When the first British colonialists disembarked in Australia in 1788, they looked hopefully at what for them was terra nullius: an empty, barren land that belonged to nobody. Australian Aboriginal society, the longest continuous culture in world history, operated so differently to their own that the settlers found it hard to comprehend what they were seeing. They were not able to understand the unfamiliar landscape or recognize such a radically different way of life.

The settlers were unaware of the fact that the indigenous people of Australia had survived the Ice Age, successfully modified and managed the landscape, and handed down from generation to generation one of the longest oral histories on Earth, one that is derived from the belief that people and the land upon which they live are at one with each other. Ignorant of these facts, the settlers started drawing maps, dividing the territories, erecting houses and churches, searching for gold and laying down train tracks. This resulted in the newcomers displacing and destroying the indigenous communities along with decimating Australia's ecosystem.

Despite colonisation the Warlpiri indigenous group have preserved an enduring philosophical belief system, enacted through rich ceremonial traditions and art making practices. In 2014 Patrick Waterhouse went to Warlpiri country for the first time. He had been taking photographs in Central Australia since 2011 while acquiring documents that retrace Australia's colonial history. Waterhouse presented these photographs, along with archival material obtained from museums and auctions to the members of the Warlukurlangu Art Centre in the communities of Yuendumu and Nyirippi and invited them to revise the documents through the traditional Aboriginal technique of dot painting, practiced by almost half of the community's population.

Drawing upon their own stories and traditions, the artists a group of men and women aged from 16 to 90, applied layers of colourful patterns and symbols to the documents. This process can be seen as defacement, a correction of what was there, or the revelation of something that had always been hidden beneath the surface. The resulting work confronts Australia's colonial narrative with its Aboriginal history, which began more than 60,000 years ago.
Matthew Deavin
Matthew Rory Deavin, Patrick Waterhouse
9 mins

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