05
Mar
2017

For Country, For Nation: An Exhibition Review – Kate Stewart

Do you enjoy inherent contradictions, linkage failures and the niggling feeling that you’ve wasted your time?

For Country, For Nation might just be for you.

I do try to be generous to the Australian War Memorial (Memorial) and the jingoistic excuses for exhibitions they trot out but, on this occasion, I just can’t get there.

For Country, For Nation reads like Memorial staff saw a bunch of material created by, about or vaguely relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and thought: “That’s enough for an exhibition, let’s get some quotes and some exhibit boxes.”

Yet, I feel it is even worse than my description thus far. It is surrounded by items clearly about, by and for white Australia (including two portraits of Ben Roberts-Smith and generic sculptures of generic service men). The space in which the surrounding items are featured appears to be part of the exhibition though, simultaneously, apparently not. And if the importance of Indigenous Australia is reflected by the percentage of special exhibition space dedicated to this exhibition, against the percentage for other exhibitions, then perhaps the Memorial should rethink its priorities.

It seems to me the Memorial has produced an exhibition less designed for the commemoration of events and peoples than for cherry-picking history in a museum of promotion. In my attempt to see the exhibition in a more generous light I attended an exhibition highlights tour.

One of the tour guides put it best; he said: “[we’re] trying to put a good spin on the ADF” (Australian Defence Force) and we’re “here to celebrate service”. Presumably to assist the ADF achieve a new target of 5% Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enlistment. It is this attitude, that the Memorial and exhibitions it produces, houses or tours should be part of an ADF propaganda machine, which detracts from reflecting on the life and service of others.

The promotional and glorifying nature of the Memorial’s content makes it hard to believe that it is, in fact, a memorial and a place for solemn reflection and respect. Instead, it appears to be a war museum or a poor Hollywood reproduction. As such questions about the political, social and economic context of both the conflicts and the behaviour of ADF personnel should be critically discussed and opened to the harshest of scrutiny. Yet because it is considered to be a memorial those questions are often frowned upon.

For Country, For Nation offers no narrative and presents little context surrounding the objects and works selected. The exhibition is less about service or the contribution of Indigenous Australians than about militaria. It less commemorates the role of Indigenous Australia in conflict and force development than rubs peoples noses in what seems to be a hotch-potch thrown together at the last minute waste of Indigenous Australia’s time. And, as the only Federal cultural institution to be spared ‘efficiency dividends’ (read: severe Budget cuts), the Memorial should be required to do better.

We should commemorate the role of Indigenous Australia in our armed forces. For Country, For Nation does not achieve this aim. It does promote a couple of white guys and their, now, antiquated and offensive views with guns as toys. It includes work which would seem more at home in a lounge room or exhibition about white service, but offers little insight to the Indigenous experience of war.

The inconsistent nature of objects and inclusions with a lack of focus provides little reason to attend the exhibition once, let alone the four times I have now attended.

But for a handful of works, the only reasons to attend would be if your family were represented in the exhibition or your work appeared in it. In either case, I offer my commiserations.

Rightly or wrongly, the Memorial seems to avoid showing items which might allow the viewer to seriously criticise the ADF for decisions taken in Australia’s name. Rightly or wrongly, the Memorial appears to choose the side of the political objectives of the ADF (not necessarily those of even the Government of the day) in the vast majority of its exhibitions. Yet two works in this exhibition challenge the ADF openly.

Blue Danube is a triptych of hand-blown glass bombs containing smaller slivers of glass representing the glass-like shards of detritus raining down on the environment from nuclear weapons detonations and yams eaten by local populations (now untouchable); a physical representation of the stories of Yhonnie Scarce’s ancestors, the Kokatha and Nukunu peoples of the Woomera area. They may camp. They may not perform ceremony, hunt, make fire or any other activity. But they may camp. Logic suggests that camping would result in your skin ingesting radioactivity as you sleep.

The decisions of the ADF and the Government of the day have ruined this land. Blue Danube allows you to openly question the role of the ADF and Government in destroying the ancestral lands of a people; the logic employed by people occupying positions of power; the legitimacy of a Government destroying its people and their connection to their home? Why would you not protect people from nuclear weapons? Why would Indigenous people want anything to do with the ADF given the utter disdain with which they have been treated?

An unnamed unattributed photograph is also of interest. Its description reads: “Three emaciated natives who almost starved during the Japanese occupation, await treatment at the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit Native Hospital. An ANGAU Administrative Headquarters has been set up to operate in New Ireland and surrounding smaller islands.”

Our tour guides indicated that the starvation of these Indigenous Australians (as they were regarded by the ADF prior to 1975) was not merely because of Japanese occupation; but also because of the presence of Allied Forces. Instead of their land providing locals with the food they needed; it also had to feed the Japanese AND Allied Forces. Perhaps another instance of the Memorial acknowledging some of the questionable and cruel harms the ADF causes others?

At the end of my tour through For Country, For Nation I rise from the bowels of the Memorial; I pay silent (save for the light shows of ANZAC Hall) tribute to Victoria Cross recipients in the Hall of Valour; and walk the Roll of Honour reflecting on the sacrifice of those children in places so unfamiliar and frightening to them. I don’t care whether they are black, white or purple. I don’t care whether they went to a conflict with which I agree or no. They were children; and they died; because of decisions over which they had no control… and I cleanse myself of the filth of the Australian War Museum.

 

Post Script
The above was produced as a review for assessment for ARTH2098 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art.

As part of this subject we revisited this exhibition and the class given the opportunity to ask more questions of curatorial and Indigenous staff. I pointedly asked questions about intent and content; and owned up to not liking the exhibition).

The Memorial intends to add to this exhibition as it tours the country. Of particular note will be changes in exhibition content to reflect local voices as the exhibition tours the country. The Memorial is also hoping to encourage former and current service personnel and their families to contribute to the narrative of the exhibition through discussions in community. Through this the Memorial hopes to build on their collection both with artefacts and stories to represent the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

Details
For Country, For Nation will be on at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra until 20 September 2017. The exhibition will then tour Australia, for local dates please check local guides.

 

The opinions presented in this Review are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Australian National University, the ANU School of Art and Design, the Centre for Art History and Art Theory nor the student body of these organisations.

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