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Serving Country exhibition honours First Nations’ Naval legacy

[supplied by Steve Riethoff]


Image: supplied

An exhibition of photographic portraits depicting Indigenous servicemen and women opens at the Australian National Maritime Museum on April 20. Serving Country shares the unique and largely unknown history and legacy of Australia’s First Nations peoples’ servicemen and women, from more than a century of service.


The exhibition draws from contemporary portraits that are created to prompt reflection of the contribution of First Nations Australians to Australian defence forces, throughout our history. The poignant portraits depict service men and women across a broad span of ages and rank, some in uniform, some wearing medals. The distinctive, stylized photographs invite the viewer to engage with the story behind each portrait, and to consider this as part of our national maritime heritage.


The Museum’s Manager of Indigenous Programs, Matt Poll, said ‘These portraits bring the viewer face to face with individuals who signed up to serve Australia, whose existence many people may not yet be aware of. The Serving Country project aims to honour and recognize the legacy of those who have served and who continue to serve, to see their faces and consider their stories, and to build a more complete picture of the contribution each has made to our shared national story.’


Able seaman Kaylin Coleman, a Kaparn woman from WA and a boatswain’s mate in the Royal Australian Navy said, ‘Being able to serve my country, protect my friends and family, and be a role model to youth, especially Indigenous youth, is something that motivates me daily.’


A creative project from Sydney-based human rights social documentarian Belinda Mason and artist Dieter Knierim, Serving Country aims to elevate and celebrate these lesser-known stories. The exhibition includes 18 portraits of Naval Servicemen and women, to be shown in three sets in the Navy Gallery at the Museum, until November 2024. 


Despite being officially excluded from enlisting in Australia’s armed forces by early government policy, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people joined ranks to defend Australia at war, for more than 100 years. First Nations coastal people’s connection to the sea and coastlines includes preservation of Sea Country - a cultural priority that may be aligned with defence forces protection of Australian territorial waters.


While unreliable records of First Nations’ national service have obscured the legacy, pictorial evidence in historic photographs brings these stories to light.


Museum Director and CEO Daryl Karp said, ‘The fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait men and women served at all in the defence forces is profoundly significant. When they were denied the most basic rights of citizenship and were subject to racism and severe disadvantage, many individuals chose to serve for the benefit of all Australians. This exhibition honours not that legacy, but also current First Nations Australians serving their country.


‘The Serving Country exhibition brings us face to face with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who enlisted in the Navy, to defend and serve Australia. These powerful portraits of strong people are made even more so by the photographic technical artistry. The National Maritime Museum is proud to share their stories and to honour their service. We look forward to showcasing the 18 portraits over the next 18 months.’


First Nations visitors to the Museum are encouraged to share their own stories of family who served in the Royal Australian Navy or other services.


A further 6 portraits will be on display for Remembrance Day 2023 with the final 6 on display for ANZAC Day 2024.


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