J’Accuse! (20,000 years of dreamtime—220 years of nightmare) 2008

Oil painting on canvas about Aboriginal deaths in custody
Oil on canvas
122.5 x 91.5 cm

Racial reconciliation between colonizing gaolers, convicts, settlers and immigrants with the First Nations peoples of the Australian continent IS the quintessential and crucial social issue — the unfinished business of Australian history. Quite rightfully, international outrage persists around the continued social neglect and racial maltreatment of Australian Aboriginals. Reciprocally, and understandably, anti-white racist sentiments abound.

In my painting I highlighted the large number of Aboriginal deaths in custody – which best summed-up this most complex and invidious racial divide. The deaths of these individuals — raised up as martyrs – embody the symbolic struggle of Australia’s First Nations People.

In 2008 twenty years had elapsed since my arrival in Australia. By that time, I had had first-hand knowledge and the experience of years managing and delivering Aboriginal educational art courses — and had become politically aware through close contact with many Aboriginal people in the far West of NSW. I felt compelled to create J’Accuse.

The coincidence of making this work in the “Sorry Year” — 20 years after the mass rally in Hyde Park of 1988, prompted me to appropriate (with slight updated variation), the subtext of the title of my painting. The slogan “20,000 years of dreamtime – 200 years of nightmare” had been prominently on display back in 1988.

In my image, a large-scale Aboriginal protester’s eyes not only engage the viewer in an unwaveringly accusatory manner — his eyes virtually follow one around — and you cannot get away from his penetrating stare.

(J’accuse quotes the title of Emile Zola’s letter to the French people (and the president of the French Republic Felix Faure) in condoning the outrageous anti-Semitic treatment of Alfred Dreyfus in 1898. “It represents a classic defence of human rights and a searing denunciation of fanaticism and prejudice.” J’accuse — is appropriate as the title of my painting.)

*Washington Post book World review on The Dreyfus affair. Ed. Alain. 1998.