A touring exhibition from the Australian War Memorial (AWM), For Country, For Nation recognises Indigenous Australians who have served in the military as well as those who have worked in ancillary, industry, and other home-front activities.
The exhibition is the culmination of 10 years of research by Indigenous liaison officers and volunteers at the AWM to discover the identities and stories of several thousand Indigenous men and women who have served in our armed forces since before Federation. Sponsored by the Australian Government’s Visions of Australia program and International Art Services Australia, For Country, For Nation will tour to all states and territories over a three-year period.
The curatorial model embodies the idea that knowledge doesn’t reside with one person and thus it was a collaborative approach involving a national program of community consultation facilitated through an Elders and Knowledge Holders Guidance Group developed for the exhibition.
“Families tell family stories, communities tell community stories and we come together for some of the big picture things so that model is an Indigenous way of recognising knowledge and people and bloodlines,” says curator Amanda Jane Reynolds.
The collaborative approach was necessary as there was so much diversity in the content and stories. “It was important that we listened and talked to each other and shared different perspectives and then come together to find a pathway where the individual voices and perspectives all have a place in our sense of unity,” Reynolds says. “That’s the platform I wanted to set for the exhibition.”
For Country, For Nation draws on the AWM’s diverse collection of cultural material relating to Indigenous military service along with the acquisition and commissioning of Aboriginal artists to help tell the stories of these service men and women, a history which has not been recognised. The commissions were targeted to tell some of the stories that were not represented through the AWM collection. There is a broad range of art, including text, story, art, objects, photographs, dance and music along with multimedia pieces.
Reynolds uses a thematic curatorial structure that underpins the exhibition and remains constant at the various venues as it tours the country. The first theme, ‘We Remember’ aims to be embracing and welcoming. For example, one of the commissioned works by Glenda Nicholls is an installation piece referencing the AWM’s Roll of Honour. It started as a giant woven net covered in about 20 hand-made feathered flowers and grew as audiences were invited to add to the work while it was on display at the AWM. The work, which is now covered in flowers, represents the weaving together of people, family, story and history.
The second theme ‘The Warrior’s Strength and the Diplomat’s Patience’ focuses on the reclaiming of history by Indigenous people. Featured are intricately-carved warrior and diplomat tools by Andrew Snelgar. “It was important for us to bring in work that talked back to the Creation era but also looks at what those teachings are,” Reynolds says. “For a young man it’s important to make those shields and boomerangs and also remember the Law.”
Theme three ‘All Heroes, Our Stories’ is named in honour of Gary Oakley, a service man and member of the Elders and Knowledge Holders Guidance Group, who has a long history of working at the AWM and has done a lot to gain recognition for Indigenous service men and women. The theme addresses the idea that everyone’s story has a place in the exhibition and in the community.
The fourth theme ‘Communities on the Frontline’ explores the notion that wars might have been fought overseas but Aboriginal communities were on the frontline at home in a whole lot of different ways and for a lot of different reasons. Works in this section explore the actual frontline, referencing both the British nuclear tests at Maralinga and the Japanese bombing of Darwin, while others look at the contribution Aboriginal people made on the home front during World War II, which supported the Australian war efforts.
Theme five ‘Human Rights and Social Justice’ is about the impact of colonisation on Aboriginal people and the idea that they might have been fighting for the same reasons as everyone else, but were not given the same rights and recognition when they returned home. The final theme ‘Our Cultures Continue’ looks at how these stories, teachings, and memories are handed down to the next generation, through songs, dances, stories, and works of art.
For Country, for Nation celebrates the contribution Indigenous people have made during wartime and peace through various stories and experiences.
“The exhibition, has something for art lovers, for military history buffs and has something powerful for those who want to hear from community perspectives,” Reynolds says. “There are multiple voices sharing experiences and stories. It’s a very inclusive space and the key message is that we would love people to come and hear these stories.”
For Country, For Nation
Samstag Museum of Art
Until Friday, July 19
Bronwyn Bancroft, Time marches on, mixed media. Made in Balmain, New South Wales, 2010 (Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial)