Stolen Encounters

Stolen Encounters

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Colonialism has a lot to answer for. Whether its the Dutch in Indonesia, the  British in China, the Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas, The French in Vietnam and Algeria or the Australians in Papua New Guinea, whatever the strain, this pernicious cultural phenomenon of marching into sovereign lands and claiming possession for yourself is founded on lies.

The first lie that the conquering people tells itself and hopes to convince others, is that the act of colonising will benefit the conquered . If not at the time of invasion then later. And that is because the conqueror believes itself to be infinitely more superior in every way to the conquered. The second and major lie is one that has certainly been promoted long and hard in Australia, that the conquered peoples didn’t fight for their land and /or care enough about it. This of course led to the superior coloniser to intervene.

I pondered these deep thoughts when I viewed two stunning exhibitions this week in Canberra.
Celestial Empire at The National Library of Australia (https://www.nla.gov.au/exhibitions/celestial-empire) gives an overview of life in China from 1644-1911 during the reign of the Qing, China’s last imperial dynasty. Here is one of the highest forms of civilisation, an equal of, if not superior to, the Roman Empire. Its economic, cultural, political, moral and spiritual aspects were well developed and complete so when the British came knocking on the door wanting to trade, the Emperor turned them away, there was nothing that China needed. Of course we know where that eventually led, two opium wars and the carving up of the country into European concessions.

The other exhibition which caused me to confront the evils and present day lingering effects of Colonialism is Encounters at the National Museum of  Australia. (http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/encounters). It is a display of a collection of Indigenous objects ‘gathered’ by collectors, many of them British scientists, travellers and anthropologists from 1770 onwards. It also includes original artworks by grandchildren of the original Indigenous owners. The idea that you see something in you travels and decide it is of use to you in some way and without consideration decide to take it from the

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original owner without compensation or permission, emanates from that original lie of Terra Nullius, so ubiquitous in Australian history.  It has taken some time (ok 200 years) for the British Museum to  repatriate these objects, all of which hold deep meaning and sacred significance for the original owners.

While I learnt how overjoyed the descendants of the original owners were at receiving these precious, spears, boomerangs, dilly bags, headdresses and other items of significance, I was particularly taken by a comment of a female descendant and present day artist.
Knowing full well what the artefacts meant to her and her peoples, she wondered what significance they held for the anthropologists, scientists, European traders and travellers. I wonder too.

Whether you are celebrating Australia Day or acknowledging Invasion day, I hope the coming year brings all of us closer to understanding and acceptance by learning from each other and the past.

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