Retracing a Tense Past

Feature

In Queens Domain in Hobart there is a copse of eucalyptus, she-oak and wattle trees. Within this small forest, which sits next to a colonial building historically used to store ammunitions, is a site where the Mouheneenner people lived before settlement. And it is here that Tasmanian Aboriginal artist Julie Gough hung 180 posters from the limbs of trees as part of the Museum of Old and New Art’s (Mona) Dark Mofo festival. Missing person posters were often nailed to trees, as were government proclamations to the Aboriginal people, and Gough alludes to this history through her memorial posters, with each telling the story of an Aboriginal child who disappeared during the early years of colonisation.

Yet these children were never officially listed as missing: instead, Gough has pieced together their lives by scouring historical records, including government documents, letters and journals.

Such meticulous research is intrinsic to Gough’s practice, which seeks to recover history. The artist works from charged archives, sites and objects to reveal hidden accounts, both collective and personal, that question and interrogate colonial narratives.

These lines continue in Julie Gough: Tense Past, showing at Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), and of course, the temporary off-site installation Missing or Dead, the title of Gough’s posters of missing children. “What Julie wanted to do with these posters is find out who these children were and what happened to them,” says Mary Knights, curator of Julie Gough: Tense Past and senior curator at TMAG. “I’ll give you an example,” she says, explaining how each poster features archival information, alongside a pronouncement of lost, missing or dead. ‘There was one child who was lost. The child’s name is Toobelongter. The child was also known as Margaret Douglas Pearson, and Julie has some information about her: the child was born around 1820, lived in Oyster Bay and was captured at about five years of age during a raid on her people at Little Swanport. Her brother Alexander was also captured; during the raid both [Toobelongter’s] legs were broken. She was disabled for life. She lived about another two years with a family named the Talbots, but by age seven she’d been given to someone else at Campbell Town.” Knights pauses before adding, “And there are 180 children, so you understand…” As Toobelongter’s harrowing biography sinks in, so does the realisation that this is only one story of 180. Each of the lives represented in Gough’s posters tell of the immediately personal, violent disruptions wrought by early settlers.

For Knights, what draws together Missing or Dead and Tense Past, and indeed Gough’s practice at large, is the artist’s pursuit “to uncover and re-present subsumed and often conflicting histories” and in doing so, she often refers to her own and her family’s experience as Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Every artwork in Tense Past pivots off this statement. While the show includes major installation and video works such as The Gathering (2015) and Hunting Ground videos (2016-17), it also includes sound and sculptural works that Gough has created in response to the TMAG collection (and the collection’s colonial origins), as well as artefacts from collections throughout the country.

Julie Gough, Hunting Ground (pastoral), 2016-17, video (still). Courtesy of the artist.

This engagement happens in many ways: in a new sound piece titled Luna Riabi (Song), Gough has engaged with the musical score Song of the Aborigines (1856), which was arranged by Maria Logan, an Irish piano teacher who transcribed Aboriginal music and words in the early 19th century. “For Tasmanian Aboriginal people much of the language was disrupted during the colonisation period,” says Knights. “To actually have a score that has Tasmanian Aboriginal language is quite special, and Julie is going to sing and record this song, which will be played back as a sound installation that will seep through the exhibition.”

In further engaging with colonial artefacts, TMAG and Gough have gathered objects as widespread as convict shoes, British cutlery and an original map indicating the ‘Black Line’ – the latter referring to events in 1830 when settlers attempted to confine, capture and relocate Indigenous Tasmanians by waging frontier and military-supported violence.

Gough’s response to such objects and events is both challenging and poetic: for one work, Gough has borrowed the Bothwell Cup, which in 1835 was given to George Augustus Robertson, a bricklayer known as the ‘Chief Protector of Aborigines’. He was awarded the silver cup for what settlers perceived as his ‘successful conciliation’ between settlers and Aboriginals of the island (in essence, this conciliation was the persuasion of Aboriginal Tasmanians to submit to government protection and relocation). In response, Gough travelled to Bothwell, dug clay from the ground, and fashioned a lid for the cup. “She talks about the Bothwell Cup as unfinished business,” explains Knights. “She wants to finish it.”

In giving voice to hidden stories, Gough’s task is not only historical – she also demonstrates how remembering such histories can impact the present and future. In an essay on Gough’s work, Joseph Pugliese wrote how the ‘forgetting’ of colonial violence played (and still plays) a role in founding the nation, writing, “the violence of this [colonial] history is precisely what had to be forgotten by non-Indigenous Australians in order to preserve the myth of the Australian nation as a state that has never experienced war on its own terrain.” Gough reveals and interrogates such erased histories through her practice, reorienting individual and collective notions of Australia’s past. As Knights affirms, “It’s about not forgetting.”

Julie Gough: Tense Past
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
7 June—3 November

This article was originally published in the July/August 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Tiarney Miekus