The 1967 referendum was Australia’s most unanimous ever, and a landmark of Aboriginal political history. A 90 per cent majority voted to amend the constitution, giving Aboriginal people unmitigated citizenship and allowing the government to legislate specifically for Aboriginal interests. Fifty years on, curator Clothilde Bullen has sought perspectives and remembrances about the referendum from Aboriginal arts communities around WA, including Warringarri, Warmun, Mangkaja, Warlayirti, Warakurna, Yamaji, Martumili and Noongar artists.
While status and service benefits would flow from the referendum, a surprising number of Aboriginal people found they were affected adversely or not at all. After fair pay was instated, Noongar shearers in the South West and pastoral workers in the Kimberley were driven away, off their home country, in favour of cheaper labour. Elsewhere, the high level policy never reached the ground. “The Martumili Mob told me their circumstances didn’t change at all,” says Bullen. “It reminded me of Chicken Little, crying ‘the sky is falling!’ While we celebrate 50 years, we also need to consider what the real, sometimes unexpected impacts have been.”
A crowd of carved Balga shafts collected by Noongar artist Sharyn Egan, titled The Nullians, articulates this gulf. At first the carvings seem identical, but closer inspection reveals an array of unique designs.
Underpinning the exhibition are expressions of the “uninterruptible” nature of Aboriginal connection to country. While legal citizenship was important, many communities felt their custodianship of country a more immediate sort of citizenship, predating and unswayed by any governance. Live sand animations by Mangkaja artist Mervyn Street give a direct account of his belonging and responsibility to the land where he grew up and drove cattle, using only his hands and the dusty earth itself.