Artist: Bevil Staley
Publisher: Self published
Wandering through the Salt Water Murris’ Art Gallery at Dunwich on Stradbroke Island, I noticed a book in a display stand. It seemed unusual to see an artists book in an Aboriginal art gallery. While Bevil Staley may not be of Aboriginal background, the artist has undertaken diverse projects, exchanges and residencies in Aboriginal communities and with senior Aboriginal artists. While artists books by Aboriginal artists seem rare – the only ones that come to mind are works by Archie Moore and Judy Watson – many Aboriginal artists produce online works and text based works, offering critiques of ‘the book’ and ‘the word’ as symbols of domination (by religion, education, law and knowledge), overwriting difference and race.
This book is case bound. Measuring 21.5cm x 15.5cm, the bright yellow colour of the hardcover book was embossed with the title in black text A Banknote Invasion (A brief history of land ownership in Australia). This copy is 13th in an edition of 200, signed by the artist. It is a political act to appropriate ‘the book’ to reinscribe the history of this country; the book is a form and a symbol. Each page of the book featured a reproduction of an Australian banknote accompanied by a text about the history of Australia’s invasion by the British.
As I flipped through it, a man in the gallery, whose name I neglected to ask for, was telling me about the artist who created the artwork reproduced on the one dollar note. As the man speaks, I realise there are multiple stories unfolding here – that of the colonisation of this country as well as the dismal record of appropriation (although, clearly, both are linked). He mentioned that the artist, the late David Malangi, who created the work was not paid royalties for the use of the bark painting. The image was reproduced without the artist’s knowledge and the matters of copyright and royalities were not considered as the artwork, which depicted a traditional rite, was in the possession of a museum. It was an exchange between bureaucrats and professionals. Once the real circumstances of the artwork’s use were more broadly known, the artist was offered and accepted tokenistic compensation of $1000, a fishing kit and a silver medallion.
The overarching story, however, is that of invasion told through captions which accompany a banknote reproduced on each page. Following references to the royal instructions to Cook and the eventual landing in Australia, the caption on a page featuring a one dollar note, showing the late Malangi’s appropriated artwork, reads “This looks like an empty place”. The next page shows the contemporary polymer ten dollar note, issued to commemorate the 200th anniversary of European settlement. It features a portrait of a ceremonially painted young Aboriginal man. In the background is a Morning Star Pole, other Aboriginal artworks commissioned by the Reserve Bank and a dreamtime figure. The capition on this page reads “Hey! What’s an empty place?”. And so, as money circulates and changes hands, the story unfolds with references to the occupation of this land, the incursion by settlers and pastoral industry, the frontier wars, and, eventually, the high court decision about native title, ending with the young man on the ten dollar note and the caption “What now?”. That is a question for everyone to consider, as ‘the intervention’ continues its assault on the rights of Aboriginal people and remains focused on income quarantining for individuals and families.
In Aboriginal history, there’s a history of money and exploited labour – slave labour, withheld wages, underpayment, welfare dependency, poverty and now enforced income quarantining. Then, there’s another book that looms large here – the book of accounts, the ledger or the balance sheet. Someone has been fiddling the books, and the accounts now conceal a vicious truth about debts accrued – who owes what to whom. There is an ongoing issue of ‘carpetbagging’ in the Aboriginal art trade, with exploitation and copyright breaches of Aboriginal artists. Some galleries, like the Salt Water Murris Art Gallery, are operated by the artists and for the artists. Until the 1970s, Aboriginal wages were held in ‘security’ and the wages were stolen by corrupt officials and employers. It has been difficult for Aboriginal people to access records and there is ongoing reluctance to pay the monies withheld. Government response to Aboriginal challenges and claims has been slow and disappointing. Ultimately, Staley’s clever and humourous appropriation of money, word and book opens into the very serious, very real and very violent stories of theft from Aboriginal people, stories that persist into the present as deprivation and exclusion. While that last question is possibly too open ended and unanswerable, there is obviously unfinished business and a debt to pay. What now? Restitution.