In 1956 and 1957 the British conducted 7 major atomic tests in the southern part of South Australia’s Great Victoria Desert. In the years that followed another 500 “minor” tests were carried out, spreading highly toxic substances across 300-square kilometres. The area became known as Maralinga, an Aboriginal word for Thunder, and as Australia commemorates 60 years since the tests began, we are still in the very early stages the testing’s affects.
Black Mist Burnt Country, a travelling exhibition currently on display at Pinnacles Art Gallery, was produced by Burrinja, the Dandenong Ranges Cultural Centre and brings together artwork by more than 30 Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists.
Curator JD Mittmann said the exhibition aims to reignite conversation and awareness that atomic warfare is closer to home than many Australians might think.
“Atomic bombs is a pretty big story and it’s been a pretty big story in this country,” said JD.
“I kind of stumbled onto it and to my surprise, it seemed it wasn’t really on people’s radar. Some people remember there were atomic tests that the British undertook in the 1950s, but that’s predominantly the older generation and even they would have trouble trying to locate on a map where it happened.
“It’s not just a story of the past… nuclear weapons are still around and still a threat. We’re at a stage now where they’re perceived as more of a threat than they had been during the Cuban Missile Crisis or the height of the Arms race when I was growing up.”
The exhibition explores the theme of atomic testing through the artwork of artists of various generations, but with a particular focus on the Aboriginal people who were most effected by the events at Maralinga. One of those people is noted campaigner and land owner Yami Lester, whose photograph appears twice in Black Mist Burnt Country.
“Belinda Mason who took this photograph that displays [Yami Lester] as a victim – looking down at him and it’s a bit scary how this blind eye kind of stares at you. Even the setup, though it’s on his property, there’s the headlines of the car and the track that kind of leads into the nothingness, whereas the other work by Jessie Boylan shows him in a very different kind of way,” JD said.
“You can see still the pain – his blindness, the jaw clenched, he’s feeling strongly almost reliving this history, but he’s also standing quite straight. He’s the proud man. He’s the campaigner.
“He was about 6 years old at the time when a mysterious black mist hovered over his land. A whole lot of people were affected, his family, people died, people had diarrhea and sores and vomiting and it impacted on his eye sight and eventually he went blind. It’s not that much later he made the connection really between his blindness and potentially the atomic test at Emu Field that he stepped forward and quasi-spoke out about this and at the same time other people came forward,” said JD.
“The British tested the effects of nuclear weapons not as a weapons test but as a safety test, so ‘What would happen if a nuclear weapon falls out of plane?’, ‘What happens if it’s exposed to fire?’, ‘What happens if you shoot a rocket on it?’ And those trials unfortunately, they were called Vixen B, spread about 25kg of plutonium over an area of roughly 300-square kilometres. Not only is that material highly toxic if ingested, but it also has a half-lifetime of about 24,000 years, so that’s not going to go away for a long time. And even though the Australian Government debated the success of it and the British were brought to accountability and paid half of the cleanup bill in the 1990s to the most affected site, there is still the question of how successful that was.”
Black Mist Burnt Country is an arresting and thought-provoking exhibition, on display at Pinnacles Art Gallery, Riverway until 3 September 2017.