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Australia Needs a New Visual Language to Support Indigenous People

Australia's problematic symbols of colonial violence and the intergenerational trauma of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Lily Mayers, ABC News
Lily Mayers, ABC News

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Content Warning: This article discusses issues of mental health, suicide, and trauma.

When you walk around your city and college, what do you see?

I see an extensive, harmonious, and intriguing juxtaposition of Victorian and modern architecture where I live in the city of Melbourne in Australia. I see beautiful and colorful fall leaves during my walks between my dorm and university every day. But, I also see symbols of Australia’s violent colonial past in and around downtown Melbourne.

Although Melbourne is praised as the cultural capital of Australia and was named by the Economist Intelligence Unit as the most livable city in the world seven times in the past eight years, it is an area that has a long history of settler-indigenous conflict in the form of dispossession and large-scale massacres. Statues to eminent Victorians abound, including one (currently in storage) of John Batman, who is known by some as a “founder” of Melbourne. Whether or not this should be put on display again is a highly contested issue, similar to debates about Confederate statues, like those in Charlottesville in the United States of America. What role do these statues perform? Are these statues to colonists and Confederates abhorrent for celebrating and glorifying racist leaders? Or can they be used to educate and to remind us of past injustices? Also, why are there so few monuments celebrating Indigenous and black leaders who fought for the freedom and rights of their peoples?

These are some questions that we are still debating. However, a key element that is often overlooked is that these symbols expose unhealed wounds and affect marginalised people today.

When I think of colonisation in Australia, as a migrant and university student, I recall my knowledge of Australia’s long history of colonial violence, the loss of land, the undermining of Indigeneity, and disintegration of families through forced removal of Indigenous children, among many things. However, this topic is much more sensitive and personal for Indigenous people. Colonisation has caused lasting effects on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, such as intergenerational trauma that manifests in “high rates of poor physical health, mental health problems, addiction, incarceration, domestic violence, self harm and suicide.”

Intergenerational trauma is evident today as Australia is currently facing an Indigenous suicide crisis, with the rate of suicide-related deaths of Indigenous children between the ages of five and seventeen at five times the non-Indigenous rate according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Although Indigenous children also make up only five per cent of the youth population in Australia, they “nationally account for 25 per cent of child suicides — in some states that number is upwards of 60 per cent”. Racism, a key cause of this crisis, is embedded in our institutions, including schools, where many of these students face discrimination and bullying. Also, “vast majority of young Indigenous people who died by suicide this year were living in poverty.” The current disadvantage that Indigenous people experience is complex in terms of the effects that colonisation has had on their psychology and socioeconomic backgrounds. They are also largely silenced and marginalised, so we do not hear enough Indigenous voices speaking publicly in the media or in politics about Indigenous struggles, let alone Indigenous mental health troubles.

To address the mental health challenges of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Australians must first recognise the scale and scope of their challenges and recognize their disadvantage and trauma through engaging in candid and difficult conversations. On college campuses, university staff and students must ensure that Indigenous people have safe spaces, where they can openly, honestly share their experiences and non-Indigenous people can learn from these raw accounts. We must create a culture of respect and recognise the obstacles faced by Indigenous students, especially in the area of mental health and well-being.

Returning to my wanderings around Melbourne, I challenge the notion that colonial statues can serve an educational purpose if they do not explicitly impart a message of a recognition of the dispossession of and injustices that settlers committed against Indigenous people. I am convinced that we can do much better than the current symbolism that we put on show, especially in creating symbols that do not constantly reiterate the dispossession and colonial violence. We can understand the power of these triggering symbols by looking at the recent controversy around the Captain James Cook statue in Hyde Park, Sydney. Captain Cook, sometimes called the “discoverer of Australia”, has been defaced with graffiti saying “change the date” (of Australia Day away from that of Cook’s first landing or invasion) and “no pride in genocide.” These sentiments reveal some of the symbolic violence expressed by such statues. Similar reactions can be observed in the United States to statues that commemorate those who defended the slave trade, such as Confederate army leaders.

After the Christchurch shooting earlier in 2019, the artist Ruby Jones gained prominence when her drawing was featured as the cover of Time magazine. Her illustrations not only capture the grief of the people of New Zealand, but also encourage people to connect and convey “how much love there is amongst the people here”. One drawing that has been shared widely on social media and printed as posters all around Christchurch is of two women, including one wearing a hijab, embracing and it has the message: “This is your home and you should have been safe here.” Like Jones’ illustration, an image conveying strong, positive, and heartfelt sentiments may be better used to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Perhaps we can diversify the range of visual and emotional representations so that those who suffer and are marginalised are not remarginalized by the images we create.

Indigenous sovereignty was never ceded and I believe Indigenous peoples’ inherent rights are not properly acknowledged in Australia. The longer I live here, the more I am shocked by the atrocities of the past and the struggles that Indigenous people are still experiencing today. As a migrant of Australia, I acknowledge that the land on which I live and study as a university student belongs to the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and I pay my respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging. Of course, to say this statement of acknowledgement and solidarity is one thing, but to act on my sentiments is another. How then can we tangibly help Indigenous people in Australia? How can we support Indigenous people in other settler-colonial countries, like the United States of America, Canada, and New Zealand?

Rather than erecting statues of colonial figures in our cities, we need a visual language for our cities and campuses that reflects the future that we collectively want to live in and create for everyone, including Indigenous people. We need to continuously raise awareness, engage in difficult conversations, and give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a greater voice. Perhaps we can start by sharing and engaging with Indigenous artists.

The illustration above, for instance, was created by a Wiradjuri Blak woman called Charlotte Allingham (@coffinbirth). Also, if you are based in Melbourne, the Yirramboi Festival is a premier event that showcases First Nations arts and culture in Australia that I recommend. Alternatively, wherever you are in the world, there are events, programs, and people you can engage with to educate yourself and learn about Indigenous culture and lives. The Indigenous people of Australia have fought for their sovereign rights and are not just mere passive victims of colonisation. Let’s support them in their recovery from intergenerational trauma and in their ongoing battle with Indigenous disadvantage and against systematic racism.

Indeed, we are living on land that “always was, always will be Aboriginal land” — this is the reality we must accept and respect.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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