DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS' AFFAIRS
SIR JOHN MONASH CENTRE, VILLERS-BRETONNEUX, FRANCE
The Sir John Monash Centre officially opened on 25 April 2018 in Villers-Bretonneux, France, honouring more than 295,000 Australians who served on Europe’s Western Front during the First World War. The Centre opened in the centenary year of the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux. The Department of Veterans Affairs and Convergence Associates engaged Balarinji to source, appoint and commission two Aboriginal artists to create works for the Centre.
Laurie Nilsen, a late Manadandanji artist from Queensland, has created a large scale installation entitled ‘Goolburris on Foreign Soil’. Featuring two barbed wire and cast aluminium male Emus, the work represents courageous young male soldiers fighting a war in a foreign country and defending Villers-Bretonneux. The two unique Emus can be viewed both from the foyer through a glass wall, and from within the gallery space. The Emu is emblematic of Australia and in this work, depicts a proud young nation forging its reputation in a formidable theatre of war on the world stage. It is one of the faunal emblems depicted on Australia’s Coat of Arms, as it is physically unable to move backwards – it is a symbol of a nation moving forward.
Balarinji additionally commissioned a work of art for the Centre’s Boardroom. The painting by the late Anangu Elder Kunmanara (Ray) Ken, entitled ‘Kulata Tjuta (Spears)’ pays tribute to the Australian Aboriginal Soldiers of the First World War.
An estimated 700-1000 Aboriginal soldiers served in Australian Imperial Forces during World War I, with around 250-300 killed. They came from a section of Australian society with few rights, low wages, and poor living conditions, at a time when Aboriginal Australians were not considered citizens, and hence could not vote and were not counted in the Census. At the start of the First World War, the Australian government still applied the ‘substantially of European origin’ rule for military service. However, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were accepted because their racial background was overlooked if they had not lived in a tribal environment.
 Williams, Melissa, Too Dark To See – Commemorating the Lives and Contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans and Military Personal Serving in the Australian Defence Forces, University of Western Sydney