The exhibition The First, First Families contains many of the earliest views of Sydney and representations of Aboriginal people from 1788: Australia’s true ‘ﬁrst families’. As a site of invasion and ongoing resistance, Sydney has always been a contested place.
As a curator, Ace Bourke has in several major exhibitions, explored the entwined narratives of his own colonial family history, Aboriginal history and his experiences as a curator of contemporary Aboriginal art.
In The First, First Families you will see etchings from the earliest published journals based on artwork by leading artists such as Thomas Watling, Nicholas-Martin Petit from the Baudin expedition and Joseph Lycett – published for a European audience fascinated by our Paciﬁc region. Other works relate to Bourke’s family including natural history illustrations by sisters Helena and Harriet Scott made in the second half of the 19th century.
When Bourke staged Flesh & Blood: Stories of Sydney 1778–1998 (1998) at the Museum of Sydney, Augustus Earle’s famous portrait of Bungaree was the exhibition’s hero image. Bungaree’s story was featured as he circumnavigated Australia with Bourke’s great great-great uncle, hydrographer Phillip Parker King.
A wealthy collector who owned a painting by Conrad Martens depicting the family home of Bourke’s relation David Scott Mitchell, in Cumberland Place, The Rocks, refused a loan request. She wrote saying, his use of Bungaree was ‘an insult to Sydney’s leading families’. The title of this exhibition is thus a correction of her error.
Bourke explains, ‘On my maternal side I am descended from Governor King and on my paternal side, Governor Bourke. Their lives were well documented and illustrated, which gives me a more personal perspective and interest in Australian history. Both had major responsibilities and inﬂuence in relation to Aboriginal people.
‘When I was staging Flesh & Blood, I realised that I, and the general public, had no idea how much new knowledge about Aboriginal history was emerging. Keith Vincent Smith had written the biographies of Bennelong and Bungaree. Generations of Bungaree’s family history were being documented and descendants identiﬁed. Linguists were piecing together Aboriginal languages. Academics and historians were working with Aboriginal contributors and their family histories and memories. Aboriginal subjects previously presumed to be anonymous, were now being identiﬁed, “hiding in plain sight”.
For example, people were aware of Thomas Watling’s striking etchings of the last known initiation ceremony in Sydney in 1793, illustrated in David Collins’ journal (and in this exhibition). But few people actually read the journal where the ceremony is described in detail, and where initiate Nanberry and his uncle/guardian Colebee are identiﬁed.
This new information and Keith Vincent Smith’s research were presented in the co-curated EORA: Mapping Aboriginal Sydney 1770–1850 at the State Library of NSW in 2006.
A reviewer of Bourke’s curatorial work described his exhibitions as ‘exorcising his colonial family history’. Bourke replies, ‘The exhibitions are actually my “truth telling” – reconstructions to reveal the real ﬁrst families and interrogate and face the reality of colonisation and the brutal concept of terra nullius.'
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