Provocative photos imagine Australia’s white colonizers in chains

CNN  — 

By recreating images from Australia’s past, photographer Greg Semu is hoping to highlight the brutality of colonial rule. But while many of his shots are based on historical images, some of them feature a crucial difference: The roles of oppressor and oppressed have been reversed.

In one picture, three white Australians appear face-down in the dirt, shackled together by heavy chains. Another shows a band of Caucasians guarded by gun-toting Aboriginals.

“These are fictional interpretations of factual evidence,” Semu said on the phone. “Colonial history has been written by – and in favor of – the conqueror. I’m looking at the same facts, and coming up with a different picture.

“I’ve treated Australia like a crime scene,” he said. “I’ve re-opened the cases and am investigating the evidence.”

Inviting empathy

"Historically, we've become desensitized to seeing black and ethnic minority groups being killed, raped, murdered and hanged," Semu said of his decision to experiment with role-reversal. "We've seen it before."

Bringing together 16 of Semu’s striking pictures, the exhibition “Blood Red” was recently shown at Cairns Art Gallery. Hailing from New Zealand, and of Samoan descent, the photographer and artist has lived in Australia for the past seven years.

While admitting that people may find the pictures shocking, Semu says that they are designed to inspire understanding, not finger-pointing.

“Historically, we’ve become desensitized to seeing black and ethnic minority groups being killed, raped, murdered and hanged – we’ve seen it before.

“Guilt and shame are portals for inspiration – they’re the most common tools used to coerce people into doing things,” he said. “But I’m trying to use empathy. Can you imagine, for a moment, that it was your family being treated like that?”

Between 1788 and 1934, at least 20,000 indigenous people were killed by British invaders during frontier wars, though many experts believe the real number to significantly higher. Those not killed were usually displaced, imprisoned or forced into labor in the sugar and pearling industries.

“Blood Red” is part of Semu’s ongoing exploration of this history. Last year, he worked with indigenous actors to recreate two well-known paintings from the colonial era – Théodore Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” and Louis John Steele and Charles F. Goldie’s “The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand” – for an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Opening dialogue

As well as re-enacting historical images, Semu’s pictures also address allegations of discrimination facing Australia’s indigenous communities. Among his role-reversal photographs is one that portrays three Aboriginal policemen holding the limp body of a Caucasian man hanged in his cell. Semu says the image was inspired by the deaths of Aboriginals and Torres Strait islanders in Australian prisons.

In a powerful role-reversal, artist and photographer Greg Semu imagines Australia's white colonizers in chains.

Between 1980 and 2011, 449 indigenous people died in police custody, according to government figures. This is almost one in five of the total deaths recorded in this period, despite the fact that Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders account for just 2% of Australia’s population.

“Although this work is extremely provocative, it’s designed to bring both parties (white and Aboriginal) back to the table,” Semu said. “(Racial inequality) is not an Aboriginal problem, it’s an Australian-owned and -operated humanitarian crisis that’s been going on for 200 years.

“We really need to solve this together. I’m trying to dissolve the rhetoric of ‘us and them’ because they’re really just two separate monologues.”

Yet, not everyone in Australia’s indigenous art community agrees with Semu’s tactics. While praising his previous work as “phenomenal,” artist Warraba Weatherall believes that reenacting the past may only serve to stall meaningful dialogue.

Taken in Queensland, where Semu shot his recreated photographs, this image from 1900 shows indigenous men in the remote town of Aurukun.

“I just have an issue with perpetuating the same malicious behavior (that was inflicted on) indigenous peoples,” he said in a phone interview. “If you try and subvert it and put it to colonial Australia, that doesn’t make it any better.

“It perpetuates that colonial narrative rather than examining it, presenting the problems and presenting an alternative way. If we’re doing the same thing, it doesn’t do us any justice.”

Hailing from the Kamilaroi indigenous community, Weatherall addressed the Australian justice system in his first major solo exhibition “InstitutionaLies.” Hosted by Brisbane’s Metro Arts last month, the show marked 30 years since the launch of a Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

“I’m open to being critiqued as well, but the objective for my work was to identify the power structures and the mechanics that perpetuate the ongoing incarceration of Aboriginal people,” he said. “It’s ideally at the root of … the historical legacy of structural racism that is maintained throughout so much of the justice system in Australia.

“I think art has the power to create enormous change,” he added.

Working with communities

Despite his message of unity, Semu says that his new project is primarily aimed at white Australia.

“Talking to indigenous, displaced people doesn’t help – it’s preaching to the converted,” he said. “You need to address an audience that doesn’t know about what’s going on.”

An archival image shows the type of scene that inspired Semu's work. This image from 1894 shows an aboriginal man in chains after being arrested for murder in Mentana, Queensland.

Yet Aboriginal communities remain central to his work. The photos featured in “Blood Red” were shot in Coen, a remote township in Queensland where about 70% of the population is of indigenous descent.

As well as paying the Coen residents who were cast in the photos (“it’s a microscopic economic injection into the community,” he said), Semu hopes that his work can inspire young Aboriginal Australians.

“If one young person had an experience that made him or her believe that they could go into the arts, we’ve succeeded. Often when I work with ethnic minority groups, they’re surprised that I’m an ethnic minority photographer. Just by showing up I’ve already engaged the imagination.”