Professor Greg Lehman is one of the country’s most significant voices on Tasmania’s Indigenous history and culture. The art historian, curator and essayist, who is a descendant of the Trawulwuy people of north-eastern Tasmania, started out in life sciences. Lehman, who co-curated the seminal 2018 exhibition The National Picture: The Art of Tasmania’s Black War, sees art as a form of visual ecology. “Art is like birdwatching,” he says. “It’s the trail that is left behind, the tracks in the sand.”
Next week, Lehman features on The Australian Wars, an SBS documentary series by Rachel Perkins that charts the enormity of frontier warfare and the ways the story of Aboriginal resistance upends the colonial claim to this continent. These tensions, says Lehman, are alive in The Conciliation, a history painting made in 1840 by the artist Benjamin Duterrau.
Tell me about The Conciliation. Benjamin Duterrau was a colonial painter born in London to parents of French descent. He emigrated to Van Diemen’s Land in the 1830s. What drew you to his work?
I wasn’t aware of the painting until I moved to Hobart for university in 1979. I grew up in the north-west of Tasmania, in a small coastal town [Ulverstone]. The Conciliation has hung in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery for many years. It was enthralling. It took 30 or 40 years for me to realise my interest in it.
One of the challenges is trying to recover our cultural knowledge of what happened in Tasmania. This is a microcosm of the way things were with the whole of Australia. But Van Diemen’s Land is an island. It was easier for [the British] to completely remove Aboriginal people. In the Swan River and New South Wales, there was this vast inland that Aboriginal people could retreat to, whereas here in Tasmania there was a thing called the Black Line. The governor allocated over half the colony’s budget to equip every able-bodied man – convicts, soldiers, constables, free settlers – with the object of establishing a series of lines intended to drive Tasmanian Aboriginals, still living on their Country, to a small isthmus called Eaglehawk Neck.
It was envisaged that the Aboriginal people could be captured and sent to an island where they were out of the way of settlers. This is Australia’s first example of permanent offshore detention, which it still practises against people it doesn’t want. Old habits die hard in colonial societies. By the time photography arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in the early 1840s, the Aboriginal population here was no more than 60 or 80 people. That’s from a population of 8000 to 10,000. That happened within a lifetime.
The Conciliation revolves around George Augustus Robinson, who was a “conciliator” between the Indigenous community and white settlers from 1829 to 1834. This painting shows him as a saviour – this notion of benevolent white colonists, of course, was a justification for so much frontier conflict in Tasmania and elsewhere. What intrigues you about this portrayal?
This scene is notionally about Robinson meeting with a group known as the Big River Mob. This was a confederation of a number of First Nations whose population had been decimated. They had formed themselves into an armed guerilla resistance of 30 or 40 people who were attacking settlers on the frontier. Robinson travelled into the Derwent Valley and convinced them to accompany him into Hobart. He said, “If you come with me, I will send a letter to the governor agreeing with your demands.” When they came to Hobart, they were greeted by the governor but then held on a ship before being sent to Bass Strait. It speaks to the darkest intent in relation to First Nations sovereignty.
Every part of the painting has a fascinating story. Robinson is standing there with this oratorical gesture. Robinson was a London bricklayer as well as an evangelical Christian. He was paid very handsomely to conciliate the natives. The converging lines of the painting point to the woman. She is quite key – she is the one who remains to be convinced. The guy who’s shaking hands is accepting his assurances: If you agree to come with me, I’ll assure that the government will protect you. He has his hand on another Aboriginal man as if he’s saying, “It’s okay, this is for the best.”
Of the two men sitting down, one is straightening a spear. That, together with the spears in the background, is intended to create the tension that at any moment this could all collapse into conflict. The wallaby at the front is nose-to-nose with the dog. This is the kangaroo dog and for a long time the economy of the colony relied on these. Dogs in classical painting are a symbol of fidelity and trust. The academic traditions that informed French and British painting were inspired by the Italian Renaissance – they were all about religious allegory. Every gesture, every object, had symbolic value, was an index to something else – which had either biblical proportions or moral and ethical implications.
Of the 14 Aboriginal figures in this painting, the only man who isn’t wearing a traditional necklace, a symbol of unbroken connection to land in Tasmanian Aboriginal culture, is shaking Robinson’s hand.
If you look at the far right, there’s a man holding the necklace out, gesturing. The man who’s done the deal with Robinson, his necklace is already gone. For me, the necklaces are like a time capsule. Duterrau dropped these things into the painting and they are just exploding with resonance.
Although colonial paintings in New South Wales often featured Aboriginal people, the same wasn’t true in Tasmania. What set Duterrau apart?
Duterrau’s parents were both Huguenots and I discovered that both his grandparents on his father’s side were imprisoned in France. The treatment of Protestants in Catholic France is dramatic and savage. This would have been burned in the family history. Duterrau arrives in 1832 and the Big River Mob had been brought into Hobart town in January that year. I don’t think he could have escaped some sympathy for how the Aboriginal people had been treated because of what his family had suffered. But how do I prove that? I don’t know.
In NSW, typical colonial scenes have Aboriginal people positioned in the foreground holding a spear. Those artists produced the same compositions for Hobart and Sydney but there are no Aboriginal people in the Van Diemen’s Land scenes. In the 1820s, when these images were created, Aboriginal people were actively engaged in trying to drive the settlers out. My view is that there was an intentional desire to craft the visual representation of Van Diemen’s Land to avoid the question of Aboriginal people. How do you persuade people to bring their earthly riches and family to Van Diemen’s Land if they know they have to defend their land grant? There was quite an intentional decision on the part of the governors who had control of the art produced by convicts and other officers.
Owning the past is the way to obtain freedom. We do it through honesty, not duplicity. One of the reasons artists like Duterrau were painting these scenes is as an expression of lament. They were Australia’s first wave of memorial.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 17, 2022 as "Greg Lehman".
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