The 1915 massacre of Australian soldiers at Gallipoli is considered by many to be a key factor in building our national identity. However, the war on our soil has been hidden by a code of secrecy and silence.
Peta Clancy’s Undercurrent exhibit at the Koorie Heritage Trust in Melbourne’s Federation Square aims to bring this hidden history to the surface by exploring the border wars and massacres that characterized the colonization of Australia in the early 20th century.
Comprised of eight large inkjet pigment prints and a 30 meter wallpaper installation, shot on 4 x 5 color negative film, the exhibition seduces with familiar views of bush landscapes, then strikes through the changes in time, space and context.
Massacres and massacre sites have a long history of concealment, especially after the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838, in which at least 28 unarmed natives were killed by settlers.
Seven white men were found guilty of murder and hanged after this massacre. The punishment was a message that these atrocities would not be legally tolerated. But instead of acting as a deterrent, this only led to further concealment of the massacres and the sites of the massacres.
In 1988, the year of Australia’s outlandish Bicentennial celebrations, Bruce Elder’s Blood On the Wattle documented 26 border massacres in Australia. In the same year, the Koorie Heritage Trust compiled a Victorian Massacre map showing the locations of known killings of Aboriginal people by Europeans between 1836 and 1853.
Far from being exhaustive, the map of the massacre was published in 1991 and was a first step in illuminating this hidden aspect of Australian colonial history. The publication of the digital map, Colonial Frontier Massacres in Central and Eastern Australia 1788-1930, by the University of Newcastle in 2017, further increased awareness of this issue in the national consciousness.
Australian artist and Monash University scholar Peta Clancy first came across the Map of the 1991 Massacre in 2016. He was studying his maternal lineage, linked to the indigenous peoples of Bangerang, traditional occupants of much of the northeast of Victoria. and southern areas of New South Wales, and photograph endangered butterflies and moths at the Victoria Museum and CSIRO in Canberra.
As her investigation progressed, his view of the landscape was transformed by this undercurrent of hidden violence. Clancy applied for a heritage permit to visit the massacre sites. In 2018, he embarked on a 12-month residency at the Koorie Heritage Trust, collaborating with Dja Dja Wurrung Elders and the community to create an artistic response to the massacres in the country of Dja Dja Wurrung.
Clancy had originally planned to visit all the massacre sites on the 1991 map, however, over time, his attention has turned to the country of Dja Dja Wurrung in central Victoria. She visited traditionally owned sites, and was particularly drawn to the metaphorical potential of an 1870 massacre site known to the community. This site on the bank of the Loddon River was flooded when a dam was built between 1889 and 1891, diverting the course of the river.
Few details about the massacre are provided in the exhibit, perhaps out of respect for the community, but Clancy has developed her response to it through extensive collaboration with the people of Dja Dja Wurrung.
Victoria’s lush streams and river beds, Aboriginal dwelling places where food and water abounded, were also the most attractive locations for white settlements. The now underwater massacre site, near a popular RV park resort, has a divided existence as a place of ignorant bliss and hidden pain.