That great mythical work

Sunil Badami


Like many words, ‘national’ is at once too immense, too diffuse, too complicated and contradictory, and somewhat inadequate. Where do we begin digging up what it really means? How can we even identify what makes something national?

It’s a question that has been wrestled with across the world. ‘A national identity’, mused the Northern Irish playwright Brian Friel in 2000, ‘I’m not quite sure what that means’. He calls his country one of a ‘maimed people’, where the language that was once in use is now gone. As he explained:

When you’re trying to identify yourself, that means you’ve got to produce documents, you’ve got to produce sounds, you’ve got to produce images that are going to make you distinctive in some way. If there’s a sense of decline in this country, it’s because we can’t readily produce these identification marks. (1)

Although Friel was talking of his own divided, colonised, maimed country, he could have been talking of ours, of the nations, languages and cultures that were erased by colonisation and our ongoing contentious debates about multiculturalism and assimilation.

Our country’s self-proclaimed Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Tony Abbott, remarked on this divide in 2013:

Our climate, our land, our people, our institutions rightly make us the envy of the earth, except for one thing: we have never fully made peace with the First Australians. This is the stain on our soul … until we have acknowledged that, we will be an incomplete nation and a torn people. (2)

Both statements go to the heart of our anxieties about our national identity, in the same fraught debates we have every year over our national day, our national anthem, our national flag, our national head of state, and what it means to be ‘Australian’ or, worse, ‘unAustralian’. Given such confusion over our national symbols, what are the documents, sounds and images that reflect our national identity? And what makes art, of all things, national? Much less someone an Australian national, when, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has rightly pointed out, ‘none us can look in the mirror and say “All Australians look like me”’? (3) 

We often confuse the idea of a nation with that of a state, even if the concept of the nation-state – as clumsily conjoined as any hyphenation, such as Indian-Australian or post-modern – reveals the disjuncture between the two. But the nation-state is increasingly irrelevant in this globalised, multinational age, where capital and terror can move freely. Many of us – diasporic, multiracial, multicultural – continue to challenge ideas of what is and isn’t Australian, even as our identities are too complicated to define in simple terms, making the idea of that inferred affinity between nation and state as blurry and nebulous as our ‘sovereign’ borders.

Ours is a country of great laconic spaces, considered by colonists and explorers as terra nullius: empty land, free for the taking, even as its art has always been deeply concerned with the country. Such concerns were manifest in the art ritually inscribed into the land itself – engravings and paintings on rocks, bark, sand and bodies described the country, its lore and law.

Far from being empty, the country was – and is – alive. ‘If you could listen to Country, what would you hear? Is it a hum, an echo or a chorus?’ asks artist and broadcaster Daniel Browning. ‘Some say the concept of “deep listening” is being alert to everything – even silence. But is it too abstract – or is it a way to deepen the conversation?’ (4)

It’s not a conversation the early colonists had. While the convict painter Thomas Watling could in 1794 appreciate the rock art engravings created by the Eora – they were ‘extremely fond of painting, and often sit hours by me when at work’ (5) – he, like so many other newcomers to the colony, couldn’t appreciate their art or language, describing figures engraved on rocks as ‘outré’ and saying that ‘to an European ear the articulation seems uncommonly wild and barbarous’. (6)

It is not just history that is written by the victors but the landscape itself: geographical, political and cultural. Australia’s landscape has been reinscribed by European victors, with too many Indigenous placenames erased along with the language of the people who lived here and, often, the people themselves. As Delia Falconer observed in her magisterial survey of Sydney, white Australia’s oldest colony:

The language and stories of the Eora that made sense of the place are largely gone, and were ignored from the outset … seeming to set an irrevocable pattern, an awareness on the colonists’ part of an elusive gap between language and place that still haunts the city.

It is also possible to see this as the founding moment of our tendency to overburden the landscape with the expectation that it can somehow stand in for the enormity of what has been lost in the swift decimation of the Eora’s language and culture. (7)

Grappling with the lines and curves of Australian trees, its fauna and its original people, the landscapes of colonial artists such as John Glover, Conrad Martens and Watling reveal that disconnection between land and language, everything more projection than reflection. These scenes are as unrecognisable to us today, as the landscape was foreign to the early colonists then, the Eora consigned to the margins artistically as they were politically and physically.

In Eugene von Guérard’s 1861 painting Mr John King’s Station, Aboriginal figures are foregrounded in what seems a bucolic scene. But the title gives it away. This is Mr John King’s Station, fenced-in, closed-off and disconnected from the ‘wilderness’ surrounding it; the depth of knowledge, the songs and stories, and the connections between the landscape and the people who inhabited it, are disregarded.

‘If you sing the landscape and your knowledge is embedded in it’, the science writer Lynne Kelly observed, ‘and somebody puts a fence across it and stops you, that’s equivalent to knocking down a university’. In researching oral traditions and memory methods, with a particular focus on Australian Aboriginal cultures, Kelly has begun to understand the landscape as integral to not only a sense of place but to belonging:

I’ve become unbelievably emotionally attached to my landscape. How much more intense must that be for people who are inheriting their prior generations’ knowledge and brought up with this invigorated landscape that is alive with characters? (8)

Australia, like its art and its history, is a mythical great work. Not just in the ancient, almost forgotten stories of the Dreaming but in those that followed.Terra nullius. ‘Australia for the White Man.’ Sovereign borders. Team Australia.

From the White Australia policy to the Intervention, Reclaim Australia to the One Nation Party, all are rooted in the same anxieties of alienation and dispossession, and projected onto both those who have always been here and those who have come across the seas. Our culture of forgetting allows our colonial heritage to be just as easily destroyed as our Aboriginal culture, the sell-offs of the Hungry Mile and Millers Point revealing the irony of naming such stolen land ‘Barangaroo’ after the Eora woman who most fiercely resisted the British.

Our nation isn’t only diminished by the way our borders have shrunk, with external territories excised from a constantly revised immigration zone, revealing their, and our, essential insecurities, but by the way so many of us – Indigenous, migrant, female, gay and ‘other’ – are marginalised in politics, the media or detention camps.

In declaring and waging the ‘culture’ and ‘history wars’ that defined his prime ministership, John Howard took issue with his predecessor Paul Keating’s 1992 call in Redfern to ‘bring the dispossessed out of the shadows’. Keating admitted doing so was ‘a test of our self-knowledge. Of how well we know the land we live in’. (9) In response, Howard voiced his opposition to both Indigenous history and immigration, saying that if multiculturalism ‘means you emphasise diversity rather than unity, then I do have a problem with it’. (10) ‘You use the language which best expresses the feeling you have’, he explained, ‘and I prefer to use the expression integration’. (11) There was to be no further negotiation: anyone who disagreed with Howard’s idea of Australia was labelled ‘unAustralian’.

But who was the ‘we’ Howard and his heirs spoke of? What did that ugly word even mean, given how much confusion there has always been about what ‘Australia’ itself means? And why should diversity preclude unity? Why, asked Salman Rushie in his seminal essay ‘Imaginary Homelands’, ‘should we be excluded from any part of our heritage, whether it’s being treated as a full part of western society, or drawing on our roots for our art?’ (12)

What place does art have in such a country? And where can we, those of us inhabiting the fringes of the Australian political, historical, cultural and geographical landscape, find places that accommodate us rather than confine and define us?

We can glimpse those multiplicities in the way that different Indigenous and immigrant Australian artists have engaged with questions of their hybrid identities and their relationship to the nation in their work, from those honouring ancient traditions passed from one generation to the next, to those adapting ancient traditions and myths and practising new methods and ways. They offer us new ways of seeing them – and ourselves – in the national landscape.

And we can hear it in the way that many Aboriginal people are now reclaiming and reviving language that was silenced by colonisation and assimilation, reconnecting to the songs and stories of the past. The Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi journalist Stan Grant speaks of his father, Stan Grant Senior, and how language tells us not just who we are but where we are:

My father has language that speaks to his sense of place. The birds, the rocks, the trees, the hills and the waters have names that echo through millennia. To hear these words fall from his tongue is to know who he is and where he is. (13) 

But like so many of us in this multicultural nation, Grant prefers a ‘layered identity’: ‘I am the sum of many parts’. (14) For those of us who wish to be seen as more than our religion or gender or sexuality or disability, or as more than where we or our parents are ‘really’ from, Australia isn’t a collection of borders or placenames any more than it is fixed by its untold representations in song, text, art and symbol. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of where and who we are now, a remembering of where we’ve come from and who we once were, and an imagining of what we can be.

But these ideas, like the nation itself, can only be enriched and expanded by constantly discussing and questioning them; not by being limited to any particular definition of ‘Australianness’ or ‘unAustralianness’.

As Sydney Festival Director Wesley Enoch has observed of his own storied family heritage – Indigenous, Filipino, Spanish, Pacific Islander, British and more – we’re all a reflection of ‘a vast array of cultures’. He added:

Like this country, my family is not neatly divided and shelved … and like this country, it is impossible to separate out or deny any part of that genealogical history, for to deny any one aspect is to invite a deep self-loathing and external hatred of the thing one fears within oneself. The kind of self-denial that, if pursued, can only create instability and self-harm. We are the sum of all these parts and inheritors of myriad ways of living. (15)

Art can offer us an imaginative ‘third place’ between cultures, where unheard voices can be heard, unanswerable questions can be asked and unremembered dreams can be realised. A borderless country where anyone – Anglo-Australian or Indigenous-Australian or Indian-Australian, anyone inbetween or even outside the hyphens – can find their own place and inscribe their own meaning, adding to rather than erasing the vocabulary of the nation’s language and culture.

After all, what’s outside the frame but Australia, and us?

It is reflected in art practice itself, the repeated gestures, motifs and themes becoming a kind of ceremony in the pursuit of that mythical great work.

Like songlines, these repetitions and revisions accrete, stroke after stroke and layer upon layer, in an artist’s work and in the work of those who follow them, becoming a chorus of colours and voices, even as they reveal new differences and subtle nuances in the melody. These simple acts, this dedication, bring us together in our common humanity rather than dividing us for political gain.

Art doesn’t just look in, but out, not only backwards, but forwards, connecting us to the past, the present and the future, and to each other, enabling us not only to see what is but to imagine what might be.

Art isn’t one colour, one shade, one line. It’s a multitude; intersecting, juxtaposing, streaming out in infinite directions. It doesn’t purport to tell us a simple answer but seeks to ask us important questions. It doesn’t show us how we imagine ourselves, or how we want to see ourselves, but what we didn’t see and, even more, what we might see, if we look carefully in the right places. It transcends both national and personal borders, asking us to look inside – and beyond – ourselves.

Art doesn’t talk down to us; it speaks to us in a dialogue between the past and the future, a palimpsest rather than an erasure, a connection rather than a definition, a conversation rather than a dictation.

The national is each of us. It’s all of us. Whatever that may be, whatever we make of it, whatever that makes us.


(1) Brian Friel, quoted in Brian Friel, Noel Pearson (dir.), Ferndale Films, Dublin, 2000.

(2) Tony Abbott, quoted in Hansard, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Recognition Bill 2012: Second Reading Speech, Australian Parliament House, 13 February 2013, p.1123.

(3) Malcolm Turnbull, Facebook post, 8 October 2015, accessed 16 November 2016,

(4) Daniel Browning, ‘Listening to Country’, Awaye!, ABC Radio National, 11 February 2012.

(5) Thomas Watling, Letters from an exile at Botany Bay, to his aunt in Dumfries, giving a particular account of the settlement of New South Wales, with the customs and manners of the inhabitants, Ann Bell, Penrith, Scotland, 1794 pp.11–12.

(6) ibid., p.11.

(7) Delia Falconer, Sydney, NewSouth, Sydney, 2010, pp.21–27.

(8) Lynne Kelly, quoted in ‘The Indigenous memory code’, All in the mind, ABC Radio National, 3 July 2016.

(9) Paul Keating, ‘The Redfern address’, 10 December 1992, transcribed at AustralianScreen, accessed 16 November 2016,

(10) John Howard, quoted in Mark Metherell, ‘Unity, not diversity, is PM’s word’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 December 2006,

(11) ibid.

(12) Salman Rushdie, ‘Imaginary homelands’, Imaginary homelands: essays and criticism 1981–91, Granta Books, Cambridge, 1992, p.15

(13) Stan Grant, ‘If language tells us who we are, then who am I?’, The Guardian, 31 August 2016,

(14) ibid.

(15) Wesley Enoch, address at 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards ceremony, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney,16 May 2016.