Unknown Land pictures country Indigenous Australians already knew well
Unknown Land is a portrait of one historical perspective; the European gaze, freshly fixed upon Western Australia, exploring and describing the land with flourishes of colonial poetry.
European arrival in Western Australia was situated across a string of coastal sites: the Swan River colony (Perth), King George Sound in Albany, Australind, Augusta, Busselton and the northwest corner. Curated by Melissa Harpley, Unknown Land charts the establishment of homes and towns in a land that some immigrants found challenging, while others savoured its difference.
Many images of colonial landscapes were designed to beguile the British, trumpeting the prospects of WA as a fertile commonwealth appendage.
For example botanist Charles Fraser’s official illustrations and the work of Frederick Darling, who accompanied James Stirling on forays along the Swan. Other artists produced odes to the bush, romances about their little pieces of a beautiful country. Harpley describes how successive prints depict “the land heavily wooded, then later cleared, with farmhouses and European cattle. One intimate recording is a watercolour on the back of a letter, of Henry Reveley’s house and garden, and the little water mill he built to grind his flour.” Picturesque indeed, but the story goes deeper.
Unknown Land showcases the incoming Western perspective (Dutch, French and British) on Australian landscape from the late 18th into the 19th century. There is one historical Indigenous work in the show, a sketchbook from the 1860s by George Coolbul, donated by a Bunbury missionary, which serves to highlight the fact that the land was already occupied.
Needless to say, Unknown Land seems like a strange title choice. It provokes the question, unknown towhom? Yet Harpley is the first to note that any notion of Western Australia being “a tabula rasa” is spurious. “I am keen for audiences to see that there isn’t one true story,” she explains. “It’s not an unknown land to the Aboriginal people who lived here prior to the moment the exhibition looks at.”
Rather, Harpley insists that this exhibition is a way of revealing the craft of image making. “Looking at images of familiar locations like the Swan River, ” she says, “can help people understand how images are made; how they construct place; and to ask what is in the images, what has been left out.”
Colonial collections are unforgiving creatures. As Harpley says, colonial artists sought to “make sense of the Indigenous inhabitants and foreign landscapes they encountered.” But this story simply doesn’t fly in contemporary Australia, because it is a narrative into which Indigenous culture and presence barely figures.
The title Unknown Land unearths a defunct, mono-perspectival attitude that no longer represents Western Australian culture, and is therefore heavily chaperoned by historical contextualisation and cultural acknowledgement. Harpley uses “scare quotes” when referring to the “settlement story” of Western Australia, and rightly so, because that story is hotly contested. Concurrent high-calibre State Gallery exhibitions like Gifts to the Fallen and Dissenting Voices, which celebrate the power, richness and subtleties of Indigenous culture, do much to demonstrate the distance between then and now.
In the end, one question keeps demanding a response. If “unknown land” is a phrase that does not reflect the political standpoint of the exhibition or gallery, and cannot be used to describe Australian history, then why are such terms still in use?