Camping in the shadow of the racist text

Ali Gumillya Baker


Ali Gumillya Baker presents a call to action to undo past wrongs, to question how our stories are told and to understand their impact on future generations. These are traumas that are deeply rooted in Baker’s experiences as an Aboriginal woman, but they are important issues for all Australians, especially those of us working in cultural institutions and artists who exhibit work within their walls. Her interrogation of hierarchies and power within the archive and her call for an ethical research practice that ‘respects Indigenous ways of being’ are central to the ideas underlying The National 2019 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and our efforts as co-curators to work in a ‘third space’ and disrupt the dominant paradigm.
– Clothilde Bullen & Anna Davis

If, as they say, the past is a foreign country, then what does it mean to encounter a past that is your own Country reterritorialised, even terrorised by another? (1)

When I began looking for my maternal great- grandmother Gumillya Boxer (Ka-mil-lya) through records in the colonial archive, I hoped to find her memories, traces of life and honouring stories of family, and songs of Mirning Country. What we can find instead is the opposite of a loving memorial. This anti-memorial is profoundly disturbing. What I found when I looked for her was the debris of documents and objects scattered throughout institutions in dark places, documents of abuse and lies. (2) This evidence of abuse by colonial powers is like a pit of sadness. The pit could swallow me up as I walk. I could fall in and never be seen again. My remedy to this was to begin another story. This story is for my children and their children and all children. It is a story for our children of what I found when I looked for our family and Mirning people in the archive. It is our museum of unnatural history.

Part of this work was the development of a theoretical and textual picture of the research conducted by the white anthropologist, linguist and ethnographer Norman Tindale, who undertook ‘data collection’ throughout Aboriginal Australia while working for the South Australian Museum over 1920s–60s. (3) Of particular relevance is Tindale’s data collection that contributed to a larger landscape of objectification and categorisation of racialised ideas about Aboriginal people and was part of a global movement of analysis using the ideologies of eugenics, concerned with racial purity, blood quantum and hierarchies of race, and phrenology, which proposed that intelligence could be determined through measurements of a person’s head. These false ideas about our physical, cultural and spiritual inferiority inform the justification of the colonisation of our beautiful Countries within this constructed colonial nation-state. These racialised phenomena need focused critique. (4) How these histories continue to inform our present and are represented in current institutional practice is important.

This personal and theoretical exploration of the archival holdings of the colonial state provides the background to the process of reclaiming the plaster cast of my great-grandmother’s head undertaken and collected by Tindale in the Royal Adelaide Hospital at the time of her death in 1951 and since held by the South Australian Museum. (5) This head cast is one of many hundreds of plaster casts of Aboriginal heads taken as part of a data collection exercise and kept by the museum in its holdings. (6)

The direct imprint of my great-grandmother’s head makes this particular object significant to my family, and because of the ideas that generated these kinds of body casts, the process by which the museum will deal with this matter is of concern to us. This act of collection was not known by Gumillya’s family until recently, and it would appear that no permission for the production or long-term archiving of the cast was given by her relatives. Tindale’s collection therefore represents a knowledge system that has ruptured and violently undermined Indigenous views of knowledge creation as a respectful and ethical endeavour. How these ruptures in ideas could be claimed as points of transformation and how stories are told and retained for future generations are important considerations for representation.

What becomes clear is that there is never just a historical archive; these objects and ideas are as powerful as their operation and occupation within the contemporary imagination. These archives also have a political and material effect: on native title, heritage protection, narratives of nation, and Local, State and Federal Government policy. Indeed, these archives are guarded, remade, recycled and re-articulated by people who are our contemporaries. There is continual contestation over the representation of these ideas.

How can we ever escape what has become fixed within the archive of goonya knowledge about us? (7) How can these arrogant perceptions become transformed? The repositioning of oppressive ideas through critical–creative practice can provide new perspectives, but as Judith Butler points out, these representations are often a movement between what already exists and what is yet to come, how we imagine our Nunga bodies and our children’s subjection into the future:

Exceeding is not escaping, and the subject exceeds precisely that to which it is bound. In this sense, the subject cannot quell the ambivalence by which it is constituted. Painful, dynamic and promising, this vacillation between the already-there and the yet-to-come is a crossroads that rejoins every step by which it is traversed, a reiterated ambivalence at the heart of agency. Power re-articulated is ‘re’-articulated in the sense of already done and ‘re’-articulated in the sense of done over, done again, done anew. (8)

At the heart of ‘re-articulation’ of colonial representations are many criminal acts. When Tindale chose to make a cast of my great-grandmother’s head, and place that cast within the museum collection, he objectified and abjectified her within the colonial archive in perpetuity. He used her head to stabilise the colonial identity in this place. Colonial objects like head casts or photographs are re-articulated acts of violence on us, of what has already been done to us as Aboriginal people. They contain the evidence of how we have been ‘done over’.

What happens then when these ‘objects’ of study become human? When these objects of study become scholars and artists? We become human – because while our families and Elders may have been denied humanity by the European invaders, our people never stopped being, were never frozen in time, were never plants or animals of a lower rung of a constructed false hierarchy, a hierarchy created precisely to justify the stealing of land while allowing those who benefitted from the theft to feel good and righteous about it. Where is the place to mourn (or even forget) the crimes of re-articulation? Where are the memorials, the places of honouring our dead, our lost and heartbroken? How can our public places ever represent what this country is for our people? The beauty and the horror of this violent history remain invisible to most.

The ideas captured in the colonial archive must be collectively reckoned with and this analysis must be more than a reversal of signification. This is not a democracy of meaning. A fundamental challenge we have as Aboriginal people is to make visible our resistance to and refusal of colonial ‘knowing’ and maintain our ways of speaking of our long and short histories, as told by us. This challenge is pressing because of the ongoing erasure of our collective memory and appropriation of our children’s memory through colonising objects, ideas and processes of representation and administration. The challenge involves articulating languages of resistance that form something else. These articulations reconstitute the way we consider the past and loss through our rights as Aboriginal people to remember or, just as importantly, our rights to forget.

This work must seek to undo the ‘order’ of the cruel madness contained in the colonial archive. This decolonising work is also about our miniature worlds, the stories we tell; and the need to identify and include the local and ephemeral, transitory and ungovernable. As Indigenous peoples we are giants of our histories; we are central in our bodies on our Countries and in our intergenerational responsibilities, our loving relationality and our knowledges of place. Indigenous artists can seek to minimise the ‘colonial enclosure’ as a peripheral story at the end of long lawful times. We seek to minimise the oppressive ideas and maximise our transformation from them in the present. These transformed stories must also interrogate ideas of ‘enclosure’ and the ‘internal environment’ of home that make it (un)comfortable for colonisers and ‘easier or more difficult for non-Aborigines to visit’. (9) Our histories are not exclusive; we can all learn from these movements of power, we can all share in these insights.

Our consideration of the decolonising opposite to representations of violent white sovereignty and our response to colonial invasion of our land/body is not about a simple reversal/reflection of these acts; our sovereignty is not the opposite to this attempted possession and collection and ownership of everything. While our mimicry of these acts as described by Homi Bhabha may raise awareness and insight into the familiarity and reiteration and normalisation of colonial violence into the present, it does not heal us who are intergenerationally wounded. (10) While we need to understand and stand opposed to oppressive acts of colonialism, neo-colonialism, imperialism, and the violence and global devastation of our bodies and lands, we cannot live within and endlessly perpetuate this violence of representation; we cannot dwell inside these abject theoretical prisons in order to educate our oppressors. But sometimes we do. We also seek what is outside and beyond, and we respond to the call of our Ancestors; as Natalie Harkin states in our collective work, ‘we are compelled to respond’. (11) ‘The silence is waiting. The silence is waiting.’ (12)

Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak ask, ‘What does it mean to be at once contained and dispossessed by the state?’, explaining:

If the state is what ‘binds’, it is also clearly what can and does unbind. And if the state binds in the name of the nation, conjuring a certain version of the nation forcibly, if not powerfully, then it also unbinds, releases, expels, banishes. (13)

If it is the representations of the colonial state that ultimately ‘contain and dispossess’ us as Indigenous peoples, it is through Indigenous refusal to agree or engage with the unsettled narrative of colonial settlement that makes Indigenous sovereignty ‘unconquered and unconquerable’. (14)

Our relationships to ourselves and to each other exist through our shared embodied knowledge of these hateful representations, these colonial racist texts. These texts form a colonising narrative in our minds as they continue their trajectory as shared presences in our lives; stereotyped ideas are in turn collectively reshaped, reflected, loved/hated/raged against, and variously recast, resisted and refused, to constitute spaces that move around and through us. (15) Our ideas, our laughter, our tears, when shared, lighten the weight of this knowing of the colonisers’ hatred and help us imagine critical–creative landscapes and bodies based on relational sovereignty as love. (16) This is our collective archive fever in our thick present. (17)

Our knowledges that resonate through time as truths are not ‘fixed’ and ‘unchanging’ as a museum display with accompanying label, but instead are ephemeral and inherited and changing with the moment of the telling and voice of the teller and the light in the sky and the relationality of the collective. We are outside these walls. These situated knowledges of indeterminacy can also be related to post-structuralist ways of understanding; but for us, these philosophies always are inherently of Country. These are Indigenous understandings and were well understood by our research-active Ancestors. (18)

When speaking of indeterminacy, of the unknowable intra-action of people and events and place, it is important to clarify that we are not speaking of forgetfulness or arbitrary identity construction that fails to name colonialism’s dehistoricising as the missing moment in ‘the dialectic of modernity’. (19) This work seeks to be the antithesis of that forgetfulness. Our sovereign acts continue.

This essay is an edited excerpt from Ali Gumillya Baker, ‘Camping in the shadow of the racist text’ in Clothilde Bullen & James Tylor (eds), Artlink Indigenous: Kanarn Wangkiny Wanggandi Karlto (Speaking from Inside), vol.38, no.2, June 2018, pp.14–21.


(1) Homi K. Bhabha, ‘In a spirit of calm violence’ in Gyan Prakash (ed.), After Colonialism: Imperial Histories and Postcolonial Displacements, Princeton University Press, 1995, pp.326–343.

(2) For example, the South Australian Museum, South Australian State Records, Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide.

(3) See for example

(4) See for example Ian Hacking, ‘How should we do the history of statistics?’ in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon & Peter Miller (eds), The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, Harvester Wheatsheaf, London, 1991, pp.181–195.

(5) I have since been told that these casts were regularly used to trade for other ‘objects’ and artefacts.

(6) Herbert M. Hale, ‘The first hundred years of the Museum, 1856–1956’, Records of the South Australian Museum, vol.12, South Australian Museum, Adelaide, 1956, p.12.

(7) Goonya is a Kaurna word for white people.

(8) Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Stanford University Press, Ca., 1997, pp.17–18.

(9) Hugh Webb, ‘Say goodbye to the colonial bogeyman: Aboriginal strategies of resistance’, Altitude, vol.6, 2005,

(10) Homi K. Bhabha, ‘Of mimicry and man: the ambivalence of colonial discourse’ in The Location of Culture, Routledge, London, 1994, pp.85–92.

(11) Bound Unbound Collective, floor sheet, Sovereign Acts II, Flinders University Art Museum & City Gallery, Adelaide, TARNANTHI Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, 14 October 2015.

(12) Faye Rosas Blanch & Gus Worby, ‘The silences waiting: young Nunga males, curriculum and rap’, Curriculum Perspectives, vol.30, no.1, 2010, pp.1–13.

(13) Judith Butler & Gayatri C. Spivak, Who Sings the Nation-State?: Language, Politics, Belonging, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2017, p.4.

(14) Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 2011, p.xvi.

(15) For example, see Byrd’s discussion of native motion as an active presence, ibid., p.xvi.

(16) Shawn Wilson, Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods, Fernwood Publishing, Halifax and Winnipeg, 2008, p.80.

(17) See Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2016, p.1.

(18) Linda Tuhiwai Smith, ‘Live up to our talk’, He Manawa Whenua Conference 2013, University of Waikato, indigenousknowledgenetwork. net/2016/07/07/linda-tuhiwai-smith-live-up-to- our-talk/.

(19) Bhabha in Prakash, 1995, op.cit., p. 327.