pub­lic works

Sally Mor­gan, Greet­ings from Rot­tnest (1988). Pur­chased 1994. State Art Col­lec­tion, Art Gallery of West­ern Aus­tralia. On dis­play, AGWA, Perth.

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

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

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