Indigenous Australian objects and remains were removed from their resting places and collected by museums throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In To know and possess 2021 (illustrated), which adopts the commemorative trope of the bronze plaque, Kamilaroi artist Warraba Weatherall highlights this history, and the debate that continues around repatriation, for contemporary audiences.
Watch: Warraba Weatherall discusses his art
In To know and possess, Weatherall investigates museological collections that hold Indigenous human remains and cultural materials from the artist’s Country and surrounds. It records ten objects held in national collections, including a grindstone, a modified tree, pigment, a stone axe, a club, a boomerang, a shield, and skulls and bone fragments belonging to three ancestors. Weatherall has chosen to cast the original museum records of these objects as individual bronze memorials. Spanning 1919 to 1979, the museum‑transcribed information includes details of the person who collected the item, where they collected it from, and the year the item entered the institutional collection. What becomes apparent is the significance of what has been omitted: including the maker, also missing are who the objects belonged to and the circumstances of the material’s removal from Country. However, one shield’s entry includes the horrific nature in which it was collected: ‘left by Aborigines after Myall Creek massacre — notice shot holes’ (illustrated).
Warraba Weatherall ‘To know and possess’
The removal of Indigenous Australian objects and human remains was a well-known occurrence throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The breadth of the collection of Indigenous cultural property, as well as advocacy for their timely repatriation to communities across the country, has been an area of debate and research for many decades. Weatherall’s work critiques the integrity of collecting institutions that seek to ‘protect’ cultural objects by keeping them in secure environments. Institutional acts of ‘safekeeping’ separate these objects from descendants and their intended uses. The artist points out that removing these objects from their makers, communities and descendants renders them scientific curiosities and colonial trophies.
Bronze monuments memorialise history’s victors: colonists, legends and figureheads of control. First Nations and culturally diverse artists and activists across the world have recently questioned the continued relevance of these figureheads and the counternarratives they represent, including the genocide of the people whose lands they claimed as their own. This movement has signalled the emergence of the ‘counter-monument’. Intimately sized, the bronze plaques of To know and possess allude to public memorials, which are often seen as reminders of those who have died or of tragic events. By highlighting the museological practices of removal, Weatherall’s work allows the general public to understand the dehumanising aspect of categorising Indigenous cultural objects and the remains of our ancestors, and the significance of calls for repatriation.
Katina Davidson is Curator, Indigenous Australian Art, QAGOMA
Warraba Weatherall’s To know and possess 2021 is on view in ‘Embodied Knowledge: Queensland Contemporary Art’ in Queensland Art Gallery’s Gallery 4, Gallery 5 (Henry and Amanda Bartlett Gallery) and the Watermall from 13 August 2022 to 22 January 2023.
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.
It is customary in many Indigenous communities not to mention the name or reproduce photographs of the deceased. All such mentions and photographs on the QAGOMA Blog are with permission, however, care and discretion should be exercised.