Pub­lic works

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

Mervyn Bishop, Gough Whit­lam pour­ing soil into the hands of tra­di­tional owner Vin­cent Lin­giari, Gurindji hand­back cer­e­mony, Da­garagu, North­ern Ter­ri­tory (1975). Print made 2000. Col­lec­tion Mu­seum of Ap­plied Arts and Sciences. On dis­play in ex­hi­bi­tion Icons, Pow­er­house Mu­seum, Syd­ney. It cer­tainly takes gump­tion to ask a prime min­is­ter and a tra­di­tional landowner to re-en­act an of­fi­cial cer­e­mony just to get a bet­ter pho­to­graph, but that is ex­actly what pho­to­jour­nal­ist Mervyn Bishop did on Au­gust 16, 1975.

Bishop was present for the mo­ment when prime min­is­ter Gough Whit­lam handed back the land rights to Gurindji elder Vin­cent Lin­giari at Da­garagu (Wattie Creek) in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory. To sym­bol­ise this his­toric act, Whit­lam poured soil into Lin­giari’s cupped hand.

Ini­tially the cer­e­mony took place in the shade of a nearby shed but Bishop, who was work­ing as a photographer for the De­part­ment of Abo­rig­i­nal Af­fairs, wasn’t happy with the pho­tos he had taken. As soon as the for­mal­i­ties were over, he ap­proached Whit­lam and Lin­giari and asked if they would re-en­act the pour­ing of the soil, but this time out­side in the sun­light.

Bishop’s re­sul­tant pho­to­graph is con­sid­ered pioneer­ing. The deep blue sky and the red desert pro­vide an evoca­tive back­drop and the two men ex­ude a sense of dig­nity. Fur­ther­more, the sense of im­me­di­acy and the dy­namism of the com­po­si­tion add to the im­pact of this im­age that cel­e­brates a key mo­ment of Aus­tralian history.

Bishop’s pho­to­graph is so iconic it has been in­cluded in an ex­hi­bi­tion, Icons, at Syd­ney’s Pow­er­house Mu­seum. More­over, the ex­hi­bi­tion’s cu­ra­tor, Jac­qui Strecker, says it is her favourite icon in the show.

As Strecker and I stand be­fore the pho­to­graph, she says the an­gle Bishop has cho­sen to de­pict the scene is very in­ter­est­ing.

“We are get­ting this in­cred­i­ble sense of the two tow­er­ing fig­ures, par­tic­u­larly the mon­u­men­tal­ity of Gough Whit­lam,” she says.

“But it is very in­ter­est­ing with Vin­cent Lin­giari be­cause some­one is hold­ing the pa­per un­der the sand in a very de­lib­er­ate way and cap­tur­ing that. And we see the de­tail of Lin­giari’s pants, which are stitched up, and you do have this in­ter­est­ing jux­ta­po­si­tion be­tween white power and in­dige­nous rights at that par­tic­u­lar point in time. I think some of this de­tail is very telling in that re­gard.”

Bishop’s back­story is also in­ter­est­ing. Born in 1945 in Bre­war­rina in north­west­ern NSW, he grew up with pho­to­graphs around the house be­cause his mother was a keen am­a­teur photographer.

In 1963, he came to Syd­ney and took up a cadet­ship with The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald, the only Abo­rig­ine to be em­ployed as a cadet photographer. In 1971 he was named Aus­tralian news photographer of the year for Life and death dash, de­pict­ing a nun clutch­ing a boy out­side St Mar­garet’s Hospi­tal in Syd­ney.

Bishop has said that work­ing in news­pa­pers en­cour­aged him to work hard for the pic­ture he wanted, rather than take the at­ti­tude of “that will do, click”. It is a dili­gent ap­proach that has helped fa­cil­i­tate his in­sight­ful ac­com­plish­ments with the cam­era.

Strecker says Whit­lam pour­ing soil into the hands of Lin­giari is one of those im­ages that has been re­pro­duced so much re­cently, par­tic­u­larly with the an­niver­sary of the Gurindji hand­back cer­e­mony, but for her, pop­u­lar ap­peal is an im­por­tant com­po­nent of what makes an icon.

“This im­age does have an aura of great­ness or a spe­cial spir­i­tual power that draws me,” she says. “When I give my cu­ra­to­rial talk on the ex­hi­bi­tion I say this is my favourite work in the whole show. I think what is cap­tured here is in­cred­i­bly poignant in that much deeper in­dige­nous en­gage­ment and move to­ward rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.”

More than 50 years of Bishop’s pho­tog­ra­phy also is high­lighted in an ex­hi­bi­tion, Mervyn Bishop, un­til Oc­to­ber 8 at the Art Gallery of NSW in Syd­ney.

Colour print; 508mm x 406mm

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