From Wave Hill to the National Indigenous Art Triennial

August 15th 2017

* Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be aware that this article contain images and names of deceased people.

Mervyn Bishop, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into hand of traditional landowner Vincent Lingiari,

Northern Territory, 1975

  • Mervyn Bishop :: Interview with Abdul Abdullah, Nat Randall and David Capra
  • Brenda Croft :: Interview with Aurora Scott

“I kind of grew up with photographs around and that meant something,” said Mervyn Bishop in a recent Canvas: Art & Ideas Interview.

Everyone remembers that famous day when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam poured a handful of sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hands. What you might not remember is who took the iconic photograph.

“I led him out to a spot and then I ushered dear old uncle Vincent Lingiari out, because his eyesight wasn’t so good, and took him out there and positioned him out there and his left hand and upheld his hand and fashioned the picture and Mr Whitlam gracefully bent down, picked up a hand of the red earth and said ‘will this do?’ and I said ‘very good’ and so I just stepped back and I shot about five images on my hassle blade camera”, said Mervyn Bishop, recalling the day the Gurindji people were formally handed back their land at Wattie Creek.

“I wasn’t really sure what was going to transpire”, said Mervyn.

Nine years earlier, Gurindji people walked off the job at Wave Hill Station in protest to appalling pay and awful treatment.

“Aboriginal stock man were very badly mistreated. There were massacres and there was abuse and maltreatment of women and there were lots of children born to white stockmen and station owners and those children were removed so this had been [eighty years] of frustration and building resentment of being treated so poorly”, said Brenda Croft in a recent Canvas: Art & Ideas interview.

In 1966, the Aboriginal stockman at Wave Hill Station were told they would be paid equally but it would take a few years to come into effect. Vincent Lingiari, along with fellow workers, told station owner, Lord Vestey, that ‘we’ve had enough and we’re going’.

“The idea shifted very swiftly about our country [to] we want the right to determine what to do with our country and for future generations,” said Brenda.

Brenda Croft is Gurindji on her father’s side and Anglo-Irish on her mother’s side. Croft has been involved in contemporary Indigenous art for three decades as both an artist and a curator. Her recent show ‘Still in my mind’, at the UNSW Art Gallery, was inspired by the ongoing walk off that continues to resonate today and Lingiari’s words: “that land, I still got it on my mind”.

Brenda Croft, Self-portrait on country, Wave Hill, 2014

Brenda has been returning to Gurindji country for the past six years to walk sections of the 22 kilometre trail, with family members and sometimes solo, from Wave Hill Station to Wattie Creek—where the community resettled after the walk off. Her work documents moving images, sounds and stills along the track. Photographed at different times of day and in different seasons, to give a sense of the “actual distance” they walked.

“The community didn’t walk it all in one go. They did it in about three stages, which took them about six months and finished in August 1966”, said Brenda.

In 2007, Brenda created and curated the National Australian Indigenous Triennial, dedicated to contemporary Indigenous art. Each Triennial since, has showcased a different group of artists and a different curator, ensuring that emerging Indigenous artists are given the opportunity celebrate the work of their community—and to make sure that Indigenous art isn’t just a box to tick once showcased.

A small portion Mervyn Bishop’s historical and personal images are currently being exhibited at the NSW Art Gallery.

“There’s probably about 10, 000 images from slides, negatives, prints and other images taken by me… it could go on for years if you had the time to sit back and look at it and hear me talking about each image, which i like to do”, said Mervyn.

Listen back to the Canvas: Art & Ideas interviews with Mervyn Bishop and Brenda Croft.


WHO: Mervyn Bishop
WHAT: A celebration of a central figure in Australian photography and his contribution to art and photojournalism over half a century

WHERE: Art Gallery NSW, Yiribana Gallery
WHEN: Open daily, 10-5pm, until October 8
HOW MUCH: FREE, more info here.

WHO: Numerous contemporary Indigenous artists
WHAT: 3rd Indigenous National Art Triennial: ‘Defying Empire’

WHERE: National Gallery of Australia
WHEN: Open daily, 10-5pm, until September 10
HOW MUCH: FREE, more info here.


Digital Producer on Canvas: Art and Ideas.

Read more from Nat