Private Samuel Fejo: Expressions - Commemoration through Art

Private Samuel Fejo: Expressions - Commemoration through Art cover

A printable activity sheet to help develop students' understanding of wartime artworks. Arthur Murch, an Australian official war artist in World War II, painted this portrait in 1942. The soldier in the portrait is Private Samuel Fejo. He served in the Fixed Defences Citizen Military Forces in Darwin. Fejo was one of several First Australians who served in Darwin's Fortress Command. Arthur Murch's painting of Fejo is an important record of First Australians who served in World War II. Use the background text and inquiry questions to encourage student research and learning in relation to Indigenous service in Australia's military history.

Series: Expressions - Commemoration through Art
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Indigenous Australians experienced discrimination and racial prejudice before the Second World War. Despite this, around 3000 men and women served in Australia and overseas during the war. Some lost their lives or were wounded, while others became prisoners of war (POWs). Indigenous Australians served in the Royal Australian Navy, the Australian Army and the Royal Australian Air Force. Many found that discrimination and prejudice were not part of their military service. In Northern Australia, Indigenous people formed militia units to defend the coastline from Japanese forces.

Their skills in the bush and their knowledge of their traditional lands were valuable assets. They combined these skills with military training. Their service was an important part of Australia’s defence. Many Indigenous Australians experienced more discrimination and prejudice after their war service. It would be some time before they had more equality and better recognition of their service.

Arthur Murch was an official Australian war artist in the Second World War. He was an experienced artist by the time the war started. He spent time in the Northern Territory in 1942. During that time he recorded the activities of the Australian military forces there. He set out to capture the daily lives of soldiers working for the defence of Australia. His artworks show the ordinary duties of soldiers in that setting.

Private Samuel Fejo was painted by Arthur Murch in 1942. It shows Private Fejo, an Indigenous serviceman, in his uniform. Private Fejo was a gunner in the Fixed Defences Citizen Military Forces in Darwin. He was one of about six Aboriginal men attached to Fortress Command at the time. These men were called the 'Darwin Black Watch'.

Private Samuel Fejo, by Arthur Murch, 1942: oil on canvas on hardboard, 57 x 43 cm. Private Fejo was a gunner in the Fixed Defences Citizens Military Forces in Darwin during World War II. He was also an Aboriginal member of the Militia. The official war artist Arthur Murch noted that Private Fejo was one of about six Aboriginal men attached to Fortress Command in Darwin. These men were known as the "Darwin Black Watch". AWM ART29415

Inquiry questions

  1. Look carefully at the painting and describe what you see. Include all the details of the painting, even if you think they might not be significant. Keep in mind what you don’t see in the painting, as often things left out can be as important as things that are visible.
  2. Is the painting a primary or secondary source of historical information? What does the painting tell us about Private Fejo? Look at the expression on his face. What might he have been thinking about at the time?
  3. Private Fejo and the other Aboriginal men in Fortress Command were called the 'Darwin Black Watch'. The original 'Black Watch' is a Scottish regiment first formed in 1739. It has a long and distinguished history of military service. Research the origins of the name. How might the Aboriginal men have felt about being called the 'Darwin Black Watch'?
  4. How would the traditional bush skills and knowledge of Indigenous people like Private Fejo have been useful in defending Northern Australia? What would the Indigenous soldiers have been able to do that non-Indigenous soldiers couldn’t do? Look at Indigenous service for more information.
  5. Arthur Murch’s painting of Private Fejo was done in a traditional European style. How does that influence the way we see Private Fejo? What effect might the painting style have in relation to Private Fejo being an Aboriginal man? Was Arthur Murch trying to focus upon Private Fejo as an Aboriginal man or as a member of Australia’s armed forces? Compare Arthur Murch’s painting to Black soldier by Lesley Murray Black soldier. How do the artworks compare in relation to representing Indigenous people in Australia’s military history?

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