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Mathew Trinca, director, National Museum of Australia and Aunty Susan Barry, 30 September 2014

MATHEW TRINCA: Welcome to Andrew Sayers and his partner Perry Sperling, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you all for coming along to this symposium celebrating the 20th anniversary of Andrew’s Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century. Before we begin and in keeping with long-established practice at the National Museum of Australia, I’d like to invite Aunty Susan Barry to the podium to welcome us to Ngunnawal country. Susan, please come forward. [applause]

SUSAN BARRY: Today I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the United Ngunnawal Elders Council, all Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders and non-Indigenous friends here today. Thank you for inviting me to do the Welcome to Country.

For those who may not be aware, Welcome to Country is a protocol which is ancient. Before entering another person’s country, one would always announce your arrival and not enter until the traditional owners welcomed you. The reason for this practice is to protect your spirit and to show respect for the people for whose country you are entering.

The Ngunnawal people are the traditional owners of the ACT and region. As with all Aboriginal communities, our community is made up of several family groups who represent the Ngunnawal people.

Now I would like to read to you a charter that has been developed by the Ngunnawal people in 2003. I hope it is an inspiration to you in the work that you do:

United Ngunnawal Elders CharterOur unity is a journey of healing. We have taken the first big step and along the path people will join with us (and leave) but everyone is welcome.In welcoming people, we know the following to be true:That our Elders have our respect. We are honoured by their giving respect back. We acknowledge them for assuming responsibility as leaders in our community.We need to come together to create our future - one in which everyone has a place where they can feel proud, have dignity, and feel they belong.That communication is everything and we do this in a supportive way to know more about each other, our history and our culture. These knowledges we make are ours together, although it belongs not only to us, but it’s also for our kids and grandkids too. And it is for them that we do this work now.It takes courage to do work for the greater good. We need to learn how to solve problems, include not isolate, to listen with our hearts and speak with our souls.In being courageous we are a direct link back to the Dreamtime. This is the essence of Aboriginality, as is our relationship to land.In this Journey we strive for Unity. We do this by empowering people, creating confidence, self-esteem and room for difference so we can work and laugh together, moving forward all the while.We, each and every one of us, want this; not only for ourselves and our families. We want this, too, for people who need it the most.

On behalf of all Ngunnawal people, both past and present, I am happy to welcome all of you here today to the lands of the Ngunnawal people. May the spirit of this land comfort, heal and guide us. Thank you. [applause]

MATHEW TRINCA: Thank you, Susan, for that welcome to these lands, the lands that we meet on today, and for the generosity of your spirit and grace which really honours your people and elders, past and present. Thank you.

It’s terrific to see this theatre filled today for this event marking two decades since Andrew Sayers published his influential work, which really came to define a field in a way that few books and their authors are able to do. As you know, the National Museum of Australia is committed to taking this country’s past seriously. We think our history matters. It has something important to tell us for today and tomorrow.

The Museum is also deeply interested in how we come to know the past. That means our interests span both the content and the practice of our history. Today is actually a happy conjunction of both of those views - the historic and the historiographic - and an opportunity really to reflect on a work that changed our understanding of the past and to honour its author for his book, and also his broader contribution to the cultural life of the nation across three of our major arts institutions.

In thinking about this event today, I was reminded of other work in the National Museum which bears Andrew’s imprint. The wonderful exhibition of bark paintings from Arnhem Land, Old Masters, which we only just closed a couple of months ago, and the current exhibition of Warlpiri drawings in our Focus Gallery. These were/are important works in the history of this organisation.

Andrew’s book Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century has the capacity to challenge readers today with its clear and precise statement of truths about the complex history of relations between coloniser and colonised in Australia. Among its achievements, the book really eschews glib assertions of Aboriginal and European identities in the nineteenth century that have so often locked us into assumptions that render historical agents as one-dimensional characters.

As Andrew himself pointed out 20 years ago - and I think it holds true today - most books on nineteenth century Aboriginal history were/are often illustrated with photographs made by non-Indigenous people. Instead, his book really encouraged us to see the works of Aboriginal artists as rare and precious statements of perspectives and world views outside what was otherwise an insistently European frame. It established a vision and voice that spoke directly to us and in ways that demand a more nuanced, three-dimensional view of Aboriginal identity and agency in the nineteenth century.

Central to today’s discussion is the work of the artists that Andrew documented in his book. In coming together here, we honour the pictures of William Barak, Tommy McRae, Mickey of Ulladulla, Oscar and others which give such eloquent testimony to Aboriginal lives in the nineteenth century. Just outside this door you can see examples of Barak’s and Tommy McRae’s drawings which are now part of the Museum’s National Historical Collection. They are unimpeachably cultural treasures of this country and they materially restate Andrew’s argument that such images ‘project the identities of their makers into the present’.

Today, as well as reflecting upon this book and the field of study it defined, we remember at the very heart of these things the artists and their works that inspired Andrew and, by extension, all of us. Like you, I look forward this afternoon to hearing from a range of speakers who will be exploring the impact of the Aboriginal artists and widening our vision of the historical terrain and practice it marked out for us. I hope you enjoy the symposium and the chance to explore these issues and ideas in Andrew’s company.

Before introducing the chair for this first session, I would just like to acknowledge, not for the first time and hopefully not for the last, the Gordon Darling Foundation for their generous support of this symposium. I also want to thank Tim Bonyhady, Melinda Hinkson, Anne Faris, Carol Cooper, Heidi Pritchard and all the team here at the NMA for putting the event together and making it happen.

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This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.

The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–24. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 01 January 2018

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