Sorry is just a word if it’s not backed up by real outcomes


On the 26 May, National Sorry Day remembers and acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were forcibly separated from their families and communities.

The date is significant because on that day in 1997 the Bringing Them Home report was tabled in the Australian Parliament, an inquiry into government policies and practices where children were removed from their families with the intention of assimilating them into white Australian culture. This resulted in what became known as the ‘Stolen Generations’.

After the Labor Party won the Federal election in 2007, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered a formal Apology to all Indigenous Australians, the Apology was the first item of business when parliament opened on 13 February 2008.

Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history. We reflect on their past mistreatment . . . The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future . . . For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry. To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry. We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation. For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written . . . A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.1 [Kevin Rudd AC served as the 26th Prime Minister of Australia, from December 2007 to June 2010 and again from June 2013 to September 2013. He held office as the leader of the Australian Labor Party]

Tony Albert ‘Sorry’

In the artwork Sorry 2008, Tony Albert introduces us to a forest of faces, each sharing elements of history with those stolen from their people, land and culture. Each represents a false identity, manufactured black faces made to fit a white society.

Tony Albert, Girramay people, Australia b.1981 / Sorry 2008 / Found kitsch objects applied to vinyl letters / 99 objects: 200 x 510 x 10cm (installed) / The James C Sourris, AM, Collection. Purchased 2008 with funds from James C Sourris through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Tony Albert

Albert ‘repatriates’ these souls through the act of re-contextualisation, by giving each a sense of Aboriginality and a ‘proppa’ identity.2 With an Aboriginal person buying, owning and re-introducing these items into the world as ‘Aboriginal’, Albert is essentially liberating these identities. Through being re-Aboriginalised, they each seem more real, more proppa, in the company of kindred souls.

Like many Aboriginal people, Albert identifies with these kitsch faces on a personal level. Growing up, Albert moved between north Queensland and Brisbane, and had few role models in the media with whom he could identify. Cartoons, such as Eric Jolliffe’s Witchetty’s Tribe — although outwardly racist — were almost the only representations of Aboriginal people which were popularly available.3 For Albert, collecting trips to second-hand shops as a child remain a fond memory:

My sister and I grew up going to second-hand shops or, as we called them, ‘smelly shops’. We would always be asking mum to take us there — it was so exciting. I think this is where my passion for collecting began. I would salvage black dolls, books and ephemera from baskets of old toys, stuffed animals and other people’s junk. I have always had a fascination and connection to ‘aboriginalia’ . . . Smelly shops are like treasure chests, full of the most wonderful and exciting things, but to find what I wanted I had to explore and hunt through everything . . . 4

Albert revels in the sense of irony in the work Sorry, with the impetus of such a momentous and joyous event being an apology. On yet another level, Albert presents us simply with a word — bold letters on a wall — indicative of an Indigenous Australian response to the apology.

From its conception it was always intended to be installed in various formations. Sorry was originally commissioned by QAGOMA in 2008 for the exhibition ‘Contemporary Australia: Optimism’; given that it coincided with the Australian Government’s Apology to the Stolen GenerationsSorry was intended to make a positive statement. Sorry is just a word which means nothing if it is not backed up by real outcomes. By turning the work on its head I’m asking the viewer to consider the very real situation that Aboriginal people still find themselves in today.5

Tony Albert, Girramay people, Australia b.1981 / Sorry 2008 / Found kitsch objects applied to vinyl letters / 99 objects: 200 x 510 x 10cm (installed) / The James C Sourris, AM, Collection. Purchased 2008 with funds from James C Sourris through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Tony Albert

1 The Honourable Kevin Rudd, MP, former Prime Minister of Australia, at <>.
2 Proppa is a word used in Aboriginal vernacular which can be compared to the original English ‘properly’ or ‘true’.
3 Eric Jolliffe was an Australian bush cartoonist and comic strip artist who contributed to The Bulletin during the 1930s. He found inspiration for Witchetty’s Tribe when he was an officer in the Air Force.
4 Tony Albert, conversation with Bruce McLean, at a ‘Contemporary Australia: Optimism’ Up Late artist talk, 20 June 2008. Bruce McLean is former Curator, Indigenous Australian Art, QAGOMA. He is a descendant of the Wirri/Birri-Gubba people of coastal central Queensland.
5 Tony Albert, Interview with Bruce McLean. ‘Tony Albert, Girramay people : An interview’ in My country, I still call Australia home : Contemporary art from Black Australia [exhibition catalogue]. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2013, col. ill., p.142-144.

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Acknowledgment of Country
The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Gallery stands in Brisbane. We pay respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders past and present and, in the spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge the immense creative contribution First Australians make to the art and culture of this country.