Graphic Encounters

La Trobe researchers are undertaking the first comprehensive investigation of colonial-era prints of Indigenous Australians

La Trobe researchers are undertaking the first comprehensive investigation of colonial-era prints of Indigenous Australians, to shed new light on settler constructs of Aboriginality and racial difference.

The Graphic Encounters project, led by Dr Liz Conor, features a collection of colonial prints depicting Aboriginal Australians.

Drawn from international and national archives, libraries, museums, galleries, and public and private collections, the images span voyages of exploration to federation.

“Prints – including engravings, etchings and lithographs – were the principal means of reproducing images prior to the 1890’s, when the half-tone block enabled the reproduction of photographs in printed materials,” explains Conor. “The technology of printing coincided with colonial expansion and was its predominant form of visual expression.”

The project has already uncovered the earliest found image of Aboriginal Australians, engraved in 1698 and depicting their resistance to the very first incursion by the English on Aboriginal land.

“I found the image recently while I was researching in the rare books Pacific collection of the Hamilton library at University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa,” says Conor. “The image was drawn from textual description and came from a little-known edition of the explorer William Dampier’s journal, published in the Netherlands.”

“The image and Dampier’s journal attempts to enshrine Aboriginal people as ‘unfit for labour’,” explains Conor. “Instead, the very first image of Aboriginal Australians is testament to their resistance by refusal, from very first contact with English to take up their burdens.”

Conor contends that each print reveals the visual language of settler ideas about racial difference, sovereignty and settlement, and charts how those ideas changed over time.

“As I search through the colonial visual library and catalogue, I am bringing to light many images that have been lost to history, which often harbour surprising meanings and responses to Aboriginal Australians by settlers,” says Conor.

“Graphic Encounters shows how settlers literally put themselves in the picture of New Holland/Australia by displacing its original custodians.”

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