Illuminating a Forgotten History

This personal reflection is part of a series called Turning Points, in which writers explore what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead. You can read more by visiting the Turning Points series page.

The following is an artist’s interpretation of the year — how it was or how it might be, through the lens of art.

Until recently, we’ve been taught a whitewashed version of history that fails to mention the atrocities that occurred on Australian soil. An Australian national consciousness is beginning to build to uncover buried truths that once were a bone of contention.

My recent work, “shadow bone,” is a video layered with documents sourced from Queensland State Archives. Some of these materials detail massacres of Aboriginal people in Australia during a period known as “the killing times.” The video includes images from the sketchbook of a young Aboriginal man named Oscar, who lived in Far North Queensland in the late 1880s and drew what he remembered of these brutal events. According to the historian Jonathan Richards, violence against Aboriginal people goes back to 1606, when the Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon landed in Australia. “The killing times” violence increased after the British First Fleet arrived in 1788. The last officially sanctioned massacre of Aboriginal people occurred in 1928, but there may have been unrecorded killings later in the 20th century.

While some historical accounts may try to erase what happened out of shame, mortal remains won’t fade away as easily. I’ve included both skeletal and dental X-rays from my family in my film. My dentist even offered his own dental X-rays when I explained my project. He is from Taiwan and understands the importance of acknowledging the devastating history of colonization. Teeth and bones are not only the physical remains of specific people; they are also symbolic of the many Black and Aboriginal lives lost at the hands of the Australian colonial authorities.

Judy Watson’s film features X-rays symbolizing the many unrecorded killings of Black and Aboriginal people that took place during Australia’s colonial period. In this frame, Ms. Watson reminds viewers not to overlook Aboriginal history by placing an X-ray on top of historical documents.Credit…Judy Watson, “shadow bone” courtesy Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

Many of these bones have not been returned to where they rightfully belong. Hetti Perkins, a curator of Arrernte and Kalkadoon heritage, wrote that my work referencing ancestral remains in museums shows “our skeletons in your closets.” Around the world, Indigenous communities are negotiating to bring their ancestral remains and artifacts back home.

To be a visionary, you need to take risks. When more traditional mediums fall short, new multimedia approaches are required. Artists thrive when they can experiment with the transformative shapeshifting nature of media, materials and ideas. They push against the boundaries of race, gender and authority, exposing hidden stories and environmental and global disasters.

In “shadow bone,” my hands are seen opening and closing against sunlight. I recorded the video of the sunlight dancing on the water at Warrane (Sydney Harbor) with my cellphone. The audio in the background of the video is the sound of the traffic on Sydney Harbour Bridge. You can also hear the noise from the water slapping against the rocks below the bridge. My friend and artist colleague, Rosemary Laing, leaned over my shoulders and filmed me as I expanded and contracted my hands to let in the sunlight.

This multilayered image from “shadow bone” showcases themes of lightness and darkness. In her film, Judy Watson included clips of her hands opening and closing to convey the action and inaction of covering up distasteful events from the past.Credit…Judy Watson, “shadow bone” courtesy Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

I wanted to animate the action and inaction of blocking out distasteful events and unpalatable facts. This effect draws on what these tragedies mean in the context of the past, the present and the future. Black deaths in police custody are still occurring. Frontier wars were fought in Australia and need to be acknowledged. While it may be painful to recall, we have a shared history that must be recognized and remembered. My video is an integral part of my latest exhibition, “skeletons,” curated by Amanda Hayman, a proud Wakka Wakka and Kalkadoon woman and co-director of the consultancy Blaklash Creative.

Both in my work and life, I am inspired by my great-great-grandmother Rosie, who survived a massacre in the Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) area of North West Queensland. She concealed herself by putting stones on her body to weigh herself down underwater, where she breathed through strawlike reeds. Because she survived, we are here.

Now it is up to us to bring these stories of survival into the light.

Judy Watson is a Waanyi artist living in Brisbane, Australia. Her exhibition “skeletons,” curated by Amanda Hayman, is on view at Queensland State Archives, Brisbane. Amanda Hayman and Jonathan Richards contributed to this essay. Queensland State Archives provided additional historical details.

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