By Rama Gaind
PS News Books
Ochre and Rust: Artefacts and Encounters on Australian Frontiers
By Philip Jones (Wakefield Press, $49.95, hardcover, 440 pages)
Set in the heart of Australia’s frontier zone, nine Aboriginal and colonial artefacts become the focus of this comprehensive, handsomely illustrated book.
Curator and historian, Philip Jones has adopted an innovative way of telling a story about the lives of frontier objects and of those people who carried them across Australia’s remote borders. As a result, their biographies are more fascinating.
The pieces are from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries.
It researches the thesis that the European Aboriginal frontier was a remarkably complex meeting zone, rather than a stark line of combat and racial conflict. It tells the stories of encounters, both violent and peaceful, with each chapter relating to an article, photo or archival document on which the story turns.
“The idea of the book came from a realization that Aboriginal artefacts not only evoke another culture and another time, but also carry substantial traces of encounters between their original makers or owners and their collectors,” Jones says.
“As witnesses of these encounters, museum objects have much to tell us about the frontier where they were noticed, desired and collected.”
Frontier encounters in Aboriginal Australia rarely occurred across clear boundaries, between defined groups.
The resulting essays flow with the boundary, including a medallion given by James Cook to Tasmanian Aboriginal people on Bruny Island in 1777 (that was found more than 130 years later by a sharp-eyed little girl) and sweeping to the 1930s to look at the Ganba ceremonial snake sculptures given to Daisy Bates at her Ooldea camp.
Albert Namatjira’s Jeasus plaque is a reminder of the inversion which the Australian frontier could impose as colonisation gave way to decolonisation.
Since the items have “brushed against both cultures they wear a double patina, of ochre and rust”.
Edition 406, 22 April 2014
To find out more about Rama Gaind click here.