11 December 2011
"Australia's Muslim Cameleers: Pioneers Of The Inland 1860s-1930s" is the latest exhibit at Malaysia's Islamic Art Museum (IAMM) in Kuala Lumpur.
The exhibition, which originally toured in Australia, is a wonderful tribute to the thousands of Muslim pioneers who left their countries to help create a new one. Without their skills and extraordinary creatures (camels), it would have been even more difficult and dangerous - perhaps impossible - for Australians of all ethnic backgrounds to move inland.
The stories of Muslim explorers and pioneers provide an intriguing counterbalance to dominant white explorer legends of Central Australia.
There is a huge and varied collection of artefacts, photographs, documents and even a video which gives dimension to a group underappreciated in their time.
Among the artefacts are textiles, including prayer mats. There are weapons for protection and branding irons to keep track of the camels. There are saddles, camel bells and a camel headdress of dyed wool, touchingly decorated with white buttons and glass beads. There are objects and creatures brought back from explorations.
There are objects taken from aborigines, the bones of strange animals and even a stuffed "Fat-tailed False Antechinus" which is about the size of a mouse, looks like a possum and has a disproportionately fat tail.
There are stunning photographs, some more than a century old, of cameleers standing next to their camels, barely reaching the great animals' shoulders. Several of the photographs have been enlarged so you can step close and examine the detail, the expressions. One unusual one captures a camel being unloaded from a ship. The hapless creature hangs in mid-air from a crane and one can only imagine what it is thinking after having been ripped from the life it knew, enduring a long sea voyage and now seeing a new world several metres below it.
The visual history consists, too, of wonderful drawings and sketches. Among these is the "first published image of Ayers rock" -- with camels in the foreground.
The cameleers represented people of numerous different ethnic origins, cultures and languages, but on Australian registration forms their nationality was always designated "Afghan".
These Muslim pioneers with their camles carried people, supplies and tools into Australia's hinterland. They brought telegraph poles throughout the continent. Only camels could withstand the heat and long periods between watering holes. They might not have needed much in the form of comfort but they did need people who understood them. Young Australia needed cameleers as much as it needed camels.
The exhibition will run until 21 January 2011.
Amy de Kanter, "Tenacious Pioneers" The Star December 11, 2011
"Australia's Muslim Cameleers - Now in Kuala Lumpur" Government of South Australia October, 2011