‘It will surely fascinate people’: street art tells hard truths about indigenous history | Indigenous Australians

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It’s hard to ignore challenging images of Australian history when they’re on a roadside billboard.

That’s one of the motivations behind Both Ways, an exhibition about the perspectives of the First Nations in North Queensland. There are seven billboards with archival images and contemporary works set up from Land Warrgamaygan (Hinchinbrook) to Wulgurukaba and Bindal (Townsville) to Land Gudjal (Charters Towers).

‘Wrong Way Go Black’ by Libby Howard on the Flinders Highway

One of the most confronting images is at Mungalla Railway Station on the north Queensland coast near Ingham. The billboard “Act of Circus” shows a photo of men, women and children of the First Nations who were kidnapped from their country and sent overseas to circuses or “human zoos” in Europe and the USA in the 19th century.

The hideous live human trade, dominated by the Barnum and Bailey Circus, was widespread in the 19th century. Barnum’s agent RA Cunningham kidnapped two groups of Aborigines to appear in Barnum’s “Ethnological Congress of Strange Tribes” as “Australian cannibals and boomerang throwers”.

Circus Act billboard on the Bruce Highway, Toobanna.
“Circus Act” billboard on the Bruce Highway, Toobanna

The men, women, and children of Palm and Hinchinbrook Islands and Mungalla Station all died in the northern hemisphere in the 1880s; lost until the 1970s when anthropologist and writer Roslyn Poignant found pictures of them at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London and began a decades-long search to find out what had happened to them.

Poignant’s research took her to an archive in Ohio specializing in circus history, where she discovered that one of Palm Island’s men, Tambo, was subjected to further humiliation after his death in 1884: Tambo had been mummified and sold to a dime museum. In 1993, Tambo’s body was found in a disused American funeral home in Ohio and brought back to Palm Island, where his descendants finally had him buried in his ancestral land in 1994.

Poignant, who died in 2019, documented all of this in her 2004 book Professional Savages: Captive Lives and Western Spectacle.

Mungalla Station's traditional Nywaigi owner Scott Anderson.
Mungalla Station’s traditional Nywaigi owner Scott Anderson

“It was just real exploitation to the utmost,” says Scott Anderson, the traditional Nywaigi owner of Mungalla Station. “Just one example of the ongoing historical atrocities our people have suffered.”

Anderson says the billboard will be seen by thousands of cars along the Pacific Highway.

“It will surely fascinate people,” he says. “We don’t share our history to blame or shame, it’s about us sharing that legacy.

“It helps non-Aborigines better understand the complexities of Aboriginal culture because we are told in popular education and folk history that Aboriginal nomads, we were savages. This is how we were portrayed. But if you understood the degree of complexity and the degree of legislation and the degree of right and wrong that we had in our cultures, you would have a very different view. “

ALIEN by Tony Albert
‘ALIEN’ by Tony Albert

The artist Gail Mabo has a connection to Tambo through her mother Bonita’s family.

“I happened to be on Palm Island when they brought his body back from America. And my grandfather Walter Palm Island was one of the masters of ceremonies who picked him up and brought him back. And for me it was a sad, sad occasion, but it was really exciting to have him back where he needed to be.

“We are the ones who must collect the bones of our deceased to ensure that they are properly and lawfully buried, for that is an art in itself.”

Mabo has been a practicing artist since 2014, who comes from a “long line of makers”. She began working with bamboo and seashells in 2017 to create a 3D version of her father Eddie Koiki Mabo’s hand-drawn map of Mer (Murray Island) to celebrate May 25th terra nullius.

Gail Mabo in front of her Mabo Claim I billboard on the Bruce Highway in Deeragun
Gail Mabo in front of her “Mabo Claim I” billboard on the Bruce Highway in Deeragun

Eddie Koiki Mabos now iconic map of Mer was used in the Supreme Court case to show the mer families’ unbroken connection with the country and their clan borders.

Gail says she chose bamboo to build the 3D version because Koiki grew it at James Cook University in Townsville, where he was a gardener when she was a child, and because he used it to build windbreak fences on Mer / Murray Island. She used shells and sand collected from the island to mark boundary markers.

Seeing the map on a big billboard outside of Townsville is “so cool,” says Gail with a laugh. “It’s simple, but it’s effective. It gives the card the size it deserves. “

Jupiter Mosmans
Jupiter Mosman’s “Discoverer of Gold in Charters Towers 1871” on the Flinders Highway

She hopes this will encourage people to learn more about the map, their father’s legacy, and the cultural history of the Torres Strait islanders.

“You will read it, but then you have to google it to find a little more information. And I think that’s the best way to really educate people – by getting them to look it up themselves. “

Both Ways also includes works by Tony Albert, Libby Harward and Jupiter Mosman and will be on view in the rural far north of Queensland through early September.


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