‘Picturing Black Australia’

Jimmy Yan 

The 1988 Australian bicentenary was marked by its contradictory history and dual claims for national attention. There was the assertion of settler-colonial nationalism and, in response, a vigorous revival of the movement for Aboriginal land rights and self-determination. In the wake of the indigenous boycott of the celebrations, the Australian Film Institute (AFI) compiled a package of 23 independently-produced films examining various aspects of Aboriginal history, culture and memory. The collection, entitled Picturing Black Australia, the program predominantly comprised Aboriginal-produced films and spanned a breadth of genres ranging from animated short films to feature-length documentaries. Eschewing kitsch derivations of Aboriginality, the films also centred upon realistic portrayals of Aboriginal survival and resistance.[1]

A double-sided A2 promotional poster for these films functions both as a broadside advertisement and a catalogue. The front of the poster features six photographic stills from various films in the collection. On its reverse, a listing carries descriptions of each item. Produced as printed ephemera, the catalogue also accompanies a tearaway postal order form for VHS editions of each title. Although the poster is undated, Picturing Black Australia was probably compiled in the early 1990s since the latest film advertised in the catalogue was Always Was, Always Will Be, a 1989 documentary about a ten-month-long campaign by the Waugal people in Perth against the construction of a brewery on sacred grounds.

Intended as a corrective to the erasure of Aboriginality from the bicentenary commemorations, the collection wielded realist film  as a medium for reclaiming indigenous historical agency. Picturing Black Australia sought, perhaps in a filmic pun on ‘negatives’, to showcase “positive images of Aboriginal Australia.”

Conversely, the collection also exemplifies what cultural studies scholar, Chris Healy, has identified within the bicentenary boycott as a “labour of the negative”, that is, a form of memory-making premised upon a “strategy of refusal”.[2] Allan Sekula has also problematised the visual archive was problematized by observing the complicity of photography in the colonial classification of racialized bodies. Noting the anti-apartheid photojournalism of Ernest Cole, Sekula however posits the potential for visual realism to facilitate recovery of a critical epistemology premised upon “listen[ing] to, and act[ing] in solidarity with, the polyphonic testimony of the oppressed and exploited”.[3]

While the Picturing Black Australia series was a visual articulation from the Australian Film Institute towards contemporary recognition of an Aboriginal production of resistance, it can thus be conceptualised both as an act of Aboriginal memory-making and as a document of what Sekula terms the everyday “microphysics” of colonialism.

The poster was distributed, with the assistance of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, to institutional repositories across the country including state libraries, universities and secondary schools. The latter in particular could order a bundle of eight videos accompanied by study guides “written by an experienced secondary teacher.”

Reflecting a convergence between the labour movement and Aboriginal activism in the course of the land rights campaign, through its place in the Trades Hall poster collection, a copy of the poster remains an important historical document for multiple reasons. Although the films in Picturing Black Australia remain relatively unknown to general audiences today, some have since been digitised by the National Film and Sound Archive and their preservation stands as a reminder of Aboriginal Australia’s unfinished struggle for self-determination [4].

Jimmy Yan is a PhD Student with the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, working on the impact of the Irish Revolution on the Australian labour movement, 1913-1923.


[1] All references to the document refer to ‘Picturing Black Australia’, Victorian Trades Hall Council Arts Office, 2006.0038, 21/10 106/38, University of Melbourne Archives

[2] Chris Healy, Forgetting Aborigines, Sydney: University of New South Wales, 2008.  p. 111.

[3] Allan Sekula. ‘The Body and the Archive’. October 39 (1986): p. 64.

[4] See for example, Australia Daze (1988), Australia Screen, https://aso.gov.au/titles/documentaries/australia-daze/


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