Sally Morgan, Greetings from Rottnest (1988). Purchased 1994. State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. On display, AGWA, Perth.
WITH its 63 beaches, Rottnest Island may be a popular tourist spot, yet many visitors are unaware there is a sinister side to the island’s history. From 1838, for nearly 100 years, Rottnest Island, about 20km off the coast of Western Australia, was a prison where 3700 Aboriginal men and boys, ranging in age from eight to 70, were brought from right across the state to be imprisoned, often for minor offences such as stealing food.
According to some Aboriginal elders, being incarcerated on Rottnest was a double punishment for the indigenous people because the island is a place forbidden to them culturally. It has been called the island of the spirit people.
The prison finally closed in 1931 but during this time 10 per cent of the prison population, 369 prisoners, died from measles, influenza or malnutrition. Five were hanged. Those who died were wrapped in blankets, buried in a seated position and placed in unmarked graves on the island.
Local artist and author Sally Morgan takes a frank look at the history of this place in her painting Greetings from Rottnest, which is part of the collection of the Art Gallery of Western Australia.
Morgan, who was born in 1950, is wellknown for her book My Place, which described her family life in Perth and how she discovered her Aboriginal heritage.
At first glance, Greetings from Rottnest, with its bright blues, orange and pinks, looks like a postcard, but that perception is certainly deceptive.
The land is shown in cross-section. The top section of the work is a stereotypical tourist scene, depicting Rottnest Island as a place of sun, sand and tourists with sunglasses and cameras. The flipside of this story is the bottom part of the picture. Beneath the tourists are the bones of Aboriginal people in foetal positions. It starkly highlights that for the Nyoongar
people, Wadjemup, the name for Rottnest, has a different meaning from the Western viewpoint. It is not a place to visit or holiday to enjoy the sun.
Greetings from Rottnest, with its depiction of deaths in prison custody, has a powerful political message. According to criminologist Chris Cunneen in his essay, Framing the Crimes of Colonialism: Critical Images of Aboriginal Art
and Law, an underlying theme of the painting is that ‘‘ Australian prosperity is largely built on Aboriginal suffering’’.
When I visit the gallery, I’m shown Morgan’s picture by Glenn Iseger-Pilkington, associate curator, indigenous objects and photography, who says it is a ‘‘ really important work in highlighting the omissions from Australian history in regards to indigenous histories’’.
He says Morgan has tried to capture the sense of joy, freedom and space that a tourist feels when visiting the island but at the same time still conveying the message of what’s happening underneath the land.
‘‘ This picture is a kind of memorial,’’ IsegerPilkington says. ‘‘ It gives a voice and an identity to the people who were buried on the island and who didn’t receive the burial mortuary ceremony they would have on their own country.
‘‘ It is also about the earth having its own memory and it not forgetting what has occurred at a place regardless of how development changes location.
‘‘ It is a horrific story that happened not too long ago.
‘‘ If we were talking about our real history in Australia, we would be talking about massacres, violence and abuse and the introduction of diseases to kill off races of people, but that is not what we teach in our schools. Artists like Sally Morgan play an important role in bringing that to light, ensuring that indigenous voices aren’t lost again through history.’’
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 183cm x 122cm