Aboriginal Environments Research Centre

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Wild Australia Show officially on tour to Grafton Regional Gallery

Published: Tuesday, 13 June, 2017

People may recall Meston’s Wild Australia Show 1892-93, an historical photographic exhibition that was held at the University of Queensland’s Anthropology Museum in 2015-16. Since then two of its originators Paul Memmott and Michael Aird have formed a larger research project on this important historical event, supported by an Australian Research Council Linkage grant, with collaborators from the University of Queensland, Australian National University, Museum Victoria, Queensland Museum and State Library of New South Wales.

One aim of the researchers is to mount a travelling version of the exhibition. The first step towards this has been a re-hanging at the Grafton Regional Gallery which opened on Friday May 12, and will continue to June 10th.

The Wild Australia Show was conceived by journalist, politician and controversial entrepreneur, Archibald Meston, as a travelling choreographed troupe of 27 Aboriginal people conscripted from the Queensland frontier. The troupe was taken on a national touring ‘Wild West Show’, performing in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne during 1892-93. Troupe members were collected from tribal groups in the Northern Territory, Queensland and the Torres Strait.

The Wild Australia Show emerged at a critical time in colonial history when the perception of Aboriginal people on the frontier was shifting from one of a threatening population justifiable of extermination, to that of a ‘subject’ people requiring protection.

Meston’s vision for the Wild Australia Show was to be a demonstration of the superior physique and skills of the “wild” Aborigines, presented for the last time because of theories of likely racial extinction. During the troupe’s tour to Sydney and Melbourne, striking portraits of the performers were taken by three leading Australian studio photographers: Charles Kerry and Henry King (Sydney), and John W. Lindt (Melbourne). These photographs were traded through global networks and are held by museums, libraries and private collections around the world, where they continue to communicate ideologies about Australian Indigenous people to international audiences. It is these historic photographs, along with the current research findings, that make up the Wild Australia Show travelling exhibition.

Importantly, it is hoped that an outcome of the travelling exhibition, will be the potential to engage the descendants of troupe members in the recovery of the history of their ancestors and through this to strengthen their connection to their history and heritage.