Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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Tales from Invasion Day

Invasion Day, Sydney
Sailing ships filled with poor boat people, fleeing the misery of their homeland for a better life

Imagine the patriotism of the US 4th of July with the Eurocentric flavors of Columbus day and Thanksgiving. That’s Australia Day. It’s a holiday of red, white and blue flag-waving with antipodean flair. A flag that is, of course, not an original one, its Union Jack a reminder of who ultimately rules over the continent.

Australia doesn’t have extensive laws restricting the use of its flag as the US does. On Australia day you’ll see flags worn as capes, plastered over skin as glittery temporary tattoos, fluttering from walls and businesses, stitched into short-shorts and t-shirts, molded into wallets and sewn on koalas and kangaroos ? all of these, of course, made in China, as is most everything aside from the products advertising ?100% Aussie Owned and Made?.

As in the Americas, not everyone here celebrates the anniversary of the First Fleet‘s arrival on the continent, which some feel is more accurately called Invasion Day. I wonder about the priorities of nations which celebrate the landing of ships filled with rejects from a country which no longer has use for them (i.e. convicts and persecuted religious sects), onto an ecosystem of cultures which were better off before their arrival.

The ‘aboriginal problem’ is too huge to be encompassed in a single essay or conversation, a book or a generation. To try is an insult to its magnitude, so most non-Indigenous Australians I’ve met simply throw up their hands, avert their eyes, move on to other, safer topics. Or don’t deal with it at all, and pretend it doesn’t exist. Which is easy to do when many of the poorest Indigenous people live in regional Australia, far from the gentrified suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne where the riches of Australia are funnelled into chic boutiques and investments around the world.

‘It’s like having a 3rd world country at our doorstep,’ a doctor said to me. The statistics bear it out.

But it looks more like a ‘white problem’ than an ?Aboriginal problem?. A white Australian hotelier I met in China who was about to open the flagship location for a prestigious international chain mused that “Abos” preferred jail cells to their miserable housing conditions in the outback. I wondered what he thought of his staff, most of whom were Han Chinese managing local ethnic minorities.

Instead of an Australia day at the beach or a barbeque, this year the Man and I attended two different celebrations: the Yabun Festival of Survival Day, and the Art After Hours at National Art Galley of New South Wales, which is feverishly promoting the ten Terracotta Warriors on loan from China [just in time for Chinese New Year].

There were a few reminders of the country’s challenging past and present:

* The Stiff Gins’ performance at Yabun – a pair of incredible singer-songwriters whose name refers not to a summer evening drink but to the Australian slur for an Aboriginal woman.

* The Art Gallery’s token reminder ?of the traditional owners of this land,” who of course own it no more, “the Gadigal,? intoned the slender doe-eyed, designer clad, impeccably degreed art professional you’ll find at galleries everywhere from Beijing to Brooklyn. It’s part of the canned intro speech given by every presenter of Art After Hours, to be gotten through before the real action starts.

* During Claudia Chan-Shaw‘s exploration of the Terracotta Warriors’ fashion trends, she mentioned her Chinese ancestors had been in Australia since the 19th century. As in Hong Kong, the requisite amount of time for being ‘one of the original’ Chinese is miniscule; what she meant was her forebears had arrived before the White Australia policy.

* A tragic sculpture at Survival Day festival offered vials of sand – dug from the spot where Cook supposedly landed – arranged into a silhouette of Australia, and asked Indigenous Australians to take a vial in exchange for their lost continent.

Australia Day sculpture: vials closeup

These are reminders of the familiar problems of my home country, a land of immigrant opportunists who also bent the English language to their will, took what they could from the land, and who have since forgotten that we all have all been boat people at one time or another.

Australia Day sculpture: map of sand vials

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