For Country, for Nation: compels, moves without digging deep



As it deals with matters of life and death, love and loss, racism, injustice, courage, loyalty, the Australian War Memorial’s exhibition For Country, for Nation can’t help but compel and move, all the more so as its disparate stories of war are told through a richly varied range of images and objects.

Right: A signature image of the exhibition, Shirley Macnamara’s Memoir, 2015, made, in her words, “in memory of the forgotten battlegrounds where spirits of warriors remain forever; to remind us of the battles fought at home, and for those who lay in a distant land never to come home.”

These stories, going in many directions, are the strength of this show, rather than the way it is brought together, worthy though its intentions may be. As reflected in the unifying reach of the title, the exhibition seems to strive for an equivalence in those terms, ‘Country’, ‘Nation’, that to fight for the one is to fight for the other, when even some of its own exhibits challenge that.

There is, however, evidence of this equivalence being absorbed into the words of some of the Indigenous soldiers and artists who feature in the exhibition. For example: “The Anzac Legend Spirit comes out of the greater long service to our Country that’s been here for 40,000 years. Anzac is a modern incarnation of that spirit in defending our Country,” Army Reservist Garth O’Connell is quoted as saying.

No disrespect to Mr O’Connell, but this statement is frustratingly ahistorical. The Anzac Legend has its roots in a war that had nothing to do with defending Country, nor even Nation except as a subordinate of the British Empire. What was Country’s or the Nation’s interest in many tens of thousands of Australian soldiers going to their deaths in Europe and the Middle East?

The same can be asked of this century’s conflicts, especially the disastrous deployment to Iraq – the only people defending country there were Iraqis. (Internal opposition to the ruthless regime of Saddam Hussein does not change this fact).

This ahistorical approach is especially in evidence in the way the exhibition does not reckon with the defence of Country (or Countries) that is foundational to this Nation, that is, the many violent conflicts known as the  Frontier Wars.

It’s not that the deaths and suffering of Indigenous Australians, their dispossession (a euphemism for the theft of their lands), the oppression and discrimination they were subject to, are not mentioned and featured in a number of exhibits. They are, but it is all set adrift in the haze of generalised patriotic feeling that dominates the way Australians have come to memorialise war experience.

For example: An interpretive panel speaks to the Ruby Plains Station massacre, depicted by the artist Rover Thomas in 1985. In the East Kimberley a station owner killed several Aboriginal men in reprisal for the theft of a bullock. Their decapitated heads were later found in a hollow tree trunk by Aboriginal stockmen. (It would seem that the massacre is remembered in oral history but is otherwise unrecorded.)

The painting, Ruby Plains Massacre 1, which did not travel to Alice Springs but is reproduced on the interpretive panel, was purchased by the Australian War Memorial in 2016 and the panel quotes its then director Dr Brendan Nelson speaking about it. He acknowledges the massacre as one of many similar violent confrontations “in the course of Indigenous dispossession”, resulting in an estimated 20,000 Indigenous deaths through the 19th and early 20th centuries.

He goes on to say: “That Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders volunteered to fight for the young nation that had taken so much from them speaks to their extraordinary resilience and their urge to serve Australia.” (The emphasis is mine.)

Above: Lieutenant Reginald Saunders, smoking a pipe, with from left, a North Korean interpreter (unnamed), Warrant Officer W.J. (Bill) Harrison, and Private W.H. (‘Alby’) Alberts.

This statement makes a lot of assumptions about the complex reasons and circumstances in which Indigenous men and women may have joined the armed forces. It should also be set in the context of the AWM’s refusal, despite the acquisition of such works, to memorialise the Frontier Wars (in brief, they say this would be the job of a separate institution).

These issues are glossed over rather than worked through in the exhibition. It swallows up the complexity instead by hailing all Indigenous service men and women and their families “as heroes”.

Nonetheless, in the individual stories we get glimpses of the complexity, including its contradictions.  There is a powerfully worded reflection by a Gunditjmara man, Reginald Saunders, who served with distinction in the Second World War and the Korean war, rising to rank of captain. Members of his family had also fought in the First World War, and his ancestors, for their Gunditjmara Country. This last memory obviously burned in him:

Australia is my country. I don’t owe any allegiance or loyalty to the Queen of England; they tried to bloody destroy me, and my family, my tribe, my people … I love my country very much and I like the people in Australia, so my loyalty was purely Australian.

We were the first defenders of Australia – the English never ever defended Australia at all; we did and we suffered very badly for that, decimated to hell.

To its credit, the exhibition also includes a prominent work by the Kokatha/Yukunu artist Yhonnie Scarce about the suffering of her people and their Country at the hands of the Nation (and the so-called Mother Country). Addressing the atomic test blasts at Maralinga in the 1950s and ‘60s, it shows three blown glass bombs containing within them the bush yam forms – also in blown glass, black and transparent –  that are a feature of Scarce’s work, a way of representing people and Country as indivisible.

She writes: “There’s a bomb site out at Maralinga called Breakaway and it was so hot that the ground turned to glass.” That makes her blown glass medium particularly apposite for this theme. 

Right: Yhonnie Scarce, Blue Danube, 2015, detail. The title refers to the name of the British bomb, whose design was based on the American ‘Fat Man’  bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.

“Not being able to access my Country, ” she continues, “makes me upset. It’s been desecrated without our permission and we can’t go out there because of the health risks … We can camp. Can’t cook in ground. Can’t follow cultural practices. There’s no kangaroos or dingoes – only wild camels.”

Some of the other stories are about the heavy price exacted by armed service that are largely shared by soldiers and their families of whatever ancestry, such as the PTSD suffered by the late Eddi Hodge after deployment to Iraq and Timor-Leste (we see his uniform, boots and medals).

That might also be the term for what was suffered by Private “Gorie” Jose, a Torres Strait Islander, who served in PNG and the Pacific during the Second World War. He is remembered in a woodblock print by his daughter, Ellen Jose.  “His war experience … permanently scarred him,” she writes, “and had a profound effect on my life and my family. It led to the breakdown of my parent’s marriage and robbed me of my father.”

I was particularly moved to see the tiny Female Relative Badge, given to the nearest female relative of those serving in the First and Second World Wars. This one, showing three stars, went to Margaret Hill, the mother of John, Harold and Roy Hill, Wardandi men, all of whom served; John did not come home. The badge seems such a meagre acknowledgement of a mother’s painful loss, following, no doubt, years of anxiety.

Other exhibits still are about the impact of war on Indigenous civilians. One example is the narrative painting by Garrwa man Jacky Green, titled Good to bad (see at bottom). The ‘good’ harks back to the time when people lived on Country, “doing ceremony under the moon”. The ‘bad’ tells the story of an American plane that crashed at Dulijarrba in the Gulf country after getting lost in a storm during the Second World War.

Some of the crew survived the crash but only one, Sergeant Grady Gaston, lived through the ordeal that followed, eventually found by “an Aboriginal fella called Strike-a-Light”, as Green tells it. The painting storyboards this tale with fine attention to detail and the accompanying text records Green’s lively recounting of the events.

A related work, Aeroplane dancer, 2007, by Myra Rory, a Yanyuwa, Garrwa artist, depicts the way that this story continues to be remembered in a song and dance cycle.

Despite my misgivings about the overall approach of this show, I strongly appreciated the individual interest of most exhibits, especially the artworks, including, for their beauty and impact, the memorial works such as Shirley MacNamara’s exquisitely crafted cross (see at top).

All IMAGES courtesy Australian War Memorial.

The exhibition is showing at Araluen Arts Centre until 29 March.

Below: Jacky Green, Good to bad, 2013. 



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