ABORIGINAL ART & CULTURE

Murujuga and of many sadnesses

In 2007 I was asked to read a statement by the RT. Hon. Malcolm Fraser AC, CH, Prime Minister of Australia (1975-1983) at Melbourne’s Federation Square. The statement was in support of the preservation of the ancient rock art of the Dampier Archipelago.

"The earliest rock art on the Murujuga is believed to be amongst the oldest art in the world"

Malcolm Fraser died in March 2015 and Australia lost an international statesman and a leader of dignity and wisdom.

Here is the former Australian Prime Minister’s 2007 statement.

I wish to express my strong support for the preservation of the ancient rock art on the Burrup (Murujuga as it is known to its Aboriginal custodians), once Dampier Island, and the other islands of the Dampier Archipelago.

For too long, Australian Governments and Industry have failed to recognise the importance to all Australians and to the world of the cultural heritage of the first peoples of Australia.

The earliest rock art on the Murujuga is believed to be amongst the oldest art in the world. It includes representations of extinct species like the Thylacine, and perhaps the oldest representations of the human face.

The art of the archipelago has much to tell us about what it means to be human. The earliest groups of our own species to reach these shores showed their sense of the scared in ceremonial gatherings. Symbols carved in the rocks record their acknowledgement of reality beyond the everyday. Over tens of thousands of years this continued to be a highly sacred place, and is still treasured by its Aboriginal custodians.

As global warming melted the ice sheets of the northern hemisphere, Australians had to cope with rising seas, and what was once an upland hundreds of kilometres from the sea became a group of islands. Marine motifs were added to the land animals in the art, and shell middens show how people adapted to environmental change.

There are very few rock art landscapes so old or so extensive. The Burrup Murujuga and the rest of the Dampier Archipelago should be protected by World and National Heritage listing.

It is a mistake to think that the industrial development of the northwest depends on using the Burrup Murujuga. The peninsula is so rugged and precipitous that it is hard to understand how it ever came to be used for industrial development. It makes no economic sense. Onslow, where BHP is locating its LNG plant, lies more central to the whole chain of offshore LNG sources and there, spinifex flats, offer no costly impediments to construction.

Clearing the globally  precious rocks of the Murujuga to make way for industrial infrastructure, the factories and storage facilities, that have no need to be here

The Western Australian Government made a mistake by putting industrial infrastructure on the Burrup. The mistake should not be compounded by allowing or encouraging Woodside to build its “Pluto” LNG plant there.

The Australian Government was one of the loudest voices protesting the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan. If the Woodside’s LNG plant is allowed top proceed, Australia’s reputation as a defender of world heritage would be severely damaged.

The Burrup Murujuga is part of the world’s heritage. It is to our national shame that the art of the Dampier Archipelago has not yet been fully catalogued.

I congratulate the Friends of Australian Rock Art for its global ‘Stand up for the Burrup’ campaign. I wish the campaign success, and assure you that I will be raising my voice, where I can, in support of the efforts to prevent any further destruction and desecration of the irreplaceable art on the Burrup Murujuga.

An ancient Murujuga landscape - would you build factories on this?

In March 2015 Friends of Australia Rock Art (FARA) re-released Malcolm Fraser’s call for world heritage listing of the Burrup Murujuga with this as part of their preamble:

Under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention to which Australia is a signatory, interim listing of the Burrup Peninsula/Murujuga requires the support of both State and Commonwealth Governments. Largely due to opposition from WA’s powerful Department of State Development, which incredibly, continues to promote the Burrup Peninsula as an industrial hub, no Western Australian or Australian Government has to date given public support to this key objective enunciated by Malcolm Fraser.

Vandalism on the Murujuga is rife

Melbourne’s Federation Square

I speak about Federation Square because it tells us a lot about attitudes and why the Indigenous heritage of Burrup Murujuga is now in such deep trouble. Federation Square is a very very long way to the south east from where the Murujuga and its million or so precious artworks have existed from as long as 40,000 years ago.

In 2002 Melbourne’s Federation Square was opened and its management team described to me that it was Australia’s place of democracy, the agora or forum in contemporary form.

This turned out not to be the case, certainly, when it came to protecting Australian and Indigenous heritage. Despite FARA having applied for and been given permission for the reading of Malcolm Fraser's statement, our small group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous heritage supporters were targeted by Federation Square’s security team who kept interrupting the reading (which was short) and they eventually forced us off the square to the pavement adjoining it. One leading international rock art expert is still deeply angered by the events of that day and continues to blame me for the debacle.

What was even more extraordinary on that day was that there had been some sort of Southern European (and I have lived in that region and love its cultures and food) celebration on the square and we were actually surrounded by individuals wearing traditional costumes that included swords. This group was allowed to wander among the crowds as they wished.

On another occasion at the square two of our Torres Strait Island films which have been shown extensively in cultural institutions and on free to air TV, the Internet and so on were being screened at the cinema at ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Federation Square). These films were being screened as a part of a festival and with a number of films by Indigenous filmmakers – so it was to celebrate Indigenous cultures. Among others, our films were being shown with a film made by Archie Roach, a great musician and a great human being. For us this was a great honour.

I had made enquires at the ACMI shop, to which there had been no response, in relation to stocking the DVDs of our films that were being shown at the centre. As Andrea and I went into the shop to follow up my emails we were ‘greeted’ by the buyer who did not bother to  introduce herself, she said: 

“No one cares about THIS STUFF”

And then went on to say that she would link the shop to our website (which she had no intention of doing so that was a lie) and which was probably the last thing we wanted after her clear demonstration of prejudice. When I went back later that day to enquire about the name of this individual I was told “she would dismiss you”. I did of course get the name.

I doubt if these comments were based on our work of which there was a complete ignorance so what was going on was clearly something very different. What was also extraordinary, that while dismissing the work of Australian film makers (mostly Indigenous) and their Australian (Indigenous) subjects, authors, artists and actors, we were surrounded in this shop by work of our London contemporaries. We know the English are wonderful but I can only describe these circumstances as bizarre.

It is of course entirely inappropriate that shop staff, in Victorian Government public sector employment, speak to creators in this way and this standard of behaviour also raises a range of serious governance issues that I won’t go into here. 

After this ‘dismissal’ we decided to do a bit of survey work and ask people randomly if they knew where Arnhem Land or the Torres Strait were. Not one person had heard of Arnhem Land or could locate the Torres Strait (these are country size regions of Australia). So the level of knowledge, in major cities such as Melbourne, about Australia and its Indigenous worlds is extremely poor. It is no wonder that nobody cares about THIS STUFF and ‘nobody’ cares enough about the Burrup Murujuga to stop its destruction.

I suspect it is now time to start caring before it is too late.

You can join the fight to help the Burrup Murujuga achieve the World Heritage listing it deserves by joining FARA.

You can read more about the Burrup Murujuga in the blogs in this section of the Creative cowboy films website.

Cultural heritage practice on the Murujuga and it most sensitive?