Albury’s John Skillington in the running to win 2018 Gallipoli Art Prize

Albury artist John Skillington will learn on Wednesday if his entry in the Gallipoli Art Prize has won over 32 others from three countries.

But whether Kahki and ochre (hidden warriors) takes out the top gong is less important to the former James Fallon High School teacher than viewers heeding the artwork’s message.

“I was really interested in the idea of Aboriginal soldiers, and read an article by the Australian War Memorial,” Skillington said. 

“Recruiters were encouraged to join them up even though it was essentially illegal – but the rules said ‘no dark-skinned people’ – so there was this double level of racism that it was light-skinned Aboriginals who got in.

“It probably would have been Korea that they were fully recognised as members of the Australian Defence Force.”

The War Memorial outlines The Defence Act of 1903 exempted Aboriginal people from military service, but an estimated 1000 Indigenous Australians fought in World War I, at the very least.

In 1949 all restrictions were lifted, giving Indigenous soldiers the ability to join officially.​

In a blurb to be displayed next to his piece, Skillington writes; “returning home … it would be half a century before Australia’s Indigenous soldiers could expect to be fully recognised as members of the armed forces and in turn recall the courageous tenacity and commitment to country of such warrior forebears as Pemulwuy and Jandamarra”.

His work depicts an Indigenous soldier, holding a rifle, with the figure fading out to a pattern of dots.

He did not depict a real soldier, thinking of cultural sensitivities, and chose to move away from dot paintings.

“The thing with dot painting is it was made permanent by an non-Indigenous art teacher, Geoff Bardon, in the 1970s who went out to Papunya and worked with Aboriginal people there,” Skillington said.

“He noticed they were working with sand painting, but there was nothing permanent, and he wanted to put murals up about the school – that’s where the style came from.

“I thought it would be a little bit like appropriation to steal that without any real knowledge of the background, so I thought instead I would transfer it into the 21st Century by using the way an image is bit-mapped in a newspaper and enlarging that to become a dot pattern.”

Skillington’s painting is among a number of finalists addressing Aboriginal soldiers’ recognition in the Gallipoli Memorial Club’s prize, this year worth $20,000.

The winner will be announced in Sydney at midday on Wednesday, with that piece and the 32 finalists to remain on display at the Club Bondi Junction RSL for the rest of the month.

The Gallipoli Art Prize has run for 13 years and Skillington has entered three times.

“The previous two times I entered I was still teaching, and didn’t really have the time to put into it,” he said. 

“Retirement has been wonderful – being able to sit down and work on it is much more rewarding.

“Its more important to me that it be hung than to win; to have people see and understand it.

“A new history is being created that’s no so European-centric and as the new history is being created, it will be far more relevant to what actually happened.”