Thou Didst Let Fall
In Tony Albert’s upcoming solo exhibition at Sullivan+Strumpf, the many hidden histories and stories of war are revealed through a series of installations, paintings and sculptures. Inspired by his family, who share over 80 years of combined military service, Thou didst let fall marks the culmination of a four year journey, during which Albert was commissioned by the City of Sydney to create a major monument honouring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service personnel and was deployed on a tour of duty as an Official War Artist for the Australian War Memorial.
Thou didst let fall reinterprets the ANZAC tradition and continues to explore a core belief that underpins Albert’s practice: ‘the greatest gift we can give our children is historical truth.’ In Universal Soldier, a reference to Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 1964 song by the same name, kitsch Aboriginal ephemera are assembled to form a silhouette of a soldier carrying his wounded comrade. Bound together by torn camouflage fabric and twine, the installation not only conveys the power of humanity, friendship and compassion, but also contests conventional history, which has largely overlooked the contributions made by Indigenous soldiers. Albert states:
“I’ve been interested in the idea of camouflage. In a way it’s the opposite of a target [used in previous work]. It’s about concealing, rather than drawing attention – camouflaging until the point of complete erasure and eradication. Since our stories are being eradicated, the camouflage functions like a disease, creeping over our histories.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women have served in every conflict since colonisation, including what is known as ‘the frontier wars’, in which it is estimated up to one million Aboriginal men, women and children were murdered. In the trenches, enlisted soldiers were treated as equals; however, on their return to Australia they were greeted with the same racism they faced before leaving for war, and continued to fight for citizenship, land rights, equal wages and the right to raise their own children. Albert’s grandfather Eddie experienced this injustice first hand after narrowly escaping execution during World War II. Unlike other Diggers, Eddie and his fellow Indigenous soldiers did not receive land grants for their service.
His remarkable story of survival is the inspiration behind Albert’s artwork YININMADYEMI Thou didst let fall, a major public art monument honouring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service men and women. Commissioned by the City of Sydney and launched at Hyde Park on 18 March 2015, the sculpture comprises four seven-metre-tall bullets and three fallen shells sculpted from steel, corten and black marble. In Albert’s exhibition at Sullivan+Strumpf, a bronze scaled maquette of the sculpture accompanies a delicately embellished visual diary documenting the artist’s journey throughout the commission process.
In 2011 Albert made history, becoming the first Aboriginal person to be selected as an Official War Artist by the Australian War Memorial. He was deployed to the North West Mobile Force (NORFORCE), a non-combatant infantry battalion located in Northern Australia. Responsible for patrolling and protecting Australia’s most vulnerable border, the NORFORCE regiment comprises sixty-percent Indigenous service men and women, who are recruited from communities across the Top End of Australia, the Torres Strait Islands and beyond.
With the support of their communities NORFORCE personnel take leave from their cultural responsibilities and adopt the name ‘Green Skin’, a highly revered title that supersedes their familial skin name. In Albert’s Green Skins paintings, delicate silhouettes of soldiers, text, numbers and shapes are superimposed over vintage war comics depicting white soldiers humiliating and objectifying Aboriginal men and women. As Albert himself states
“At the core of my work is a kind of reconciliation with these racist objects’ very existence. Yes, they are painful reiterations of a violent and oppressive history, but we also cannot hide or destroy them because they are an important societal record that should not be forgotten.”
Rather than rejecting or reinforcing these dehumanising paradigms, Albert reconstructs the narrative, writing Indigenous service men and women back into history. Through the process of literally overwriting these racist representations, Albert presents an altruistic perspective that, like so much of his work, stresses positivity in the face of adversity.