When the Sky Fell: Legacies of the 1967 Referendum

Glennys Marsdon

Many lessons learnt, When The Sky Fell In, at PICA - an Indigenous art exhibition that looks at the Referendum from the position of impact.
When the Sky Fell: Legacies of the 1967 Referendum

Installation view of the exhibition, When the Sky Fell: Legacies of the 1967 Referendum at Perth Institute of Contemporary Art: Photo Glennys Marsdon

Fifty years ago a Federal Referendum produced the highest YES vote ever recorded, with 90.77% voting for change. The result created a critical turning point in Australia’s history and constitution. Can you guess what the issue was?

No, it had nothing to do with wages, interest rates, immigration, not even the exorbitant price of smashed avocado. The topic was the removal of two clauses within the Australian Constitution that were discriminatory towards Indigenous Australians. One, I believe, was about members of this ancient culture no longer being classed as fauna. Did I say this was only fifty years ago?


For many Aboriginal Australians though, there were unexpected consequences of the yes vote, both positive and negative.

Every year the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts’ undertakes a major exhibition, and this year they have chosen to shine a light on the historical and ongoing impact of the 1967 Referendum.

Curated by the highly respected Clothilde Bullen, When the Sky Fell In features the work of 26 acclaimed WA Indigenous artists who were significantly affected by the consequences of the vote.

This stunning looking landmark exhibition covers two floors of the PICA gallery and is the first of its kind in Australia.

The exhibition features both traditional and contemporary mediums. One such example is the sand animation by Mervyn Street, a senior Gooniyandi man from the Fitzroy Crossing River Region. On opening night I was fortunate to watch Street work.  

Seated at the back of the gallery Street dragged a needle thin paintbrush through a layer of red sand laying on top of a lightbox. Just as I was taking in the final product Street waved a larger paintbrush through the image and started another. It was mesmerising watching each new sand story appear, only to disappear moments later. In an interesting twist, the images were captured on a mobile phone that was hanging over the lightbox, and beamed out to the public via a large screen in Northbridge Cultural precinct. A wonderful marriage of heritage skills and modern technology, and another lesson learnt.

Artist Mervyn Street working on sand animation at opening performance; Photo Glennys Marsdon with permission of the artist

To view Mervyn Street's sand painting animation

Watching Street brush away each image reminded me of the Buddhist mandalas that take days to make, only to be swept away at the end. Also fleeting is a large wall painting by Street, that will disappear once the exhibition is over. The exhibition is reminder that life is a gift we need to embrace every day.

Thankfully future audiences will be able to experience Streets sand paintings through a video installation on the gallery floor. Such a clever idea to place the video screen on the floor, as it makes the viewer feel like they’re in the outback watching someone run a stick over the ground. Here’s a link to the video. The music is by the Morrditj Moort dancers who performed at the preview.

Another lesson learnt, a reminder that art needn’t be restricted to the canvas. Aside from some stunning large pieces on canvas, there were interesting pieces painted on saddles, satellite dishes and other objects.

Mervyn Street, Barcoo Stock saddle, 2017, Acrylic on leather saddle; courtesy the artist

One of the most poignant though was a dress made out of flour bags, a reminder of the need for the Referendum and how Indigenous Australians used to be paid in rations.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

When the Sky Fell: Legacies of the 1967 Referendum

2 July to 20 August

Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. Perth Cultural Centre

51 James Street, Northbridge  www.pica.org.au

Curator: Clothilde Bullen

Artist: Including Mervyn Street (Waringarri Arts, Fitzroy Crossing), Shirley Purdie, Lindsay Malay (Warmun Arts, Turkey Creek), Charmaine Green (Yamatji Arts, Geraldton) and Peggy Griffiths (Waringarri Arts, Kununurra).

Presented in partnership with the Aboriginal Arts Centre Hub of WA.

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Glennys Marsdon has spent over 20 years researching consumer behaviour before establishing her own Consumer Psychology Consultancy, The Customers’ Voice in 2000. Her writing and guest speaking career also began over 20 years ago at the Australian Red Cross (WA) where she managed the Adult and Youth magazines and was a member of the Disaster Preparedness Team. In 2005 she published her first book, 50 Ways To Grieve Your Lover, which was followed by the title, Me Time: 100 strategies for guilt free me time.

She is a regular contributor to magazines and websites and, has a monthly column at Swan Magazine and was amongst the top 40 Perth bloggers to be invited to blog at TweetPerth.com. She started her blog, The Ponder Room  in 2011, which was read in over 20 countries within six months. It is now read in over 60 countries.

She took on the voluntary role of Professional Development Officer (WA) Australian Society of Authors, and became a member of the Federation of Writers (FAWWA). She serves on several boards, and was nominated for the Telstra Business Women’s Awards in 2012.

web:www.glennysmarsdon.com     Blog www.theponderroom.com