March 22, 2016
Henrietta Fourmile Marrie stands at the podium, a diminutive figure at a lower corner of the cavernous stage.
The white invaders fashioned a copper breastplate for her great-grandfather, Ye-I-Nie, which, in acknowledgment of his reputation as a peacemaker, named him “King of Cairns”. And even though he long ago passed away, there he is today, Ye-I-Nie, wearing his breastplate and head dress, his skin marked with the tribal ligatures of Yidindji, as he looks out across his great-granddaughter’s left shoulder and into the eyes of a transfixed audience.
In two weeks time that spirit will be gone again. And I feel that when I walk past him – it is so heavyHenrietta Fourmile Marrie
His gaze is steel. Just like Marrie’s resolve to deliver the message that she has brought to speak today to this international conference about the way museums deal with Indigenous cultural property that has ended up – through circumstances violent, ambiguous or amicable – in the vaults of international collecting institutions. The conference comes in the closing weeks of Encounters, a controversial four-month exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.
Based on loans from the British Museum’s 6,000-plus-item Indigenous Australian collection, Encounters has, variously, caused significant pain, division, conflicting emotion and anger in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, wonderment among visitors and, importantly, new discussion about the innate, enduring power imbalance between first peoples and the cultural institutions that “own” their things.
The giant image of Marrie’s great grandfather is on the screen behind her. His very essence, his spirit, is, meanwhile, also just a few hundred metres away, in the Encounters exhibition, from where it will soon be whisked back to the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London.
Marrie’s membership of the National Museum’s Indigenous reference group does not temper her public criticism that many Australian and international collecting institutions holding artefacts, photographs and research on Australian first peoples symbolise dispossession.
She speaks softly. People in the national museum’s Visions Theatre lean forward in their seats to listen. Some gasp at what she says. Some weep.