Critical Literacy

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Comparison of "The Conciliation", 1840 and "The National Picture, 1985

Both ‘The Conciliation' and ‘The National Picture' represent different views of European and Aboriginal Australian relations.

‘The Conciliation' depicts a white male in uniform in the centre of the frame. He is surrounded by 15 indigenous people, most of whom looking towards him. The indigenous people are of mixed gender, hold spears in their hands, some with beads around their necks and are all scantily clad. The painting itself is ‘naturalistic' in nature and set in a natural environment (a grassy mound next to the ocean). It is dated 1840. In the foreground of the painting is a badger – a species introduced to Australia, a wallaby – a species native to Australia and a dog. The white man and one indigenous man shake hands – thus "the conciliation".

‘The National Picture' reconstructs the same scene but with noticeable differences. The most prominent difference being a reversal in race, meaning that most of the indigenous Australians have now been replaced with white people and the white central figure has been replaced (apparently) by an Aboriginal person. However, a picture of Truganinni (often referred to as the "last" of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people) is superimposed over his or her face. The indigenous figures in the background of the scene, however, remain. There is no longer a ‘natural environment'. This has been replaced by a photographic studio. The spears that were once in the hands of the indigenous people are survey staffs now in the hands of white Australians. The dog has been replaced by an esky and tripod and the wallaby is now only a wallaby skin. The badger appears to have come out more (more of it shown within the frame). There is also new additions; two white stones/eggs (it is impossible to tell) and a surveyor's bag to the left of the frame and a corrugated iron fence acts as a divider. It is dated 1985. The indigenous person in the centre of the frame shakes hands with one of the white males dressed in a business suit.

How historical context may have changed my reading of the pictures:

Listening to the historical account gave the painting "The Conciliation" ‘placement' both geographically and historically. We now know that this is Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania). The central white figure is Robinson, the appointed "Protector" of Aboriginal people in Tasmania at that time. Robinson was, by historical account, a kind individual who meant well and had good intentions for ‘saving' the Aboriginal people. However, the bargain he struck with Aboriginal people worked in the long run against their interests. The account made me look at the picture in a different light. The spears Aboriginal people hold now appear as symbols of their independence as a nation. The beads they wear around their neck, understood by whites as tokens of friendship, seem to be nothing more than bribes.

The artist's attempt to make this scene ‘guilt free' to the white masses is also noted. In the painting we see Robinson alone and unarmed around a group of indigenous people, shaking the hand of one – symbolising peaceful agreement. The wallaby sitting calmly together with the dog and badger (species introduced to Australia) also represents this ‘peaceful agreement'.

The historical context of "The Conciliation" places "The National Picture" in some perspective. As the two pictures are set up in the same way (placement of figures) and there are many similarities I determine this to be a ‘present' (term used lightly) take on the idea of conciliation or indeed reconciliation. Looking at this picture with this in mind, meaning can be extracted.

In this picture there are now more white people than black people. The face of Truganinni superimposed over the face of the black person suggests that Aboriginal people are today being offered the same bargain. The ghosts of their ancestors look on. However, the person striking the bargain is now shown...
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