Last year painter Vincent Namatjira visited the Australian War Memorial along in Canberra, with other young artists from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. It was during this trip that they saw first-hand how the memorial displays a largely non-Indigenous military perspective. Upon returning home to the APY Lands, Namatjira and others felt it was necessary to show an Indigenous understanding of this history, which lead to the exhibition Weapons for the soldier.
Showing at Hazlehurst Arts Centre, Weapons for the Soldier brings together 41 Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to reflect on warfare and the inherent drive to protect country, family and culture. Instigated by young male artists of the APY Lands, Namatjira along with Aaron Ken, Derek Thompson, Anwar Young and Kamurin Young, the show is supported by senior artists. In addition, the wide-spanning exhibition features the work of 14 invited artists who don’t work in the APY Lands, including Tony Albert, Brook Andrew, Shaun Gladwell, Richard Lewer, Uncle Charles ‘Chicka’ Madden and Ben Quilty.
As the first Anangu-curated exhibition involving non-Indigenous creators, Weapons for the Soldier looks at protection and warfare in varying ways. In particular Namatjira’s portraits of Indigenous soldiers give representation to an often-overlooked Indigenous military history. Backed by extensive research, many of Namatjira’s portraits are based on archival photos from World War I and they give recognition to Indigenous soldiers who volunteered their services, even though at that time they were not considered Australian citizens. “I did those paintings as a tributes,” explains Namatjira. “Back then they wouldn’t have been treated properly and they would have gone through a hard life. But they also stood up and volunteered.”
“Protecting country are key words and to me they sound very strong,” says Namatjira. “It’s keeping country strong and keeping culture strong.” For Namatjira, this partly involves the sharing of Indigenous culture and experiences through peaceful, artistic forms.
In this way, the show doesn’t merely take a military angle, but considers the overarching fight for Indigenous culture and pride, and how this links with the importance of creating art. “It’s not really only about the military,” says Namatjira. “It’s about coming together and connecting, and connecting other artists. Art can touch people, right? And that’s what I want to say.”
After launching at Hazelhurst Arts Centre, Weapons for the Soldier will tour regionally throughout Australia in 2019.