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The Aboriginal Memorial moves to heart of the National Gallery of Australia as part of major revitalisation project
Ramingining artists, Djon Mundine, Bandjalung people, The Aboriginal Memorial, 1987-88, National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra, Purchased with the assistance of funds from National Gallery admission charges and commissioned in 1987.

CANBERRA.- Following three years of planning and community consultation, The Aboriginal Memorial has been relocated to the heart of the National Gallery, helping make the most important work in the national collection central to all visitors’ art experience.

Ahead of the National Gallery’s 40th anniversary in October, The Aboriginal Memorial is moving to Gallery 9 on Level 1 – the first stage of a revitalisation project that will also include a major publication in 2023 and an ongoing program of public and educational activity.

Commissioned by the National Gallery’s inaugural director, James Mollison, before the Australian Bicentenary in 1988, The Aboriginal Memorial commemorates all First Nations people who lost their lives defending their land since European colonisation. It launched at the 1988 Sydney Biennale before moving to the National Gallery later that year.

An installation of 200 hollow log coffins from Central Arnhem Land, the concept was the brainchild of renowned Bandjalung artist and curator Djon Mundine OAM, who worked with 43 artists from 9 clan groups from Ramingining and surrounding communities.

The concept was borne from memorials dotted across Australia – in most cities, towns and villages – commemorating those who died defending their country. Yet there were no memorials for Aboriginal people who had died defending their Country since European colonisation in 1788.

‘An enormous crime has been committed and is remembered here,’ Mundine said. ‘All artworks are memorials; mnemonic devices, however, this artwork speaks to a wider social consciousness and a need to be grieving, if nationally we are to grow as an adult society and nation.’

‘The work contains within it an alternate cosmology of how we First Australians have lived and can live within this environment and be spiritually inspired to imagine a better future.’

National Gallery Barbara Jean Humphreys Assistant Director First Nations Engagement Bruce Johnson McLean said The Aboriginal Memorial remained as central to the mission of the National Gallery today as when it was conceived in the 1980s.

‘It was a defining exhibition for Australian visual culture – it compelled many to view the world through the eyes of First Nations people for the first time,’ he said.

‘As custodians of The Aboriginal Memorial, we are charged with keeping the spirit of this work alive, of keeping the memories and legacies of those who have gone before alive. We are committed to keeping this an active memorial space long into the future.’

National Gallery Director Nick Mitzevich said: ‘The Aboriginal Memorial is one of the nation’s most important cultural works and it has been heartening to work closely with the community over the past three years to ensure the work is presented at the heart of the Gallery.’

The original creators wanted the memorial to remain in a public space and preserved for future generations.

Garrawurra artist Frances Rrikili, who created a memorial pole adorned with conch shells, said: ‘A long time ago we used these for our funerals. Yolngu people put the bones into these, and they are left on Country. These all have different stories from different clan families, they have ancient stories on them about traditional ways of life.’

‘For me, this installation keeps what we have, it is our identity in these hollow logs. They show who we are, where we are from and what our ancestors did. This has been passed down to us, and it is still going. Our culture is alive.’

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