REVIEW: Subject to Debate – Melissa Lucashenko at British Museum
By Ivor Wells
I got an inkling of where Melissa Lucashenko’s lecture ‘Black, White & Brindle: Aboriginality in an age of unreason’ might be taking us the moment she was introduced by a painfully nervous British Museum staffer who needed her help pronouncing Mullumbimby.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard someone in one of London’s most learned institutions maroon themselves on the first syllable of a foreign word, as if it had suddenly reared up out of the sentence like a barely submerged reef.
Melissa hadn’t even arrived on stage and there was already a crackle of tension in the air.
This’ll be interesting, I thought.
And indeed it was.
It was a challenging, informative and at times graphic talk, even if the question of its venue – the British Museum in the old imperial metropolis – became the main issue for most of the audience. After all, Empire and the language of Empire featured heavily in what Melissa had to say.
She began with a recent news story.
“What did this Roman ever do for us?” asked indigenous lawyer and land rights activist, Noel Pearson last year in reference to a Monty Python sketch.
He was giving a eulogy at a memorial service for the former Australian Prime Minister, Gogh Whitlam, challenging the ease with which Whitlam’s achievements had been forgotten by some.
They included, during his three short years in office from 1972-1975, the Racial Discrimination Act which finally brought Australia into line with international norms and began the process of Aboriginal land reform.
“The achievements of this old man”, Pearson said, “are present in the institutions we today take for granted.”
Melissa cited the speech not to make her own tribute to Whitlam, but to draw attention to the use of Pearson’s language. “This old man” was how Pearson referred to Whitlam throughout his entire eulogy, never mentioning the former Prime Minister by name.
The speech sparked a debate at the time. Many people took Pearson’s language to be disrespectful. It was anything but. Some indigenous Australians (though not all) practise ‘name avoidance’ when speaking of the dead. It’s one of many cultural practices that are often misunderstood in white Australia.
But Melissa didn’t avoid the dead in her talk. Thousands got a mention; those indigenous people killed in almost two centuries of violence across the length and breadth of her lucky country, a country so passionately defined by its iconic experience of war.
But which wars are we choosing to remember, and which do we choose to forget, asked Melissa.
She quoted extensively from the memoire of the Englishman from Dover, Korah Wills who emigrated to Queensland and became Mayor of both Bowen and Mackay in the 1860s and 70s. In England Wills had been a butcher by trade, a skill which would come in handy when dealing with the ‘savages’ of Australia.
“I took it on my head to get a few specimens of certain Limbs, and head of a Black fellow, which was not a very delicate occupation I can tell you. I shall never forget the time when I first found the subject that I intended to anatomise, when my friends were looking on, and I commenced operations dissecting. I went to work business like to take off the head first and then the arms, and then the legs, and I gathered them together and put them into my pack saddle and one of my friends who I am sure had dispersed more than any other in the colony made the remark that if he was offered a fortune he could not do what I had done.”
‘Anatomisation’, as it was euphemistically referred to, is part of the story of extreme frontier violence that began at the moment of Australia’s colonial conquest and still echoes well into our own time.
How uncomfortable it was then for an audience in the British Museum to be reminded that it was the terrifyingly fascinated gaze of colonisers like Wills who helped stock museums across Australia, America, Britain and Europe with the body parts and belongings of indigenous people.
The British Museum alone still holds 6,000 indigenous Australian artefacts variously acquired since 1770, many of which are still sources of considerable controversy in Australia today.
As an indigenous Australian herself, Melissa admitted to almost pulling out of this talk on several occasions, such were her conflicted feelings about visiting the museum. This, despite the fact that the current ‘Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation’ is curated by Gaye Sculthorpe, an indigenous Tasmanian and leading figure in Australian arts and culture.
Melissa was asked whether people should see the exhibition or boycott it. She threw the question back on the audience citing the importance of personal autonomy.
You decide, she said, before making her own reference – less humorous than Noel Pearson’s – to imperial Rome. “Let the maxim of Cassius apply”, she said, “Cui bono – who benefits?”
Despite my own misgivings I paid £10 to see the exhibition, partly in preparation for my write up of Melissa’s talk, but also because my interest lies in the language of these things, the way the story is being told, which words have been displayed alongside the shields, baskets, boomerangs and paintings.
There were the facts and figures. Passages of historical text. Some quotes from indigenous people themselves. But the most informative words were simply the names of hundreds of languages peppered across a huge map of the Australian continent, or ‘terra nullius’ (nobody’s land) as it was known until quite recently.
But I also found a language so drenched in euphemism it wouldn’t have been out of place in a Monty Python sketch set in a government office. Australia, apparently, is a land of ‘entangled’ and ‘interlinked’ stories, where ‘encounters’ and ‘misunderstandings’ are still ‘subject to debate’.
It was a dead language that kills the imagination and strangles a story. One could be forgiven for thinking that a more subtle form of ‘name avoidance’ was being practised.
Because regardless of whether the artefacts should be exhibited or not I was, on the whole, free to gaze with fascination and tell – using whatever other knowledge I may or may not have – my own story about what I was seeing.
Perhaps it’s why we’re lucky in a rather twisted and macabre way that the bloody butchering of a warm body, the calm removal of flesh from arm and face from skull was once described by the likes of Korah Wills in his own words, not ours.
After all, sometimes it’s not easy to say the words, to mention the thing by name, to tell a bigger story.
Ivor Wells is a London-based Kiwi/Brit hybrid who grew up in NZ, Australia, USA and Germany. He writes a blog called ‘Pacific Londoner’ about his travels, reading and musings.