Walga Rock Looks Back

Looking back from the well-known “Unknown Great South Land”:

Talking about ships and books in full view of evidence of people having looked back from the shore: Rosemary Hayes and Mike Lefroy, (2016, Oct 13), spoke of “Discovery, wrecks & mutiny”, for a public talk at the Geraldton Regional Library, Western Australia. Their presentation took place during the week of 9-to-16 October 2016 when the Duyfken replica was in Geraldton on its journey north. The “little dove” set sail again on the 16 October for Denham on route to Shark Bay and Hartog Island.

See: The Duyfken 1606 Replica Foundation & Duyfken 2016 Dirk Hartog Commemorative Voyage: http://www.duyfken.com/voyages/2016-Hartog-400th-Anniversary-Voyage/2016_Hartog_400th_Anniversary_Voyage “Dutchman Dirk Hartog and his crew became the first Europeans to walk on Western Australian soil when they landed on an island just north of Shark Bay in 1616. …”

The cover of Rosemary Hayes’ The blue-eyed aborigine (2010, 2016) has a version of the historic image of a ship drawn or inscribed on Walga Rock. Travel east from Geraldton for several hours to Mount Magnet and the actual drawing can be seen on a cave wall west of Cue, in remote WA. The book for young readers by Hayes is a fiction. It is based on the imagined circumstances of real events surrounding two young men who were set adrift on the coast of Western Australia. This was after their involvement in a mutiny on the Abrolhos islands, where the East India Company ship the Batavia was shipwrecked in 1629. W: http://rosemaryhayes.co.uk/blue.htm

When I asked the author about the image of the ship on the book cover, she said it was the designer’s choice. And of course it is not an image of a Dutch ship. The library’s poster publicising the talks by the visiting authors was in response to the book’s cover image, with an actual photograph of the Walga rock art site (taken by one of the staff) because of the specific regional connection to this local place of significance.

Similar to a symposium talk in Perth on colonial art, for the Unknown Land exhibition at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the curious question of the terminology of “discovery” and the “unknown” comes to mind. The organisers at the AGWA did acknowledge that the artist Christopher Pease had already challenged the title. And notably, Pease spoke at the event on “European representation and First Nation experience”, while his artwork Target (2005), is now on the cover of a book edited by Jaynie Anderson et al., (2016), The legacies of Bernard Smith: Essays on Australian art, history and cultural politics.

But the image of the rock drawing of a ship used for Hayes’ book and as seen on the poster in the Geraldton library, demonstrates perhaps paradoxically in this instance that in these two-way experiences, the people of the land had looked back at the European visitors seeing this “unknown” country. The lands represented were already occupied and the people living there recorded their encounter with these foreign ship-people by illustrating the vessel.

The European experience of seeing Australia for the “first” time was a discovery from their offshore point of view, and representing the land as the great southern unknown is part of that history. But at the same time the people living here knew the land already. It was not “unknown” to the first people. It was their Known Land.

Footnotes:

To be reminded of this by now often-repeated qualification might be a moot point. Although, if you would like to see more about the drawing site, go to the video of the traditional Aboriginal guardians and listen to the people speaking about their place today. W: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-09-15/creating-tourism-and-jobs-at-walga-rock/7848162 Christopher Lewis, (2016, Sept 15). WA’s largest Aboriginal rock art gallery hopes to attract tourists, create jobs. The Australian ABC News.

Unknown Land. Exhibition. Art Gallery of Western Australia. W: http://www.artgallery.wa.gov.au/exhibitions/unknown-land.asp

Colonisation & wilderness: Nineteenth-century American and Australian landscape painting. Symposium, 27 to 28 September 2016, collaboration between the Art Gallery of Western Australia and the University of Western Australia and the Terra Foundation of American Art in support.

Currently there is also a touring social history exhibition, Descendants of the VOC, Presented by Make Smoking History, A photographic essay by Geert Snoeijer and Nonja Peters, Western Australian Museum W: http://museum.wa.gov.au/museums/geraldton/descendants-voc

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