REVIEW by KIERAN FINNANE
When the Australian First Nations Constitutional Convention, meeting in Uluru this week, comes to agreement on whether and how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples themselves want to be “recognised” in the Australian Constitution, will other Australians find common cause with them? Will we, here in Alice Springs?
Left: 60,000 Voteless Voices by Nicky Schonkala, detail.
The convention coincides with the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, a landmark moment when an overwhelming majority of Australians did find common cause with reforms that had strong Aboriginal support. It was widely taken to be a vote for equality, however far it may have fallen short of that in reality. How did our community respond then?
An interesting small exhibition at The Residency in Parsons Street draws attention to the fact that we don’t really know: Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Territorians alike were excluded from voting in that referendum, by virtue of not being residents of a State (qualified to vote in a House of Representatives election), as stipulated by the Australian Constitution as it then stood. The relevant clause was not amended to include voters in the Territories until a decade later, following another referendum.
However, as also revealed in the exhibition, many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Alice Springs did find common cause over the exclusion, which seemed all the more outrageous because of the high proportion of Aboriginal people living here and the relevance of the referendum to them and by extension to their wider communities.
Nicky Schonkala addresses this directly in her 60,000 Voteless Voices. A textile artist, she uses an Australiana aesthetic, of the type popular on souvenir tea towels – floral emblems clustering around a national map, with the NT map blacked out. The bold lettering of the slogans is adapted from actual placards carried in a public protest through the streets of Alice Springs on the day of the referendum. “Black or white, we have no right!” reads one; “Citizen uwa, Vote wiya?” says another, reflecting the cross-cultural participation in the protest. (Key campaigners of the time, Don and Marlene Brown, reported that the march was attended by “several hundred citizens of all racial origin”.)
Tara Leckey, who curated the show, picks up on the indignation of this moment, with a simple textual work: she separates the syllable “Indig” (with its connotation of “Indigenous”) from “NATION” as a way of questioning the wellspring of all that fierce feeling: did it arise from “empathy for Aboriginal people and the discrimination they endured? Or, in another way of putting it, would voters here have turned in a strong YES vote had they had the chance?
Right: Meet me at the edge by Incite Arts, The Residency installation view.
‘What did people think they were voting for?’ is another theme taken up in the exhibition. We continue to hear, in news reports even today, that the referendum was about Aboriginal people being recognised not as fauna and flora but as people, by being included in population counts. Henry Smith’s ‘I am no longer a Plant nor Animal’ directly references this.
This, however, is a misconception, as Pip McManus points out in her artist’s statement (Aboriginal people had always been counted in the Census, for example; the referendum question regarding Section 127 was about counting in relation to political representation per State and States’ financial arrangements). McManus’s intentionally brain-snapping work, counter-argument, underlines the absurdity of hair-splitting questions of race when it comes to being counted.
The other works in this show take up a broader theme of recognition, not as specifically tied to the 1967 referendum questions, but to its spirt, reflecting recognition in particular of Aboriginal peoples’ enduring connection to the land (for example, the landscape works of Wayne Eager and Marina Strocchi) and of the value of their knowledge and understanding, based as it is in their relationship with country (Rod Moss’ Healing at Twin Caves, Jennifer Taylor’s Birds speak the language of the country).
The contributions from Incite Arts – the video Meet you at the edge and the slideshow Selfies – bring us right up to the present, with Aboriginal people themselves expressing their ways of contemporary being.
This show, called Having a Voice – the 1967 Referendum, was presented as part of the National Heritage Festival in April. It shows until 2 June.
Images courtesy the artists and Tara Leckey.
For a clear explanation of the 1967 referendum see this article that historian TIM ROWSE wrote for Alice Springs News Online.
Below: Healing at Twin Caves by Rod Moss in the foreground, right; Constitutional Recognition Flags by Linda Rive and Sandy Marty, left, which were made during the Central Australian First Nations Regional Dialogue, reflecting the different language groups attending, at Ross River at the end of March.