Sweet damper and gossip

Colonial sightings from the Goulburn and North-East
Monash University Gallery, Melbourne; Benalla Art Gallery, Benalla; and Shepparton Art Gallery, Shepparton

Paul Fox's exhibition, Sweet Damper and Gossip, Colonial sightings from the Goulburn and North-East, represents a crucial stage in the deconstruction of the historical myth of colonial Australia. With the aid of curator Jennifer Phipps, Fox spent many hours collating an array of paintings, works on paper, manuscripts, photographs and objects, with the intention of exposing: "how Victorian anthropological and patriarchal systems fictionalise and sanitise colonial sightings." Dating from the mid-1800s to the present, the exhibits piece together a narrative which Fox calls "gossip", told from the polarised perspectives of the European settlers and the Aboriginals whose territory they were colonising. Gossip constituted tales told by settlers to each other, or amongst Aboriginal people, and between the new colonists and native people, tales which confused fact and acted as ammunition for the self-interest and protection of both parties.

Fox's interest in this subject was first manifest in 1992 in the exhibition, Drawings on Nature: Images and Specimens of Natural History from the Museum of Victoria, in which he uncovered some of the information which underpinned this exhibition. His interest then and now was in the process of historical recording and the partiality of the information handed down via text and image. The selection in this exhibition extends his earlier interests by comparing the written and pictorial works of early settlers such as John Cotton with those left by Aboriginal artists of the period, to reveal the differences inherent in the way both cultures viewed the landscape and in notions of ownership. In a dense but intricately documented catalogue essay, Fox outlines the ideological imposition of colonial settlers via their traditional methods of classification and pastoral idealisation of Australia's landscape, presenting this imposition as a destructive and didactic attempt to order and control the land and its unfamiliar people: "By means of European gossip, the settlers tell themselves a fictional narrative about the frontier. Its telling gave them permission to violate Aboriginal life in every way and by any means, without social censure."

Here lies the most obvious and enduring message of the exhibition: the condoning of what is now called a form of unofficial genocide of the Aboriginal people by 19th century settlers. lt is a brutal reality which, as Fox suggests, is written between the lines (or in the indeterminate space of difference) of colonial documents and images. A recent article in the Age newspaper, by Rosemary West, titled appropriately The Killing Time, supports the fact that this issue is of central importance in contemporary Australia's re-negotiation of place; more fundamentally so than the 'Republicanism' or 'flag' debates. West unknowingly paraphrases Fox's main contention: "questions are now being asked. Was our nation built on institutionally tolerated or, indeed, sanctioned slaughter? Can we develop an enduring sense of shared national identity, let alone any process of reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia, without honestly facing our history?" Sweet damper, incidentally, is a euphemism for damper made from flour laced with arsenic that was fed to Aboriginals by colonial settlers.

Fox's exhibition is both important and problematic in the context of today's Australia. On the positive side he has brought together an impressive selection of information and artwork by European and Aboriginal artists from many Australian public and private resources, and has shown that the issue under scrutiny is of at least national, if not international importance. Aptly, the show was organised by Benalla Art Gallery, Benalla being a catalyst or location for many of the incidents and images included in the exhibition. lt was a useful approach on the part of the curator to concentrate his research around a specific location, such as the Goulburn Valley, as this has provided a strong case study through which he is able to make his argument clear. However, the exhibition itself is layered on unstable intellectual ground. It is a difficult task for an Anglo-Celtic/Saxon curator to exhibit works and words by Aboriginal people to support a thesis of single perspective. Although the inclusion of contemporary images by Gordon Bennett and Leah King-Smith partially anaesthetise this danger by providing a current indigenous ice in the selection, the show is assembled via the same processes of classification and intellectual imposition as used in the 19th century documents it scrutinises. Not only does this approach teeter on the brink of tokenism, but it also supports the conventional binary definition of Aboriginal versus non-Aboriginal vision without proposing a point of merger or communication. This problem was outlined by John Docker in a recent article on migrant identity in Australia and what he termed Post-nationalism: "Such a narrative ... creates the (Aboriginal/migrant) as a sort of monad, an isolated being whose primary relationship is with 'Australian society', to which he or she is always opposed, never involved with in myriad ways that might involve other lines of influence and power".2

Unfortunately Fox's essay leaves his topic floating in the ideological ether by concluding that the European aesthetic tradition created a landscape of "silence" in which communication between outsider (colonists) and indigenous cultural narratives was severed, perhaps irrevocably. In failing to offer any strategy, intellectual or otherwise, for overcoming the communication chasm between divergent cultures in Australia, Fox is himself contributing to a 'silence' or fictional binary of the sort described by Docker. Although the exhibition offers some essential points on Australia's mixed history and occupies an important role in the de-mythologising process of contemporary cultural studies, it too suffers from its own discourse by concluding in silence; the silence at the end of an academic discourse where application is absent.

notes: 

1. West, Rosemary, "The Killing Time", The Age Saturday Extra, 5/3/94, pp. 1 & 6. This article appeared coincidentally with the exhibition.

2. Docker, John, "post-Nationalism", Arena, No.9, Feb/Mar 1 994, pp .40--41.