Encountering East Coast Encounter

Even within the first couple of minutes of meeting, the misunderstandings happened.

Dean Kelly, in East Coast Encounter – a film by Jeff McMullen.


The sea carries this ship here, why??

From Badtjala Song; translated by Gemma Cronin, 2013.


What if there was a different encounter between British settlers and Aboriginal people?

What if this encounter – the arrival of James Cook and his crew on Australian shores in 1770 – was characterised by respect, tolerance, the welcoming and embrace of indigenous diversity?

What if this changes who we are today? What would it all look like, feel like – our streets, our buildings, our terrain, our sounds?

What if we could look back at our history and be proud of it?

There are many ‘what ifs’ at the exhibition East Coast Encounter – re-imagining the 1770 encounter. Developed by the University of the Sunshine Coast, and currently on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney (before travelling to regional centres throughout Australia), East Coast Encounter presents works which re-imagine the moment of first contact between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. A variety of artistic media – including painting, sculpture, music and lyrics, photography, video, and three dimensional works – are used to challenge entrenched narratives, propose alternative viewpoints, and elevate voices which have been historically suppressed.

Entrance to the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney

Entering the museum, ready to battle the school holiday crowds. I think …

I visited East Coast Encounter on a weekday during school holidays. Parents and children were making a bee-line for the blockbuster whale exhibition, using East Coast Encounter – positioned in a long corridor along the perimeter of the museum – as a thoroughfare. The mundane realities of parenting interrupted my historical re-imagining. Some children asked questions (what’s that boat painting, mum?), forcing exhausted parents to engage with the exhibition by putting on an ad-hoc history lesson. Some children decided that the exhibition’s sculptures were (strange, yet compelling) toys to play with, much to the chagrin of their parents. And a mother, losing track of her two children, felt compelled to shout their names across the exhibition space in a high-pitched voice. Not to worry – I like my exhibitions to feel alive, even if my eardrums take a battering.

But every exhibition encounter will be different.

Here are five reasons why you should encounter East Coast Encounter.*

1. Michael Cook’s prints

Undiscovered #4 (2010), Undiscovered #7 (2010), and Broken Dreams #3 (2010) re-imagine the colonial encounter through role reversal. You see an Aboriginal man on the shore dressed in Captain’s garb, his tall ship looming on the horizon. You see an Aboriginal man – sans colonial attire, except for a British flag raised over his shoulder – walking with a crocodile across the waves. You see an Aboriginal woman wearing an ornate black dress with white floral neckline, a white pearl necklace, and a black glove; her gloved hand points to a rainbow lorikeet and a tall ship in the distance.

Is it all a game of dress-ups, an opportunity to play with identity’s transformative possibilities? Or does Michael Cook’s re-imagining have political implications? Clothing and trappings symbolised clear authority structures in 1770, but this role reversal returns authority to the dispossessed, showing the world from their perspective. What if this happened, not that?

2. Reg Mombassa’s drawings

Artist and musician Reg Mombassa is well-known for his colourful, cartoon-like drawings which interpret the Australian landscape, politics and popular culture. In Close Encounters of the First Kind (2013), a huge, imposing eye (not unlike the one he designed for the Sydney Harbour Bridge on NYE 2013) floats high above a cove where Aboriginal people stand and watch, spears in hand. But it’s not just an eye – it has appendages: an urban clutter of telegraph poles, power-lines, houses, factories, the arches of the Sydney Opera House. And, skulls.

The alien spaceship of ‘civilisation’ takes over your life. And it watches your every move.

3. Judy Watson’s paintings

Civilisation as alien and oppressing, or civilisation as systematic and reforming? In tibberwuccum (2005) and beerburrum (2005), Judy Watson creates concentric lines and shapes in shades of ochre and pink. Topographic charts spring to mind. But the blotches could also represent blood stains. Or the indigenous connection to country, through the symbolism of desert colours and track markings. There is no definitive answer – assigning a fixed meaning to these works would be like colonisation all over again.

Let’s ask Watson. (In response to beerburrum.)

I have deliberately combined two perspectives within the work, the device of Eurocentric cartography and Aboriginal colours of ochre that echo the stain of the volcanic earth, spiralling out from the centre to the edges.

4. Adam Hill’s photographs


A barbeque in a suburban park.

An Aboriginal man fishing in a bay, beside a monument. In the distance: a bridge, factories, ships.

In Adam Hill’s photographs, locations which commemorate the arrival of the First Fleet are re-framed into sites of loss, negotiation and reclamation. Titles and imagery work together to connote new perspectives. You interpret the refinery sign in a new way when given the title of the work: Refining Culture (2013). The park barbie, an Aussie icon, is reinterpreted through the title Barbiquaria (2013), referencing the 1986 satirical film BabaKiueria (Barbeque Area) in which uniformed Aboriginal people invade a beach of barbeque-loving white Australians. And the Aboriginal man fishing in a bay, photographed at Kamay/Botany Bay in Sydney, reclaims the commemorative site by highlighting historical displacement and cultural exclusion. This work also reinterprets anthemic nationalism, through the satiric misspelling in its title: We’ve boundless pains to share (2013).

5. Arone Meeks’s paintings

In Australian indigenous culture, the more you talk or paint about your story or country, the stronger this connection becomes.

Arone Meeks

In First Voyage to Possession Islan** (2012), Arone Meeks reveals the strength of connection between indigenous people and the land through a symbolic, multifaceted reclamation of the natural landscape of Possession Island (part of the Torres Strait Islands).

A life force animates the painting. Dancing bodies merge with nature, flowing with the wind and sea. A large canoe extends across the painting, above a blue, swirling sea inhabited by red jellyfish. Community, the Dreamtime, and local nuances are celebrated. And celebration is a powerful tool of repossession – just as Cook’s prints repossess through role reversal, Mombassa’s drawings repossess through imagining the indigenous response to first contact, Watson’s paintings repossess through the juxtaposition of topographic worldviews, and Hill’s photographs repossess through scrutinising modern-day commemorative sites of contact.

What if we could repossess the past, tell a different story to the one they wanted?


East Coast Encounter – re-imagining the 1770 encounter is on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney, from 9 May to 24 August 2014. Click here for regional tour dates. 

* Choosing only five works was difficult, as the extent of significant works in the exhibition far exceeds the brevity of a blog post. You will have your own favourites.

** Meeks uses local spelling.