Australian War Memorial acquires Belle Davidson Karrika
7 September 2016

Belle Davidson Karrika, "Maralinga Bomb" 2016. Courtesy the Artist and Papulankutja Artists.

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British nuclear tests at Maralinga, South Australia (date & photographer unknown)

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Aerial view of one of the bomb sites, Maralinga (source: Australian Geographic)

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Warning sign pictograms with Pitjantjatara: radiation; wildlife is OK to eat; land is not good to live on. (photo: Bryan Charlton | source: Sydney Morning Herald)

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Recent sign, Maralinga. The area is now open for tourism (source: Australian Geographic)

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We congratulate Belle Davidson Karrika on having her painting "Maralinga Bomb" acquired by the Australian War Memorial.

According to the Memorial, this work is a significant addition to its permanent collection. The Australian War Memorial in Canberra is Australia's national memorial and archive of Australia's war activities. Maralinga, 800 km northwest of Adelaide, was one of the sites of the British nuclear tests after the Second World War. Much of the information surrounding these tests is still locked in sealed files.

In the lead up to the tests, Native Patrols were sent throughout the surrounding areas to forcibly remove Aboriginal people living on the traditional country, but many of them were not found. They remained in the desert for the duration of the tests, unaware of the danger they were about to face.

Karrika's explanation of the painting provides chilling evidence of the horrors experienced by those who remained in the bush:

“This is a real story from the bomb, how we got sick. We were all going to the one rock hole, Wilkurra. It was holiday. The wind came in from the south, smell went all over when we got there. Big cloud. We all got sick, some people were dying, some people got medicine. The mission came help take us to Warburton. The kids were dying, children men and women. We lost our sister too. We were all in the one truck, back to Warburton. Hospital full, school full, everywhere full with Anangu."

The iconography of the painting is thus: The circular shapes outlined in green are windbreaks set up to protect from the wind that was coming over. Within these windbreaks are people - men and woman and children - some of them sick, some of them dying. The brown/red small dots are fires. The smaller blue circular shapes outlined in very pale yellow are the many rockholes of Wilkurra, which was where they were going for a holiday and where they got sick.

Records on the Australian War Memorial's website state that there were "16,716 members of the Australian Defence Forces (ADF), and Australian civilians who participated in the British Atomic Tests programme, conducted in Australia from 1952 to 1963 ... The tests were carried out in t. [sic]  Monte Bello group of islands off the coast of Western Australia and at Emu Field and Maralinga in the South Australian desert."

Nobody has an accurate record of how many Aboriginal people were exposed to the radiation, or how many died or developed serious illnesses, suffered stillbirths or birth deformities. Nor does anyone know how many people returned to their traditional lands after the tests, despite government warnings that the area was not safe for habitation. Prior to returning the area to Aboriginal ownership, the government undertook a large scale decontamination program, but some have speculated that it was not done to a safe level[1].

The effects of the tests have been far-reaching[2],[3]. There have been calls in Britain and Australia for files to be declassified, as many of those involved in the tests believe they have suffered from nuclear poisoning-related illnesses and premature deaths[4]. There have also been claims from civilians residing in surrounding communities that they, too, were poisoned and the number of stillborn babies increased in the years afterwards[5].

Due to the secrecy still surrounding Maralinga and the other nuclear test sites, this event remains a dark mystery. Karrika's documentary painting stands as a significant and poignant memorial to lost family members, and a reminder that the writing of this chapter is only beginning.

Maralinga Bomb is part of the Papulankutja Artists group exhibition, WellspringVisit the exhibition online now.