Piracy by Tony Albert Click to enlarge image
Piracy 2020 Tony Albert, Girramay, Kuku Yalanji Sandblasted commemorative plate. Australian Museum Collection Acquisition Presented as a commemorative plate responding to the 250th anniversary of Cook’s East Coast voyage and act of possession, the skull and crossbones motif against an image of a European ship speaks to the symbolism of what this event represents to many First Nations peoples. When viewed through this lens, Cook’s actions could be seen as an act of piracy, with warnings of danger and death. It directly questions romanticised tellings of Australian history, particularly around Australia’s foundation as being built by Europeans taming the land which also omit the presence of First Nations peoples. Photographed for the Unsettled exhibition March 2021 Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

Seemingly innocuous objects, like plates, dolls and playing cards, can have elements of colonialism and colonial history embedded in them. They, along with the media and what is taught in schools, help shape people’s perception of history. These objects have power in their mundaneness. They just lie around the house and by doing so become normal, everyday things, which result in a process of normalising what they represent. Commemorative plates in particular celebrate certain colonisers and colonial events – and do so by often downplaying or erasing First Nations perspectives of the events they depict.

This is something Girramay, Kuku Yalanji artist Tony Albert expertly integrates into his piece Piracy (2020), which was created as part of his Duty of Care series. Piracy is a sandblasted commemorative plate responding to the 250th anniversary of Lieutenant James Cook’s east coast voyage. By titling the piece Piracy and superimposing the motif of a skull and crossbones over the image of a distinctively European ship, the work brings to the forefront what Cook’s voyage represents to many First Nations peoples: an act of piracy and theft.

This is not a minority perspective in First Nations communities – nearly 88 per cent of the 805 First Nations peoples who responded to the Australian Museum’s The 2020 Project First Nations Community Consultation Report when asked “what word(s) or thought(s) come to mind when you hear or see the name Captain James Cook”, stated: invader, invasion, thief, theft, pillaging and greed. These associations and the imagery of Piracy clash with what is often spoken or taught in mainstream society about James Cook and his voyage.

Like much of First Nations storytelling responding to colonisation, Piracy shifts your mindset and gets you to question what you know.

By Nathan mudyi Sentance, Digital Program Manager, First Nations

Piracy was acquired for the First Nations Cultural Collections at the Australian Museum and will be on display in Unsettled from May 2021.

This article first appeared in Explore magazine, Winter 2021. View the whole issue here.