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Marie McMahon

You are on Aboriginal land  1984

colour photo screenprint

image 64.5 × 45cm; sheet 65.5 × 45.8cm

Museum of Contemporary Art, gift of Professor Terry Smith, 2007

2007.18.145

About the Artwork

The political poster You are on Aboriginal land was designed by Marie McMahon and produced in support of Mimi Aboriginal Arts and Crafts, Katherine, in the Northern Territory. McMahon made the poster after visiting the Tiwi Islands in 1980. She was travelling through Tikilaru country, on Bathurst Island, with one of its custodians Piparo (Winnie Munkara), when they encountered a four-wheel drive on a narrow bush track. In the car were two businessmen from Darwin who had been driving through Tikilaru with a view to developing a tourist resort near a beach. McMahon recalls: ‘Our vehicles came head-to-head on the narrow bush track and Winnie confronted the Darwin businessmen in theatrical Tiwi style, with dramatic stick waving and cracking on the ground and shouting “Tikilaru is not your country”. That event remained in my mind as a demonstration of land ownership from an Aboriginal perspective.’

The resolute figure in You are on Aboriginal land is based on a Tiwi woman, Phillipa Pupangamirri, who was photographed by McMahon as she stood on a beach at Cape Fourcroy on the south-west cost of Bathurst Island in 1980. The slogan ‘You are on Aboriginal land’ was borrowed from ‘Pay the rent – you are on Aboriginal land’ bumper stickers McMahon saw in Townsville, Queensland. An initial version of the poster, handprinted at Redback Graphix in Wollongong in 1981, and again at the Tin Sheds Art Workshop at the University of Sydney in 1982, carried the ‘Pay the rent’ line, which was dropped from the 1984 version shown here. The line was deleted because McMahon felt it ‘didn’t mean much to the people I’d had in mind when I created the work … The people I’d had in mind still spoke their own language … The slogan didn’t reflect their world view while the statement “You are on Aboriginal land” was a matter of fact.’ In a quintessentially Australian scene, the woman in the poster, based on the image of Phillipa and the memory of Piparo, stands on a beach, where land, sea and sky intersect. As another Tiwi, Valerian Munkara remarked, the poster image ‘gives me memories, it reminds us of our mothers’.
Updated and approved August 2016.

The experience of being on Aboriginal land, in Tikilaru country … gave me a greater understanding of the significance of landscape, and of Australian landscape. Marie McMahon

Marie McMahon

– About the artist

Born 1953 Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Lives and works Sydney.


Marie McMahon’s work has touched on social, political and environmental subjects. She has lived in the Northern Territory, and a number of her exhibitions were concerned with its natural environment, specific sites, flora, social significance and cultural history.

McMahon grew up on Air Force bases in Darwin, at Richmond near Sydney, and at Albatross, a naval base on the South Coast of New South Wales. During the 1960s her family lived in the Philippines and eventually settled in Sydney. She joined the Earthworks Poster Collective at the Tin Sheds Art Workshop, University of Sydney, in 1976 and contributed to a catalogue of posters that were sometimes didactic and often provocative. She was one of several screenprinters recruited by the Aboriginal Arts Board to work at Tiwi Designs in the Northern Territory, where she went in 1980.

During the 1980s McMahon worked as a designer at Redback Graphix in Wollongong and Sydney, where a number of collaborative and cross-cultural print projects were realised, including the poster ‘You are on Aboriginal land’ and the Australian Government’s health promotion ‘Beat the grog’ and ‘Condoman’ AIDS awareness campaign, developed in collaboration with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers. McMahon worked in the Tiwi Islands from 1988, living at Batchelor south of Darwin until 1996, and from 2000 to 2001 at Gunbalanya, Arnhem Land, where she produced a series of collages interpreting the landscapes around her. Her most recent works, from 2009–10, have dealt with political conflict in Indochina and Cambodia.

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