Written on the body

The University of Queensland Anthropology Museum, Brisbane
15 March - 15 August 2014

Each time I look back I am peering through a new lens, through new windows to my past, while standing in the present. The memories that define us are like moons which circle us, each has a unique orbit, recurring in our minds and our lives, keeping the past alive in a metaphysical way.

Contemporary Indigenous art has, in recent years, been invigorated by its examination of histories, traditions and practices through the lens of new information and current interpretations. Artist Judy Watson has a long-term interest in museum practices, as evidenced in her series of etchings, our skin/our hair/our bones in your collections (1997). While the Aboriginal objects she partly concealed with her etching process in these works were in overseas collections, the exhibition she co-curated with University of Queensland (UQ) Anthropology Museum director Diana Young, used material from local Queensland sources. The UQ Anthropology Museum collection was founded by amateur anthropologist Lindsey P. Winterbotham, who collected between the 1930s and 1960s, ‘… preserving from complete loss all the very interesting material that could be gathered concerning the culture—the old culture—of this ancient people…’.2 Winterbotham and his collectors made a practice of recording their notes directly onto the items collected. 

Watson and Young make a feature of this practice—seen now as, at best disrespectful and at worst vandalism—in Written on the body. Yet the exhibition is presented in a seductively beautiful and playful display, intended to ‘rattle the bones of the museum’,3 juxtaposing cultural objects—stone axes, grinding stones, spears—with borrowed everyday items, old and new, sacred and profane. This process of audience involvement allowed the exhibition to relate love, loss, memory and family in such a way as to restore meaning and dignity to these objects. Lawn Hill stone fragments were cheek by jowl with plastic cups, surgical head measuring instruments with spears, aluminium steamers and wing mirrors with yellow ochre. The Anvil (a nut cracking stone from Cairns), placed alongside contemporary kitchen items also featuring dimples, shows the echo of pattern, manufactured and organic, across centuries and cultures. 

The exhibition notes the narrative inherent in every object and disrupts the categories of classification under which these objects were collected. A gobo projection at the museum entry shows the text ‘written on the body’ on the floor—a feature utilised by school children who lay down to have the projected words written on their own bodies for photographs (an oblique reference, perhaps, to the current interest in tattoos—another fashion that may be seen, in years hence, to be as outdated as the writing on these artefacts and objects).

The exhibition responds to a quote by Maureen Fuary that reads in part, ‘Exiled in museum storage spaces, in a suspended animation until they are visited or displayed, objects await to be enlivened … The melancholy of objects thus isolated from the real world of people is what is most palpable in these situations of sensory deprivation … Their potentialities, their enchanting qualities and liveliness … yet to be realized.’ (Fuary 2013:4).4

The pace is changed with a film Watson created (with Alex Barnes) to record the responses of a current generation to objects incarcerated in the museum. These responses (from Uncle Bob Anderson, artists Bianca Beetson and Gordon Hookey and architect Kevin O’Brien), to objects from their areas, document the hurt and rupture in the narrative of the past and the meaning these old objects continue to convey today.

The museum’s extensive collection of historic photographs of Indigenous people was also drawn upon with Scar (2014), a projection of changing images of scar trees and cicatrices on people and objects, screened adjacent to a collected scar tree (from before 1976). The extensive cicatrices, visible on individuals, mark life experience and achievements (the equivalent, as Watson highlighted in her Water memory, for the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, of higher degrees in terms of knowledge).5 

In its display methods and aesthetic this exhibition forms a visual continuum with Watson’s practice as an artist. It acknowledges the injustices of the past but also elicits cultural parallels. Young noted that, ‘There are many collections like this around the world, all similarly implicated in colonialism. In the 21st century, we must come to terms with what they can be and might tell us about the past.’

Written on the body offers new context to these old objects and has strong visual poetry in its multiple shadowy tableaux. Its eclectic approach allows for the wisdom in the contemporary lens to draw on and extend the memory of the past. 

Artists unrecorded, Chert points from Lawn Hill. Photograph Carl Warner. 

Artist unrecorded, Nut anvil from Cairns. Photograph Carl Warner. 

Sam Rollands, Dugong net bobbin, c. 1930. Installed with cranial calipers. Photograph Carl Warner. 

Case installation from written on the body, UQ Anthroplogy Museum. Photograph Carl Warner. 


1. Glenn Iseger-Pilkington, ‘Memory, Identity and Habit: a personal riff’, Artlink Indigenous, Vol.34, #2, 2014, p.27.

2. The University of Queensland Anthropology Museum: Collecting and searching. See http://www.anthropologymuseum.uq.edu.au/collecting-and-searching

3. Judy Watson, Presentation to Cairns Indigenous Art Fair Symposium, 25 July 2014.

4. Maureen Fuary, quoted on Written on the body, UQ Anthropology Museum website. See http://www.anthropologymuseum.uq.edu.au/written-on-the-body

5. Judy Watson’s public artwork water memory (2013) celebrates art and science with imagery that includes cicatrices with scientific data. See http://www.qimrberghofer.edu.au/page/News__Events/Media_Centre/Media_Releases/Archive/2013/Water_memory/ QIMR