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.)
By KIERAN FINNANE
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.
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.”
In 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.
As 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