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Throughout her career, artist Julie Gough has shone light on Tasmania’s colonial history and the genocidal war against Aboriginal people, including her ancestors. With a major solo exhibition at TMAG, Tense Past, she speaks about her remarkable work. “Art is not only a visual outcome; making each artwork is my way of proceeding through the quagmire of the past.” By Daniel Browning.

Artist Julie Gough on untold histories

Julie Gough.
Credit: Al Bett

Julie Gough’s voice bristles with nervous tension as she describes her uncertain journeys into enemy territory, the property of landholders in the Tasmanian countryside. When this solitary artist-investigator approaches private roads lined with invasive species such as hawthorn and oak, a fear grips her. “The driveways are menacing… what’s at the end?” she asks, plaintively.

If there is one place in Australia possessed by a duality of nature, a double consciousness, it is rural Tasmania; at once haunted and empty, the dark hills of the island hide a malevolent truth of a genocidal war enacted by both individuals and the state. Gough has spent her artistic career exposing that war to the antiseptic light. The superimposed identity of rural England echoes in the place names, tinged with longing and delusion. In a startling act of erasure, the island was once remapped into 18 counties – Dorset, Devon, Cumberland, Lincoln, Buckingham and Cornwall among them.

“I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface,” Gough says of her 25-year career and her trepidatious excursions into Country. “There is a lot more to find and it is about going through those gates.”

There is a lingering sense of unease as she tries to negotiate access to culturally significant sites locked up on inherited private property, including what is now Brickendon estate, where Gough’s ancestor Dalrymple Briggs was shot and wounded by her “master”, former naval surgeon Jacob Mountgarrett. Dalrymple gave almost certainly verballed testimony, telling the court that Mountgarrett innocently fired on her after he mistook her for a possum. This event is the subject of Gough’s Forcefield (2007) as well as one of her most recent works, the haunting Crime Scene (2019).

For Gough, access to these alienated sites has profound meaning as she attempts to “bring the outside in”. In Crime Scene, she returns to this estate on the Norfolk Plains, in what was once the county of Cornwall, near Longford. A verdant network of dams and hay-coloured farms are mapped topographically, first via satellite and then possibly drone; a red “x” fades in and out, marking the spot of the crime scene, a seemingly tranquil place on a bend on the oddly named Lake River. The 1825 deposition of one William Brumby, a settler, unfurls on the screen. He testified that while riding his horse on July 16 he “heard the cry of Murder”. After the echo of gunshots, Gough’s ancestor Dalrymple was observed running from the house of Dr Mountgarrett, Brumby’s neighbour and an apparently renowned drunk.

“I heard violent screams issue from his house, and then afterwards saw a half caste Native Girl running from the house towards the road.”

James Thornloe, testimony, August 5, 1825

Another witness reported hearing violent screams. When he approached the girl – guessed, even by her own admission, to have been aged around 12 – she “wept bitterly” and accused Mountgarrett of shooting her. This witness observed two puncture wounds on Dalrymple’s leg, which she clutched as if to stem the flow of blood. A tense standoff ensued when Brumby confronted a drunken Mountgarrett, apparently concealing a pistol under his nightclothes, and was ordered off the farm.

“I asked him why he shot the Black Girl. He replied why cannot I correct my Black Servant without you interfering?”

William Brumby, testimony, August 5, 1825

But in her testimony in Launceston three days later, Dalrymple, the victim of the crime, not only exonerated her “master”, she declared she never cried and barely felt the shot. Instead, she accused Brumby and the other witness, Thornloe, of being intoxicated. Then, the clincher: “No person has ever told me what I was to say regarding this affair.”

Mountgarrett features elsewhere in Gough’s work. For her performative video work Hunting Ground (2017) – commissioned by curator Tess Allas for the Campbelltown Arts Centre exhibition With Secrecy and Despatch, which marked the 200th anniversary of the Appin massacre – Gough produced with master printmaker Michael Kempson, of the University of New South Wales’ Cicada Press, a series of 10 etchings. These reproduced colonial texts drew from letters, journals and newspapers delineating specific massacres of Aboriginal people in Van Diemen’s Land, items that Gough filmed in situ. In one, a letter dated May 3, 1804, Mountgarrett reports an attack on the camp at Risdon by “not less than 5 or 6 hundred” Aboriginal people. He states that he would like the receiver “to oblige me by christening a fine native boy who I have”. He goes on quite casually to say that he is also in possession of the body of a presumably Aboriginal man who was killed during the attack, which he kindly offers for dissection.

Gough’s substantial body of film and video work, destined for the gallery space, brings into focus the darkness inherent in this scarred country depopulated by a brutal and genocidal military campaign known as the Black War. She is fascinated by the “slippage between things … to raise questions about reality or versions of that”. Some artists experiment with their medium; certainly Gough does that, but ultimately nothing is about nothing. She has a fluid approach to her work, where form is almost secondary. Primarily an installation artist, Gough rarely makes artwork for the market. “This lifestyle seems deliberate,” she writes in the recently published monograph Fugitive History. “I now wonder if I have maintained an effectively unprosperous practice due to an inherent tension between the subject of my work – traumatic histories – and the idea of benefiting from these.”

Gough’s practice is driven and obsessively research-led. She is a part-time curator of Indigenous cultures at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) in Hobart, an institution saturated and complicit in the island’s colonial history. It is convenient, even if Gough sometimes feels captive under the crushing weight and emotional burden of the archive. In her TMAG exhibition, Tense Past, many of Gough’s artworks are juxtaposed against institutional items adjacent in vitrines, such as journals, anthropological field notes, sketches, oils and watercolours, etchings and maps that only a state museum or art gallery could own. A pair of colonial portraits – a self-satisfied husband and wife, the Wigginses – survey the second of four rooms dedicated to Tense Past, which, surprisingly, is Gough’s first solo institutional exhibition.

Aside from the labour-intensive objects that she manufactures – from a domestic Bentwood chair pierced by incomplete spears, to a discarded chaise longue dotted with pins, to carpet from the tip edged into a map of Tasmania – Gough’s artwork is becoming less material. These objects, however, resonate with history; possibly they bear the memory of their prior use, retaining something of the users responsible for the wear and tear on their surfaces. Are their spirits culpable in the unending crime scene? Maybe yes, maybe no.

Gough’s excursions into Country, particularly Observance (2012), are moments in time that leave no visible trace of the artist’s movement through space. They have no object. The only artefact is the film itself, immaterial light projected onto a wall. This is a significant move in Gough’s history of making. Born in Melbourne in 1965, she trained first in the 1980s in Western Australia as an archaeologist. After avoiding fieldwork on Country that was not her own, she returned to university to take up visual arts. An honours degree at the University of Tasmania (UTAS) led to a master of arts at the University of London through a Samstag Scholarship, then a PhD at UTAS. This was followed by a position at the National Gallery of Victoria as curator of Indigenous art, and a visual arts lectureship at James Cook University in Townsville. An unrelenting compulsion to know what happened to her Trawlwoolway ancestors and her maternal Country – Tebrikunna, north-east Tasmania – brought her home at the end of 1993, and for the most part she has lived there ever since.

In the depth of her investigations, Gough’s research must surely compete with that of academic historians. Art is the vehicle for her indefatigable inquiries. She admits that “the desire to understand the lives of my ancestors, all of them, is what brought me to art. Art is not only a visual outcome; making each artwork is my way of proceeding through the quagmire of the past.” At the opening of Tense Past, many of those who spoke used the word “confronting” to describe this survey exhibition of Gough’s work. I do not find her work confronting, and perhaps that is because, like Gough, I am in a permanent state of confrontation with “the past”.

Another persistent line of historical inquiry in Gough’s work is the uncertain fate of the missing. She has attempted to count them in works such as Kidnapped (2007), Head Count (2008) and The Missing (2008). A new work installed in bushland next to the Soldiers Memorial Avenue in Hobart’s Queens Domain, Missing or Dead, is a census of the disappeared. Gough has documented the lives of 185 children known to have been living with non-Aboriginal people, who were stolen or admitted to orphanages such as the Queen’s Asylum for Destitute Children, or whose fate is either less certain or unknown. Among them is Gough’s ancestor Dalrymple Briggs, as well as the haunting figure of Mathinna, who was brought up in the home of Sir John Franklin, the Arctic explorer and colonial governor of Tasmania. The spirited Mathinna was painted in 1842 by Thomas Bock in a voluminous red dress, her hands clasped demurely, her feet bare.

With Tense Past curator Mary Knights and a group of university students, Gough tied posters to she-oak and wattle trees on a walking trail in the Queens Domain forest. These record what biographical information is known about the missing, dead and stolen children, such as the date of admission to the asylum, baptism dates or other official notes. Missing or Dead is the most recent iteration of an ongoing research project to catalogue this early generation of stolen children.

Gough’s forensic investigations into what happened to the disappeared goes straight to the heart of her practice and loops back to what might be regarded as her signature work. Some Tasmanian Aboriginal children living with non-Aboriginal people before 1840 (2008), which is in the National Gallery of Australia collection, features a bundle of tea-tree sticks, unfinished spears not yet hardened in the fire, piercing a chair suspended on the wall. Burnt into the sticks are names such as “Black Tom Birch – Kickerterpoller” or “Girl X (Goldie)” or simply “Charley X”. “I keep researching,” says Gough, “trying to find out what happened to all of our children, particularly pre-1850, who were living with non-Aboriginal people… what is that? Well, that is that their parents are usually killed. That’s part of a much bigger story, of why we’re in the situation we’re in today, because think of all their generations after, and what they would amount to in numbers and in significance. How do you account for that loss?”

Gough is also fascinated by the absence of things – what is missing from the historical record or the ellipses in public memory. She recalls an outdated encyclopaedia set given to her as a child by her paternal aunt. The 10 volumes delighted and tormented her. “I was just, ‘What the hell is this?’ And that’s how I feel right now even 50 years later. What is this stuff that other people think is what’s important? And what’s missing? What’s not in the index of that?”

Another theme of her practice is the parallelism between past and present, which I describe as the contemporaneous past. As Aboriginal people we experience both at the same time – the consequences of a brutal past are being lived every day. The future is nothing if not the sum of past and present, like a mathematical equation. Something Gough once wrote in an artist statement strikes a deep chord with me. In describing Some Words for Change (2008), an ephemeral work in a tea-tree forest in which she staked out the pages of Clive Turnbull’s 1948 book Black War dipped in wax, she wrote that “silence can become its opposite”. Gough’s unparalleled work unstintingly breaks the silence and illuminates the dark.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 27, 2019 as "Untold histories". Subscribe here.

Daniel Browning
is an Aboriginal journalist, radio broadcaster and sound curator.