Bachelor of Science 1984, PhD 2017
Art historian, curator, essayist, poet and now Pro Vice-Chancellor, Aboriginal Leadership at the University where it all began, Greg Lehman is a leading voice on the island’s indigenous culture.
Descended from the Trawulwuy people of north east Tasmania, Greg was appointed to his new role in January 2020 after stints at the University of Melbourne, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, the Australian National University and Deakin University.
He attained a Bachelor of Science at the University of Tasmania in 1984 before a Masters in the History of Art and Visual Cultures at Oxford in 2012, returning home to complete a PhD in 2017.
Greg curated QVMAG’s First Tasmanians exhibition and is an Indigenous Adviser to Mona.
But it’s his touring exhibition and its accompanying book, The National Picture: the art of Tasmania’s Black War, that has most recently turned heads. Curated with the ANU’s Professor Tim Bonyhady, the exhibition won the 2019 Museums and Galleries Australia Award for Travelling Exhibitions, while the book has been shortlisted for Tasmania’s most significant literary award, the $25,000 Dick and Joan Green Family Award for Tasmanian History.
You started out studying a Bachelor of Science at the University of Tasmania. What was your interest there and what turns did your journey take?
I’ve always followed my heart. I was interested in doing life sciences from an early age simply because I wanted to understand how the world worked, so my first degree was in life sciences and geography. After I finished university, I started working with Aboriginal community organisations and began to get more involved in Aboriginal politics. I developed more of an interest in history, particularly in Aboriginal and colonial history. My next degree was in environmental history, and my thesis looked at relationships between contemporary Aboriginal identity and land management, in this case the Tasmanian World Heritage Area. Many years later when I made the time to do my PhD, that was still really an exercise in understanding history better. But by that time, I’d recognised that there was a whole section of Australian history which was very underdone, very underappreciated, and that was Australia’s visual history. The fascinating and tantalising things about Aboriginal history in Australia are often those very early colonial paintings and drawings and portraits. For many Tasmanian Aboriginal people they’re the first and only glimpse you get of your tribal ancestors. In a not-too-roundabout way it all links up and makes sense, at least in my mind.
Where is Tasmania at in reconciling its past and its people?
In some ways we’re well advanced and in other things we’ve still got a long way to go. I remember back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when, as a young person, I was first starting to think about what Aboriginal identity and history and culture meant, nobody wanted to talk about Aboriginal stuff at all. It was one of those no-go areas. Where we are now, in 2020, in some way it’s quite the opposite. People do want to talk about Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal people. Teachers in schools are crying out for quality curriculum material. Throughout the University, lecturers are wanting to work out ways to acknowledge Aboriginal culture, not just in the expected disciplines like history, but in things like physics and life sciences and ecology. We’ve still got a long way to go though. I call it the colonial firewall. We’ve still got the idea that there’s Australian history and there’s Aboriginal history. I look forward to a time when there’s a much more fluid continuum, a joined-up understanding of Australia’s history with its complete human story.
You advised Mona on its vision for a Truth and Reconciliation Art Park in Hobart. How important would that be?
It’s got the potential to be one of the most significant things that perhaps can ever happen in the name of reconciliation in Tasmania. We’ve still got a long way to go in terms of having an honest and powerful relationship with our history. Had anyone 20 years ago suggested that Tasmania’s largest urban redevelopment project could be dedicated to an acknowledgment of frontier conflict, of the Black War in Tasmania, they would have been laughed out of the room. Because of what many people call the Mona effect, which among other things involves now a preparedness in Tasmania to believe that we can do whatever we want to do, people grabbed hold of that and thought this is something we can do in a really creative way. It will carry with it a whole bunch of political and historical resonances, but it will be delivered, executed and embraced through art and culture. Tasmania has often been discussed in hushed tones as the place where genocide was carried out during the colonial era. I think it’s absolutely apt that Tasmania might be the first jurisdiction in Australia to step forward out of that shadow and say here is how you have an honest and powerful relationship with the past.
The University last year apologised for its role in the dispossession and trauma suffered by Aboriginal people. What should be its next step and how will your role assist this?
The apology was an immensely significant symbolic step. UTAS is the first public institution in Tasmania to make a public apology like this. Ultimately the University will be judged not by its words but by its actions. The next stage, and the contribution I’ll be able to make to supporting the University in this, is translating that apology into action. We need to ask more revealing questions, to better understand the context in which those things happened, how the consequences of those times continue to impact on Aboriginal people today. And we need to ensure that the University is part of the solution in the future rather than a cause of future problems.
The most important thing this University can do is support Aboriginal people to live their culture and their identity in a way that expresses who they are and honours their family’s unique experience. Our diverse cultural identities should be an asset in realising our aspirations – whatever they are!
Your recent exhibition and book, The National Picture, focused on the work of colonial artist Benjamin Duterrau. There must be some unanswered questions for you – if you could meet him, what would you like to ask him?
One of the things that makes art history interesting for me is the impulse of the artist. What’s the back story? What is this image really all about? Almost always there is more to the image than meets the eye. He was really the first colonial artist in Van Diemen’s Land to express through his work what I argue is sympathy and understanding of the situation in Tasmania. I wonder about his own cultural identity because Duterrau was a Huguenot, a French Protestant whose family had fled France to escape persecution. I think my question to Duterrau would be: Do you see anything of yourself in these people?
How do you connect to Country and culture?
It’s really simple. I love more than anything else going for walks on the beaches up in the north east of Tasmania. My family refer to it as Grandfather Country, that’s where Mannalargenna came from and his daughter Woretermoeteyenner, who I’m descended from, was born up there and walked those beaches. Walking in the footsteps of your ancestors is the most powerful and fulfilling thing that you can do as an Aboriginal person.
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