Mabo’s Legacy

Legacy: Reflections on Mabo
'Dispersed - No Arrests Were Made' (detail) by Dr Anneke Silver

Twenty-seven years after the historic Native Title Act recognised the rights to land and water of Australia’s traditional owners, Legacy: Reflections on Mabo will celebrate the life, legacy and spirit of the man behind it all.

The exhibition features the work of 25 Indigenous and non-indigenous artists reflecting on the ways in which Eddie Mabo and his story inspired them.

Dr Anneke Silver’s inspiration came from the way Australia’s attitude to Indigenous people has changed since colonisation in order to make the Native Title Act even remotely possible. Anneke has two works featuredin the exhibition.

“One of the things that struck me most of all was our horrid history; and the fact that hardly anybody knows about the massacres [of Indigenous people] that have taken place in North Queensland,” said Anneke.

“Myall Creek Massacre in NSW is well known because there was a court case and the perpetrators were hanged, so everybody thinks it all happened down south; but in North Queensland, in just about everycamping spot that we know, love and paint, there has been a massacre.”

The 1838 Myall Creek massacre was one of the rare occasions that white settlers were hanged for the murder of indigenous Australians. The case established the crime as a punishable offence and official reports up to the early 1900s would therefore skirt the true events.

“There would be random killings of larger groups of people … and what they’d put in the official reports then was: Dispersed: no arrests were made,” said Anneke. “Everybody knew what that meant: that everybody was killed.

“That chilling reality makes you realise what an incredible distance Australia has travelled— there’s more to go— to achieve the attitudes of today that made the Mabo case possible, and how the Mabo case has contributed to that. For me, that is the Mabo legacy.”

However, Anneke didn’t want to ignore the fact that such grim events had taken place. Her second piece in the Legacy exhibition, titled Whitewash, features the locations in North Queensland where massacres took place.

“I wrote them in ink, and ink – as artists well know – will keep bleeding through whatever you put over the top,” Anneke said. “I put a whitewash over the top; as the exhibition travels, more and more of those names will start to bleed through.”

Anneke is no stranger to tackling Australia’s dark past through her artwork. Her last major solo exhibition, Acknowledge, paid homage to beautiful landscapes with horrible histories.

“When the invitation [to be involved in Legacy: Reflections on Mabo] came, I thought this was right where my own practice is at,” said Anneke. “It was the next step for my work; and for that work to be part of a major touring exhibition is incredibly gratifying.

“I think it’s important we start these conversations. Some people will say ‘let’s put it all behind us’. That’s very easy to say, but we don’t put the ANZACs behind us, we don’t put World War Two behind us and if something happens close to you in your own life, you don’t want it swept under the carpet. For our nation to have an identity, and to have a sense of self, and a sense of belonging, it needs to know its past and come to terms with it in order to find ways forward.”

Legacy: Reflections on Mabo is an initiative of Umbrella Studio contemporary arts. The exhibition can be seen in Townsville from 5 July to 11 August 2019, before touring Australia until November 2022

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