Always was, always will be

3 June is Mabo Day and, as we commemorate the extraordinarily courageous efforts of Eddie Koiki Mabo to overturn the notion that his Country on Mer (Murray Island) was terra nullius (land belonging to no one), we should also champion all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have battled for land rights, and those who empower and inspire each other.

Today we recognise your long history of caring for Country, your resilience, and your survival.

Gail Mabo

Gail Mabo Tagai 2020. On display in the Under the stars exhibition © Gail Mabo

Tagai has significance to the people of the Zendah Kes (Torres Straits), and has a powerful connection to Gail Mabo’s father, Eddie Koiki Mabo.

Ricky Maynard

Ricky Maynard Wik Elder, Gladys 2000. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased with funds provided by Stephen Grant and Bridget Pirrie 2002. © Ricky Maynard. Licensed by Copyright Agency

Despite a 1996 High Court ruling against them, the Wik continued to fight for recognition of their people and land, and in 2000 the High Court conferred Country and its use back to the Wik.

Bobby West

Bobby West Tjupurrula Kiwirrkura land claim painting 2001. Art Gallery of New South Wales, gift of Mr Peter Clemenger 2007. © Bobby West Tjupurrula. Licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd

Bobby West Tjupurrula completed this painting for the High Court’s 2001 Native Title determination which finally granted Pintupi people rights to their homelands.

Carlene West

Carlene West Tjitjiti 2014. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased with funds provided by the Aboriginal Collection Benefactors’ Group 2016. © Carlene West. Licensed by Copyright Agency

Tjitjiti is the site of a great salt lake, and Carlene West’s birthplace. In the late 1990s she and other Spinifex artists began painting to evidence their innate connection to Country. Their land was returned in 2000.

Djambawa Marawili AM Lorr 2015. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Mollie Gowing Acquisition Fund for Contemporary Aboriginal Art 2016. © Djambawa Marawili. Licensed by Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre

Djambawa Marawili actively coordinated the Federal Court sea claim in 2004, which eventuated in the High Court determining in 2008 that Aboriginal people own the land between the low and high water mark.

Mumu Mike Williams

Kunmanara (Mumu Mike) Williams, Kunmanara (Willy Muntjantji) Martin, Sammy Dodd Ngura (Country) 2017. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased with funds provided by the Aboriginal Collection Benefactors tour to Central Australia 2017.  © the artists. Licensed by Copyright Agency

Using Australia Post canvas bags, Kumanara Williams writes, ‘Australia: Open your ears and listen! This has always been Aboriginal land. Theft or misuse of this manta (land) is a criminal offence, penalties apply.’

Mervyn Bishop

Mervyn Bishop Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of traditional land owner Vincent Lingiari, Northern Territory 1975, printed 1999. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Hallmark Cards Australian Photography Collection Fund 1991. © Mervyn Bishop/ Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Pouring soil in Vincent Lingiari’s hand, then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam said: ‘Vincent Lingiari … I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.’