Just a few days ago, in Turkey, I attended the poignant Dawn Service commemorating the centenary of the Anzac landings at Gallipoli. I visited many of the sacred places of remembrance of those who fought there, including Anzac Cove and Lone Pine, where Australians, including Indigenous Australians, fought and died.
It seems to me that Anzac remains so important not only in its historical significance, but also in modern Australia’s sense of identity. So does, in my view, this exhibition and what it represents. Indeed, it celebrates the extraordinarily rich culture of the indigenous peoples of Australia - preserved, nourished and enriched over tens of thousands of years, despite great loss and change.
Each and every time I visit Australia, I am reminded of the unique relationship between indigenous peoples and Nature and how this is expressed through art and culture. When I opened the Australia Exhibition at the Royal Academy nearly two years ago (and, incidentally, I am extremely flattered to have been asked to be Patron of this one!), I was reminded again of this relationship. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artworks show us different ways to look at Australia through eyes that have clearly known its lands and seas for a very long time.
Incidentally, my younger son, Harry, has in recent weeks gone walkabout with the Australian Army alongside Aboriginal soldiers who patrol, if you can believe it, nearly 700,000 square miles of land in the Northern Territory and in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. I am told that the soldiers are from some 100 different Aboriginal language groups, yet are united in their love of “country” as well as in their extraordinary hunting and tracking skills. I suspect my old Harry is pretty well acclimatized by now and will probably be eating Lamingtons, Vegemite sandwiches, iced Vo-vo’s and violet crumble bars and may even threatening to buy a pair of “budgie smugglers!” Whatever the case Ladies and Gentlemen, I am sure he’ll be happy down under because of the Aussies’ fondness for “wrangers!”
I have a feeling that by now, like me, he may, just may, have been struck by the deep spiritual relationship that indigenous Australians have for the land, which is part of their being in every sense, and for the natural environment which is intrinsic to so many of the precious objects on display here.
This exhibition provides us with a unique introduction to indigenous Australia, covering the diversity of languages, cultures and customs; relationships to land, spiritual beliefs, art and ceremony. It also introduces us to different concepts of time and to the Dreaming.
Very importantly, it explores the immense impact on indigenous Australians of European exploration and settlement. It deals with difficult and painful episodes in Australian history - dispossession, social dislocation and the stolen generation. It also registers progress towards healing and reconciliation.
The fascinating painting done by artists from Spinifex country, including Mr. Simon Hogan, whom I had the pleasure of meeting just now, tells of an important Dreaming story from the Spinifex people. The artefacts and artworks displayed here serve, each in their own way, as vessels of cultural meaning. Indeed, they tell stories of life and spirit as well as teaching us about customs and laws that have enabled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to pass down knowledge and skills from one generation to the next in what I understand to be the longest unbroken cultural tradition in the world.
My great hope, Ladies and Gentlemen, is that exhibitions of this kind can help build a bridge to enable indigenous and non-indigenous people to communicate with, and understand, one another more effectively. And if such an exhibition as this can also, in some way, inspire us to regain that sense of reverence for the natural environment which is so much a part of the innate wisdom of all indigenous communities around the world, then perhaps it will have helped us to learn to be better custodians of this planet.
So Ladies and Gentlemen, in opening this remarkable collection of art and artefacts, I would also like to congratulate the British Museum, the National Museum of Australia, the Australian National University, Indigenous Australian communities and individuals and, indeed, everyone who has collaborated on this important venture. And I hope you will all have a wonderful evening exploring its treasures and stories after I have finally got out of your way!