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Numismatics, Australian two-dollar coin, and Aboriginal identity

Abstract: This paper examines the socio-anthropological implications of the silhouette on the obverse of the Australian two-dollar coin on Aboriginal identity. The author posits that this imagery stereotypes Aboriginal Australians as unkempt, and that it should be changed in order to project a more positive image of Aboriginal Australians.

This paper addresses the “native” Aboriginal Australian silhouette image on Australia’s $2 coin currently in distribution and how it aids in perpetuating a negative ethnic stereotype. The projection of the mythical Indigenous Australian on the $2 coin appears to be not only negative, but also a form of metaphorical exemplification – the authors’ observations revealed that deviation from this “native” stereotype by Aboriginal Australians is subconsciously perceived as deviant, especially by tourists visiting Australia.

Numismatics may be defined as the science of money, coins and notes, in its physical aspects. A coin may be defined as a piece of metal of defined weight stamped with a symbol of authority for financial transaction (Gierson, 1954). The discipline of numismatics is only indirectly connected with the theory of money, which belongs to the sphere of economics. Whereas the theory of money addresses issues such as monetary policy and interest rates (Stemp and Murphy, 1970), numismatics, like painting and sculpture, represent a form of the visual arts. The visual arts are commonly characterised by beauty, skill, superiority, elegance and an absence of utilitarian value (Walker, 1983). In spite of the cultural dominance of the mass media from the late 20th century on one hand, and the gradual evolution towards a ‘cashless’ society on the other, the discipline of numismatics continues to provide invaluable contributions to ecclesiastical, economic, artistic and political history, and to sociological and anthropological studies.

Coins are reflections of history. For instance, the gradual adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire found expression in the use of the Cross and Christogram on the coins of Constantine. Also, the richness and variety of Greek coin-types, the magnificence of the Gothic art of the 14th century French coinage, as well as the splendid portraiture of Renaissance ducats and testoons are well known to lovers of historical art. The study of ancient and medieval coinage has authenticated historical events known from literature and artefacts – valuable information about ancient dynasties of Indian subcontinent were obtained mainly because of the meticulous numismatic research done in the past several centuries. Indeed, Kharoshthi and Brahmi, the ancient scripts of India (known in that era as Industan), were deciphered from bilingual coins of Indo-Greek rulers (Mahajan, 1999).

From its beginnings in the 7th century, when the coinage of precious metals began in the Persian Empire, and soon afterwards in India and China, all member-States of the United Nations presently have their respective authorised material forms of money in the form of coins and notes (Grierson, 1954). Since the right of coinage is normally a jealously guarded privilege of the State, coinage provides an indication of the political perspectives of the State itself. Such perspectives include historical information about the existence of States, their geographical and political influence, social structure, division of power and how it was exercised, and order of rulers in a dynasty (Grierson, 1951).

Aboriginal Australians have a population of about 300,000, which is about 1.5% of Australia’s 19 million population. There are about 300 communities with separate identities. The two major Indigenous groups are Aboriginal people and Torries Strait Islanders. In spite of the significant, and highly commendable, steps towards improvement of Aboriginal welfare as well as reconciliation between Aboriginal and other Australians, race relations remain a sensitive issue. From 1788, which Aboriginal people call ‘The Invasion’ and non-Aboriginal people call ‘British Settlement’, most representations of Aboriginal people have been produced and controlled by non-Aboriginal people. This representation has been largely biased and culturally prescriptive – early European settlers appeared not to appreciate positive attributes among Aboriginal people and believed in their own superiority. There was little, if any communication between these two sides about culture, language and beliefs. The land was declared terra nullis (uninhabited) and the various Aboriginal communities declared uncivilised (Bourke C, Bourke E and Edwards, 1994).

Museums and Aboriginal resource centres currently house diaries and writings of early arrivals, social anthropologists like Malinowski, official documents, paintings, stamps, education and school textbooks which facilitated the construction of a racialized Aboriginal identity and supported the early representations of the ‘noble savage’ image which was used to represent Aboriginal Australians to the rest of the world. While concerted efforts are currently being made to correct these misconceptions, particularly with regards to Australian school textbooks, an important vestige of the racialized attitudes of early colonial Australia continues to be propagated world wide through the Aboriginal image on the current Australian $2 coin.

Money is a highly mobile medium, which because it cannot be consumed, move continuously in exchange. Since individuals are compelled to circulate money, they have a sociological significance among numismatics as well as in everyday use, particularly in traditional societies – in Melanesia, Indigenous currencies, such as pearlshells and their “procreative metaphor”, are important in social relationships, which are often constituted through exchange. Apart from its exchange uses, these Indigenous currencies have strong aesthetic meanings, and are commonly made into body adornments (Akin and Robbins, 1999).

In contemporary era, the “politically correct” depiction of people, places and things constitute a very important function of currencies. Modern nations, big and small, use the illustrations on coins to project Heads of State, national heroes, heritage sites and treasured flora and fauna. In Australia, for example, the illustration of the British Monarch (and Australia’s Head of State) features prominently on all Australian coins. Also, Australia’s cricket icon, late Sir Donald Bradman, was honoured by the Commonwealth government by having his silhouette (in full cricket gear) on the obverse of all Australian 20-cent coins minted in 2001. The depiction of individuals, as well as animate and inanimate objects on any nation’s currency invariably represent the political perception of such individuals and/or objects by the nation in question.

Unlike the individual portraits of Queen Elizabeth or Sir Donald Bradman on other Australian coins, the Aboriginal silhouette on the $A2 coin, introduced in 1988 to mark the bicentenary of Australia’s ‘settlement’ as well as to “restore to Australian currency a recognition of Australia’s Aboriginal heritage” (Schmarr, 1999), represents a generic or mythic image. This article draws on theories from numismatics and social anthropology to provide an explanation for the retention of this particular Aboriginal portrait on current $A2 coins.

Numismatic and anthropological implications of the current Australian $2 coin


Between July and October 2000, one of the authors (NA) conducted an informal study involving 53 friends, acquaintances and work colleagues. The participants included Aboriginal Australians, Anglo-Australians, Australians of other ethnic groups, and tourists. The participants were selected in an ‘opportunistic’ manner (such as during lunch breaks or in classrooms), were presented with a $A2 coin asked to identify the silhouette on the obverse of the coin. A total of 44 respondents (83%) answered that the image was that of an Aboriginal Australian.

All 53 respondents were then subsequently asked, that assuming the silhouette was meant to represent an Aboriginal Australian, whether or not this depiction of Aboriginal Australians was appropriate. Six respondents stated that the Aboriginal silhouette was inappropriate in the sense that it painted a negative stereotype of indigenous Australians. The remaining 47 respondents opined that this depiction was appropriate, for the following reasons (some respondents stated more than one reason):

q As the silhouette is untitled, it could have been that of any elderly Australian, black or white – an interpretation of the silhouette as that of an Aboriginal person is thus the stereotype of the interpreter, not necessarily that of the Australian Minting Company

q The silhouette projects an accurate depiction of a ‘typical’ Aboriginal elder in rural Australia

q The silhouette is an acknowledgement of the natural, adorable bodies of Aboriginal men

q The projection of real images of deceased Indigenous people is objectionable in Aboriginal culture, hence the use of a generic image, and

q The silhouette is that of a famous deceased Aboriginal artist (Albert Namatjira) who lived in rural Australia between 1902 and 1959.

The above opinions, in our view, do not provide sufficient justification for the retention of this portrait. First, The silhouette has features, such as ‘flat nose’, which Australian-based Anthropologists used to distinguish the so-called ‘Australoid race’ in the 19th and early 20th centuries (Erlich and Feldman, 1977). The depiction of the Southern Cross and native grass trees (Xanthorrhoea, or Speargrass tree) in the background, as well as the timing of its release to coincide with the bicentenary of Australia’s Federation, leaves one with little doubt as to which race is being depicted. Commenting sarcastically on this silhouette in a public lecture in 1993, a renowned anthropologist, Dr. von Sturmer, stated: “he looks beyond, lips slightly parted, a look somwwhat wide-eyed and frightened, taken aback even – blackfella looks through the cash economy or over the top of the Arabic numeral to his botanical counterpart: the blackboy or speargrass tree, primitive exotic, threatened” (Sturmer, 1995). Thus, the silhouette is undoubtedly a less than flattering typology of an Aboriginal Australian.

Second, how does one conceptualise who a ‘typical’ Aboriginal Australian is? In social anthropology, the “essentialisation” of individuals and groups – in this context, ethnicity – has been a main preoccupation since the 1960s. Social anthropology facilitates the investigation of ways in which ethnic relations are defined and perceived by people, how they think of their own groups and other groups, and how particular world views are maintained and contested. Social anthropologists generally agree that the social construction of identities is an ongoing process of assertion, imposition and negotiation between actors and institutions with different capacities to make their accounts and categorisations “count” or “stick”, and with different capacities to control the flow of information about themselves and others (Jenkins, 1996). With regards to Aboriginal Australians, a paradox exists in the sense that whereas Australian governments, especially from 1951 to the mid-1970s, implemented an official “Assimilation Policy” to eliminate any sense of Aboriginal identity (Australian Department of Territories, 1958), leading to extensive interbreeding between Aboriginal Australians and other races, many Australians still regard ‘non mixed-race’ Aboriginal Australians as the ‘true’ Indigenous people. Ironically, the “Assimilation Policy” has effectively ensured that ‘non mixed race’ cohort of Aboriginal Australians constitute a tiny minority of Australians that identify themselves as Aboriginal. Thus, precisely because of the “Assimilation Policy”, it makes no sense to talk about a ‘typical’ Aboriginal Australian.

Third, body image, i.e. one’s concept of her/his physical appearance, is not just an aberration of modern Western culture. Every period in history has had its own standards of what is and is not beautiful, and every contemporary society has had its own distinctive concepts of ideal physical attributes (Dutton, 1995). No thanks to the mass media, irrational preoccupation with Body Image has intensified over the past five decades (Shilling, 1993). Thus, while the concept of Boby Image, like Race, makes little biological sense, it has a strong sociological importance.

In our view, and as alluded to by Sturmer, the image depicted on the obverse of this coin is that of an unkempt (? and naked), and depressed-looking Aboriginal Australian. Such a depiction does not fit in with the concept of an adorable Body Image in contemporary Australian society. While we have nothing against being bearded, hairiness is not a common Negroid (or Aboriginal) trait (Erlich and Feldman, 1977). Interestingly, there is a gendered stereotype associated with the bearded portrait depicted in the silhouette. In a document detailing Governor Philip’s expedition in 1791, it was recorded that “…Men’s beards were kept at reasonable length by singeing. This must have been an unpleasant operation because, after European contact, they were happy to accept the offer of a shave” (Turbet , 1989). Thus, rather than being an acknowledgement of the adorable bodies of Aboriginal Australians, the Aboriginal silhouette comes across as ‘natural’, in the pejorative sense of the word, in contrast with Queen Elizabeth’s silhouette, on the same coin, which was depicted as ‘civilized’. Furthermore, whereas Queen Elizabeth’s silhouette is updated regularly to enable the coin to reflect her graceful ageing, the Aboriginal silhouette has remained ‘frozen’ since its introduction in 1988.

Mainstream Australia is undoubtedly sensitive to how individuals are projected on national currencies – a front-page comment in the Sydney Morning Herald on 18 December 2000 complained about ‘sombre faces staring balefully’ from the Federation $5 note. We are surprised that no mention was made of the equally sombre, but unnamed, silhouette on the $2 coin. If this bearded Body Image was regarded by Australian numismatics officials as adorable, why is it that this imagery has never been used in any official Aboriginal or Commonwealth function since its introduction 13 years ago? Why does Quantas (Australian national airlines) use a pretty, smiling Aboriginal girl for their advertisements, instead of the bearded silhouette on the $A2 coin?

Fourth, a major reason why Aboriginal Australians object to the depiction of real images of deceased individuals is that, from European settlement until the mid-20th century, living Australians were captured taken to the United Kingdom and exhibited in circuses as sub-human beings. Also, their remains were exhibited in British museums, following meticulous post-mortem analysis in order to establish links between their anatomy and those of animals, thus reinforcing the colonial positioning of Aboriginal Australians as primitive and wildlife. It is mainly because of such dehumanising and offensive practices that Aboriginal Australians became opposed to the depiction of images of deceased individuals (Poignant, 1997). Thus, it is the patronising and dehumanising depiction of Aboriginal Australians that is regarded as offensive.

It is therefore very unlikely that projection of real individual Aboriginal images, instead of the generic image on the $A2 coin, would be culturally offensive to Aboriginal Australians – Cathy Freeman (the outstanding Aboriginal athlete’s) real life image is being used in several Australian commercials without any protest. We have no doubt that representatives of Aboriginal communities would accede to a request to use the portrait of an illustrious Aboriginal Australian on National currencies. Unfortunately, such requests are hardly made by Australian government agencies. For example, the customary owners of the Morning Star ceremony in Western Arnhemland were deeply offended by the unauthorised production of a Morning Star sacred object on the current ten-dollar note. Negotiations eventually resulted in an out-of-court settlement (Kit, 1995).

Finally, if the silhouette is that of Albert Namatjira, why wasn’t he named, as is the case with individual portraits on other Australian currencies? In our opinion, if image depicted is that of Namatjira, then it underscores its projection of a negative stereotype of Indigenous Australians. Elae Namatijira adopted the name Albert when his parents converted to Christianity. He was undoubtedly a very talented artist, a skill which played a part in his being granted Australian citizenship – the first Aboriginal Australian to be so ‘honoured’ – in 1957. In 1958, he was jailed for supplying alcohol to Aboriginal people, a charge he denied and fought up to the Supreme Court. He died shortly afterwards (National Archives of Australia, 2000). One would expect that if this highly talented artist is to be depicted on Australian currency, he should have been granted amnesty over his controversial conviction prior to such a honour.

In fact, the silhouette on the $A2 coin depicts the upper body of an Aboriginal man, Jimmy Tjungurrayi, known by European settlers half a century ago as “One Pound Jimmy”. This same depiction first appeared on an Australian stamp issued on 14 August 1950 (Neale and Sylvia, 2000).

Using the $A2 coin to positively project Aboriginal identity – a suggestion

From a numismatic perspective, the depictions of images of individuals on currencies does not only represent such individuals, it expresses something about such individuals, and it is its dual role, as representation and expression, which we believe have not served Aboriginal Australians well with respect to the $A2 coin. The metaphorical exemplification implicit in the current Australian $2 coin suggests a racialized national identity of Aboriginal Australians which is deeply rooted in the history of colonization.

Unlike ‘racist’ notions, a racialization framework enable us to fully examine the ways in which structures, images and ideologies operate to sustain inequality in its many facets, such as how ‘significant others’ categorise individuals and groups, and distribute resources and penalties accordingly (Torries, Miron and Inda, 1999). Sociologists generally agree that Identity is constructed in the ongoing intersection of similarity and difference, between actors and institutions with different capacities to control the flow of information about themselves and others (Jenkins, 1996). With regards to the depiction on the obverse of the Australian $2 coin, the construction of Aboriginal identity is, in our view, a (sub-conscious) racialized imposition by the predominantly Anglo-Saxon majority.

To suggest that what Aboriginal Australians need is only improved welfare, and not how they are depicted on Australia’s national currency, is to miss the point. How individuals and groups are depicted in national currencies, as well as on medals and in artworks, indicate how the political elite in that country views such individuals, and how they want the rest of the world to perceive such groups of people. For instance, until the late 19th and early 20th century, the images of African Americans popularised in art in the United States were largely derogatory. It took the likes of women artists like Laura Wheeler and Howard Jackson to challenge the existing canon through the creation of a new visual language, the vocabulary of which expressed a sense of racial pride and consciousness (Britton, 1996). Similar negative images of Blacks were well documented in 18th century English Art, with ‘token blacks’ depicted in paintings in ways that made them look inferior to whites (Dabydeen, 1987).

It is regrettable that the Reserve Bank of Australia chose an image that was initially used negatively to metaphorically exemplify Aboriginal Australians in the early part of the 20th century for use on a contemporary Australian currency. It is surprising that, compared with concern regarding issues such as the unauthorised use of Aboriginal works of Art by other agencies (Kit, 1995), there has been little written in popular or scientific press about the $2 coin, either by Indigenous Australians or non-Indigenous Australians. This apparent indifference may be partly attributed to the overwhelmingly utilitarian value of money in Western societies like Australia – one female Aboriginal participant in the study detailed above stated that “money travels too rapidly in and out of my pocket for me to notice such details”!). Nevertheless, given the changed perception of Australians to whom our point of view has been put, we believe that a change in the silhouette on the observe of the Australian $2 coin is warranted and long overdue. We were unpleasantly surprised that the recent redesign of some Australian coins, mainly on cosmetic grounds (Daily Telegraph, 28 May 2000, page 2), did not include the $2 coin. If, as the Daily Telegraph report indicated, the Royal Australian Mint is sensitive to relatively mundane issues like the size, shape and weight of some Australian coins, the change of the silhouette on the $2 coin, to project a more positive image of Aboriginal Australians is long overdue.

We suggest that a formal request for the nomination of an alternative silhouette should be forwarded to the Aboriginal and Torries Strait Island Commission. A silhouette such as that of Olympic Gold Medallist Cathy Freeman, who is identified with and recognised by most Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, would project a more honourable, realistic and contemporary identity of Aboriginal Australians.

Works Cited

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Australian Department of Territories. Assimilation of our Aborigines, Canberra, Government Printer, 1958.

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About the Authors:

Niyi Awofeso ( (B.Sc., MbChB, MPH, MBA) is a Nigerian-born Australian citizen and public health researcher. He has published extensively on leprosy, tuberculosis, prison health and tobacco. He is studying towards a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Health Administration at the University of New South Wales, Australia. His more mundane avocation includes coin collecting.

Sue Green (BSW (Hons)) is a Wiradjuri (Aboriginal Australian) woman. She is currently the Acting Director and lecturer at the Aboriginal Research and Resource Centre at the University of New South Wales. She lectures in Aboriginal Studies, Australian Studies, Cultural Studies and Sociology. She is enrolled in a Doctor of Philosophy in Australian Studies, researching the delivery of welfare to and by Aboriginal people in New South Wales. As well she is the current holder of the New South Wales Premier’s Indigenous History Fellowship. She has undertaken a variety of research projects and published a variety of articles of interested to Aboriginal people and communities. She is deeply committed to social justice and equity and is therefore involved in a number of Aboriginal and refugee issues.

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