Current Issue #488

Unearthing the stories of Aboriginal veterans and the Vietnam War

Unearthing the stories of Aboriginal veterans and the Vietnam War

VIETNAM – ONE IN, ALL IN is a touring exhibition that acknowledges and reflects upon the stories of South Australia’s Aboriginal veterans before, during and after the Vietnam War.

It’s about histories that have never been told before and these veterans have never had the opportunity to talk about their service and be acknowledged, that’s the real importance of the show,” says curator Jessica Clark.

Last year Clark, along with creative producer Lee-Ann Tjunypa Buckskin, travelled across the state to connect with 10 veterans, interview them and capture their stories. Contemporary Aboriginal artists were then paired with these veterans to create artworks inspired by the veterans’ stories.

Following this, another two artists were commissioned to create a social commentary piece on Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and an honour roll acknowledging all South Australia’s Aboriginal Vietnam veterans – both living and passed.

Indigenous Return, Vietnam Veteran, Beaver Lennon
Indigenous Return, Vietnam Veteran, Beaver Lennon

The result is a multi-disciplinary exhibition that celebrates the contribution of the veterans while showing the breadth of contemporary Aboriginal art. The exhibition includes photography, painting, video, projection, neon work and traditional weaving. “All the works are so unique and reflect each of the veterans’ personality so beautifully in what they shared with us in their interviews,” Clark says.

One of these stories is from veteran Richard Edward Sansbury. Having grown up in the welfare system, Sansbury was given the choice of the Army, Air Force, Navy or another welfare home. He chose the Army and went to Vietnam as a craftsman mechanic.

“Sansbury describes himself as lucky because his role allowed him to do all sorts of different things and also because he made it home,” Clark says. “He claims that the Vietnam War was the start of his life because of everything he had been through in his childhood, and describes himself as a ‘holiday boy’ to his veteran mates.”

Sansbury’s story inspired artist Brad Darkson to develop a striking neon work that reads ‘Holiday Boy’ with a palm tree in bright green.

Holiday Boy, Brad Darkson
Holiday Boy, Brad Darkson

Another story of note is that of Ivan Clyde McKenzie, the only male veteran from the Navy whose story is included in the exhibition. (Marjorie Tripp AO, who is also featured, was Australia’s first Aboriginal woman to serve in the Navy and served during the lead-up to Australia’s involvement in Vietnam.)

McKenzie served as a mechanic in the boiler room on a battle ship in Vietnam, his job was to create the steam to power the ship. The ship’s role was to escort the HMAS Sydney to and from Vietnam.

“It’s a message that has come through in the interviews with all the veterans, they are really humble and generous men,” Clark says. “They saw it as having a job to do and they did it.”

Another interesting thing that emerged from the interviews is the brothers-in-arms mentality and sense of camaraderie between the veterans. “It was an equal playing field, they had each other’s backs, they weren’t black and white over there,” Clark says. “There wasn’t the racism factor that was so prevalent back here at that time.”

The Hidden Warrior, Clem Newchurch

VIETNAM – ONE IN, ALL IN is the final part of Country Arts SA’s broader three-year program called Aboriginal Diggers, aiming to honour and tell the largely untold stories of South Australian Aboriginal servicemen and women who have been part of Australia’s military history.

This exhibition is designed to provide further insight and knowledge of the military experience of South Australia’s Aboriginal Veterans in the Vietnam War and bring to light these fascinating stories, writing history that has otherwise been forgotten.

“I hope it’s a reflective space, allowing people to pause for a moment and reconsider our history and the voices that have been missing,” Clark says. “It’s also an amazing opportunity for people to connect with the stories and see the diversity of the artists’ practices and how committed they are.”

Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute
Until Saturday, June 1

Port Lincoln
The Walter Nichols Memorial Gallery
Friday, June 14 to Thursday, July 25

Port Augusta
Yarta Purtli Port Augusta Cultural Centre
Monday, August 5 to Saturday, September 14

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