Arts / Remembering a referendum of hope

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Lobbyists from the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders meet with Prime Minister Harold Holt in February, 1967. From left, Gordon Bryant MP, Faith Bandler, Harold Holt, Pastor Doug Nicholls, Burnum Burnum (Harry Penrith), Win Branson and WC Wentworth MP. Photo courtesy of the National Archives

SAM Cooke’s unforgettable civil-rights anthem “A Change is Gonna Come” is more than 50 years old, but it still packs a powerful punch.

That’s the theme and title of the National Museum of Australia’s newest exhibit, focusing on the 1967 Aboriginal Referendum and the 1992 Mabo land rights decision by the High Court.

“CityNews” caught up with its curator, Brenda L Croft, as the show was about to open.

The Constitutional Referendum ballot paper used in Queensland.

No stranger to Canberra art lovers, Croft was formerly head of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the NGA. One of the busiest independent curators in the country, she’s completing a PhD at UNSW, preparing for a residency at Canberra Glassworks in September and all the while, working on a book about her dad, Joe Croft, a famous Aboriginal adviser in Canberra and a close associate of Charles Perkins.

She’s been working on a contract with the National Museum to pull together the show, but as she tells us, that “change” that Sam Cooke was waiting for and that we are still awaiting, “didn’t happen in a vacuum, there was a long period of activism from the 1920s and solid campaigning.”

When Croft got into the museum’s collection she was surprised at how relatively few objects there were that related to the Constitutional Referendum, so while she considers it a “privilege” to delve into the papers, she’s had to pull in material from elsewhere.

“Every indigenous person was not elated by the referendum and Mabo… it’s not all kumbaya; it’s not all lovely,” she says.

She looks back to the initial optimism felt by people such as the early 20th century indigenous activist Pearl Gibbs; referendum supporter Faith Bandler; 88-year-old elder-in-residence at Charles Sturt University, Ray Peckham and Bundjalung activist Joyce Clague.

But after the excitement, she says, the process stalled and the Black Power movement came about because nothing happened. Much the same frustration has been felt in the aftermath of Kevin Rudd’s 2008 Apology.

“We have to ask questions; it’s just about the most important moment in Australian history,” she says of the referendum, “and the same can be said of Mabo and land rights.”

Putting together such an exhibition can be something of a curatorial poisoned chalice and anything to do with indigenous Australians and politics gets extra scrutiny down at the pub, but Croft asserts: “We have an obligation to talk about it in the right terms… what came out of the referendum was quite different from the reality.”

For instance, most people imagine Aboriginal Australians got the vote in 1967, but in fact servicemen had had it since the late ’40s and everyone else since 1962.

What an extraordinary 90.77 per cent of Australians actually voted in favour of was this question: “Do you approve the proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution entitled ‘An Act to alter the Constitution’ so as to omit certain words relating to the people of the Aboriginal race in any state so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the population?”

Curator Brenda L Croft… “We have to ask questions; it’s just about the most important moment in Australian history.”

In other words, it allowed Aboriginal Australians to be counted in the census.

It wasn’t implemented overnight, Croft points out, and the consequences have still to be played out, but she believes “it’s much better to be able to sit down and talk”.

So what will we see in the show? Faith Bandler’s famous white gloves, worn while talking to non-indigenous groups, will join dockside activist Joe McGinniss’ wharfie’s hook in the main hall at the museum.

Then in the First Australians Gallery of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders we’ll see the nullah-nullah owned by Jimmy Clements, the Wiradjuri man who walked from near Gundagai to be at the opening of Parliament House in 1927, and screen prints by poet/artist/Tent Embassy activist Kevin Gilbert depicting Pope John Paul II visiting  Aboriginal lands in 1986.

There is also a film installation by Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser that includes footage of Deacon’s ancestors from the late 1800s and firebrand artist Vernon Ah Kee’s huge artwork “Not an Animal or a Plant”, which refutes the mistaken view that Aboriginal Australians were initially classed as flora and fauna – that came with Federation.”

This is a necessary exhibition but not always an optimistic one. Photos taken of Bandler during 1967 show joy and optimism, Croft says, but those taken in 1992 show her looking angry and disappointed.

This will not be glossed over. “It is not always happy, but it’s not a bash over the head,” she concludes.

“A Change is Gonna Come”, National Museum of Australia, until January 30.

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Helen Musa
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