Public Art Around The World

More Than Just The Plaque

Yagan Statue

Yagan Statue

Public Art : Yagan Statue

Sculptor : © Robert Hitchcock

Date Unveiled : The Yagan statue was officially unveiled by Yagan Committee chairperson Elizabeth Hanson, on 11th September 1984.

Yagan Statue

Description : A naked life size bronze of Aboriginal warrior Yagan, resting a spear across the back of his shoulders. It is quite evident that the head of Yagan is not the original one (rather oversized, has a far too long a neck and is an altogether different shade). I must say that because the statue’s head has been stolen twice (and given the way Yagan died), the sculpture now takes on a strange and ironic overtone.

Location : All on its lonesome (with the exception of a few roos) on Heirisson Island, Perth Western Australia. You have to go on foot across the causeway bridge to find him and he isn’t easy to spot, so be wide eyed and bushy tailed. From the entrance gate of Heirisson Island it is a fair hike to find the statue.

Who was Yagan ? : Yagan (c.1795-1833) was an Aboriginal Leader of the Nyungar (Noongar) people in Western Australia. In 1829,when Captain James Stirling established a colony on the Swan River, he proclaimed the Nyungar people British subjects, giving them little choice but to accept the decision.

Yagan Statue

Over the following years, Yagan, who was keen to know more about the new arrivals, learnt to speak basic English and often conversed with influential settlers about the inequality and injustice placed on his people. The Nyungar people struggled with the settlers taking over their hunting grounds and fencing off important areas such as the river. The result was that the Aboriginals began to steal the settlers food and kill livestock, which the settlers weren’t too happy about (especially as many were struggling for their own survival).

In the pursuing years Yagan found himself in trouble with the law and in 1832 was sentenced to exile on the uninhabited, Carnac Island. Yagan had other ideas about his sentencing and it wasn’t long before he had escaped off the island.

In 1833 Yagan was amongst three Aboriginal Tribal leaders who were declared outlaws when two white servants were speared on the Canning River. A bounty of £30 was put on his head.

On July 11, 1833 Yagan was shot and killed by brothers, William and James Keats, while they shared a meal together. Nineteen year old William Keats who fired the gun was killed by Yagan’s friends whilst James escaped via the river. Yagan’s head was later cut off by soldiers and preserved by smoking it in a hollow tree stump for several months.The rest of his body was buried near where he was killed in Belhus (near Guildford).
Eventually Yagan’s head was sent to London where it was exhibited at various museums before being buried at Everton Cemetery. That was until a group of Aboriginal Elders, led by Ken Colbung, located Yagan’s burial site and demanded Yagan’s remains to be returned to his homeland. In 1997 Yagan’s head finally returned home. To this date the head has not been buried, as all efforts have failed to locate the body of Yagan.

History of the Yagan Statue : During the mid 1970’s the Noongar community lobbied for a statue to be created as part of the 1979 sesquicentennial celebrations (150 years) in Western Australia. Of course the mere suggestion of having a statue of Yagan erected in Perth was going to raise a storm of controversy. However I would have thought the embarrassment alone, due to the appalling treatment of the Aboriginal leader, would have been enough to make the government agree. After being advised by a local historian that Yagan was not important enough, the then Premier of Western Australia, Sir Charles Court, denied the request (ouch!). Not to be put off, the Noongar community set up a Yagan committee and began fund raising themselves.They eventually raised enough money to commission local artist and sculptor Robert Hitchcock to design a statue.

Inscription :

In Commemoration of
Tragically Killed July 1833
Erected by the Yagan Committee
Mrs E.M. Hansen Mr H.P. Hansen
Mrs L.J. Hume Mr S.P. Hume
Mrs R. Pell Mr K. Colbung
Mr L. Hill
With Assistance From W.A. Labour Government
Officially opened by Mrs Elizabeth Hansen M.B.E.
11th September, 1984
Sculptor : Robert Hitchcock

Controversy Controversy Controversy : In 1997, following the return of Yagan’s head from England, vandals armed with an angle grinder, removed the head from the statue and took it. A new head was later placed back on the statue and that too was hacked off and stolen. To this day the police are still none the wiser as to who or whom the culprits were or where the two bronze heads are. This seems all the more surprising, considering the  building with the best view of the island is the Police Headquarters !. You would have thought someone would have seen the sparks a flying under the cover of night. An unknown “British Loyalist” has several times laid claim to the act, saying it was done in retaliation for comments made by Ken Colbung about the death of Princess Diana (who died on the same day as the handing over ceremony). Colbung later said that his comment  “Because the Poms did the wrong thing they have to suffer. They have to learn too, to live with it as we did and that is how nature goes.” was taken out of context.

Too Nude Too Rude : In 2002 Janet Woollard (Member of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly) requested that Yagan’s exposed private parts be covered up. The request fell on deaf ears. Three years later Richard Wilkes also called for Yagan to be covered up, his agrument being that such a depiction would be more historically accurate as Yagan would have worn a covering for most of the year. No action has yet been taken.

Tidbits : There are rumours that a new Yagan statue is in the pipeline which will depict a more lifelike warrior now that they can forensically reconstruct Yagan’s head.

The Worst of Perth blog describes the most recently attached head of Yagan as looking “a lot like Ridge Forrester from The Bold and the Beautiful”.

Believe it or not a short film called Confessions of a Headhunter was inspired by the statue head hacking incidents on Yagan.

Yagan isn’t the only memorial to lose it’s head, the Maitland Brown Memorial also had an over zealous protestor take to it with a chisel.

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