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Surrender white man, your town is surrounded

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a panelled fence is spray painted with white text reading ‘WHITEMAN U R SURROUNDED’. The background includes views of suburban houses roofs, eucalyptus trees and a blue sky.

Photograph: Rod Moss, 2018

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In Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton: a memoir (2012) he describes his time spent in Mparntwe-Alice Springs in 1984, five years before the infamous fatwa (religious edict) was issued against him by then Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini. In his memoir he describes coming across some graffiti scrawled on a surface in an unspecified location. Rushdie reports the graffiti as reading ‘Surrender white man, your town is surrounded’. This same graffiti, or perhaps it had been rewritten in the intervening years, was visible until early 2022 on fence cladding on the Eastern fringe of town (Eastern Arrernte Country) where suburbia petters out. Until painted over in recent months the graffiti read, ‘Whiteman U R surrounded.’

Both versions of the graffiti point to the very same live tension that exists within the town today. A tension between settler colonialist domination of land, Country and resources and Aboriginal peoples’ knowledge of their Country and its Dreaming, and the powerful forces within, and of, Country itself. A microcosm of the ‘nation’ at large, the town and its graffiti speak to the friction between the spatial violence contained within the eighteenth-century declaration of terra nullius and enduring Indigenous sovereignty. The ‘Whiteman’ seeks to dominate and rule Country, carving it up and concreting it over, but Country and its people continue to hold power.

Ryan Presley’s formative years were spent in Mparntwe. Born in the town in 1987 (three years after Rushdie reports seeing the graffiti), and a teenager during the Northern Territory Intervention, Presley lived at this interface.

Reflecting on his work from here in Mparntwe and through the writing of both seminal French philosopher Michel Foucault and Aboriginal academic (Mununjali and South Sea Islander) Chelsea Watego, leads to a discussion of power and its historical and contemporary manifestations.

For Foucault, power is a foundational concept. Foucault challenges the idea that power is held by specific class or groups within a society by way of ‘episodic’ or ‘sovereign’ acts of domination, seeing it instead as spread throughout the whole social body in constant flux and negotiation. ‘Power is everywhere’ and ‘comes from everywhere’; its multidirectional—both top down and bottom up. Foucault sees resistance as the partner to domination, there is no power without resistance. For Foucault, knowledge and power are inextricably linked. Indigenous peoples’ knowledge of Country whilst forcibly suppressed since colonisation, has remained a powerful force and also a source of resistance.

The geographic and demographic makeup of Mparntwe is a product of constant power negotiation, driven by acts of Aboriginal resistance. For Foucault, the organisation of place, people and space is a mechanism of power. A concept evident in the social history of the town since colonisation. Prior to the 1967 referendum, Aboriginal people were forbidden by law from entering the bounds of the town. Displaced from their traditional lands across the region from the 1930s onwards, Aboriginal people began to move towards Mparntwe, gathering on in its outskirts. In 1963 the government reserve of Amoonguna, 15 kilometres from the town, was established in an attempt to confine these displaced peoples.

From 1974, after hard-sought battles for land access and rights, Aboriginal housing (Town Camps) began to be built within the town of Mparntwe in areas where Aboriginal people were living and were establishing communities, often located in the direction, or in relation, to their traditional Country. Circling and interspersed throughout the town 18 Town Camps, or housing associations, exist today. These communities and their residents continue to struggle for access to resources, including water and basic services like mail delivery and rubbish collection. Communities such as those at Irrkerlantye/Whitegate actively resist ongoing settler colonialist dispossession.

In contemporary Mparntwe, in amongst these Town Camps, is a sprawling suburbia that includes housing developed from the 1970s onwards and more recent privately-owned residential developments. Whilst some Aboriginal families live in both privately and publicly owned housing within these residential areas, suburban Alice Springs is largely occupied by settler colonial residents—‘whitefellas’.

Surrounded by Aboriginal people and their powerful Country, a highly wound tension and fear runs as an undercurrent to the settler occupation of the town. This manifests as a social panic amongst whitefellas around what is termed the ‘youth crime problem’. In this context, Presley’s work appears as a manifestation of the shallowly buried whitefella fear and anxiety that Aboriginal people may turn the tables and reclaim both their land and its economic capital. As Chelsea Watego describes despite claims of solidarity from some whitefellas, almost all are truthfully looking for ‘a more effectively managed colony rather than decolonisation’.

Several of Presley’s works also refer to Mparntwe and Central Australia and its red dirt and rocky outcrops. The same images also include elements that could locate them in the West End of Brisbane or the streets of Redfern’s ‘The Block’, depicting a kind of everywhere and everywhen. This speaks to the nature of colonial violence described by Watego, ‘Blackfullas are subjected to [colonial violence] every day and everywhere in this place in real time.’

The body of work presented in Fresh Hell imagines a subversion of the prevailing dominance of settler colonialism. In subverting the power dynamic Presley is also acknowledging that power as a concept is far from simple. Whilst oppressed and dominated by colonial forces, Aboriginal people retain inherent power, in the face and despite of all efforts to extinguish it. Emanating from unceded sovereignty, Watego describes how the catchcry commonly used by First Nations people of ‘still here', represents a ‘refusal to subscribe to the myth of our demise. But “still here” is not an appeal to be seen; it represents a victory lap for Blackfullas, a fierce reminder to the colonisers that they didn’t succeed; never have and never will.’