On the Colonial Politics of Australia’s War Memory

The first post of 2020 turns to the Australian continent. Federica Caso reflects on Australia’s memory politics, and argues that settler colonialism is at its core.

By Federica Caso

In the past four years, my attention has been captured by the Australian way of remembering war. The epicentre of Australia’s war memory is the Australian War Memorial, a magnificent building with an impressive collection and ongoing cultural, commemorative, and research activities. The current Prime Minister of Australia called it “the soul of the nation.” This is an apt description because it encapsulates how, in Australia, war memory is considered to be above politics. Souls are for the transcendental and the spiritual, not for politics! And yet, colonial politics is at the very heart of Australia’s war memory.

Ruby Plains Massacre 1, Rover Thomas. Photo by Federica Caso. This painting represents the ‘Killing Times,’ the colonial massacres in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia from the 1880s to the 1920s.

Individual war memories might transcend politics, but their collectivisation remains anchored in it. My interest in war memory is driven by the consideration that cultural and political institutions endorsing some people’s war memories shapes the political community. Whose memories are represented and how they are retold to the public is an intrinsically political question.

At the core of Australia’s politics of war memory is settler colonialism, the ideological structure which sustains the disavowal of Indigenous sovereignty and hinders self-determination and representation. Indigenous scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson calls this “white possessive.” War memory in Australia functions to perpetrate the colonial fantasy that colonialism was not too bad and that it is now over anyway.

The idea that colonialism was not too bad after all is remarked by the exclusion of the Frontier Wars fought between Indigenous peoples and British settlers since 1788 from the galleries of the Australian War Memorial. The official justification is that these wars do not fall under the definition of war provided by the Australian War Memorial. Brendan Nelson, Director of the Memorial, stated that “The Australian War Memorial [tells] the story of Australians in war deployed on behalf of Australia overseas, not a war as it is described within Australia.” The definition of war is trimmed so much that the Frontier Wars do not make the cut.

The exclusion of the Frontier Wars from the War Memorial signals that colonial warfare is not as foundational as 20th Century wars and especially World War I, which is often described as Australia’s baptism of fire. This connotation is derived from the fact that World War I was the first military intervention launched since Australian Federation in 1901 which provided fertile ground to promote a sense of national identity separate from colonial Britain. The national attachment to World War I is remarked by the $32 million invested in the renovation of Memorial’s gallery dedicated to it in 2013. A yet more recent investment of $500 million to renovate Anzac Hall suggests a change of focus towards modern warfare. The exuberant investment is intended to expand the space dedicated to the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the peace operations of the last thirty years. This shows that there is the will to map the evolution of modern warfare, but not to reflect on the history and legacy of past warfare.

Decoration of the Australian military base in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan. Photo by Federica Caso taken at the Australian War Memorial.

The message that comes across is that the Frontier Wars that have decimated the Indigenous population of Australia and replaced their institutions with Europeans ones are not as foundational as modern warfare. Although modern Australia rests on colonial dispossession, violence, and war, the Memorial’s exclusion of the Frontier Wars and its emphasis on World War I and modern warfare swipes colonialism under the carpet and institutionalises a hierarchy of trauma.

The committed decision to exclude the Frontier Wars from the Australian War Memorial must be understood in relation to the vision to promote a multicultural and post-colonial Australian society, a project that was initiated in the 1970s. The Frontier Wars are perceived as a divisive history insofar as they involve the confrontation of two groups, settler and Indigenous Australians, who are currently presented as reconciled. Participating in the promotion of a vision of a multicultural and post-colonial Australian society, the Australian War Memorial is instead emphasising the inclusion and representation of Indigenous people (as well as people of non-English descent) in the Australia Defence Force.

A recent example of such inclusion was the temporary exhibition For country For Nation hosted at the Australian War Memorial between September 2016 and August 2017. This exhibition was curated in collaboration with Aboriginal curator Amanda Jane Reynolds and in consultation with Indigenous Knowledge Holders. It featured some of the personal stories of Indigenous men and women who served in the Australian Defence Force and provided some background context about the racial discrimination endured by Indigenous people who served in the 20th century. However, it mostly emphasised that the Australian Defence has included Indigenous people and provided a bastion to claim civil rights for Indigenous people.

Certainly it is important that the stories of Indigenous people who served in the Australian Defence Force are told and that Indigenous Service is recognised and included in the Australian War Memorial. However, this is not a substitute for the commemoration of the Frontier Wars. Even conceding that the exclusion of the Frontier Wars from the galleries of the Memorial is intended to promote national unity (rather than entrench colonial relations), it is difficult to imagine how this historical erasure can promote postcolonial transitional justice and peace in Australia.

A permanent exhibition on the Frontier Wars would be an important step towards healing racial relations to the extent that it acknowledges the harm inflicted on Indigenous Australians and dispels the myth that Australia was terra nullius at the time British settlers arrived. It would be a political gesture that signals the will to take responsibility for the violence committed and the desire to move forward reconciling the past rather than swiping it under the carpet.

Unofficial representation of the Frontier Wars on Anzac Day 2017. Anzac Day is Australia’s day of war commemoration. Photo by Federica Caso

Federica Caso has recently been awarded her PhD at the University of Queensland. She researches militarisation and the politics of aesthetics

Socio-Spatial Violence and Public Memory in Latin America

We  have a new and highly topical blog post by architect and anthropologist Carlos Salamanca Villamizar. Writing about Latin America, he argues there is a need to engage with memory of our recent past, in order to understand violence in the form of inequality, urban and regional segregation, racism, extractivism and other controversial issues from contemporary history.

 By  Carlos Salamanca Villamizar

New political winds are blowing everywhere, and Latin American countries are not an exception. In the last five years and around the world, we have seen the becoming of a new political era based on reactionary and conservative policies, mostly built under virulent speeches facilitated by social media and fake news, and a context where the boundaries between politics and spectacle are —again— invisible. Of course, this is not recent, and multiple features of conservative expressions of power are arising in different parts of the world and at different scales, being Trump and Bolsonaro’s rhetoric the most visible manifestations of these new times. Fear/hate for immigrants, fear/hate for Black people, violence against indigenous peoples and social leaders, everything happening under a dramatic plot: a mounting global grammar supporting racism and nationalism, naturalizing exclusion and segregation, justifying violence, and relativizing environmental destruction, and there are not feelings of embarrassment in it.

Latin American societies have undergone similar regressive times concerning rights, especially in 1970 and 1980, when dictatorships ruled several countries under the Cold War paradigm. Nevertheless, what we are now seeing is several societies backing conservative governmental proposals that clearly go against the recent advances made in Human Rights recognition.

At least during the last two decades, memory has gained a privileged place in public concern. In fact, memory has become central, as Andreas Huyssen argued in Present Past (2003), even if in the last years because of the uses and abuses of memory, “Memory fatigue has set in”. Latin American States have firmly insisted on Nunca Más paradigm, on the idea of avoiding torture, murder, disappearance… a “Never Again” against authoritarian responses in the face of social complexities. But today, phantoms from the past seem to haunt our times here and there. What has happened?

We want to suggest that we could find the answers in the past, and in the way we have been dealing with it. Direct violence and violence addressed to specific people have been prioritized by researchers, activist and legal agents in post-traumatic contexts all over the world, and this was logical. Deaths, disappearances, tortures, human rights violations, have been deeply rejected by victims, national societies and the human rights global community. Thus, the question about direct violence (its causes, its shapes, its consequences), has dominated the work made on memory in several countries having violent pasts (South Africa, Rwanda, Argentina, Guatemala and, more recently, Colombia), and, in general, the debates about traumatic legacies.

One of the most visible examples of institutional memory politics in Guatemala. In the ceremonial wall of the Cathedral of Guatemala city,  the names of thousands of people murdered during the Armed Conflict are inscribed.
Photo: Carlos Salamanca Villamizar 2017.

The “classic” memory agenda that used to emphasize murders, massacres, disappearances, and other human rights violations had the potential to gain social rejection and simultaneously become audible to some parts of the societies. The emphasis made on the clearer effects of violence in individuals and communities was very useful to create the “Never More” paradigm. Nevertheless, due to its inordinate scale, this violence was increasingly haunted by a past aroma, and remembered in symbolic dates and less and less useful to understand numerous burning issues from our present times. Due to the way it has been created as a social field, memory has not only progressively been challenged by parts of our societies but has also been turning away from several sectors’ needs and concerns, such as (depending on country) popular classes, indigenous peoples, factory workers, young unemployed people, among others.

We need a memory of our recent past, as it could be useful to understand inequality, urban and regional segregation, racism, extractivism and other controversial issues from our contemporary history. In order to do this, we should consider a memory able to include insights about the way violence has modified and, in a certain way, defined our ideas about issues like citizenship, cities configuration, public space, progress, development, agricultural or industrial production, poverty, environment, slums dynamics, frontiers, or national sovereignty.

This new memory perspective is linked to a new definition of violence that underlies the fact that violence not only “destroys” people’s lives, social organizations, social or natural environments; violence also creates, produces and generates new territories, landscapes, spatial configurations and, in consequence, new societies.

In my own comparative research work with indigenous peoples in Argentina, Colombia, and Guatemala, I found plenty of examples that show how violence practices indigenous peoples have been subjected to are far more complex and diverse than direct violence. Violence can be materialized in regional planning projects like the “Aldeas Modelos” one, implemented in the 1980’s in Guatemala: indigenous were forced to settle in the context of counter-insurgency policies. On their part, during the last dictatorship (1976-1983) qom indigenous peoples in Argentine Chaco region underwent a set of policies oriented to transform them into “truly Argentine citizens”, productive, “domesticated” and respectful of government. The social production of these “new men” was accompanied by a set of spatial policies in the region: infrastructure works, nationalistic commemorations of region’s colonization, a massive plan for changing places’ names – mostly to include military hero names, and large-scale actions to destroy nature with agricultural purposes.

Images No. 2-5.
The “Campaign of the West”, promoted by military government during the last dictatorship, was intended to expand the agricultural frontier, and tend to territorial occupation from the foundation of Fuerte Esperanza in 1978, in the geographical center of the Impenetrable region (Chaco, Argentina).
Imágenes: Chaco puede, Sucesos Argentinos 1982. Archivo Audiovisual Gino Germani.

Finally, in Colombia, besides direct violence, indigenous peoples are suffering today the consequences of systematic governmental authorizations —given in the context of armed conflict— to extractive industries for mining purposes in their territories, thus radically transforming, polluting and degrading them.

Those cases are clear examples of socio-spatial violence practices that harm indigenous peoples individually and collectively, and threaten their existence as a people. Research work made on memory, on the links between violence and neoliberal mining activities, infrastructure works, nature destruction and regional planning is therefore central.

These ideas could be extended to other populations and be useful to understand the present effects of government practices in contexts of State violence, as well as to think about more radical, extensive and transformative practices of justice.

To 2018 El Cerrejón mining company (Anglo American, BHP, Glencore) based in La Guajira (Colombia) has exploited 31 million coal tons that have been exported to different parts of the world. Despite numerous national and international environmental awards and recognition accorded to the company, indigenous communities in the region and NGOs have denounced large-scale pollution and other serious consequences on the territory by the mining of the Company. Currently (August 2019) an alliance of social organizations and NGO, processes before the Constitutional Court an action denouncing irregularities in the processes of granting environmental licenses.
Photo: Carlos Salamanca Villamizar, 2018.


Carlos Salamanca is a Colombian architect and anthropologist. He is a Research Fellow at Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Tecnológicas (CONICET) in Argentina.

New Working Paper Out on Dignity



One of the main challenges for societies in transition is for victims to recover from processes of dehumanization, and the restoration of their human dignity. Yet this process is seldom conceptualized. In Working Paper no. 3 Sandra Milena Rios Oyola proposes an analytical framework to study the role of human dignity in transitional justice.

Kwibuka25 – young people’s (dis)engagement with commemorations on the genocide against the Tutsi


By Timothy Williams


The 7 April is one of the most significant dates in Rwanda’s official calendar. This is the day that the genocide began in 1994 and today it is national holiday marking the beginning of a period of commemoration and mourning calledKwibuka– meaning to remember in Kinyarwanda. Kwibukalasts a full one hundred days – the duration of the genocide. While many of the official events happen in the first week, various commemoration events are organised around the country on the specific dates significant to that place, normally when the massacre of the local Tutsi population took place.

Participating for the first time in Kwibuka events this year, I was struck by the eclectic mix of formats integrated into these events. Before travelling to Rwanda, I had been expecting emotionally charged events that focus strongly on survivor testimony. Most events I visited did indeed also include one or two testimonies by survivors. However, the commemorations are also highly official events that are planned down to the minute with sometimes a dozen speeches, always including a lecture on the history of Rwanda, as well as speeches by the most important dignitaries present. These are then complemented by sermons by local clergymen, when it is a religious commemoration event (given the loci of much of the killing in and around churches this is quite common), or by official Kwibuka songs sung by bands or choirs. Unsurprisingly, with the official nature of these commemorations come the practices and conventions typical of such events with long speeches, the pleasantries of dignitary speeches and the inevitable delays until the most important officials arrive with hundreds of survivors and other visitors waiting, often in the hot midday heat.

By my cursory observation it seemed that the testimonies were the most significant parts of these commemorations, even if they were difficult for other survivors to hear and sometimes re-traumatised one of the listening survivors. They are of deep relevance to many survivors as they can relate their own experiences to them and it renders their own memories significant. It seemed to be cause for regret that there were not more testimonies, and attention dwindled during the more official speeches.

Noticeably absent from many of the events were the younger generation. It is possible that the official format and the sheer length of the events proves too daunting to young people. A different picture emerged at a theatre and dance performance by the performance group Mashirika. Gisozi amphitheatre was packed with young people, crowding in, sitting on steps or any space they could find. The modern dance and music performance told stories of loss and reconciliation but from the perspective of ‘Generation 25’, those born since the genocide or too young to remember it. The standing ovations that erupted at the end of the performance told a story of how young people in urban and modernised Kigali can be engaged to think about the past and its meaning today.


Mashirika performance group

Kwibuka is an emotionally fraught period, when people remember, mourn and miss their loved ones, but it is also an important time of political consolidation and consideration, the government seizing the opportunity to remind their citizens of the official version of Rwandan history, warn against genocide ideology and promote their vision of unity and reconciliation for the country. With a government whose central legitimation for rule is founded in their liberation from the genocide this narrative is important to impart on the entire population.

But as increasing numbers of young people who have no experience of the genocide themselves grow up, it is questionable whether the standard format of commemoration will suffice. Instead, the variety of formats needed to engage this next generation of Rwandans growing up in a society no longer officially defined by ethnic divisionism will likely need to expand and transform. While it will remain important to remember the needs of the survivor population, so that they are afforded a space to remember, mourn and commemorate in ways that are meaningful to them, the government will need to engage the next generation in ways that are significant to them, too, if they want to maintain the legitimacy afforded to them through the liberation of the country from genocide.


The Troubles In Photographs and Words

In this blog post we present the poignant volume ‘Reconstructions – The Troubles in Photographs and Words’. It is a rare work that combines photographs and poems, capturing and blending personal and collective memories of the Northern Ireland conflict. The photos are by world-renowned photographer Bobbie Hanvey who took some of the iconic photos of the Trouble’s defining moments. The poems are by his son Steafán Hanvey, who is a singer-songwriter and poet. We invited Steafán to write about his own relation to memory and art and how  it speaks to the memory politics of Northern Ireland.  Below, in his blog post, he notes that his father’s photos acted ‘as portals, not only to the past but to the future’.

At the end of the post there are links from the audiobook to three of the gripping prose-poems read by Steafán Hanvey, each linked to  Bobbie Hanvey’s powerful pictures.  We are very happy and grateful to be able to introduce this work in the context of our research into multi-layered memorywork. 



By Steafán Hanvey



I slipped into this world between Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday – on June 22nd 1972 – the same day the IRA considered calling a ceasefire if certain conditions were met; but it wasn’t to be, and the conflict raged on for the next twenty-odd years of my life.

Fast forward to the IRA ceasefire in 1994 – my final year at university – and I’m working as a sound-engineer for a production company in Belfast. Somewhat ironically, for it wasn’t until then – with the Troubles next to over – that I decided to up and leave Northern Ireland for snowier climes in neutral Finland. My intention was to never look back, and I didn’t, at least not until almost two decades later when I set about writing and recording my second long-play record, Nuclear Family. 

This intensely personal album forced me to begin sifting through my memories and experiences. I soon realised that the public and political face of Northern Ireland was pressed hard against the window of my private and personal world. In short, my family couldn’t be explained in isolation. After years of ‘whatever you say, say nothing’, I felt the time was nigh to say something, so I ceased ‘houling my whisht’. As an artist, that something had always troubled me, and making Nuclear Family made me realise that though I had never written explicitly about Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland had, in fact, written me.



Photographic Memory

While I do believe that it is necessary to look back in order to learn from the past, at the same time, to do so comes with its own inherent risks. In ‘The Most Trying of Colours (The Trickler)’, from my first collection of poems Reconstructions – the Troubles in Photographs and Words,  I write:

The history-hoarders should quit

keeping score, for numbers

are dead weights and drag a body down …

But swamps and subduction zones were far from my mind when about two years back I received a black-and-white photograph from my father, Bobbie.  It depicted Main Street, Brookeborough, his home village in Co. Fermanagh, and a place dear to my heart too for I used to spend much of my school holidays down at my Granny Hanvey’s. No sooner had I received the photo than I had written a poem about my stays with Granny Hanvey and sent it back to my da. I was aware that I had a collection of memories that would have been very similar to his own as a child. Perhaps I was trying to impress upon him our shared experience … despite our many differences. Happily, my da reacted positively to the poem and the foundations for Reconstructions were laid:

Peering down the shaft

of times-past,

I see memories

pulsing in the gloom,

waiting to be re-felt.

Some are the most unreliable of witnesses,

and often the best-forgotten are the least-forgotten,

but still, there they are, and here they come,

re-emerging eternally,

like photographs in a chemical-bath,

developing and re-developing

at their own behest.

[Excerpt from ‘Plan B (Unravelling Night)’, Reconstructions.]



The End of Art is Peace

Having just one month earlier become a father myself for the first time, I was enjoying a breather from a prolonged period of touring the world with Nuclear Family and its artistic corollary, a multimedia performance called Look Behind You!™ A Father and Son’s Impressions of the Troubles through Photograph and Song. (More info here.)

As memories, like words, can be as slippery as a new-born child, I opted instead to configure Reconstructions as a series of ‘impressions’, and like Nuclear Family and Look Behind You!™, it too would investigate and promote the notion that ‘The End of Art is Peace’. Together, they would form a notional triptych – complementary panels that told a similar story in different ways.



Portals to a Childhood

And so, I started to revisit some of my father’s iconic photographs from the Troubles, with the intention of producing a poem for each. The photos acted as portals, not only to the past but to the future, dragging me back and propelling me forward as each recollection qwertied onto the computer screen.

I was present at the conception of many of the photographs. I witnessed their act of becoming, and marvelled as they developed lives of their own in chemical trays and beyond. Often depicting disgraceful acts, they nonetheless graced the pages of many national and international publications. Their brutal candour made sure of this.

My da conceived these photographs and I hope that my words do them and their taker — my fathographer— the justice they deserve. I also hope that in my presentation of each ‘reconstruction’ that I have afforded the less-fortunate — those who lost their lives, and those who were hurt and are hurting still — their due respect.


 Below follow three photographs and poems (on audiofile)  from Reconstructions – The Troubles In Photographs and Words.



(The lady in the photograph was called Sarah Primrose, here with a RUC neighborhood watch patrol).


Trigger Treat

(The little girl is a member of the traveling community, and is waving a brush at a RUC officer who had been on the night shift.)


The Most Trying of Colours (The Trickler)

(This photo of a procession on St Patrick’s Day in Downpatrick, Co. Down, was taken in the street where the Hanvey family lived.)


Reconstructions – the Troubles in Photographs and Words hardback and e-book formats are published by Irish Academic Press/Merrion Press. The Photo-Poetry Audiobook is distributed by INgrooves. Bobbie Hanvey’s photographs appear courtesy of the © Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College (Cambridge, MA), and the trustees of Boston College.


For more information and links see: www.steafanhanvey.com



The Promise of ‘Never Again’ – new post from guest blogger Maja Davidovic

We are delighted to welcome guest blogger Maja Davidovic to our website. Read her thoughtful piece on the promise of ‘Never Again’. She asks: what are Bosnia and Herzegovina’s or any other state’s obligations to provide (or offer) guarantees of non-recurrence after a conflict? Where do these obligations originate from and, importantly, do local people act as consultants in these processes? These questions touch upon some core issues to do with memory politics and peacebuilding.

Maja Davidovic is a Ph.D. candidate at Durham University working on guarantees of non-recurrence in transitional societies. She is an alumna of the Human Rights M.A. program at Central European University and has previously worked with migrants and refugees as a researcher and field officer in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Greece.

Find her blogpost here.


Space in Peace and Conflict at University of Marburg


In October, Professor Susanne Buckley-Zistel organized a conference on the theme of Space in Peace and Conflict. All members of this research cluster participated. Susanne Buckley-Zistel moderated the opening panel on ‘Interdisciplinary Spaces’, Stefanie Kappler, Johanna Mannergren Selimovic and Timothy Williams participated in a panel on ‘Spatialising Memories’, and Annika Björkdahl held the closing keynote entitled ‘A Spatial Turn in Peace and Conflict Research’.

Check out the program here:  SPACE IN PEACE AND CONFLICT

New Working Paper Out

We have the pleasure  to publish a Working Paper on art in the public spaces of Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Curator Danijela Dugandžić analyses a number of fascinating artworks that since the official end of the war in 1995 have dealt with some key themes: nationalism, the role of the international community during and after the war, forgotten emancipatory history and heritage, and post-war reconstruction. There has also been a significant production of feminist art.  Dugandžić shows how art can be  an urban practice that uses public space as emancipation for those who are less visible, or even invisible.

Working Paper no 2. Politics between Art and Space. Sarajevo after 1995. 

Retribution or reconciliation?

By Stefanie Kappler

On 5 March 2018, we hosted the interreligious choir Pontanima from Sarajevo at Durham University. Pontanima are known as an important peace-maker in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, composed of members from different ethnic and religious groups and performing songs from Bosnia’s different religious traditions (Jewish, Orthodox, Islamic and Roman Catholic). Through this, they send a powerful message of appreciating diversity and reconciliation. The eclectic elements of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s religious heritage are thus understood as an asset and precondition in which the trauma of the war can be overcome – based on a memory of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a multicultural nation.

Nedžad Avdić from Srebrenica was travelling with the choir on their UK tour (Cambridge, London, Durham). Nedžad is a survivor of the atrocities that were committed in Srebrenica, having been shot multiple times and witnessing the killing of many others. By telling his personal story, Nedžad is trying to raise awareness of the detrimental consequences of hate of any kind. He says that he had returned to Srebrenica to “show them I am still alive”.

In that sense, one might think the combination of the choir, which emphasises a notion of reconciliation, and a survivor who expresses the need to remember the atrocities, may seem unusual. Is this about retribution or reconciliation?

But it is exactly that that Nedžad Avdić’s story and the choir may be read as: namely the need for suffering to be acknowledged so reconciliation can happen. Independent of which side the suffering has happened, it seems to be crucial for pain and injustice to be recognised and taken seriously if they are to be transformed into a creative energy (such as music, with the example of Pontanima). This does not mean that we need to look at reconciliation as a linear phenomenon or with a clear directionality (suffering > acknowledgement > reconciliation), but instead to recognise the importance for personal testimonies to be listened to throughout.

Peacebuilding, I would suggest, should therefore create spaces in which suffering can be acknowledged. Those spaces can then give rise to conversations and transformations, where the arts can deploy their special impact. This is not to say that acknowledgment alone is sufficient to overcome societal divisions (indeed, a critique that has often been voiced against the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been its lack of focus on material reparations for the victims of apartheid). Instead, it means to engage in a serious conversation with those who want or need to remember and have felt the impact of war on their own lives.