Yet another Tasmaniana story was unfolding as the auction date loomed for the sale of the two Benjamin Law Woureddy and Truganini busts in Melbourne August 25 2009. Backstage at Sothebys the temperature rose appreciably during the course of events. Tasmania’s Aboriginal community was applying the blowtorch to the auctioneers, ‘government’ and whoever else might have had a finger in the cultural pie.
In the end the whole affair looked more like a spin doctors' picnic than the art sale it purported to be – albeit one where the stakes were very high. Spin is an inexact science and when it gets out of kilter, and in unanticipated ways, always expect the unexpected. And, when the spin and rhetoric comes from all perspectives things are likely to get very tetchy.
On the face of it the vendor’s decision to sell the busts was a pretty innocuous one – well this pair of busts are but one of many. Likewise, as art dealers, Sotheby’s represented their client well – and they seemed to be advising them appropriately too. The research backing the sale was exhaustive, exemplary and laid out in context – albeit that this turns out to be the issue at the root of things.
Enter stage left the activists with a task in mind and you have a paradigm shift. Without doubt there are plenty of unfulfilled missions in Tasmania on so many fronts. Almost without wonder at the eleventh hour the vendors ‘pulled the plug’ as they say and the busts were withdrawn from sale.
For certain, cultural theorists, historians of every category, social activists and journalists searching for something to expose will feed on this affair for some time to come. Why? Simply because there is something in this story for them all – and not much of it is to do with reconciliation. What might pass as ‘truth’ in this saga is but putty in the hands of the various bit players – there is possibly a Hollywood style movie in this story somewhere.
At times like this almost anyone might be forgiven for thinking that Tasmania is that part of Australia where the 'colonial nerve' is most sensitive and most exposed. They are also the moments when the ‘Australiana idea’ looks relatively benign in comparison to the 'Tasmaniana idea'. In terms of cultural production the concept of Tasmaniana has a special currency – and the 'Truganini myth' is deeply embedded in it.
Whatever else we might expect we can assume that the contested ‘ownerships’ of these two Benjamin Law sculptures – TRUCANINNY 1836 & WOURADDY 1835 – is now ineradicably ensconced in the cultural discourse to do with Tasmania and Tasmaniana. Not that there was ever much doubt about it, their ‘Tasmaniana status’ has been elevated to CLASS A – with five star angst. Somehow it no longer really matters if the objects themselves continue to exist or not as is it their image that is so poignant both in and out of context – rubbing that out of the cultural consciousness is hardly a possibility.
This story is a symbolic carcass that holds all the promise of feeding the vultures indefinitely.
TRUCANINNY & WOURADDY, BENJAMIN. LAW. HOBART TOWN, 1836
- Australian National Gallery Cast: WOURADDY – Click Here
- Australian National Gallery Cast: TRUCANINNY– Click Here
PROVENANCE: Judah Solomon, Hobart Town; thence by descent through the Solomon and Benjamin families – Private collection, New South Wales
- Art and natural history exhibition, Argyle Rooms, Hobart, 7 August - 18 September 1837
- Launceston Mechanics' Institute Exhibition, Mechanics' Institute, Launceston, April 1860, cat. 188 (lent by Henry Dowling) (another cast)
- The International Exhibition of 1862, South Kensington, 1 May - 1 November 1862, cats. 550 and 649 (lent by J. A. Youl) (another cast)
- Intercolonial Exhibition, Melbourne, 1866, cat. 719 (lent by Henry Dowling) (another cast)
- Tasmanian vision: the art of nineteenth century Tasmania: paintings, drawings and sculpture from European exploration and settlement to 1900, Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery, Hobart, 1 January - 21 February 1988; Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery, Launceston, 16 March - 1 May 1988, cat. 76L Woureddy & 77L Tuganini (another pair)
- Creating Australia: 200 years of art 1788-1988, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 17 May - 17 July 1988; Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, 12 August - 25 September 1988; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 21 October - 27 November 1988; Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery, Hobart, 21 December 1988 - 5 February 1989; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1 March - 30 April 1989; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 23 May - 16 July 1989 (another pair)
- Viewing the Invisible: An installation by Fred Wilson, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, 7 October - 6 December 1998 (another pair)
- Presence and absence: portrait sculpture in Australia, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 22 August - 16 November 2003, cats. 45 and 46 (another pair)
- On loan to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (1983)
- On loan to National Portrait Gallery, Canberra (2009)
- ABORIGINAL BUSTS AUCTION CANCELLED Launceston Examiner 25.08.09
- BUSTS WITHDRAWN FROM AUCTION Mercury Tasmania 25.08.09
- 'RACIST' ART AUCTION HALTED Stuff.co.nz 25.08.09
- SOTHEBY'S HIT BY PROTESTERS OVER 'RACIST' BUSTS SMH 25.08.09
- PROTESTERS HALT SOTHEBY'S AUCTION OF 'RACIST' ART The Age 25.08.09
- SOTHEBY'S WITHDRAWS SCULPTURES IN OUTCRY Australian 25.08.09
- SOTHEBY'S CANS SALE OF ABORIGINAL BUSTS LABELLED AS RACIST ABC PM 24.08.09
- 1000 PAINTINGS SET TO TEST MARKET Australian (Business) 24.08.09
- ANGER OVER BUST AUCTION Mercury Tasmania 24.08.09
- BUST UP: ARTWORKS WITHDRAWN FROM SALE ABC 24.08.09
- 'RACISM NOT ART': ANGER AT TRUGANINI BUST AUCTION ABC 24.08.09
- ARTWORKS SET TO FETCH UP TO $9M Australian 13.08.09
- THE TASMANIAN GREENS STATEMENT
- LONELY PLANET SPARKS A ROW OVER ITS PICK FOR 2009'S 'HOTTEST' DESTINATION Telegraph UK 21.08.09