Colonial Ruin in the Flinders Ranges

The Flinders Ranges are one of South Australia’s most significant landforms, and a major tourist destination. The Adnyamathanha people and their ancestors have been the traditional owners and custodians of these ranges for over 50,000 years. A vast area comprising mountain ranges formed from sedimentary crusts that are millions of years old, the Flinders  were also the site of significant activity during colonial incursion, the ruins of which now litter the region.

The UNSETTLED exhibition is about re-thinking colonial ruin in the Flinders Ranges via a critical engagement with the collection of the State Library of South Australia (SLSA),  relating the sedimentary strata of the Flinders Ranges to the layers of the colonial archive. Using a mixture of media art, archival imagery and documentary interviews, the exhibition seeks to move beyond the nostalgia typical of settler-colonial representations, questioning the stories we tell ourselves about Australia’s past.

UNSETTLED has been produced by Grayson Cooke and Dea Morgain in partnership with the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association and the State Library of South Australia. UNSETTLED is on exhibition at the State Library of South Australia in Adelaide, between 24th March – 14th May 2017.

Project Description

Colonial settlement of the Flinders began in the mid-19th century. The ghost town of Beltana epitomises the pattern: forged out of copper mining, farming, the railroad and the telegraph, the town represents a “perfect storm” of colonial modernity in Australia. Its demise in the mid-20th century was likewise a function of the same forces; the water dried up, the copper mines closed, the telegraph became obsolete, the railroad was diverted.

Today the Flinders are littered with colonial ruins, many now important tourist sites in terms of Australia’s settler-colonial heritage. Ruins are rich sites of material memory, they offer insight into the passage of time and the conflictual forces involved in the coming of modernity. As a “colonial ruin,” the Flinders offers the opportunity to re-think Australian history and move beyond the nostalgia typical of settler-colonial representations, unearthing stories frequently obscured by colonial rubble – the stories, for instance, of the Adnyamathanha people upon whose lands the colonial ruins stand.

Nepabunna Mission 1937

One of the major elements of UNSETTLED is a series of portraits of Adnyamathanha people living at the Nepabunna Mission in the 1930s. Many of the photographs have not been exhibited publicly for years. The images are part of the SLSA’s Mountford-Sheard Collection which is recognised as internationally significant by the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

L to R: Pearl McKenzie, John McKenzie, Susie Wilton, Jack Coulthard. Images courtesy State Library of South Australia and the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association.

The exhibition contains 29 images of Adnyamathanha people taken at the Nepabunna Mission by anthropologist Charles Mountford in 1937. By this time, Adnyamathanha people had been working in the pastoral industry for over 50 years, despite decades of dispossession from traditional lands. Pragmatic and entrepreneurial, by many accounts the Adnyamathanha were pivotal to the development of the pastoral industry, providing  transport, droving and station work across the Flinders and surrounding areas.

These photos give insight into the living history of the Flinders Ranges; they document a period of immense significance in terms of the cultural and economic life of the region, and open to a broader history that surpasses modern memory by many orders of magnitude. And through filmed interviews with descendants of the people in the photographs, made available in the exhibition through an interactive display, this project aims to give a new life to the archive, letting the images “speak” through the recollections of their descendants.

Other Exhibition Components

The UNSETTLED exhibition also features a number of photographic and video works exploring the landscapes of the Flinders Ranges and the concept of colonial ruin.

“What Time Collects” is a photographic work consisting of 1400 macro-photographs taken in the Flinders Ranges over a three year period. The work explores the idea of landscape as an archive – a sedimentary record of geology, flora and fauna, and human activity.

As an archive, the landscape of the Flinders Ranges serves as a keeper of memories – of the colossal forces of compaction and uplift which have shaped the ridges and gorges, of ice ages and megafauna, of an eternity of Adnyamathanha cultural life, and more recently, of the dramatic changes wrought on the region at the colonial frontier.

Each object depicted here, no matter how small or transient, tells part of this story; a story that is extraordinary and vast and that tells us so much more than the settler-colonial version of Australian history.

“Beltana No Western” manifests one of the key aspects of this project’s critical perspective: a process in which SLSA images of Beltana are digitized and transferred back to film, then exposed to corrosive chemicals that melt the image away.  This process results in a reflection on the ruin in its very materiality; a ruin of the image that corresponds both to colonial ruins and the ruin colonialism can bring. “Beltana No Western” explores this idea across video works and still images; in the Institute Gallery, on the Story Wall night-time architectural projection, and on the 6-screen videowall in the Spence Foyer Library.

Knowledge of the past is stored, accessed and remembered in many different ways. But beyond the question of access to the past, the guiding principle  for the UNSETTLED exhibition as a whole is that engaging the past in conversation – no matter how awkward – is vital if we are to imagine different futures.


The project has been profiled in a range of online and broadcast media:

Credits and Acknowledgements

creative_partnerships_australiaThrough their MATCH 2016 funding grant, this project receives funds from Creative Partnerships Australia through the Australian Cultural Fund. It was produced with the support of the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Southern Cross University.

Pauline McKenzie, Beverley Patterson, Terrence Coulthard, Uncle Mick Coulthard, Auntie Gladys Wilton, Uncle Mark McKenzie, Peggy Brock, Bob Ellis, Glenys Aird, Cait Wait

All music composed and performed by Mike Cooper

Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association
State Library of South Australia

Creative Partnerships Australia
Australian Cultural Fund
Southern Cross University: School of Arts and Social Sciences; School of Environment, Science and Engineering
Excerpts from records held by the State Records of South Australia and the State Library of Victoria have also been used in the project.

Dea Morgain and Grayson Cooke would like to express their enormous thanks to the project participants, partner organisations, crowdfunding donors and everyone else who has given their time, expertise and support to the project.

Instagram Feed

Follow us on Instagram and view some of the incredible images arising from the project in our Instagram feed below.