Visualising Maralinga’s legacy

It is the nature of bombs to be indiscriminate. Howard Zinn

We arrived at Maralinga late afternoon on the 9th of November 2011. It was nearly a full moon. The caretaker came and let us in through the gates. We followed his truck along the old Maralinga road, turned left at the junction and into the remnants of the Maralinga village, once host to over 10,000 servicemen over eleven years.

Travelling to Maralinga for the first time after hearing so much about the effects the British nuclear blasts had on Indigenous people and Australian and British personnel, I didn’t really know what to expect. I think I imagined I would find some sort of overwhelming obvious physical evidence of the blasts, but what finally appeared for me was a space full of so much remnant history and memory.

Between 1952 and 1963, the British government tested twelve atomic bombs and hundreds of smaller ‘minor trials’ at Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia and on Monte Bello Island, off the Coast of Western Australia. The reason for this is that after the end of WWII, Britain, Australia’s ‘mother country’, was losing power and was eager to become part of the global nuclear arms race. Australia of course complied readily, with the then Prime Minister Robert Menzies pushing it through without even consulting the cabinet.

I first started working on mixed media projects around uranium mining and the legacy of the nuclear era in Australia in 2005 as an eager, newly enraged 19 year old. I travelled aboard a bus destined for uranium mines and indigenous lands that had been dispossessed through the process of nuclear developments in the South Australian outback. The group, Friends of the Earth Melbourne, had been organising ‘Radioactive Exposure Tours’ since the 1980s to take people from the cities and towns to see the true impact of the nuclear industry on indigenous communities lives’ and the land in Australia.

We heard from a number of Aboriginal elders who had been fighting long and hard against the ongoing uranium developments and damage that had been done to their land and their communities, and we were given permission to camp out in prohibited zones the semi-arid landscapes where these fights had been going on. Coming back into the city after a trip like this was a wake up call to the physical and mental distance that we had from what was going on ‘out there’ and this revelation took me on a journey to create a few different bodies of photographic, audio and video work over seven years focusing on the impact of this industry on people and the land.

The first project I undertook was called Inhabited; life size portraits and audio stories of indigenous and non-indigenous people resisting the nuclear industry in Australia, as well as survivors and veterans of the Maralinga and Emu Field atomic tests. This project, completed in 2006 has been touring around Australia as an educational tool and exhibition since then.

The next body of work was Operation Buffalo, photographs of Maralinga village and atomic testing sites that was exhibited in Federation Square, Melbourne in 2012. I also made a short film with editor Anthony Kelly called Maralinga Pieces which contains in situ footage from the Maralinga atomic test sites as well as stories of Aboriginal elders who experienced the fallout, alongside those of Australian atomic veterans who helped set up and execute those fateful and deadly tests.

Working on projects around the legacy of these atomic tests in Australia has gotten under my skin; there is still no way that we can truly understand the emotional, physical and psychological scars that have been embedded on indigenous people, the land and nuclear veterans who were never told the truth, who have lost many of their sacred sites and homelands, and who have to fight continuously to protect their land and culture. These projects can only offer glimpses into these stories and histories, and hope to promote greater understanding, awareness and interest in these issues.

Ruthless Jabiru and Lara St. John perform Maralinga Lament at the Union Chapel, London at 19:30 on Monday 14 October. Tickets are £16 advance from the Union Chapel online store or £18 at the door.

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