Talk of protest and civil disobedience usually conjures thoughts of distant ideologues like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. Unbeknownst to many Australians we have our own rich and unsung history of civil rights activism right here in Sydney.
In an homage to the founding heroes of the Aboriginal civil rights movement, a provocative new exhibition arrives at Carriageworks.
Programmed to coincide with NAIDOC Week, Hereby Make Protest explores and celebrates the spirit of activism that ignited and now propels the quest for Indigenous self-determination and equality.
Featuring archival documents, letters and petitions alongside new works by contemporary Indigenous artists, Nicole Foreshew, Jacob Nash and Karla Dickens, the exhibition honours the legacy of the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA) and the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA).
Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens has produced two installations for the exhibition: Assimilated Warriors, a salute to the early faceless warriors who fought for Aboriginal equality and Demanding a Voice is Tiresome, an acknowledgement of the unseen women of the movement.
Dickens says, “My work pays tribute to my forefathers and mothers, who worked towards a fair deal. It takes great courage to scratch at the shadows of silence within a dominant discourse of denial, betrayal and abuse.”
Reflecting on the motivations of these pioneers, Dickens adds, “There is a power in asserting objection, in disapproving of the obvious injustices, pains and truths of those who are unheard. Protest is about giving voice, standing shoulder to shoulder.”
Established in 1924, the AAPA fought tirelessly for Indigenous self-determination. Influenced by the Black Nationalism teachings of Marcus Garvey in the United States, AAPA president Fred Maynard campaigned against the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board (NSWAPB) and its practice of removing Aboriginal children from their families.
Petitions and protestations from the AAPA gained wide media coverage and public support. At its peak, the association comprised eleven branches with more than 500 active members.
Unable to withstand an NSWAPB-sponsored smear campaign and frequent police harassment, the AAPA dissolved in 1927. But the groundswell of support did not die with the association.
Ten years later, civil rights activists Jack Patten and Bill Ferguson joined forces to form the APA. The top three items on the APA agenda were full citizenship rights for Aboriginal Australians, Aboriginal representation in Parliament and abolition of the NSWAPB.
In 1938, APA marked Australia Day with a protest, declaring the sesquicentenary a National Day of Mourning for Aboriginal Australians, bereaved of their land and cultural identity.
The new Carriageworks exhibition takes its name from the official resolution made at the Day of Mourning Conference on January 26, 1938.
Carriageworks artistic associate, Andrea James explains, “On that day, the APA took a stand against unfair treatment of the Aborigines of Australia, declaring, with firm and solemn voice, ‘We are gathered here today and we hereby make protest’ – it was a fantastic rallying cry.”
Ms James is a descendant of the Yorta Yorta and Kurnai Aboriginal nations. As exhibition curator, she sees Hereby Make Protest as an important nod to the founding organisations of the Aboriginal civil rights movement.
“Both organisations sparked off here in Sydney. We want to put people in touch with important local knowledge. The iconic Day of Mourning happened right here in our backyard,” she says.
Hereby Make Protest is the third in a series of social history projects that all aim to connect visitors to local Aboriginal history by engaging and educating people through contemporary Aboriginal art.
Though not always intentionally, the theme of protest inhabits much of artist Dickens’ work. She explains, “I’m not a politician, I’m an artist, a storyteller. With my art, I talk about my personal experiences. I don’t set out to make political statements. I am political, simply because I am who I am – a single mother, a lesbian, a first Australian.
“I am at a point in my life where I have a hell of a lot to say. Art is my voice – art is how I protest.”
Dickens was awarded the prestigious 2013 Parliament of NSW Aboriginal Art Prize for her work, Day of Mourning. The work is comprised of a salvaged Australian flag embroidered with crosses, representing the sense of loss and pain that the artist feels each year on January 26th.
Before winning the $40,000 prize, Karla’s artwork drew criticism from social commentator Andrew Bolt on 2GB.
“After Andrew Bolt and Steve Price mentioned my artwork, I was targeted by white power rednecks. I started receiving abusive emails. Somebody hacked into my computer, forcing me to take my website down.”
Just as the APA had stirred the NSWAPB with their protestations in 1927, Dickens touched a nerve with her art.
“When this happened, I realised the breadth and the impact of the political, social and ideological statement that I had made with my art. The hostile response validated the sense of grief that inspired the piece of art in the first place,” says Dickens. (CC)
Until Jul 18, Carriageworks, 245 Wilson St, Eveleigh, free, carriageworks.com.au