I’ve been asked to reflect on how much (if at all) relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia have changed since the publication, 20 years ago, of The Great Forgetting, a collaborative book by the late Aboriginal artist Bevan Hayward (Pooraraar) (pronounced ‘Poira’) (1938–2004) and me. It was published by Aboriginal Studies Press and has just recently gone out of print.
As I said in that book’s Author’s Note, my interest in Aboriginal–non-Aboriginal relations began, belatedly, ‘with the lead-up to the Bicentenary in 1988, the associated media bombast serving only to make me and many others certain that a key element in Australian history was being left out’. I had studied Australian history at the University of New England under the notable Russel Ward (author of The Australian Legend). I’d taught Australian history intermittently in high school since the mid 1960s and had at least some familiarity with the work of Manning Clark (1915–1991) but nowhere by the early 1980s did I have a sense of The Other Side of the Frontier as portrayed by Henry Reynolds in his first book of that name—and in his many subequent volumes.
This degree of ignorance was shared, with better excuse, by large swathes of the ‘white’ Australian population. Slowly, at this point, I found myself researching and writing poems about episodes from the 200-year history of ‘black’ and ‘white’ Australia. Some excellent poets, but not many, have managed to leave prominent and defining injustices in their own country unaddressed. I’ve not been one of them. On the other hand, I knew how even the greatest political poets, such as Bertolt Brecht and Pablo Neruda, could occasionally make the mistake of heaping praise on someone unworthy (Joseph Stalin, for instance) or ‘overegging the cake’ by labouring an important, if obvious, moral point in an uninteresting or predictable way. Such efforts are always counterproductive.
Earlier, I’d had a comparable moral preoccupation with Australia’s role in the First World War and the appalling scale and prolongation of the AIF’s suffering in it. To some extent, like so many others, I had internalised the legend that Gallipoli was the newly federated Australia’s ‘baptism of fire’ and had thus ended our national ‘innocence’. Only after reading Henry Reynolds’ work (and chasing down quite a few of his notes) did I properly realise this ‘innocence’ had already been lost—as far back as in Governor Phillip’s time, let alone in the frontier encounters throughout the Australian colonies from the 1820s in Van Diemen’s Land to the 1860s and later in Queensland.
The much vaunted bicentenary of 1988 came and went but the impulse I felt to write poems on the subject continued—abetted no doubt by landmarks such as the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report (1991), the Mabo judgment (1992) and the publicity leading up to the Bringing Them Home report (1997). The long-prevailing, self-induced amnesia about what had happened on the Australian frontier during the nineteenth century was slowly (and with some rearguard action) retreating. It felt good and necessary (despite Auden’s injunction that ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’) to be contributing, however marginally, to such a development.
When eventually it became clear that I had enough poems on the issue for a book-length manuscript I realised that such a collection would benefit greatly from an Indigenous contribution—at best, a collaboration. There had been too many one-sided ‘whitefella’ books already on ‘the world’s most studied people’. I needed the input of someone, a visual artist most probably, who saw things from the ‘other side’, as it were, but who was nevertheless prepared to collaborate in good faith.
It was in this context that I first met Bevan Hayward (Pooaraar) towards the end of 1991. I’d written to three Aboriginal printmakers looking for a collaborator on what was to become The Great Forgetting. Bevan was the first to get back to me. Having recently graduated from what was then the Canberra School of Art, he was staying on in Canberra and using his alma mater’s equipment to run editions of his accumulated etchings, linocuts, woodcuts, lithographs and so on, some of which went back to his time at Cairns TAFE a few years earlier. That work was remarkable not only for its technical expertise but also for its strikingly personal iconography and overall artistic vision. I knew something of his work already and had always anticipated that Bevan would continue in this vein, providing complementary images to the poems rather than ‘illustrating’ them. I was wrong.
Bevan, with his slightly self-deprecating grin and somewhat weathered features (he was already 52 and hadn’t had an easy life), informed me that he’d read the poems I’d sent him and liked them as much as, if not more than, the others he’d read on the subject. He foresaw that the pen-and-wash illustrations he planned for the poems would take well over a year to complete and that we would need to work together closely. I was to suggest specific images that arose from the poems and he would create perspectival ‘European-style’ drawings that only rarely employed the personal iconography that had been at the core of his work to that point.
It was a generous and significant sacrifice for him to make and I was shyly happy to make the suggestions he asked for—which sometimes included alterations to what he’d already done. Bevan also did a deal of research of his own to get the details right on, for example the uniforms of Her Majesty’s Queensland Mounted Police.
Every week or so I would go round to his somewhat embattled government flat in the Canberra suburb of O’Connor where he was surviving on social security. Here, over a cup of tea (and not a few cigarettes, on his part), we would talk through the images he’d recently completed—or was about to embark on. I would also bring new poems and make suggestions about them too. He was very patient and even-tempered. He would also tell me, in some detail, about the ‘anthropomorphs’ who, in his view, had lived alongside Aboriginal people for millennia, particularly in the south-west of Western Australia—and had been ‘shot out’ by the white man as recently as the 1880s. These beings, whom he referred to in his ‘Illustrator’s Note’ to The Great Forgetting as ‘fleshless spiritual structures’, were at the centre of his imaginative life and work. The fact that they didn’t square too well with European science and anthropology failed to trouble him. I was always careful not to be too Darwinian in our conversations.
It was at his O’Connor flat too that I met his long-term companion, Rena Estick, across on a visit from South Australia. She was a generous but tough-minded lady of mainly German descent who had fostered a number of Aboriginal children in addition to raising her own. She had met Bevan some years earlier when she picked him up hitch-hiking. Later he reappeared in her life. Their relationship from then on was was clearly an intense and supportive one.
The 38 pen-and-wash drawings Bevan eventually completed over a year and a half for The Great Forgetting were eventually purchased by the National Museum of Australia. This, together with the shared royalties from The Great Forgetting, was the entire financial reward for what Bevan had always seen as a necessary and idealistic artistic/political project. I was remorseful that I had distracted him for a couple of years from the iconographic mainstream of his work but the well-produced book that resulted made the guilt easier to live with. As did the fact that the NMA later hung a selection of the drawings for a few months and afterwards exhibited them in several cities around the country.
It is not often, then or now, that a ‘white’ artist gets to collaborate with an Indigenous one so I don’t think it’s irrelevant to describe briefly the friend I remember. His personality was very distinct. He had a quiet, highly characteristic giggle and still smoked too much. There were stories of an earlier, wilder Bevan as a drinker and an Australian Rules player back home in Western Australia but by the early 1990s he had become something of a ‘loner’, in both the art world generally and among his own Aboriginal people, as far as I could tell.
Fellow artists such as Theo Tremblay, and scholars such as Sylvia Kleinert fully recognised the significance of Bevan’s work and were keen to help facilitate it. Bevan definitely had an accurate sense of his own worth but lacked the moral flexibility that is sometimes necessary to ‘get on’ in the profession. He did, however, have a couple of supportive gallery owners who were keen to show his prints whenever they became available.
Although, like a depressing number of Aboriginal people, he died too young—and had an effective career of not much more than ten years—Bevan Hayward’s work remains, since his death in 2004, remarkable for its technical assurance, its uncanny charm and the unique role it can be seen to have played in the history of printmaking in this country.
In 1996 and early 1997, The Great Forgetting was launched in Canberra and Sydney and sold slowly but steadily over the 20 years that Aboriginal Studies Press kept it in print. I still have a few spare copies in my cupboard for those who might be interested.
It ill-behoves a poet to review his own work but it’s worth mentioning that the poems in The Great Forgetting cover a wide range of topics from Cook’s arrival in 1770 right through to the embarrassment of Alexander Downer, then federal opposition leader, in 1994. Many poems, such as ‘The Squatters’ Thesaurus’ and ‘Her Majesty’s Queensland Native Police’, portray frontier violence directly. Others such as ‘The Parallels’ and ‘Court Report’ bring the story up to the late 1980s and early 1990s. A few, such as ‘The Problem’, ‘Toolbillibam and Ogilvie’ and the long poem ‘Bandjalang’ (which later became part of my verse novel Freehold), stem from my own family’s pastoral background (which began only in the late 1920s).
But how, you might ask, have things changed for Aboriginal people (and for the rest of us) since your and Bevan Hayward’s book was published in 1996? It’s hard to know where to start. In some ways not much has changed at all. The 17-year gap in life expectancy between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people has been only slightly reduced. Aboriginal people in Australia’s towns and cities experience racism frequently, if not on a daily basis. Bevan always used to say that Canberra was the first and only city he’d lived in where he hadn’t been harassed by the police.
Aboriginal youth suicide is still a major issue throughout the country. The percentage of Indigenous men and youths in jail compared to non-Indigenous ones is ridiculously disproportionate—27 per cent of all prisoners around the country are Aboriginal but Indigenous Australians form only 3 per cent of the overall population. Research at the ANU published in August 2016 indicates that Aboriginal incarceration has climbed by 52 per cent in the past decade. The recent abuse of Aboriginal youths at the Northern Territory’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre has attracted international opprobrium and a royal commission—this in a jurisdiction that at the time had an Aboriginal chief minister.
In the late 1990s the movement for Aboriginal Reconciliation developed considerable momentum, culminating in a symbolic walk in 2000 by several hundred thousand people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, across the Sydney Harbour Bridge—and across a much smaller bridge in Canberra where it proved to be one of Judith Wright’s last activist gestures before her death not long afterwards. Unfortunately, much less is heard of the movement these days, although the goodwill it generated has to some extent flowed through into other activities.
More recently a number of Indigenous leaders such as Mick and Pat Dodson, Tom Calma, Warren Mundine, Noel Pearson, Stan Grant and Marcia Langton have become well-established national figures but their job has not become any easier. Linda Burney, representing the ALP, has recently been elected to federal parliament as its first Aboriginal female MHR.
The plan to recognise Indigenous people’s prior occupation of Australia in the Australian Constitution has received bipartisan support but progress has been slow and the exact question for the referendum is yet to be written. A treaty between the Australian Government and the nation’s first peoples is again being widely proposed (for the first time since the 1970s) but conservatives seem reluctant to consider both constitutional recognition and a treaty at the same time.
If the proposed treaty involves (as it should) substantial retrospective compensation to Aboriginal people, support from the wider community will be less likely. And, of course, universal agreement among Aboriginal groups around the country has never been easy to obtain. Separate treaties negotiated with individual groups would obviously take a great deal longer and would perhaps involve some impractical inconsistencies.
A no less important issue is the separation of many remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland from the mainstream economy—whether it be mining, the pastoral industry or anything else. Non-Aboriginal Australians have now come to understand, for the most part, the crucial importance of traditional lands to the Aboriginal people still residing on them. The problem of living there, however, without suffering the disadvantages of inter-generational welfare dependence, has yet to be solved—despite the best efforts of Noel Pearson and others.
I think it is fair to say that, in the past 20 years, recognition of what really happened on the pastoral frontier in the nineteenth century has been achieved (there are few dissenting voices these days) but a willing-ness to face the implications of such recognition is harder to obtain. This is not a matter of historical ‘guilt’ and/or holding Anglo-Celtic Australians responsible for the misdeeds of their forebears, but it is a recognition that ‘settler’ Australia has always been, and is still, based on Indigenous dispossession.
That recognition, at least, is a necessary, though not sufficient, step towards something more subtantial being attempted. Just what form this might take beyond better funding for existing programs (which are often less effective than intended, partly through inadequate consultation) remains unclear. It is still a sad fact that better results than ours for Indigenous people, across a range of indicators, are being achieved in comparable countries, most notably New Zealand. ‘The Great Forgetting’ may be over but ‘The Great Unwillingness’ persists. •
Note: Parts of this essay are also to be found in a short memoir I wrote for an exhibition of work by Bevan Hayward (Pooraarar) being organised by the Murray Districts Aboriginal Association in Western Australia.