Thursday, May 30, 2024

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HomeIssue 11To die for country

To die for country

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Above: Kulatangku angakanyini manta munu Tjukurpa, meaning “Country and Culture will be protected by spears”, installation view, Australian War Memorial. (Artists’ credit in note at bottom.)

In the Australian War Memorial a new exhibit in pride of place takes steps towards a reckoning with Australian colonial history, despite the massage of the message around it.
It is a huge collaborative painting by 19 Aboriginal men from the APY Lands, titled Kulatangku angakanyini manta munu Tjukurpa, meaning “Country and Culture will be protected by spears”.
When I say ‘pride of place’, the painting – dazzlingly colourful in a display of mostly sombre dark tones – is almost the first thing you see on entering the galleries. It hangs directly opposite one of the most precious artefacts of the Anzac story – a Gallipoli lifeboat found abandoned on that distant Turkish beach after the First World War.
This positioning is a statement by the War Memorial of the foundational importance of the painting’s story. The memorial director, Dr Brendan Nelson, suggested at the unveiling of the painting in November that this story is about Australians all being “equal – irrespective of politics, race or religion”.
His emphasis is on Indigenous service in Australia’s overseas conflicts, which he sees strangely as a denial of their Aboriginality.
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Above: The lifeboat from the troopship HMT Ascot which landed men of the 13th Battalion at gallipoli on 25 April 2015. Opposite hangs Kulatangku angakanyini manta munu Tjukurpa.

The artists, some of the most prominent in the Lands, have been diplomatic in their statements, avoiding the subject of the frontier wars. However, artwork has a way of speaking for itself.
It is the artists’ Tjukurpa-imbued country that is depicted, with many of the unmistakable symbols familiar to us after four decades of exposure to this painting language. Safe-guarding the country are the long, straight spears figured in the bottom left hand corner and, we can assume, the warriors throwing them. Notes to the painting tell us that the warriors are represented by the trees, tall and straight beside the spears. The trees also “house the spirit of the ancestors”.
Lest there be any confusion, a text incorporated into the painting spells it out: “Wati Tjilpi Tjutaku Angakakanyilpai Manta Munu Tjukurpa”, meaning  “The many men and old men hold and protect Country and Culture.”
p2502 War Memorial William Punch 250In their statements the artists have looked back to the internecine wars of pre-colonial times and continuing into living memory, as the examples of their preparedness to fight for country.
Artist and APY chairman Frank Young can recall such conflict: “It was just like a big storm. We got down, and we saw these spears, like a really big cloud, moving together …”, he is quoted as saying in the memorial’s information about the painting.
During their visit to the memorial as part of the commissioning process for the work, they were acquainted with and clearly moved by the stories of Indigenous men serving in the Australian defence forces. One such was William Punch (left), sole survivor of a massacre carried out by white settlers in the 1880s. An infant, he was adopted and raised by a white farming family in the Goulburn area.  In December 1915 he enlisted with the AIF and was wounded in April 1917, only to die four months later of pneumonia. He was buried with full military honours in Boscombe, England.
Far from seeing Punch’s military service and sacrifice as a “denial” of his Aboriginaility, the artists’ own emphasis is on his connection to his people and land.
Witjiti George is quoted as saying,“If he was the last one from his mob that survived, that’s special. It means he’s a Ngangkari [powerful spirit].”
When Mumu Mike Williams (below right, in a wheelchair) spoke movingly about the visiting the memorial at the 2017 Desert Mob, he said in part: “I went inside, I was crying when I see that man, Aboriginal man, he went overseas to fight. He never died for nothing, he died with the land, country, and with the Tjukurpa [Dreaming]. That’s why I put the Tjukurpa on this canvas.”
The men do not argue with national military service but their emphasis is clearly on continuity of their own tradition.
p2488 DM MumuAs Mumu Mike Williams concluded at Desert Mob: “One day I’ll die, for the country, and that’s why I write Pitjantjatjara, tjilpi and pampa, look after country and Tjukurpa. When I die the children can take over for the land and Tjukurpa. Manta [land] is very important, that why we put it on canvas  … Tjukurpa.”
Frank Young also commented: “We have always known Anangu will die to protect country.”
Eventually the War Memorial might be ready to more explicitly explore Australian history from an Indigenous perspective. Currently, an article on its website, while acknowledging the frontier wars as the “protracted conflict that occurred during the colonial dispossession of Indigenous Australians”, quotes Dr Nelson as seeing the National Museum of Australia, not the War Memorial, as the institution “best placed to tell those stories”. The role of the memorial is seen as restricted to “honouring the services of the men and women of Australia’s military forces deployed on operations overseas on behalf of the nation”.
That neat separation simply does not seem to cover the way the APY artists, and no doubt many Indigenous Australians, see the issue. It is to the memorial’s credit, however, that through their commission, an initiative credited to Dr Nelson, that this complexity can speak for itself through this significant painting.
Note: Kulatangku angakanyini manta munu Tjukurpa was created by the following artists from the APY Art Centre Collective: Alec Baker, Eric Kumanara Mungi Barney, Pepai Jangala Carroll, Taylor Cooper, Witjiti George, Willy Kaika, Brenton Ken, Ray Ken, Dickie Marshall, Willy Muntjanti Martin, Peter Mungkuri, Jimmy Pompey, Keith Stevens, Bernard Tjalkuri, Thomas Ilytjari Tjilya, Ginger Wikilyiri, Mick Wikilyiri, Mumu Mike Williams, Frank Young.
Telling the stories of war: we could do so much better


  1. @ Kieran Finnane: “His emphasis is on Indigenous service in Australia’s overseas conflicts, which he sees strangely as a denial of their Aboriginality.”
    With due respect, I strongly disagree with Ms Finnane’s take on Brendan Nelson’s statement. The Australian War Memorial in Canberra is a very special place. A unique symbol of Australia’s national cultural identity.
    Over many years, I sat within its walls, gazing at the depictions of old battlefields where my (our) relatives died, contemplating the ultimate sacrifice by men and women from every part of the world, from every race and walk of life.
    Every Anzac Day for so many years I stood in the pre-dawn darkness among the trees up the hill behind the Memorial, with the last remaining Diggers of my late dad’s battalion in their fold up seats, rugs over their frail old knees, listening to their whispered stories, gratefully accepting the passed-around hip flask to keep out the morning chill. A thousand candles flickering through the trees down the hillside.
    And then, as the Last Post sounded at the break of dawn, the sleeping kookaburras all around us in the trees awoke and rose laughing cheerfully to greet the morning sun. Every year, without fail.
    The old Diggers would look up to the sky, thinking their own thoughts, smiling.
    Anyone who knows the Aboriginal legend of the kookaburra and the spirit of the young desert warrior now at peace will understand the beautiful cross-cultural significance of that poignant moment.
    Above all else, the moment you walk through its portals, the War Memorial wraps you in a lovingly warm embrace of peace and unity, a universal oneness that makes no distinction of race, colour or ethnicity.
    That is what Brendan Nelson meant. It is Mumu Mike Williams’s take, and it is my take.

  2. @ John Bell: Dr Nelson’s message about equality is clearly expressed in his words that I have cited, about Australians all being “equal – irrespective of politics, race or religion”.
    On reflection, his meaning when he said “they denied their Aboriginality to fight and die for the young nation”, is likely referring to those who enlisted either having found a way around their exclusion from the armed forces on the basis of their race, or having had their Aboriginal descent overlooked. “Denied their Aboriginality” seems to me an unfortunate choice of words to cover these circumstances.
    Readers may be interested in further details on this topic in an article on the War Memorial’s site:

  3. Two Centralian veterans of mixed race parentage, Harold and Milton Liddle, were prominent in the years following World War Two in highlighting the injustice to people who, such as themselves, who had fought in the war but were denied equal rights as citizens of Australia.
    Together with another prominent Australian veteran, London-born Jim Bowditch, who from 1950 to early 1954 was the editor of the Centralian Advocate, they succeeded in gaining citizenship in 1953 for part-Aboriginal people and some full-bloods (the terminology then officially in use) in the Northern Territory.
    This is an important part of Central Australian history that is largely overlooked.

  4. Kieran and Alex. Thank you for your thoughts. In 1980 I sat one hot afternoon in the grandstand at the Gardens Oval in Fanny Bay with board members during the National Aboriginal Sports Foundation’s national footy and netball carnival.
    I asked our public officer, Captain Reg Saunders MBE, the first Aboriginal soldier to become a commissioned officer in the Royal Australian Armed Forces, what did he think of the War Memorial in Canberra.
    Reg paused a moment, looked at me and said with quiet dignity and respect: “It is a good place.”
    In 1985 Reg was appointed to the Council of the Australian War Memorial.
    I guess what I am trying to say is that if there is a single place in all of Australia that embodies our national identity as a people together, with an inclusive soul for all of us, it is that place.
    Within its walls are commemorated our soldiers, nurses, and all those who have served, forever treated equally with quiet dignity and respect – most inclusive of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters.
    It is the resting place of the Unknown Soldier, where so many souls of unknown identities of all racial origins are now at peace, brothers and sisters together, free of today’s politics of race and sovereign power.
    Everyone who has ever had anything to do with the Memorial, from Brendan Nelson down to the volunteer tour guides, some of whom are my long-time friends, will tell you of the memorial’s all-embracing warmth, an inclusive spirituality that is beyond words.
    It is a good place for all Australians.

  5. Having this painting in the war museum is a disgrace. These people have done no more than other Australians have done, risking their lives and fighting under the flag of Australia. Don’t forget there were other nationalities fighting under the Australian flag.
    If we are going to close the gap, we need to STOP saying we are Indigenous and start saying we are Australians.


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