Two Aboriginal artists drew on their traditional cultures to produce commissions for the Sir John Monash Centre in France.
Queensland artist Laurie Nilsen has crafted a three-dimensional work for the Interpretive Gallery, while South Australian painter Kunmanara (Ray) Ken has created a bright mural for the Centre.
Nilsen’s work at the entrance is a scene setter for visitors, conveying a sense of pre-war Australia and signifying that they’re entering a particularly Australian story.
‘Goolburris on Foreign Soil’ shows two male emus with their footprints in soil, representing young male soldiers fighting a war in a foreign country.
Kunmanara (Ray) Ken’s painting in acrylic, ‘Kulata Tjuta’, depicts the Anangu people’s traditional story of the spear, aligning with concepts of Country and defence of the nation.
Kunmanara (Ray) Ken has received many accolades in his relatively short career. He began painting in 2003, mapping important sites of his land and knowledge passed down through generations.
His work features in the Australian War Memorial and the National Gallery of Australia.
An estimated 700 to 1000 Indigenous soldiers served in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) during the First World War, with approximately 250 to 300 killed.
These men came from a section of Australian society with few rights, low wages, and poor living conditions, at a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were not considered citizens. They could not vote and were not counted in the national Census.
Nilsen, from the Manadandanji people, works across drawing, painting and sculpture and his work often features barbed wire, as a colonising metaphor for Aboriginal people who have had to adapt to changes and contend with barriers.
His commission focuses on his people’s totem, the emu, also the faunal emblem of Australia. The emu is admired as tall, proud and resilient, unable to move backwards – a symbol of a nation moving forward and on to the world stage.
Nilsen was inspired by the emu for other reasons: Emu feathers were worn in the slouch hats of the Australian Light Horse Brigade; and his grandfather, Private Percy Anderson, enlisted in the 9th AIF Battalion and saw action on the Western Front.
Many Aboriginal soldiers who fought near Villers-Bretonneux lost their lives in March-April 1918, a period that coincided with the Emu Constellation in the Milky Way.