Lesley Murray’s Black Soldier is a commemorative work which has both personal and public resonance. A heartfelt tribute to the artist’s grandfather, the work has also assumed broader significance as a symbol of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ role in the Australian Defence Force, as well as in the early frontier wars.
Presenting the archetypal image of the Australian Digger in full uniform and slouch hat, the words ‘Black Soldier’ underscore how Indigenous military service has been marked by patterns of anonymity and under-recognition.
While Indigenous servicemen often experienced a sense of equality and camaraderie among the troops at war, they did not receive the same recognition and support as their counterparts upon their return.
Alice Springs, December 1942. (Source: Australian War Memorial).
As Leslie Murray noted when exhibiting the work in 2001, it was in recent decades that “the RSL and the Australian Government came to recognise the efforts and sacrifices made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”
Indigenous servicemen’s names were excluded from Australian War Memorials and unlike non-Aboriginal veterans, they were not given land once back in Australia. Murray’s own grandfather, promoted to Lance Corporal during the Second World War, only received his medal in 1989.
Black Soldier forms part of a series of linocut prints celebrating the life of her grandfather William Murray. While the works hold great personal meaning for Murray, having helped her grieve his death in 1994, she also intended to make a broader statement about Aboriginal experience and their role in defending Australia over the years.
Many fought and lost their lives fighting in alien lands, for not only their country, but in the hope of making their situation in Australia better for their families.
Hear more about Lesley Murray’s ‘Grandfather series’ in this AGWA TV interview: