Avoirdupois

Sound installation, headphones, library receipt, duration 02:04sec.
Photography by Marie Falcinella (courtesy of Hanging Valley) 2016, and Rhiannon Hopley 2017.
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00:00 / 00:00
Avoirdupois complete sound work

Artist Statement

Avoirdupois 

2016

 

Avoirdupois is an old system of measurement developed in the Middle Ages and was internationally recognised up until 1959. It used ounces and pounds. Joseph Barnard Davis, the craniologist that I reference in this work, used the Avoirdupois system to describe the skulls and brains of Aboriginal people.

 

The intention behind this work has been to investigate and highlight scientific literature from the 19th century that was published and used for the classification of Aboriginal people in an attempt to determine intellectual capacity, moral capacity, etc. Davis' measurements of skulls were used to compare First Nations Australians with Europeans, and provide "evidence" to support determinist theories on race and what has been commonly described in this type of literature as "the miserable condition of the Aborigine".

 

Davis' suggestion that the Tasmanian Aboriginal population is extinct plays a role in the race quantification of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to this day. As a Narungga Aboriginal man from South Australia, who has recently moved to Tasmania, I felt it was also relevant to focus on Davis' comparisons between Tasmanian and mainland Aboriginal people in his measurements of brain weights and skull sizes.

 

The receipt in this artwork is used as evidence of the racist history this country holds on to, and shows the importance of questioning and understanding Australia's colonial past. Both my name and part of the title of the book are visible on the receipt. The headphones are hung at approximately head height in front of the receipt, acting as a calliper that measures each persons head who listens to the work.

 

In appropriating Davis' words, I am subverting the meaning behind them and drawing attention to a problematic system of beliefs.

 

The book being referenced is titled 'On the Osteology and Peculiarities of the Tasmanians. A Race of Man Recently Become Extinct.' and was first published in 1874. I came across this book in the Royal Society Rare Book Collection at the UTAS Morris Miller library in Sandy Bay. Books are not allowed to be loaned from this collection, and so I had to negotiate with the person in charge of Rare Books to override the loans system so I could obtain the evidence of my viewing the book, the date, and the collection it belongs to. This book is held in numerous other libraries across the country, including the State Library of South Australia.