Aborigines fight for the repatriation of ‘racist’ artworks

TrugininiThe fight goes on for the repatriation of Australian Aboriginal remains stored in museums across the world, with two artworks now added to the list of artifacts campaigers want returned Down Under.

A delegation from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre in Hobart is in the UK this week to lobby institutions among them the Wellcome Trust, and Oxford and Cambridge universities to return the skulls, bones and other Aboriginal remains held in their collections.

This follows their success earlier this month in having the remains of a skull from a Tasmanian Aborigine returned to Australia from the National Museum of Scotland.

Demand Made For Sculptures

The delegation led by Sara Maynard, a legal field officer at the centre will also lobby the British Museum for the return of two artworks sculpted by Englishman Benjamin Law in 1835. The busts depict Tasmanias last full-blood Aborigine Truganini, and her husband Woureddy. The British Museum is one of some 30 institutions with copies of the busts, though the museum does not display them. Two busts were set for auction by Sothebys in Melbourne last month until campaigners intervened.

Truganini was the last of her original tribe to survive after European settlement of Tasmania resulted in the decimation of the Aboriginal community there. Truganini and around 100 of her people were relocated to Flinders Island in 1873, but she became the sole survivor after disease swept through the settlement (Aborigines were highly susceptible to diseases introduced to the country by European settlers.)

To our community, these busts represent the attempts to exterminate our people. It’s like displaying victims of the extermination of Jews as art without permission.

She died three years later, with her body buried and then exhumed, and her skeleton going on display at the Royal Society of Tasmania. In 1997 the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter returned a necklace and bracelet belonging to Truganini, while samples of her hair and skin were returned to Tasmania for burial after they were found among the Royal College of Surgeons collections in 2002.

We are outraged that these busts have been put on display without permission in museums across the world, Sara Maynard told the The Guardian. To our community they represent the attempts to exterminate our people. It’s like displaying victims of the extermination of Jews as art without permission.

She also objects to the common description of Truganini as the last full blood Aborigine, saying it suggests modern-day Aborigines are impure. “This is why we call it racist art,” she said. “We want to collect all the busts and take them home for the community to decide what to do with them.”

The Bigger Picture

As with the return of remains, its not just a matter of righting wrongs for the Aboriginal community, but of ensuring the spirits of their ancestors are at peace. Spirits are an important element of the ancient beliefs system upon which Aboriginal culture is based, and can be traced back to the Dreamtime.

Banjo Clarke, a descendant of Truganini, told his story and those of his people to biographer Camilla Chance over the course of some 27 years. It words were faithfully dictated and published in 1993 as Wisdom Man.

In the book, he discusses the spirit world: “We feel very close to people’s spirits, and people from the spirit world let us know things. That’s the Aboriginal tradition. Speak that way to any Aboriginal, and he’ll understand exactly what you’re talking about. I would tell my children that often the spirit of someone what has passed on will come to you in a dream, or you’ll get a warning that a friend or relation is sick. Something strange happens, and you know it’s a message from the spirit world. Aboriginals live alert to these things all their lives. But we don’t tell people about them. We are afraid of being laughed at over things which are absolutely true.”

He gives further insight into life after European settlement for his people in this video recording, which also describes how his childhood was not that disimiliar to those of his ancestors thousands of years ago.