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 Semaphore is a newsletter and publishing project about art fromWestern Australia | Semaphore is a collaborative project and practice | Semphore enters into a dialogue with art from its rooted location of Boorloo on Noongar Country |


No peace in the statue wars until there is peace in the justice system

19 June 2020
A response by Kelly Fliedner to Ted Snell’s ‘Can we have peace in the statue wars?’ in The West Australian, 16 June 2020

At the entrance to Stirling Gardens, Alexander Forrest prominently stands with his rifle and compass. On the corner of Adelaide Terrace and Victoria Avenue there is a bronze John Septimus Roe. Don’t let the 19th century aesthetic confuse you, it was cast in 1990. Over on Hay Street in front of the City Library is Captain James Stirling, who was unveiled in 1979 by then visiting Prince Charles. It was donated to the city by Channel Nine and Radio 6KY after a community fundraiser failed to raise the money. Alexander’s brother and first Premier of WA, Lord John Forrest, can be found at the entrance of the Botanical Gardens in King’s Park in all his pompous, gouty glory. Nothing is said of the Forrest brothers’ trip up north with a band of police and pastoralists, stealing, killing, enslaving, torturing and raping their way through the Kimberley. But, you can read all about it in Chris Owen’s meticulously researched Every Mother’s Son Is Guilty.

Midway along Forrest Drive in Kings Park, next to Roe Car Park and Roe Toilet, on an escarpment overlooking the Derbarl Yerrigan, is the John Septimus Roe monument. It includes a large paved area with a bust of Roe along with a reproduction of his original street plans for the city. On the other side of the river at Sir James Mitchell Park there is a memorial to commemorate the 1979 re-enactment of Stirling’s landing in 1827. Just to repeat, there is a memorial of the re-enactment, not the event itself. In Mirrabooka, at the John Septimus Roe School, in the playground not far from swings and slides stands a smaller than life-size depiction of Roe playfully looking through a surveying level. It was commissioned and dedicated in 2009. On Kojonup Road in Broomehill you can find a plaque celebrating his exploration of the region. His mere being there. Over on the cairn at the summit of Mount Madden, a plaque was unveiled in 1982 commemorating the exploration of the area by Roe. Again there is a plaque on a boulder at Pioneer Park in Gnowangerup remembering Roe, or there’s the Pioneer Memorial in Augusta, or the Sesquicentenary Tree in Carnarvon planted to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the European colonisation of Western Australia. The tree died but you can find its dead stump painted white along with a plaque marking its dedication. You better believe that nowhere at any of these sites is a single detail of the Pinjarra Massacre, one of the most notorious massacres of Indigenous people in West Australian history orchestrated by Stirling and including the bloody hands of his mate Roe. Elsewhere, there is a plaque on a rock to commemorate the Massacre, but on all these symbols of colonial adventure there is nary a mention.

As this less than exhaustive but totally exhausting list suggests, colonial memorials are everywhere in Western Australia. It is in no small part because of their multitude that Stirling, Roe and the Forrests are chiefly remembered and celebrated for their exploration and founding of Boorloo/Perth and Western Australia. This is not only as statues and plaques, but as place names, streets, suburbs, buildings, and so on, all of which seep into the language of place, how we think of and describe ourselves, always in the cold shadow of the (mediocre) locally great white men of history. The living memory created through these associations between coloniser and contemporary placemaking is not just  a silence and erasure, it is the continuation of colonialism’s violence.

The question of and debate around what to do with these statues and monuments is ongoing, recently flaring up after international Black Lives Matter protests and the defacement of sculptures in colonised and colonising nations across the world. Notably, there was the toppling of Slave-Trader Edward Colston’s sculpture in Bristol, which was rolled down the street by chanting protestors and dumped into the city’s harbour. 

Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery Director Ted Snell’s recent article ‘Time for Peace in the Statue Wars’ in The West Australian responds to this moment by borrowing heavily from a 2015 episode of North American podcast, The Memory Palace. We highlight that here, only because appropriating things goes hand in hand with other colonial tactics. I.e.: The willful ignorance of local examples that demonstrate complexity and relevance in order to avoid addressing the specific histories and issues confronted ‘at home’.

There are questions to ask of the article then, including: How is Memphis relevant to Boorloo now? Why mount a defence of a sculpture of the founder of the Ku Klux Klan including the resurrection of the Southern Confederacy and the defence of massacres? One can only speculate that of all the historical figures to defend, this person spoke most to Snell himself, which is to say, race solidarity knows no bounds and can be sent from the United States to Western Australia precisely when Indigenous Lives Matter rises in solidarity with Black Lives Matters as well.

In this way, Snell’s opinion is tone deaf for the moment right now. He’s talking about a statue as if that were the war, when people are talking about systemic racism, global colonialism; and, right here in the shaddow of Forrest and Roe and Stirling: the ongoing genocide of our First Nations people. We see this when we look at how Yagan’s statue has been treated—a public monument desecrated most of all—when we look at a hunk of bronze and see the ongoing issues affecting local First Nations communities as well. The statues are not the point, they are a symptom of a wider illness. After all, this is not a theoretical historical proposition in the abstract that only the institutionally privileged can voice an opinion on. To try to end this debate is one thing, but surely one does not write an article to make others silent afterwards? It starts a conversation, and our response is: to change the plaques is not enough. Snell’s understanding of art and how it acts within the community comes from a Western tradition. There is no denying that, and, so do ours. But, if a statue is a symbol of value, as well as something regarded for its reflective and educational qualities, why defend the likenesses of war mongers who are not even from here when you could be working towards real reconciliation and promoting artists and others marginalised by history itself?

If there is to be peace in the statue wars, local, creative solutions to ongoing issues are needed. And so, where is the statue to Noongar woman Fanny Balbuk Yooreel (1840-1907) an agitator and defender of the rights and values of her people? Or for William Harris (1867-1931) who for twenty-two years fought against the dehumanising and restrictive Aborigines Act (1905)? Or William’s activist brother Edward Harris (1867-1931)? What about Daisy Bindi (1904-1962) a Nyiyaparli woman, born on a cattle-station near the Jigalong Aboriginal Reserve who fought for wages for all work on stations in WA? Or Barbara Jackson (1909-1976) who in the 1970s started the Aboriginal Youth Training Centre on Beaufort Street in Northbridge? How about a statue of Rover Thomas or Queenie McKenzie out the front of AGWA? That is something to get behind. That is something worth celebrating and it does not simply turn on an outdated race politics. If we want to add to the historical consciousness of the city, what about a memorial for the Frontier Wars? Or if we want to talk about the present, why not memorials for Stolen Generations like the long overdue one from Noongar artist Sandra Hill? What about those wards of the state who battle on quietly everyday? What about the removed children? What about those who died in custody and their families? And if you can’t even cross that bridge, what about some statues for our football heroes? Surely we can all get around a larger than life Polly Farmer, David Wirrpanda, Chris Lewis, Buddy Franklin, Barry Cable to join Nicky Winmar? Champions all! The point is that statues symbolise value, and we have so many heroes here that every person can herald. This is not only supporting only Aboriginal heroes, though there needs to be more of that; it is about the removal of white men who are enemies, including us as white women.

Afterall, a statue is not a reflection of the subject, but a reflection of those who erected it in the first place. To leave these statues untouched is a politically motivated act of misremembering (and denialism). These objects, and we all, are participants in a living history, which is why it matters when Roe is commemorated so recently, when Stirling continues to stand, when a highway is named for Forrest. All of them should fall. It hinges too on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the commons is. This is public ground to be debated, fought over, shared, a space of collaboration between citizens. We as a community have the responsibility to be continually creating inclusive common spaces. At best, we need to bring people together and embrace everyone who is here. To remove statues is not then an act of erasure, but the protection of responsible freedom of expression that guards against hate speech.

The point is, it takes ongoing strength to survive the genocidal intentions of the Australian state, which targets Aboriginal people most of all. A failure to empathise, to think creatively, to solve a problem, leads to conservative views being normalised so that we cannot even see the statues that are supposed to truly represent the body politic. Indigenous Lives Matter more than a sense of propriety about an important debate that challenges the very foundation of a white privilege that oppresses us all. Take the statues down now.

^^^ image: screen grab of instgram story by @minestrong_official via @gracecorners accessed on 9 June 2020
^^^ clip from Confessions of a Headhunter (2000) by Sally Riley. 

Ted Snell, Can we have peace in the statue wars?, The West Australian, Tuesday 16 June 2020, pg. 46.

Nate DiMeo, Episode #73: Notes on an imagined plaque, The Memory Palace podcast, 13 August 2015

Chris Owen with Patricia Karvelas, Should monuments that have a dark history be removed?, Radio National, 10 July 2020

Kaya. We acknowledge the Whadjuk People of Boorloo boodja who are the traditional owners of the land where Semaphore is made. We respect their culture, their custodianship, and their continuing contribution to the life of this city and this region. That includes recognising and respecting sovereignty while working in solidarity towards a treaty and supporting ongoing connection to country. That means linguistic rights, economic opportunity, and artistic endeavour. To their Elders, past, present and emerging, we say thanks.