Cracks in the Archive

Andrew Brooks


Invasion is a structure, not an event.


— Patrick Wolfe, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (2016)


There is no telling this story; it must be told.


— M. NourbeSe Philip, ZONG! (2008)


A crack is a fault line produced by a sudden impact or a fracture arising from prolonged pressure. Breaking what would otherwise be a smooth surface, the emergence of a crack is also the opening of a small void-like space. Sometimes a crack is so tiny that it does not affect the usability of an object, and yet its presence transforms the object from a state of relative stability to one of precarity and fragility. At other times, the appearance of a crack is a precursor to imminent destruction. Think, for example, of the way a single crack ripples and multiplies through a pane of glass in the moments before it shatters. Then there are those cracks that incrementally and imperceptibly expand over time, gradually widening until they produce structural instability or collapse.


Lately, I have been thinking about cracks in a number of distinct yet related ways: as an index of trauma or the trace of an injury inflicted; as the rupture or breakage of a continuous surface; and as the opening of a minor space in-between established entities. Specifically, I have been thinking about cracks and breaks in relation to archives of anti-blackness in Australia and the United States; that is, both the production of counter-archives that confront the histories and differing logics of racialisation. I want to consider how we might read and re-read archival documents in ways that attend to the fractures and fissures that exist within them. I am interested in contemporary artistic practice that engages with the gaps, silences, absences and violences of the archive in order to critically reconfigure established histories and intervene in the reproduction of colonial ideology. My focus is Dale Harding’s 2017 installation, Know them in correct judgement, a work that engages with family, local and national histories and their traces. Harding explores the intertwined relationship between the White Australia Policy (and its afterlives) and his own family history at the Woorabinda Mission in central Queensland in a work that confronts the violence of colonisation and its shifting logics of racialisation while refusing to make such violences sensible. More than simply revealing the instability of the archive, I want to suggest that such work might cause new cracks to appear or existing cracks to widen. Such work is crucial to an ongoing project of breaking down the structures of settler colonialism. Cracks, cuts and fractures are not simply the traces of trauma but rather the opening of minor spaces in which counter-archives might be forged. Re-reading archival documents with an awareness of the cracks and breaks is to read towards a politics of what we might call an uncommon sense of history.


An archive is not a static repository of historical documents but rather something that enacts a world by determining, regulating and organising discourse, utterance and speakers. The complexity of archives is that they are simultaneously sites of preservation and destruction, the inclusion of certain things means the exclusion and neglect of others. The archive is always radically incomplete; its perceived wholeness and authority is derived from what is exterior to it, and, as such, it can only be properly understood in juxtaposition to that which it simultaneously excludes. As Jacques Derrida explains, ‘there is no archive without a place of consignation, without a technique of repetition, and without a certain exteriority. No archive without outside.’[1] For Derrida, the power of the archive depends on this exteriority, its ability to repeat the outside inside — to (faithfully) reproduce that. Paradoxically, this exteriority also marks it as inherently unstable, as something open to revisitation, as for example, when new archival material emerges, and then to reinterpretation. Considered in concrete terms, archives are the product of processes of power in which certain documents are categorised as important and worthy of preservation and others are not. As Achille Mbembe argues:


it seems clear that the archive is primarily the product of a judgement, the result of the exercise of a specific power and authority, which involves placing certain documents in an archive at the same time as others are discarded. The archive, therefore, is fundamentally a matter of discrimination and of selection, which, in the end, results in the granting of a privileged status to certain written documents, and the refusal of that same status to others, thereby judged “unarchivable.” The archive is, therefore, not a piece of data, but a status.[2]


The archive can be understood as both a repository/enactment of authority and power, and a space that is inherently incomplete. This is not to underestimate the power of colonial archives nor the role they play in the making of colonial ontologies, but to acknowledge the ad hoc nature of their production. While colonial archives often appear to follow a preconceived set of rules, the reality is that the production of colonial systems of classification was an unruly process involving a constantly mutating set of practices and logics. The underlying aim of this shifting set of racialising processes — which, in Australia has included, among many other things: frontier genocide, state sanctioned miscegenation, the abduction of children, the appropriation and redistribution of Native title into alienable individual freeholds and resocialisation in missions — was, and is, to establish and uphold settler sovereignty. The establishment of the settler state requires the continued denial of Native sovereignty and the subsequent exclusion of Indigenous people. As the historian Patrick Wolfe notes:


The settler/Native confrontation, in other words, is not between claims to ownership but between frameworks for allocating ownerships. It is between sovereignties, which are primordially external to one another… Given this externality, the settler legal system resolves issues of ownership within its jurisdictional limits. The question of its own externality is simply — and literally — beyond its power (ultra vires).[3]


This fundamental incapacity to address Native sovereignty has given rise to what Wolfe has termed the settler colonial ‘logic of elimination.’[4] The elimination of Indigenous populations via explicit (genocidal or militaristic) and implicit (assimilatory) actions and policies seeks to resolve the problem of the settler state’s own externality. Here we can understand Frantz Fanon’s formulation that ‘the black man [sic] is not’ as the central logic of Australian settler colonialism.[5] Or, to put it more directly, settler sovereignty is ontologically anti-black yet structured by blackness. As Wolfe explains, ‘so far as conquest remains incomplete, the settler state rests — or, more to the point, fails to rest — on incomplete foundations. For the settler state, therefore, the struggle to neutralise Indigenous externality is a struggle for its own integrity.’[6] In the era of the frontier, this logic of elimination plays out as a campaign of violent conquest and homicide. However, in the wake of the frontier, the strategy morphs into one of state sanctioned miscegenation and institutional management with the aim of breeding out the Indigenous population.


Assimilation offers colonial powers a more effective solution to the problem of Native sovereignty than denial, which cannot help but maintain the externality of the sovereign state. Assimilatory policies — such as the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families and the removal of Aboriginal people to settlements, reserves and missions — are concerned with eradicating difference by incorporating the Indigenous population into settler society. For the settler state, total assimilation would provide unrestricted access to land (a crucial motive in the burgeoning pastoral economy of early settlement) while avoiding a confrontation between conflicting sovereignties and unresolvable systems of ownership. Rendered non-subjects or wards of the state by settler law, governments were able to exert spatial, financial and bodily control over Aboriginal people by prescribing where they could and could not reside. The establishment of missions and settlements worked to dispossess Aboriginal people from their land and, by extension, prevent them profiting from the emerging pastoral economy. This strategy of forcible removal and subsequent management adheres to the settler imperative to dismantle Native territoriality. The common practices of separating familial groupings and instituting programs of religious conversion that often accompanied forcible relocation was aimed at creating the necessary conditions for assimilation by breaking down Aboriginal traditions and forms of collectivity.


Dale Harding’s Know them in correct judgement (2017) responds to the violent history of settler colonialism and its central logic of elimination. The installation — shown at the Art Gallery of NSW as part of the 2017 exhibition, The National: New Australian Art — is a document of Harding’s family history at the Woorabinda Mission on Ghungalu Land in central Queensland. The Woorabinda Settlement was established in 1927 when over 200 Aboriginal people were forcibly resettled from Taroom, an Aboriginal reserve approximately 160 kilometres away.[7] The settlement was under the control of the Queensland Government until 1986, when it was transferred to trusteeship of the Woorabinda Aboriginal Council. At its inception, the settlement was divided into white and black areas, with a hospital and store forming an intermediary zone between the segregated areas of the site. Under-financed and under-resourced, very little infrastructure was provided which resulted in poor living conditions and an increased susceptibility to diseases such as influenza. Large numbers of Aboriginal people were forcibly relocated to Woorabinda under the policies of White Australia, removed not only from ancestral lands but also from other government settlements, such as Cherbourg and Palm Island.[8] The result was a diverse Indigenous population comprised of numerous different tribal groups with discrete customs, traditions and languages.[9]


From early on, the population at Woorabinda was subject to the twin controls of church and state, with Church of England missionaries establishing a presence in 1928 and the Catholic Church following suit in 1933. Conforming to a well-established pattern in the colonial world, missionary activities worked to uphold the power and authority of the settler state by attempting to dismantle Aboriginal customs and laws and replace them with religious social and sexual norms. At the same time, governmental power over Aboriginal people was extended by The Aboriginal Protection Acts of 1934 and 1939. As Therese Forde explains, the new provisions in the Act included: ‘the outlawing of all extramarital sex for Aboriginal women, the power to order compulsory medical tests for Aborigines, the power to imprison “uncontrollable” Aborigines without a trial, and the inclusion of all non-Aboriginal “half-castes” under the Act.’[10] While there are oral histories of the Woorabinda Mission that document the brutal treatment of First Nations people, these voices are conspicuously absent from the official records and archives. This absence is reflected by the state’s continuous denial of Native sovereignty — a denial we can see playing out now in the state’s refusal to include First Nations voices in the Australian Constitution.


Harding’s installation, made with the assistance of his uncle Milton and cousin Will, comprises a number of elements — a series of mouth-blown, ochre wall paintings adorn the walls of the gallery, in the centre of the room is a large, glass cabinet containing one large and two small fighting sticks, and an A4 book called The Oral History of Mr Tim Kemp. The artefacts belong to Harding’s relatives, the large fighting stick used by his great-great grandmother in social rites on the Woorabinda Mission and the smaller ones by her son. The book offers an oral history of the mission, recorded by another of Harding’s relatives. The paintings are relief forms of the objects in the cabinet and use a traditional mouth-blowing technique, as well as ochre sourced from Ghungalu country. The largest of the paintings wraps around the join of two walls and shows the outlines of the fighting sticks; a smaller painting traces the shape of the book; and a final painting, positioned up high in an awkward corner of the space, is a redaction of the names of five missionaries who worked on the Woorabinda Mission. The work is minimal and yet it fully inhabits the space of the gallery in which it is installed. Spread across three walls of a long, open-ended room, the work punctuates the white space of the gallery with a combination of porous pigment and definite edges. The painted shapes are both definite and blurred, inviting us to reconsider the notion of history as definitive or the status of the archive as stable.


Know them in correct judgement tells a story of violence, subjugation, theft, confinement and exploitation. It speaks to the history of the Woorabinda Mission and its management by both church and state. The work confronts the gaps and silences of the official archive, producing a counter-archive that indexes and affirms the continuation of Aboriginal traditions, kinships and collectivities. In doing so, the work refuses to adhere to the settler colonial logic of elimination and calls instead for the continuation of culture and history as daily life, resistance and survival. It is a work that mines the cracks and gaps in the archive, inhabiting these minor spaces in order to produce an alternate order of knowledge. Part of the power of Harding’s work is in its refusal to narrativise the past or make coherent the violences of settler colonialism. The counter-archive that Harding presents addresses the incompleteness of the archive without trying to fill in the gaps. In this way, the work enacts what Édouard Glissant would call ‘the right to opacity.’[11] For Glissant, opacity is of central importance to both epistemology and politics, in that it produces new modes of (un)knowing that must be continuously negotiated and renegotiated. Glissant suggests that the ‘right to opacity… [is not an]… enclosure within an impenetrable autarchy but subsistence within an irreducible singularity.’[12] His notion of opacity interrupts the demand to make objects of inquiry transparent by emphasising instead their irreducible differences. Opacity brings differences into relation without demanding that these differences be understandable or resolvable: ‘opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics. To understand these truly one must focus on the texture of the weave and not on the nature of its components.’[13] Here, opacity opens onto a heterogeneous space of unknowability. Refusing to make difference immediately legible, Harding’s work actively refuses to adhere to assimilatory logics of the settler state.


I want to conclude by suggesting that work like Harding’s not only shows us the cracks and breaks that exist in the archives of settler colonialism but also, crucially, causes new cracks to appear in these rotten and malignant histories. Harding’s work confronts the foundational anti-blackness of the settler state and forces it to confront its own externality. Attention to the cracks and breaks in the archive is not simply a process of reconfiguring history but rather, it is a way to begin to imagine and enact different futures.


[1] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 11; italics in original.

[2] Achille Mbembe, “The Power of the Archive and Its Limits,” trans. Judith Inggs, in Refiguring the Archive, ed. Carolyn Hamilton et al. (Dordrecht, Boston and London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), 20.

[3] Patrick Wolfe, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (London and New York: Verso Books, 2016), 34.

[4] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research no. 8, vol. 4 (2006), 388.

[5] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (London: Pluto Press, 2008).

[6] Ibid., 37.

[7] It should be noted that the Taroom Settlement conforms to a familiar story of settler colonial appropriation, with the Settlement closed to make way for the proposed Dawson River Irrigation scheme. While this scheme never eventuated, the Aboriginal people living on this land were nonetheless dispossessed. See Therese Forde, “Confinement and Control: A Histroy of the Woorabinda Aboriginal Community 1927-1990′ (Hons diss, University of Queensland, 1990), 21.

[8] Ibid., 25.

[9] When the anthropologist Norman Tinsdale visited the settlement in 1938, he documented 47 different tribal groups co-existing at Woorabinda. See,

[10] Forde, “Confinement and Control,” 27.

[11] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), 189.

[12] Ibid., 190.

[13] Ibid.

Andrew Brooks is a artist, writer and researcher who lives and works in unceded Eora Nation territory. His work takes the form of texts, installations and...


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