This is the show-opening speech by Therese Ritchie for her recent show of new work Blacks in the back, cunts in the front at the Outstation Gallery in Darwin in mid-August 2016. I have had a lot of response to the title of this show, from all sides. When I first told a friend of mine that I was having a show and thinking of calling it Blacks in the back, cunts in the front, she told me a story which typifies the Territory’s many uses of the "C" word. It goes like this:
A woman was walking her dog along Casuarina Beach. They happened past another woman who was building a morning fire. The dog took a dislike to this woman and began barking at her and the woman met the dog’s hostility with her own version of a growl, telling it to "fuck off". The dog owner took great offense and yelled something like “Don’t you dare talk to my dog like that!” The other woman answered, “Aww and you fuck off too, you white cunt,” and the dog owner responded, “Don’t you call me a white cunt ... you, you black cunt.”
Apparently this exchange went back and forth quite a few times before the woman realised that her dog had moved on, and so did she. I then asked a man who used to be a bus driver in Katherine what he thought of the idea of using it as a title for an exhibition. He told me it was common for the kids to separate themselves on the bus by calling out "blacks in the back, cunts in the front". And when I handed the invitation to a local Darwin woman; she waved it at me saying, "This is true! This happens." "Yep I know," I said. “No,” she returned, “I mean it really happens. I got on the bus the other day and joked 'blacks in the back' as I walked to the back of the bus and sat down”. A speaker at a rally held in Darwin on July 30 (in response to Four Corners "Australia’s Shame") used the term "blacks in the back" as a way of describing how Aboriginal people are perceived and placed in Australian society. The phrase Blacks in the back, cunts in the front attracts and repels, confronts but connects, exposes and yet hides. It is a perfect description of how schizoid non-indigenous Australians can be when it comes to thinking about Aboriginal people and it describes the work in this show very well.


When it came to advertising the show, "Off the Leash" -- Darwin’s entertainment guide -- would not run my ad. It was too tricky for them to handle, and even though I was granted development money by the NT government -- which led to the creation of most of this body of work -- they decided to reserved their right to withdraw their logo from any publicity regarding the exhibition and its content. This happened a couple of days short of "Australia’s Shame", ABC’s Four Corners report about treatment of children behind bars. And here we have the stumper. How is it acceptable for successive NT governments to neglect the most disadvantaged people in their care whilst ignoring the consequences, culminating in grown men gassing and stripping kids or strapping them into restraint chairs and yet it’s not acceptable to say blacks in the back, cunts in the front? Blacks in the back, cunts in the front and the response to it, is emblematic of how non-indigenous Australia embraces and yet looks away from Aboriginal people at the same time. This ruptured thinking process is the stringy bond with our earlier task of occupying, claiming and settling Australia, in particular the "wilderness consciousness" that in its day encouraged mateship, an easygoing attitude, and above all, manners (you could not swear at the dinner table or in front of your mother) whilst allowing rape and killing to be seen as pragmatic. Today, when you apply for an arts grant there are many boxes you have to tick -- and there is a "yes" or "no" box with the question, “Does your work include aboriginal people?” It’s as if there is some unspecified space out there -- an obvious line, and if you get to it, somehow Aboriginal people will not exist -- at all -- past present or future, and that’s where I need to go to make work that does not include them? I don’t know where that line is? Of course I see the reason why bureaucracy would say that question should exist, and why we should abide by it, but I refuse to engage with it. I don’t ever see or feel that line because when I walk out my door, I see what I see. Aboriginal people are intrinsic, they are not in a box that I tick, or not. There is a book Forgetting Aborigines by Chris Healy. Healy argues that it has been all too easy for modern non-indigenous Australians to forget Aborigines, and to forget the fact of their forgetting. He describes this act of forgetting as pervasive and entrenched within our Anglo cultural mindset, our rituals and processes such as our ceremonies of owning and possessing through the creation of history; determining public holidays; memorials; how we educate; what we celebrate; how we incorporate indigenous art into non-indigenous cultural spaces; our bureaucratic demands and assimilationist political policies.