Our discussion of the design of the first decimal currency bank notes in Australia included the irony of having the ‘architect’ Francis Greenway, a convicted forger, on the new $2 note in 1966.
This prompted questions about other architects on bank notes. Alvar Aalto is on the 50 Finnish Markka; Le Corbusier was on the 10 Swiss Franc (until withdrawn over concerns about his affinity with fascism and collaboration with the Vichy government); Thomas Jefferson is on the US$2 note (now sadly declining in circulation); and Ben Franklin, inventor statesman and designer, adorns the US$100.
Franklin’s inclusion here begs the question - are there any other designers (as opposed to architects) on any bank note worldwide? Indeed, there is: David Unaipon is on the current Australian $50 note.
David Who? you might say, even though you’ve seen him a thousand times as he is on the obverse (main face) of the most commonly dispensed bank note, with 900 million in circulation. David Unaipon, full indigenous name Ngunaitponi. A most extraordinary man: an early Aboriginal political activist, a preacher, a writer, a scientist, and crucially for us: a brilliant inventor and designer.
Unaipon was the fourth of nine children of James and Nymbulda Ngunaitponi, reduced to Unaipon. He was born in 1872 at the Point McLeay Mission on the banks of Lake Alexandrina in the Coorong region of South Australia. His father was the first aboriginal deacon and he was schooled in Point McLeay from the age of seven to 13 when he left to work as a servant in Adelaide, trained as a bootmaker but couldn’t get work, took a job as a storeman there, and then returned home as a bookkeeper and mission organist.
From an early age he demonstrated an interest in literature, philosophy, science and music but also experienced discrimination as his colour was a bar to him being employed in his trade, and later in life was many times refused accommodation. Ever curious from the early 1900’s he started a lifelong interest in inventing. In 1910 he was awarded a provisional patent for a device which he developed into the modern-day mechanical sheep shears.
He continued a lifelong desire to try and find a perpetual motion machine, was a well-recognized authority on ballistics, drew designs for a helicopter based on the principle of the boomerang and researched the polarization of light. Most of his life he never received any financial return for his inventions and little contemporary credit.
His other career, as a writer, grew out his attempts to bridge Christian spirituality, in his work as a preacher, and his belief in and championing of Aboriginal rights. Employed by the Aborigines’ Friends’ Association he travelled widely and developed considerable skill as a public speaker, then as a writer, particularly of traditional Aboriginal legends. He wrote authoritatively for newspapers and magazines, including the Sydney Daily Telegraph.
In the 1920s, under contract to the University of Adelaide he was commissioned to collect traditional Aboriginal stories from around South Australia, and he was the first Aboriginal author to be published in a series of three small books, mostly gathered from his own people, now gathered together in as The Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, although second hand copies of the 2001 edition are around $2,000! Perhaps it's time for a republishing by Magabala books, publishers of Dark Emu.
He was involved in political issues surrounding Aboriginal affairs, was a passionate supporter of Aboriginal self-determination, was a key researcher and witness in the Bleakly Inquiry into Aboriginal Welfare and lobbied the Federal Government to take over responsibility for aboriginals from the various States. He clashed with other Aboriginal leaders, including William Cooper, arguing that their protests on the a 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet (now Australia Day) as a day of mourning would only create a negative public opinion of aboriginals.
Unaipon returned in his old age to Point McLeay Mission and continued to work on inventions and his writing. He was only celebrated towards the end of his life, being awarded the Coronation Medal in 1953 and the Patricia Weikhardt Award for Aboriginal writers after his death.
Australia has now come to appreciate his extraordinary gifts in a number of ways; a street in the Canberra in the suburb of Ngunnawal is named after him as is a College of Indigenous Education and Research at the University of South Australia. There is a David Unaipon Literary Award and the Bangarra dance theatre created an interpretive dance based on his life.
But not least is his appearance on the $50 note, with his design drawings and some words written in his own hand “as a full blooded member of my race I think I may claim to be the first - but I hope not the last - to produce an enduring record of our customs beliefs and imaginings”, (including a correction to the last word).
On the left of the $50 note are images of a Church which indicates two sides of indigenous life. Point McLeay Mission was created in 1859, became an Aboriginal reserve in 1916 and was handed back to the Ngarrindjeri people in 1974, and in 1982 renamed as Raukkan, meaning meeting place in the local language. In 1890 Aboriginal men and women of Point McLeay Mission were granted the vote for state and federal elections; during world war one indigenous mission men were amongst the first Aboriginal men to enlist.
In becoming an Aboriginal reserve, the Mission was passed over to South Australia's Chief Protector of Aborigines, and the government became guardian of all Aboriginal children over 10 years, forcibly removing them from their families creating part of the stolen generations. The Mission had special mention in the Bringing Them Home Report of 1997.
Lastly a coda continuing our interest in Marn Grook, the indigenous precursor to today's footy. Born 10 years before David Unaipon at the Mission was Harry Hewitt, an extraordinary sportsman equal in his field to Unaipon’s exploits, and equally a champion for aboriginal rights. He had a batting average over a 130 in the local cricket club, and an extended career in Australian rules, including playing in an exhibition game between Port Adelaide and the VFA Fitzroy club at Adelaide in August 1891.
Hewitt played an important role in ‘Port’ winning by 2 goals, for the club that went on to win more championships than any other in Australia. Which leads to the current stoush between Port Adelaide (president media personality David Koch) and Collingwood (president media personality Eddie McGuire) over who gets to wear the ‘prison bar’ jersey of vertical white and black bars.
Port argues that, as the older club, their original Jersey should prevail. Collingwood demurs. We are not afraid to pick sides as readers will know (here), having been criticised for pointing out the endemic racism at Collingwood, and this before the revival of the Heritier Lumumba allegations. If there was any justice in this world Collingwood would be the club commissioning a designer for a new strip. Any takers? Maybe ‘All White’ (with a coloured stripe down the back)?
plus 1 / plus one / +one is a collective of designers and artists promoting sustainability and Australian design. You can contact +one at [email protected].