It was not the first time that Sotheby’s auction house in Melbourne had come under fire for selling artworks depicting dead Indigenous Australians.
And given the proliferation of colonial photographs, drawings, paintings, carvings and sculptures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders that have adorned the drawing rooms of Australia’s country homesteads and the mansions of Europe for close to two centuries, it probably won’t be the last.
And so it was on Tuesday night that members of Tasmania’s Aboriginal community tried to stop three photographs of Indigenous ancestors from going under the hammer.
The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre’s Ruth Langford and Rosie Smith urged bidders not to vie for the images taken in the 1860s that depict residents of Oyster Cove, an Aboriginal settlement outside Hobart.
At least one of the photographs appears to include Truganini. The daughter of a Bruny Island chief, she was born in 1812 and lived through the tragic near-annihilation from violence and disease of many of her people. For a while she lived on the Oyster Cove settlement, and died in Hobart in 1876.
She, and many other first Tasmanians, survived the colony’s “black war”. But early historians and anthropologists wrongly afforded her the epithet the “last full-blood Aboriginal Tasmanian”. It’s a mistake that’s still repeated today.
Others certainly outlived Truganini, including on Flinders and Cape Barren islands. She was not the last of the line. Not then. Not now. But Truganini did have a short, tragic life. Her parents and her fiance, and many other relatives were murdered.
“We were camped close to Partridge Island when I was a little girl, when a vessel came to anchor without out knowledge of it, a boat came on shore and some of the men attacked our camp. We all ran away, but one of them caught my mother, and stabbed her with a knife, and killed her. My father grieved much about her death and used to make a fire at night by himself when my mother would come to him,” she reminisced to Alexander McKay, according to Nicholas Clements in his excellent recent book The Black War.
And that was before she went to Bruny Island. On the journey, white men killed two more first Tasmanians.
Even in death Truganini had no peace. She had asked to be cremated, perhaps to avoid the very fate that eventually befell her body that was dug up and put on public display by the Royal Society of Tasmania as the last of the natives. But despite the best efforts of colonial police, some settler-vigilantes, police and soldiers to kill off the first Tasmanians, she was not the last.
To say that she was the last Indigenous Tasmanian – or, indeed, that any of those who outlived her was the last – diminishes the resilience of the state’s Aboriginal community, which remains attached to a rich culture and group of languages, and which has long been politically active in national Indigenous affairs.
And this seems to have been the point that Langford and Smith were making when they protested at Sotheby’s the other evening. They had taken exception to the title – The Last of the Tasmanian Natives – under which one of the photographs for sale was listed.
“It devalues who we are today. The title ‘last Tasmanian natives’, or what we often hear is ‘the last of the full-blood Tasmanian Aboriginals’, really disregards the strengths and survival of the Aboriginal people here in Tasmania,” Langford said.
In 2009 Sotheby’s pulled from sale two busts – of Truganini and Woureddy – after a similar protest. The busts were withdrawn on the basis that selling them could be culturally insensitive; some Indigenous Australians believe that representations of the dead can capture their very spirits.
While sensitivities relating to photographic depictions of the dead can vary from Indigenous people to people and region to region, publishing and selling such pictures can be equally fraught. But Sotheby’s went ahead with the auction of the photographs on Tuesday night, a spokesman telling ABC radio in Hobart that the title of the photograph in question was that given to it by the photographer.
“We don’t want to whitewash history; we present history as it was. If we changed the title of those we would be rewriting history. This is what they were called at the time,” he said.
Some Indigenous people will always find depictions of their dead ancestors deeply disturbing, even offensive, in a way that makes little sense to other Australians. The commercial trade in such objects can add further offence. But this latest Sotheby’s case raises confronting questions about what old objects can teach us about Australia’s brutal colonial past and the blithe assumptions that were made about race and the near extinction of a people.
While many institutions such as Sotheby’s – and indeed, our major libraries and museums – have developed policies to deal with these issues as they arise, depicting the Indigenous dead is still something of a cultural grey area in Australia, not least among media organisations.
The lines dividing anthropology, art and cultural sensitivity are rice-paper thin. In that light, it’s worth considering how attitudes change along with human enlightenment.
That’s why it wasn’t so long ago that collecting and selling Indigenous human remains for display in the major cultural institutions of Australia, Europe and America was considered anything but offensive.
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