Unceded: Contesting the national, or Australia is a foreign country

Daniel Browning


The nation is a contested site, just as Australia may be a foreign country. It is possible to speak of multiple nations within the Australian state, abutting each other, and of flashpoints along borders occasionally marked by incursion. Australia is a polymorph, a site always under construction. The National 2017: New Australian Art is as much an intellectual position as a simple equation: the many are enfolded into one. We can manufacture a singular identity, we can codify what it means to be an Australian, and we can exclude those who threaten or complicate the national state of mind.

Australia is a shadow, at best, immaterial, a wraith. It plays out like an in-joke; no-one is quite sure when to laugh, the heart of it known only to those who utterly believe in it. It takes material form in the exercise of power. Indeed, the nation is the fulfilment of power. But in the sepulchre where the faithful bow down is a broken mirror. It is no mistake that the first Aboriginal language terms heard by the colonists were those for ‘go away’. (1) In some languages the term ‘white man’ is synonymous with ghost or corpse; the invaders were imagined to be other-worldly, deathly or simply devoid of life – alive but somehow dead.

The nation, produced in the western mind after the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutionary wars, is an assumed identity that has been manufactured for us. Citizenship of the nation is often a mistake of birth. It is a mass delusion; we adhere to the nation to avoid the risk of exclusion or for an instinctive fear of chaos. In the morbid dread of terror we can designate the extent of citizenship and impose limits on its privileges. Nationality itself is a privilege that can be revoked. In the political rhetoric and historical amnesia we might forget that Australia was born in cruelty and violence and dispossession that unfolded over generations, and that its first ‘citizens’ were deported here on floating hulks under the gun, evicted by structural violence and entrenched class warfare in a deliberate policy of transportation. This mythos, of the poor and landless set upon the sea, finds its parallel today – its endgame – in offshore detention centres, articulated in acts of self-harm and immolation by those we cast as non-citizens.

If I genuinely love my country, what do I love? The enactment of its arbitrary laws, the lines of its imaginary borders, which can be redrawn as territory is excised? Do I love the performance of national identity and the exercise of power in outrages in offshore detention centres, or in the restraining of catatonic, spit-hooded children in mechanical chairs? Do I love the brutalities of invasion, ethnocide, racism and structural violence? Am I invested in these things? If so, what is the nature of my investment? Am I complicit? Do I cede my personal sovereignty to fortify the nation?

The nation is by no means a singular, benign or shared concept to which we all subscribe. It is a matter of negotiation. And there are multiple ways to negotiate power and its fulfilment in the nation. The rule of law is a social construction designed to guarantee certain rights while curtailing others. In exchange for our protection, for the sake of order, we cede to the nation. To be free, we must be constrained. But do we ever pledge allegiance to the nation, if we are born here? How do we express our citizenship?

The nation is an intellectual space, constructed in our minds but imagined collectively; although there will always be disjuncture, ruptures and dissonances. What is imagined to be essentially Australian by one generation might be a matter of negotiation or repudiation for the next. The notion of an exclusive white Australia in which immigration law was drafted to fit certain ethnic and cultural ideas about whiteness is one bitter example. Australia’s national identity is manufactured, inscribed and enacted in certain myths, such as Gallipoli and, to a lesser extent, Kokoda. They are fixed, immutable, sacral. When the corporeal body of the nation – its landmass and borders – is under attack in wartime, myth-makers do better. In the darkness and torpor of blind fear, tilting at shadows, we are paralysed; inertia and entropy are the metaphors of fear. The election of Donald Trump in the US, driven by the cult of personality, expresses not a victory for western democracy or of the humanist ideals of the Enlightenment, but their repudiation.

Our relationship with the law – and the nation is the ultimate legal entity – is almost predetermined. If we are born in a community where the nation is simply an idea, one we rarely experience as an embodied notion to which we feel sympathy or allegiance, we are positioned outside of it. Then again, human behaviour can be so apparently random and self-interested, even dangerous, that it cannot go unchecked. Life is certainly easier if you accept the nation exerting its power over you, if you marvel like a child at fireworks on Australia Day. Nationalism, much like the Southern Cross tattoo, is a performance; at most, it is skin-deep. But humanity is inherently disordered, complicated by individual desires. Any social contract a nation might conclude with its citizens can be outstripped by the economic interests of corporations whose wealth and power exceed those of some developing nations in this particular phase of late capitalism.

The lines along which the nation defines itself are in perpetual flux; what other nation on earth territorialises a beach in Turkey, finding there the moment of its true birth rather than in invasion, genocide and land theft? It is precisely because national identity cannot safely be forged on a continent that is so stained, on sites so contested. Practised by fresh-faced millennial Gallipoli pilgrims, this otherwise ahistorical nationalism honours a bitter defeat, a military rout, a humanitarian disaster. In the spilling of their ancestral blood on foreign soil, these pilgrims find a massacre on which they can reverently perform and embed their fragile national identity. In the western imagination, a nation is forged in violence. Peace is merely the absence of war rather than our natural state.

Bruce Pascoe has staked much of his recent writing on a revision of Australian history that contradicts certain perceptions about Aboriginal land use before, during and after invasion. In 2000, when asked to explain Indigenous economic disadvantage by curious foreign journalists, the Minister for Reconciliation, Philip Ruddock, claimed that Aboriginal people did not invent the wheel (2) or have agriculture. The remarks inspired the deeply political artist Gordon Hookey to create a body of work for his 2001 exhibition Ruddock’s Wheel. (3) While presenting compelling evidence for agricultural economies, including firsthand accounts by explorers who witnessed cultivation practices in the vast inland, Pascoe asserts another extraordinary finding: before invasion, despite glaciation and drought, limited food supply and access to water sources, clans and nations speaking multiple languages enjoyed sustained peace on this continent. Aboriginal people exercised diplomacy and sovereignty while patrolling their own fluid and porous borders, codified and maintained the rule of law, created social structures and kinship systems, managed their clan estates, planted and harvested grain, and thrived on the driest, harshest continent in the world. Moreover, they did not destroy themselves. (4)

The nation into which I was born – by mistake of birth, fortuitously or not – has its counterpoint, its opposite, in the predication of terra nullius. And although it was never encoded in law, as such, it is deeply embedded in the national imaginary, in the national psyche. In fact, without it, nothing we now attribute to the nation would have been possible – even its abrogation in the Mabo decision. To create, they had to nullify. If you declare that everything that was here before you came was void, you can build your nation safely. If you cannot completely and utterly destroy those who occupied the land before you came, you can drive them away, force them into foreign parts or missions and reserves set aside for the purpose, evict them and thus make them landless.

In this war of nullification, when every other weapon has been spent in the physical war, one of the methods you can deploy to defend your rhetorical ground is to manipulate, shape and distort the representation of the first people. Expose them to ridicule, exoticise them, trivialise their culture and bury the evidence. Classify them according to blood quantum. On this basis, set them against each other. Don’t educate them. Find reasons to marginalise them, isolate them from their kin, silence their languages, inculcate them with the power of capital while excluding them from the means of production, and propagate lies and self-loathing. Throughout, introduce diseases for which they have no defence. Overwhelm them with alcohol and steal their children. Break the matrix. If you can exercise control over them, you can write the history you prefer. In the absence of a representation that they can control, they will literally disappear.

The theft of land is the nation’s original sin, and we are haunted by it. Even the return of land, circumscribed by law in native title and decided in the courts, reinstates colonialism – the pivot on which this particular theft hinges. The sovereign power in these transactions is the British Crown, expressed in the nation, the Commonwealth of Australia. The extraordinary project to document the economic history of slavery finds that the inherited wealth of many Britons, including most of the ruling class, draws down on a historical debt, to the human cargo of the slave ships. (5) In the same way, the wealth of the Australian nation draws down on the debt to the first people of this continent. The forgetting is sedative; and yet truth is an aesthetic value.

How can contemporary art practice elide these inconvenient truths, the brute facts of Australian history? There is art in elision, in focusing the national eye on an aesthetic forgetting, however momentary; in the production of a detached beauty we can create utopias, we can be desensitised. In the suspended, wraith-like clouds of Yhonnie Scarce’s installation Death Zephyr (2016–17) we are temporarily blinded to the lingering effects of the British nuclear tests on Aboriginal land across much of inland South Australia in the 1950s. On close inspection, the beauty of the work is subsumed by a deeper sense of national unease, of the excesses of blind ethno-nationalism, the flagrant disregard for human life and indifference to environmental destruction of which nations are capable. It is a perfect bell jar to block out the white noise of political rhetoric.

The work of Khaled Sabsabi, Dale Harding and Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran are antidotes that contest the national. Sabsabi’s multi-channel video Organised Confusion, commissioned for the 24 Frames Per Second exhibition at Carriageworks in 2015, draws a parallel line between the ecstasy and transcendence of worship and the machismo and fanaticism of Western Sydney Wanderers supporters in the grip of a match. In recuperating silence and elision in Australia’s history, Dale Harding’s research-driven practice again exposes the wounds of colonialism – but instead, the fighting stick of his Garingbal ancestors is remade, its form echoed in ochre mined on his Ghungalu Country. In the totemic false gods of Ramesh Nithiyendran, sometimes self-portraits glinting with gold lustre with lurid appendages and a mess of hair, as in the Mud Men series seen at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, over 2016–17 and reappearing here in The Cave installation at Carriageworks, the artist asks some pertinent questions about idolatry, the fetish object and the spiritual in contemporary art.

The National 2017 might displace a singular Australia, if only for a season. It may seem that in the retreat into a corrective history and the memorialisation of certain events from our collective past we will simply miss the urgencies of the present. There is nothing therapeutic or narcissistic in exposing a lie. In a multivalence of signs, like a spectrum of pulsing radio waves, we can find the frequency that seems attuned to our individual desires or fears. When contemporary art is warehoused in biennales, bewilderment and utter confusion are possible. Perhaps this multivalence, the raised voices of Others, is the fear and disaffection that drives recent ideological turns; the decision by a majority of British voters to leave the European Union and the election of the economic protectionist Donald Trump in the US are, on the face of it, challenges to a borderless, globalised world. And globalisation is a cultural as well as economic phenomenon. The National 2017 might expose the fault lines in any fixed notion of Australian national identity and the tectonic moves that are currently underway in global political discourse.


(1) Captain (later Governor) John Hunter of the flagship Sirius records the words ‘wara wara’ being spoken loudly with raised spears during an encounter at Botany Bay in 1788; see J. Bach (ed.), An historical journal of events at Sydney and at sea, 1787–92, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, in association with the Royal Australian Historical Society, 1968. Another colonist, Peter Beveridge, notes the term ‘cum-a-thunga’ being shouted aggressively at his party at Swan Hill in north-western Victoria, which he mistook for a welcome, while the Wada Wurrung word for ‘go away’ persists in Wendouree, a suburb of the Victorian city of Ballarat.

(2) The remarks were made in interviews in 2000, first with Rajiv Chandrasekaran from The Washington Post and then with Le Monde correspondent Bruno Philip, as Australia prepared to host the Sydney Olympics. Philip quoted Ruddock as saying ‘the Aborigines were hunter-gatherers. They did not know the wheel’. Mr Ruddock was simultaneously Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs.

(3) Ruddock’s Wheel was commissioned for the Pacific Wave Festival at Casula Powerhouse, Sydney, in 2001.

(4) Bruce Pascoe’s Dark emu, black seeds: agriculture or accident? was first published by Magabala Books, Broome, in 2014 and was two years later named Book of the Year at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

(5) See the website Legacies of British Slaveownership, an online database established by UCL (University College, London) in partnership with the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/.