Facing New Worlds at the National Portrait Gallery

Facing New Worlds at the National Portrait Gallery

Facing New Worlds at the National Portrait Gallery

In a space normally taken up by images of explorers and settlers, an exhibition led by Macquarie University seeks to reframe Australia’s ‘founding moment’, revealing how the complex relationships between the newcomers and Indigenous people have shaped our nation.

Associate Professor Kate Fullagar is the lead Chief Investigator on the ARC Linkage Project Facing New Worlds, which recently launched an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

“While the National Portrait Gallery often does include portraits of Indigenous people, it's not always clear what role they play,” says Associate Professor Fullagar.

“For five months, our project has taken over the NPG's initial room and rehung it to emphasise explicitly the relationships between newcomers and Indigenous people, showing that only with meaningful interaction with Indigenous people did newcomers manage to achieve anything.”

The exhibit grouped clusters of people together through their portraits: James Cook appears, for example, totally reliant on the navigation and diplomacy of Islanders such as Tupaia and Mai; and Arthur Phillip's first governorship emerges as a long dance around the issue of sovereignty with diplomats like Bennelong.

Messages are included throughout the exhibition from contemporary Indigenous people remarking on the portraits of some of their ancestors. Their contributions were collected by two Indigenous researchers employed by the project, who travelled to various communities to discuss the portraits.

“The project uncovered – more than even expected – a rich range of relationships between newcomers and natives in the Pacific world,” says Associate Professor Fullagar.

“During that period, the story of encounter was far more complex than either violence or friendship. There was often both between the same people; there was negotiation, there was love, there was deep mutual understanding, and there was frequent miscommunication.

“Indigenous people were not just victims but also helped forge survival for themselves and others; settlers were not just heroic adventurers but depended on those who were already present to create fresh worlds.

“It was also important to us to go beyond the strict confines of today's Australian nation and to view the whole Pacific region during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which was how most people at the time viewed the place.

“Some visitors may be surprised by this, and it might help remind them that we are more influenced by the Indigenous worlds of our own local region than we think. Europe has not been our only foundational source.

“If visitors go away with a keener sense of the complexity of relationships between the Indigenous people and settlers during our period I will be happy. If they go away realising that these relationships are ongoing – that the making of the Australian nation depends entirely on successful and respectful negotiations between natives and newcomers into the future – then I will be elated.”

The rehang is a small beginning part of a larger ARC Linkage project that Associate Professor Fullagar says seeks to overturn old ideas about nation-building in settler states:

“It is a taster, in many ways, for a larger show we will hold at the NPG in 2020 that compares the concurrent forging of a settler worlds in Australia with that in the United States.”

The exhibition Facing New Worlds is on display until 22 April.

The larger scale version of this exhibition will be displayed at the NPG late next year. It will include items borrowed from all over the world, including the British Museum, the Smithsonian, and several US art galleries. It will show how two different settler societies forged their publics, their art worlds, and their relationships towards Indigenous subjects over the same period, 1760-1870.

Keep up with the project at facingnewworlds.org.

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