It’s an odd and little-known fact that the first European chimney to be built in Melbourne was constructed by William Buckley for his employer, John Batman.
Buckley was a curiosity in the colony – an escaped convict who lived for more than 30 years with Wathaurung people near Geelong. He rejoined European society when he emerged from the bush with Pulmadaring and other Wathuarung kin and approached John Batman’s camp at Indented Head in 1835.
Batman was a grazier and entrepreneur who actively participated in the murder of Aboriginal people during his life in Van Diemen’s Land. He’s best-known as the author of the treaty he dubiously claimed he signed with Wurundjeri people in 1835 (and as a result has often been described as the founder of Melbourne).
After Buckley’s arrival at Indented Head, Batman briefly employed him as a mediator with Aboriginal communities. During this time Buckley also built Batman’s chimney, the hearth of the first European house in what became Melbourne, having trained as a bricklayer in his native Cheshire.
Artist Tom Nicholson tells the story while explaining the genesis of Towards a monument to Batman’s Treaty, the project he’s been working on for a number of years, the next iteration of which will be exhibited at the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art next year. The project has evolved in relation to a longstanding dialogue with senior Wurundjeri elder Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin AO, and is supported by Monash Art Projects, part of Monash Art Design and Architecture.
“I think it’s fascinating that convivial form, that first European hearth, draws on those two figures,” he says. “They’re both unique in terms of their relationship to Aboriginal people in this part of Australia. It’s like a fable. It sounds like something invented.”
Batman’s Treaty was certainly “a confection of convenience for him, and an act of theft”, Nicholson says, and in this sense belongs to a long tradition of colonial mendacity. But it also contains a dangerous implication, as the only time Europeans negotiated their presence and occupation with a treaty with its sovereign people. The treaty wasn’t recognised by the Crown in part because it negated the British legal fiction of invasion.
"[Batman and Buckley] are both unique in terms of their relationship to Aboriginal people in this part of Australia. It’s like a fable. It sounds like something invented.”
Nicholson imagines this monumental form poised between a freestanding chimney and an obelisk. “In our collective imagination, a freestanding chimney very powerfully suggests a ruin, because often, particularly after a fire, it’s the only thing that survives,” he explains.
Critical to the project is an array of plaques describing the multiple narratives and ramifications that intersect Batman’s Treaty and that chimney, including the history of Coranderrk, the early Aboriginal mission station on the perimeter of Healesville, and the home of Aboriginal leader William Barak, which included among its many forms of self-sufficiency an important brickmaking industry.
Nicholson’s work is intended to unfold the complex and multiple ramifications of that chimney and the treaty, and above all to initiate the telling of other stories – stories counter-sovereign to the claims of the treaty.
Consequences of a hidden past
Nicholson is also a senior lecturer in drawing at the Monash Art, Design and Architecture faculty. Much of his art involves exploring unacknowledged histories, and their consequences for the present, for how we imagine our collective futures.
“Monuments project their authority, and they project the idea of finalising history and its meanings in a way that I think we should be deeply suspicious of,” he says. “They almost always have an overblown visibility, which perversely and paradoxically makes them invisible to the people who live around them, because you stop noticing them. And they almost never assert or acknowledge the ways they have come into being.”
His work on the Towards a monument to Batman’s Treaty was influenced by an “obscure obelisk” that he noticed near the railway station in Florence, Italy.
“It was first erected as a monument to Italian soldiers, but was gradually inscribed with multiple different plaques during the 20th century,” he says. “And I remember finding it so bizarre. It’s like a barnacle-encrusted thing. On one face it has a plaque which says it’s for the Italian soldiers who died in WWII, and then immediately adjacent to it you have a plaque which says the obelisk is a monument to partisans who died in WWII.” The partisans were fighting against the soldiers commemorated in the earlier plaque.
“There is something inadvertently true about that monument,” he says. “And in some ways that kind of a monument, which is actually open to the unresolved nature of history, is the type of monument I’m interested in.”
His background is in drawing, and he points out that a drawing “almost always shows how it came to be … it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum to the monument”.
Drawings are made of light and sometimes fragile materials, and often look incomplete, “and I think that’s truer to the way that we read forms, and it’s certainly truer to the nature of history, where everything is always in the process of coming into being. We’re always assembling new meanings out of history.”
On foreign shores
Some of Australia’s unacknowledged history takes place offshore.
His artwork "I was born in Indonesia’ was created through an engagement over three years with refugees living in Indonesia and is currently exhibited at the 2018 Gwangju Biennale in South Korea. The work includes a series of 120 unpainted resin figures, created in relation to a recent tradition of diorama-making in Indonesia, and modelled on narratives recounted by refugees living in Cisarua, a town outside Jakarta in West Java. Taking its title from the words from Khadim Dai, a young Hazara refugee and an important participant in the project, "I was born in Indonesia" imagines a future, unrealised museum in Australia.
The refugees in Cisarua are mostly Hazara from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and had intended to travel to Australia until the shift in Australian government refugee policies. Officially denied access to Indonesian health and education services, this community of refugees self-organise in a remarkable way, including creating their own school – the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre.
"I was born in Indonesia" drew inspiration from an extraordinary series of 51 miniature diorama scenes about the coming into being of the Indonesian people, created by the late Indonesian artist Edhi Sunarso in the 1960s and ’70s.
They were commissioned by Indonesia’s first President Sukarno, for the Monumen Nasional (MONAS), the towering structure conceived as the centre of Jakarta and the symbolic centre of the nation.
Dr Nicholson finds them visually fascinating, with their painted backdrops and perspectival orchestration, but also finds them interesting because “there is another level of orchestration going on, which is an attempt to visualise or constitute this polity called Indonesia”.
Alongside the Indonesia art historian and curator Grace Samboh, Nicholson interviewed Sunarso in 2015, only a few months before he passed away.
"I was born in Indonesia" was deeply informed by this interview, and by Sunarso ‘s description of the process around his diorama-making, which often included travelling around Indonesia to interview the protagonists in these histories, and drawing details of the diorama scenes based on this interviewing process.
Echoing this process, Dr Nicholson interviewed refugees in Cisarua, and created drawings from those interviews, which were then realised as diorama figures by diorama-makers in Yogyakarta, the same place where makers realised Sunarso’s MONAS figures. Some of these figures are the size of toy soldiers, some are 40 centimetres high – a perspectival system based on Sunarso’s work.
Nicholson describes this long-term work as a way of imagining how the experiences of refugees could be documented in an Australian museum of the future. “What would it be like to actually honour these people, interrupted on their way to Australia, and their incredible ingenuity and courage?” he asks.
There’s a notable difference between Nicholson’s work and the MONAS dioramas – in the MONAS dioramas the figures are organised into their proper place, narratively and perspectively; the small figures are at the back and the large in front. But in Nicholson’s work all the figures, big and small, are assembled on one large table, as a single field, an entanglement of narratives and spaces. The suspended animation that marks the strangeness of the diorama also marks the project itself – the museum of his imagination doesn’t exist. He wants the ‘unfinished’ or suspended logic of his work to reflect that.
Documenting an uprising
For the Gwangju Biennale, Nicholson was also co-commissioned by the biennale and the international art foundation Kadist to make an artwork commemorating the Gwangju uprising – nine remarkable days in May 1980 when the people of Gwangju seized control of the city. South Korea was then a dictatorship. It began when a student protest was violently suppressed by the military. In response, “the students and the citizens of Gwangju stole arms and took over the city”.
More than 600 people died in the city of one million, as the military reasserted its control over the population. The bravery of the students is remembered today, but Nicholson says the political nature of the event sits more uneasily in the present, including the important relationship between students, workers’ groups, night-school activism and the clandestine peasant movements around Gwangju.
During their nine precious days of democracy, citizens self-organised the city, and daily rallies, or “assemblies”, were held at a central fountain in Gwangju, with remarkable speeches made.
Some of the scripts for those speeches, always in an epistolary form, were saved. For his artwork, Dr Nicholson reprinted the 15 saved speeches in a pamphlet (in English and Korean). He also wrote a letter to the citizens of Gwangju, inviting them to perform their own modest commemorative gesture: to walk to the fountain and give these published speeches to a stranger.
“What makes us act?” he asks. “What threat to survival would make us seize power now?”
Back home in Australia, he says the European invasion and occupation of the continent involved “a most remarkable, but also horrific, set of encounters”. The monuments that we do have – the statues to explorers such as Captain Cook and Matthew Flinders – are not only “untruthful and dishonest, they also don’t reflect how interesting and vital history is”.
He hopes his work can help to change that.