The National Gallery of Australia and its presentation of The Aboriginal Memorial have a long and chequered history. Originally conceived by Djon Mundine at the time of the Bicentennial as a memorial to 200 years of the victims of white occupation, it was bought by James Mollison after its first exhibition at the Wharf during the 1988 Biennale of Sydney. Once it arrived at the NGA it has been bounced around that infelicitous building in different configurations and contexts, from the downstairs sculpture gallery (where it was once contextualised as “installation art” in the Islands exhibition), to upstairs in Gallery One just inside the front door, to its present corridor location at the confluence between International abstraction and the shop. The Art Life, like everyone else, now scoots past it on the way to the temporary exhibitions area where the current exhibition Culture Warriors is to be found.
Under Brian Kennedy there seemed a concerted effort to de-sacralise the Memorial, to the extent that it was uprooted and sent with other Aboriginal art on an international tour, fetching up as far away as St Petersburg, the site of the infamous falling out between Consultant Djon Mundine and then Curator Wally Caruana. Last night, as part of a chilly and chaotic 25th birthday bash son et lumiere, the NGA wowed its masses with the projection of its collection on the exterior walls of the building. Including The Aboriginal Memorial .
This left the Art Life somewhat bemused. There was discussion that the new building extension would include a glass pavilion for the Memorial, which would at least be an expansive solution to the continual problem (which no curator has tackled in its nearly 20 year history) of the work being unable to be seen except against a cacophany of Indigenous Australian art from everywhere else. But now, as we see, it has become an emblem, a party trick. The Art Life now wonders whether it has become another victim to the symbol wars.