition’s title and becoming a touchstone for the stories to be retold from diverse yet interlinked Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives.
Croft’s developed the concept for the exhibition by immersing herself in the history of her father’s land, and by retracing the journey of those who took part in the Walk-Off. The exhibition was the result of a collaborative effort, as she says:
My family’s layered history has always informed my creative practice, and I was motivated to develop this exhibition in partnership with Karungkarni artists and Gurindji community members in tribute to those whose profound communal act of courage, resilience and determination changed the course of history.
She expands about the collaborative nature of the exhibition curatorial aspect in an interview with UQ Art Museum:
This project could only be undertaken as a collaboration, not only with family and community members, but also with other colleagues, such as Dr Felicity Meakins, whose Gurindji language projects, facilitated through UQ and Karungkarni Art and Culture Aboriginal Corporation, Kalkaringi, have been conducted for many years. […] Still in my mind cultivated models for representing specific Gurindji histories, and the contemporary experiences for culturally affiliated Gurindji people – whether on customary lands or part of a broader displaced community. The collaborative nature of this project ensures that living family members maintain Indigenous cultural practices of obligation and responsibility for transmitting knowledge through kinship.
This entailed travelling back to Victoria River region on numerous occasions throughout the project’s duration (2012–2015), and also returning to present work-in-progress at the 50th Gurindji Walk-Off from Wave Hill Station commemoration in August 2016. […] I conducted extensive interviews with Gurindji community members in Sydney, Canberra and Darwin. All of these were transcribed and provided to participants for approval. A number of sections of these video and audio interviews were included in Still in my mind.
Dr Felicity Meakins, whose area of research includes Gurindji language, worked with artists during their artist camp Warrijkuny on Gurindji country in 2015, during which they listened to recorded stories and produced visual interpretations in response.
Remembering Wave Hill
Works on show at Brisbane’s UQ Art Museum include photographs, prints, mixed media
and an audio-visual installation by Croft and her journey back to her father’s country, as well as other contributions by artists and supporters of the Gurindji such as Japanese historian and researcher Yuki Hokari, sister of Minoru Hokari who travelled to Wave Hill to work with local Gurindji elders, or linguist Patrick McConvell, who went to Daguragu in the early 1970s. Hokari’s sister, Yuki Hokari Sim contributed artwork in tribute to her brother.
Some of the paintings on show visually represent the location of Wave Hill Station and life there. Biddy Wavehill Yamawurr Nangala and Jimmy Wavehill Ngawanyja Japalyi’s work is an aerial view of Jinparrak (Old Wave Hill Station). The artists state:
We thought about it and we decided to make the painting of the station so that people can see what it was like in the old days, because when people walked off, the station people went over everything with a bulldozer. They only left their buildings – maybe for history. They must’ve been angry and destroyed our camp. I feel happy that I’ve created this piece of history so people can know something about Jinparrak where we’d lived all our lives.
Leah Leaman Yinpingali Namija created Gurindji, Mudburra and Malngin women finding peace by gathering bush foods and flowers during knock-off time in the early station days (2015) thinking about how the women in the old days were treated on the station and how hard their lives were. She recounts that even though their lives were particularly difficult, in the wet season they had a chance to enjoy the country:
[…] they used to leave the station and go through the bush, collecting bush food and bush medicine, which gave them a break from their hard lives. The painting shows all the flowers and the different kinds of bush food that come out in the wet season, and how these women had the chance to just spend time together, talking and being at peace. […] I did it [the painting] to pay tribute to these women.
For her artwork, Croft retraced the Walk Off Track over a number of years, alone or with family and community members acting as guides. She explored the trail, taking photographs, recording audio and video, often retracing sections of the track on her own during different seasons and times of day. She shares with UQ Art Museum about her experience and the resulting artworks:
I found it incredibly moving retracing the steps of those 200+ activists over four decades later. I walked the Track as a tribute to those people, but also in honour of those who were taken from our community and never made it home, and for those who will travel the Track in the future. It was never simply about walking 22 kilometres of country; it was also about walking through temporal space.
The resulting experimental, large-scale audio-visual work Retrac(k)ing country and (s)kin incorporates this material, alongside archival audio recordings and video footage from other sites relevant to my father and immediate family’s journey as members of the Stolen Generations; my late brother Lindsay’s research with my father conducted in 1989; and my father’s own research on his life story. It is a multi-faceted, multi-layered work which acts as the heartbeat for the entire exhibition, drawing together elements from Victoria River country and people, and displaced Gurindji community.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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