A couple of weeks ago I drove to Windsor in western Sydney to visit a crime scene.
The scene was at a monument to Lachlan Macquarie, the fifth governor of New South Wales, who gave the small township its name on his first tour of the colony. The crime, on this particular day, was graffiti. On 13 February the statue was painted red, covered with anti-colonial statements, an Aboriginal flag and the label ‘Murderer’.
Hawkesbury Police local area command had appealed to the public via Facebook in an effort to shame the graffiti artists and to appeal for leads. Chief inspector Garry Sims vowed to ‘investigate until those responsible were caught’, stating that ‘this memorial is a tribute to [Macquarie’s] leading role and influence between 1810 and 1821’. Within a day police had removed the post, citing a growing number of racist comments in the feed. However, many commenters had also identified Macquarie as a ‘genocidal maniac’ and ‘war criminal’, and criticised police for editorialising on the incident.
Photographs of the defaced monument had revealed a provocative and visually striking image. However, much of the graffiti had been removed by Hawkesbury Council the morning after. On my visit the monument smelled of turpentine but was still blushing red; a crime scene in partial clean up. While circumnavigating the monument with my camera, a police car slowed to a crawl beside the park.
Macquarie has long been celebrated as a renaissance man and humanitarian. But, despite the assertions of police, Macquarie’s enduring historical status is questionable. On 8 May 1816, for example, Macquarie ordered that Aboriginal inhabitants:
… surrender themselves … as Prisoners of War. If they refuse to do so, make the least show of resistance, or attempt to run away from you, you will fire upon and compel them to surrender … Such Natives as happen to be killed on such occasions, if grown up men, are to be hanged up on trees in conspicuous situations, to strike the Survivors with the greater terror … Such Women and Children as may happen to be killed are to be interred wherever they may happen to fall …
By his own account, Macquarie planned and ordered the massacre, torture and incarceration of Aboriginal people and the abduction of Aboriginal children. At the Appin massacre in 1816, children, women, warriors and the elderly were surprised in their homes at night; shot, decapitated and hung from trees, or driven ‘in despair over a precipice’.
In comments to the Hawkesbury Gazette, Barry Corr, an Indigenous man, historian and Windsor resident, said: ‘Coming to terms with the horror and the implications of the 1794–1824 Frontier War is something the Hawkesbury community has consistently failed to do.’
In identifying his victims as ‘Prisoners of War’, Macquarie contradicts his own attempt to reframe a military campaign of dispossession as mere ‘conflict’ and ‘settlement’. These semantics are perpetuated today as orthodoxy, enshrined in the colonial monuments and rituals that continue to occupy and define Australian public space.
In using the term ‘Prisoners of War’, Macquarie acknowledges the lie of terra nullius. Far from being an empty continent, Australia was home to a strong, dissenting population, ultimately subdued through a program of institutionalised brutality.
In the ‘defaced’ statue we are presented with a perfect cultural intersection: two forms of public art, diametric in their opposition, competing for civic space and over the historical record. The original artwork is sanctioned, staid and steeped in colonial mores; the updated sculpture is gestural, spontaneous, contemporary and illegal. Crucially, the graffiti artists have not damaged or concealed the memorial: they have appropriated it, made it their own. The monument remains intact, but its meaning has been inverted. It was the act of appropriation that first caught my attention. It is one thing to smash symbols of oppression; quite another to recruit them.
Having viewed the memorial, I visited Elissa Blair, curator of Hawkesbury Regional Gallery in Windsor, who is reluctant to label the act of graffiti as art. I suggest that, in terms of both artistic merit and political acuity, the statue is not above criticism. Blair lowers her voice: ‘Don’t say that too loud around here.’
Commissioned in 1994 to commemorate the impending bicentenary, celebrating European invasion of the Hawkesbury, Windsor’s Macquarie is represented on a concrete dais in military regalia, perched above the viewer in foppish contrapposto. The statue’s slight and disproportionate body emphasises a conspicuously oversized sword.
If the sculptor hoped to convey an attitude of gravity and forbearance, he has unwittingly portrayed a figure of vacant condescension. The figure is surrounded by a pastiche of mosaic, celebrating a pastoral landscape of felled trees and grazing sheep. Surrounding this, a brickwork arrangement attempts to activate the authoritative tropes of classicism. In short, this public artwork is ripe for parody and contemporary artistic appropriation.
No less than eight plaques have accumulated around the statue, attempting to establish an unblemished timeline of Macquarie’s grand influence, supported by quotes from the governor’s own journal. Despite the damning evidence, this monument makes no attempt to detach itself from the historical record. Its pretence to be an accurate record serves only to highlight its deliberate omissions.
Local Hawkesbury councillor Nathan Zamprogno positioned himself at the frontline of this debate, using Facebook to decry the ‘wanton vandalism’ to the memorial, recalling the ‘sense of community pride that prevailed on the day it was opened’, calling for the introduction of CCTV surveillance at the memorial site and concluding that ‘someone, somewhere in our community knows who did this. Report them today’.
Using the label ‘wanton’, the councillor implies that the graffiti was unprovoked, unreasoned and expressive of no agenda. This seems consistent with local reportage of the incident; the overt politics of the graffiti is unacknowledged. The Daily Telegraph, for example, reported only that the monument was ‘damaged with paint’ and that ‘strong words’ were painted. These words were then cropped from its accompanying photograph.
As a political figure and, through his blog, as a self-styled public intellectual, Zamprogno actively engages with cultural identity in the Hawkesbury region. Strongly denying any notion of the stolen generations or genocidal policies in Australian history, he promotes the celebration of Australia’s ‘mostly British’ foundations. The councillor also finds an impressionable audience for these views in his role as a local school teacher.
Zamprogno, echoing the local police and the media, insists that the graffiti be described as ‘desecration’. Deploying the didactic approach of sacredness and profanity is nothing new, nor is it accidental. Monuments are designed to lend a quasi-religious permanence to our false and propagandistic origin story. Our deference to these monuments, and our participation in the attendant ritual of Australia Day, compound our complicity in the narrative and ensure its perpetuation.
Leaving Windsor I drive out of Lachlan Court shopping centre, past the Macquarie Arms Hotel, turning into Macquarie Street, passing Macquarie kindergarten as I reach the highway, where a sign reminds me that I have visited ‘A Macquarie Town’. Macquarie is also immortalised in the naming of a bank, a university, a library, a lake and countless civic spaces across Australia. A new statue of Governor Macquarie was unveiled in Sydney’s Hyde Park as recently as 2013.
It is difficult to ignore the intention of nomenclature. In naming streets, parks, institutions and public spaces we are obliged daily to invoke the pervasive emblems of a historical mythology, to reaffirm its fictions. In this way our false narrative is embedded as a national doctrine. The conflict between the Macquarie monument and its graffitied revision is not a conflict of aesthetics but of agency. Graffiti is an imposition upon the social infrastructure of a particular place. A memorial to the legacy of Lachlan Macquarie, therefore, is itself an act of graffiti writ large.
Monuments are the glib and artless ‘tags’ of colonialism, imposed upon the unceded territories and existing histories of Aboriginal nations. They are illegitimate and deserving of outrage.