Professor Greg Lehman is one of the nation’s foremost voices on Tasmanian Aboriginal history and culture. The art historian, curator and essayist, a descendant of the Trawulwuy people of north-east Tasmania, got her start in the life sciences. Lehman, co-curator of the 2018 flagship exhibition The National Picture: The Art of Tasmanian Black Warfare, sees art as a form of visual ecology. “Art is like birdwatching,” he says. “It’s the trail that remains, the tracks in the sand.”
Next week, Lehman presents on The Australian Wars, an SBS documentary series by Rachel Perkins that chronicles the enormity of the border war and how the history of Aboriginal resistance upends colonial claim on this continent. These tensions, says Lehman, are alive in Conciliationa history painting made in 1840 by the artist Benjamin Duterrau.
Talk to me about Conciliation. Benjamin Duterrau is a colonial painter born in London to parents of French origin. He emigrated to Van Diemen’s Land in the 1830s. What attracted you to his work?
I was unaware of painting until I moved to Hobart for college in 1979. I grew up in the north west of Tasmania in a small coastal town [Ulverstone]. Conciliation has hung in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery for many years. It was passionate. It took me 30 or 40 years to realize my interest.
One of the challenges is trying to recover our cultural knowledge of what happened in Tasmania. It’s a microcosm of how things were with the whole of Australia. But Van Diemen’s Land is an island. It was easier for [the British] completely eliminate the natives. In the Swan River and in New South Wales there was this vast hinterland where the Aborigines could retreat, whereas here in Tasmania there was a thing called the black line. The governor allocates more than half of the colony’s budget to equip every able-bodied man – convicts, soldiers, constables, free settlers – for the purpose of establishing a series of lines to lead the Aborigines of Tasmania, still living on their Country , to a small isthmus. called Eaglehawk Neck.
It was envisaged that the Aborigines could be captured and sent to an island where they would be away from the settlers. This is the first example of permanent offshore detention in Australia, which she still practices against people she does not want. Old habits die hard in colonial societies. By the time photography came to Van Diemen’s Land in the early 1840s, the Aboriginal population here was no more than 60 or 80 people. It goes from a population of 8,000 to 10,000. It happened in a lifetime.
Conciliation revolves around George Augustus Robinson, who was a “conciliator” between the native community and white settlers from 1829 to 1834. This painting shows him as a savior – that notion of benevolent white settlers, of course, justified so many border disputes in Tasmania and elsewhere. What intrigues you in this portrait?
This scene theoretically concerns Robinson’s encounter with a group known as the Big River Mob. It was a confederation of a number of First Nations whose population had been decimated. They had formed themselves into an armed guerrilla of 30 or 40 people who were attacking the settlers at the border. Robinson traveled to the Derwent Valley and convinced them to accompany him to Hobart. He said, “If you come with me, I’ll send a letter to the governor accepting your requests.” When they arrived in Hobart, they were met by the governor but then held on a ship before being sent to Bass Strait. This speaks to the darkest intent when it comes to First Nations sovereignty.
Each part of the painting has a fascinating story. Robinson stands there with that oratorical gesture. Robinson was a London Mason as well as an Evangelical Christian. He was very well paid to conciliate the natives. The converging lines of the painting designate the woman. She is quite key – she is the one who remains to be convinced. The guy shaking hands accepts his assurances: If you agree to come with me, I assure you that the government will protect you. He has his hand on another Native as if to say, “It’s okay, it’s for the best.
Of the two seated men, one straightens a spear. This, with the spears in the background, is meant to create the tension that at any moment it could all crumble into conflict. The wallaby in the front is nose to nose with the dog. It is the kangaroo dog and for a long time the economy of the colony relied on them. Dogs in classical painting are a symbol of fidelity and trust. The academic traditions that shaped French and British painting were inspired by the Italian Renaissance – they were all concerned with religious allegory. Every gesture, every object had symbolic value, was a clue to something else – which had either biblical proportions or moral and ethical implications.
Of the 14 Aboriginal figures in this painting, the only man who does not wear a traditional necklace, a symbol of an unbroken connection to the land in Tasmanian Aboriginal culture, shakes hands with Robinson.
If you look to the far right, there’s a man holding the necklace, gesturing. The man who made the deal with Robinson, his necklace is already gone. To me, necklaces are like a time capsule. Duterrau dropped these things into the paint and they explode with resonance.
Although colonial paintings in New South Wales often feature Aboriginal people, this was not the case in Tasmania. What distinguishes Duterrau?
Duterrau’s parents were both Huguenots and I discovered that both of his paternal grandparents were imprisoned in France. The treatment of Protestants in Catholic France is dramatic and savage. It would have been etched in family history. Duterrau arrived in 1832 and the Big River Mob had been brought to the town of Hobart in January of that year. I don’t think he could have escaped some sympathy for the way the natives had been treated because of what his family had gone through. But how to prove this? I do not know.
In New South Wales, typical colonial scenes show Aborigines positioned in the foreground holding a spear. These artists produced the same compositions for Hobart and Sydney but there are no Aboriginal people in the Van Diemen’s Land scenes. In the 1820s, when these images were created, Aboriginal people were actively trying to drive out settlers. My take is that there was an intentional desire to shape the visual representation of Van Diemen’s Land to avoid the issue of indigenous peoples. How do you persuade people to bring their earthly wealth and family to Van Diemen’s Land if they know they have to defend their land grant? There was a fairly intentional decision by the governors who had control over the art produced by convicts and other officers.
Owning the past is the way to freedom. We do this through honesty, not duplicity. One of the reasons why artists like Duterrau painted these scenes is as an expression of lamentation. This was the first wave of memorials in Australia.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 17, 2022 as “Greg Lehman”.
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