The world has now heard about the destruction of the world’s largest and oldest collection of petroglyphs (rock carvings) by the Woodside Energy Group (previously Woodside Petroleum) thanks to two protesters spraying chalk dust on the perspex cover on Fredrick McCubbin’s 1889 oil painting, Down on his luck, at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in January 2023. Further examination of their actions exposes prejudices about race, law, justice, culture, art’s value, and art galleries.
Western Australia has often been called the wild west, as it has many things in common with westerns. It is a land stolen from Indigenous peoples, ruled by cattle barons and miners.
The destruction of the world’s largest and oldest collection of petroglyphs (rock carvings) by the Woodside Energy Group (previously Woodside Petroleum) started in 2006–2007. Since then, the fossil fuel company has irreparably damaged the rock carvings on the Burrup Peninsula (also known as Murujuga) in WA’s Pilbara region.
The Australian government does not define the destruction of Indigenous art and culture as a crime (unless it is a tradable commodity). Indigenous culture, like the petroglyphs on the Burrup Peninsula (aka Murujuga), are being destroyed on an industrial scale, and even the most egregious incidents, like the damage to the Kuyang stones at Lake Bolac or the destruction of Juukan Gorge, only receive official reprimands or a fine.
However, it is a crime. Australia is an occupied territory with no treaty or other peace settlement with the land’s original inhabitants. Without a treaty, the land is an occupied territory where the ownership of the land is in dispute; therefore, the Geneva Convention applies. The destruction of the property of people whose lands have been occupied is prohibited under Article 53 of the 4th Geneva Convention. The situation is analogous to Russian claims to annex parts of Ukraine, a unilateral declaration that they are now legally part of another country. No, where in the Geneva Convention are occupied people, or their allies, prohibited from destroying the occupiers’ property. This does not give Russia the right to destroy Ukrainian property. Australia is a party to GCI-IV, but Australia’s word is worthless.
The actions of the two protesters, Perth ceramic artist and illustrator Joana Partyka and Ballardong Noongar man Desmond Blurton at the Art Gallery of Western Australia is the best art gallery demonstration yet. A symbolic attack on a symbol of the colonial power to draw attention to the actual crime of destroying the world’s oldest art gallery. Partyka’s damage was symbolic, as was the choice of McCubbin’s painting and the location. The chalk spray, used for marking sports grounds, would not damage the painting—indeed, no damage compared to the actual irreparable damage done to the ancient petroglyphs.
McCubbin’s painting symbolises European colonisation as he depicts European settlers in the Australian landscape. And also because it is a tradable commodity exchangeable for dollars, unlike rock art, which is not tradable because it belongs in its original location.
The Art Gallery of Western Australia is used symbolically by the occupying power, as a token of civilisation, as a venue for state functions, a beautiful decoration for the ugly iconoclasm and state violence.
WA police charged Partyka with one count of criminal damage, nobody has yet charged the so-called Commonwealth of Australian and Woodside Energy with war crimes, but it needs to happen.