Confront the racist crap and create real change

Becky Chatfield - Wagana DancersThree days after Australia Day, January 26,  Becky Chatfield, right, of Wagana Aboriginal Dancers in the Blue Mountains,  posted on Facebook – feeling cross . . . .  People who say things like ‘Aboriginal people should think themselves lucky, they could have been invaded by way worse people.’  Oh yeah ok thanks for pointing that out. Mass murder, rape and genocide sounds totally lucky. Chuck in a bit of dehumanising behavior, some decapitated babies and a nice big bunch of stolen children and I feel like we’ve won the lotto!

A friend responded, “People say these things!? I actually welled up from this post. I can’t handle the disrespect that is implied everyday to our mob.”

As reported on ABC Radio, a recent survey has found that the vast majority of people believe the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians is important. But it also found that a third of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had been racially abused in the six months before the survey.

Lena and Blak DouglasDiscussion at the recent artists’ talks at Fairfield City Museum and Gallery was impassioned and frequently angry. The anger was driven by decades of frustration among Aboriginal artists and their supporters that Aboriginal people and their knowledge are continually belittled or totally ignored.

Co-curator Lena Nahlous introduced the talks by explaining that her original brief for the exhibition which became Talk the Change/Change the Talk had been to respond to proposed constitutional change that would include specific reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Her initial local research revealed that the brief was seen by local Aboriginal people as simply a white bureaucratic imposition and of little interest. Instead, she became aware that there were extraordinary stories of resilient communities creating their own networks of mutual support and survival. Unlike the white and immigrant communities in the Fairfield area, their stories had never been recorded. If this were to change, she needed a strong, high profile Aboriginal artist to be her co-curator, who could pull in other leading indigenous artists.

Karla DickensMuch against his will, Blak Douglas (aka Adam Hill) finally agreed to take on the role. “I am not a trained curator,” he said, “and there is only one indigenous curator in Australia, who has the objectivity needed to see work clearly and with purpose.” Born in Blacktown, western Sydney, of an Aboriginal Australian father and white Australian mother, Blak trained in graphic arts and became a passionate advocate for social justice. In the upper photo, he listens while Lena speaks, standing below one of his preliminary works for Do or Die, a painting expressing his gamble in being an Aboriginal artist in the mainstream Australian art world. Blak describes himself as a political artist, who seeks to encourage Aboriginal youth art and culture. He is a past winner of the NSW Parliamentary Art Prize, which has brought him further recognition, but left him deeply sceptical about judges and sponsors of the prize.

He sees exposure like the Parliamentary prize as an opportunity to produce a willy willy of consciousness, but says the world hasn’t changed in 45 years of his experience. Among the works in the exhibition are Karla Dickens’ old mantel clocks, above, expressing the same desperation about the lack of change. Karla is a multi award winning artist and Wiradjuri Ngurambanggu woman, who lives in the Lismore/Casino area of New South Wales, which is also a base for the Ku Klux Klan in Australia. The KKK is an extremist American hate group preaching white supremacy – often with violence. The exhibition catalogue quotes Karla as saying:

There is power in asserting objection shoulder-to-shoulder – and disapproval of the obvious injustices, pains and truths of the unheard. It is an action that holds the hope that, once the story is told, a change in the unacceptable will be born and grow.

Leanne Tobin - BurbanganaAnother highly awarded artist exhibiting in the show, Leanne Tobin, a Darug descendant of the Boorooberongal and Wumali clans of the Greater Sydney region, agreed wholeheartedly with Blak’s sentiments. She says Burbagana (To Rise), her painting above, is rendered in Renaissance style using ochres to portray the clearing of fog around Darug ancestors. Leanne is a trained teacher and artist. In schools she teaches about creeks, plants and animals, giving children an entry into Aboriginal knowledge, respect for the land and for the old people. She assists Aboriginal women prisoners to research and recover their own identities. Leanne is endlessly frustrated by the constant dilemmas and conflicts engendered by government misunderstandings and creations. “Eora”, she says, simply means “from here” and is not the name of a clan or tribe. Land councils are white bureaucratic constructions that ignore the role of traditional custodians of the land.

1-IMG_4435Elaine Pelot Syron is a non indigenous artist, right, whose documentary photos are an important feature of Talk the Change/Change the Talk. She came to her role as photographer almost by accident. She arrived in Australia from the USA in 1971, already influenced by the Civil Rights movement and Dr Martin Luther King. She was shocked to find the endlessly negative reporting by the media about Aboriginal people and began taking photographs of her own to correct the record. She accumulated a precious archive of decades of photos, which include some of the leading names in Aboriginal activism – Joe Croft, Mum Shirl, Burnum-Burnum, Dr Roberta Sykes, Isabel Coe, NAISDA and Bangarra.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda gave a cautious welcome to Prime MInister Turnbull’s speech in parliament yesterday, which saw him repeatedly quote the message he had heard from Indigenous groups: “Do things with us, not to us”.

“We have heard these words before,” Mr Gooda said. “We take them with good heart but there’s got to be a carrying-out of that new relationship so I think we’re entitled to be a little bit cynical about it until it starts happening.”

Cape York leader Noel Pearson says, “We’d like to see the Prime Minister commit to treating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders like he promised he’d treat Australians more generally – as people with intelligence who can handle complex problems and issues.”

Lorraine Maggs’ exhibition has beauty, depth and wisdom

Lorraine Maggs - A Leap of FaithI have only just seen The Revisiting Exhibition – Lorraine Maggs in the Stein Gallery, Fairfield City Museum and Gallery, so I’m sorry I couldn’t encourage you earlier to visit. The show closes February 27. Even if the notice is short, it’s well worth making the visit. Lorraine has just celebrated her 75th birthday. The Revisiting Exhibition is a selection of works created over more than 50 years, beginning with Self Portrait 1961 in oil on masonite and ending with two sculptures in cardboard, wood and metal made in 2012. It offers a deeply personal insight into her life and allows us to see the importance of her art in finding balance and resolution through some of its more difficult passages. In fact, there is frequent humour and whimsy in her work as she investigates serious social issues, or needles the balloons of power and pomposity.

Lorraine MaggsLike so many women artists of her generation, her early interest in art as a career was actively discouraged. It took strength and confidence to persist and develop a lifetime of learning and exploration. Lorraine, left, became an art teacher at Canley Vale High School, established a studio practice at home and became an advocate for contemporary arts in south west Sydney. Her skills in a wide range of media are well known and she moves easily between painting, drawing, delicate prints and assembled sculptures.

Lorraine’s life journey through her art traverses universal themes and profoundly personal and poignant narratives. Although I was too late to get a copy of the colour booklet aLorraine Maggs - Nuzzling In 2014bout her exhibition, the list of her notes on each work offers valuable explanations. They detail the allegorical nature of some of her paintings and drawings, which helped her work through the distress of her husband’s struggle with mental illness and finally her grief after he took his own life. Top, is A Leap of Faith, 2004, one of a series of three about a Jack in a Box, “where he acts out a variety of situations from his box.” Lorraine says, “The idea being, that we can all sympathise with Jack and feel hemmed in at times, but is there a position of unfettered freedom where barriers never exist?”

In Nuzzling In 2014, above, she says, “Up close and cheek by jowl with my husband’s portrait is a fabricated, winsome sea lion pup; a deliberate counterbalance to the otherwise  more fearful and controlling forces of schizophrenia. The central positioning of the inquisitive nose is to be seen as a dark blot on the ‘cheek of reason’.”

Her fondness for Lorraine Maggs - Drawing Fairfield Mural Teamher own neighbourhood and of teaching and sharing come together in The Drawing Fairfield Mural, which was created with a team of artists, left, during the exhibition and is now proudly displayed within the show. There is clear satisfaction for Lorraine and her audience in looking back over such a productive and fulfilling life, knowing that even its misfortunes and disappointments offer encouragement, new skills and enrichment to those whose lives she touches. See The Revisiting Exhibition, Lorraine Maggs, at the Stein Gallery, Fairfield City Museum and Gallery, 632 The Horsley Drive, (corner of Oxford Street), Smithfield NSW 2164 – Phone: (02) 9609 3003.

A chance to reflect on Aboriginality and what it means to be Australian

Paul Keating - 2015

In marking the 23rd anniversary of his Redfern speech on Aboriginal dispossession and white Australian responsibility, former prime minister Paul Keating gave another speech earlier this month, as reported by Michael Gordon in the Sydney Morning Herald. “Aboriginal art and culture draw from the land, for Aboriginality and the land are essential to each other and are inseparable,” (Mr Keating said). “In terms of art at its best, Aboriginal art still carries sacred messages through its symbols and materials, yet manages to hold its secrets while speaking to a broader audience. More than that, it has been effective in translating an entire culture and the understanding of an entire continent.”

Rather than re-enter the debate on constitutional recognition and his support for a compact, or treaty, Michael Gordon wrote, Mr Keating explored a bigger proposition – that Australia’s potential will not be realised until the question of identity is settled.

“Whatever our identity today is or has become, it is an identity that cannot be separated from Aboriginal Australia,” he said. “For their 50,000 years here has slaked the land with their resonances, their presence and their spirit.

“Our opportunity is to rejoice in their identity, and without attempting to appropriate or diminish it, fuse it with our own, making the whole richer.”

Across western Sydney there are many opportunities to reflect on what this might mean and how we can be involved.

FCMG - Jeff McMullen with Stephen Willliams

Talk the Change/Change the Talk: an exhibition of Aboriginal self-determination makes its intention quite clear. It is contributing contemporary Aboriginal perspectives to discussion of Australian constitutional change and recognition after 230 years of white colonisation. Talk the Change is a thought provoking exhibition, which can be seen at Fairfield City Museum and Gallery until February 13. Above is Catherine Croll’s photo of Jeff McMullen delivering the opening speech, on November 28, with Uncle Stephen Williams in the right foreground. For many years a correspondent for the ABC and a host on the National Indigenous Television Network, Jeff McMullen has campaigned locally and internationally for the human rights of indigenous people.

FCMG - Blak Douglas plays yidaki - Catherine CrollTalk the Change/Change the Talk is co-curated by Aboriginal descendant, artist and musician, Blak Douglas (aka Adam Hill), who grew up in the Penrith area of western Sydney and Lena Nahlous, the museum and gallery’s curator of social history and exhibitions. Blak Douglas writes in the exhibition catalogue, “We now have entire suburbs where one may be immersed within the vibrancy of cultures from abroad, and there are even festivals of specific flavours. Sadly, though, the reparation of damage to Aboriginal cultures en masse is not occurring at an acceptable rate. Thankfully, utilising art as a voice, we communicate in one of the most powerful mediums . . . .” Blak Douglas, above left, plays the yidaki at the exhibition opening.

His own contribution to the exhibition is a series of photographs taken at the fifth and tenth anniversaries of the annual Redfern march, which continues to protest the death of teenager TJ Hickey in 2004. The white coroner determined that he was not pursued by police, when he became impaled on a fence. Nonetheless, for Aboriginal people TJ Hickey’s death has become a symbol of ongoing police corruption and violence towards Aboriginal people. More than one in four prisoners in Australia are indigenous Australians, despite comprising only three per cent of the population. Between 1980 and 2011, 449 indigenous Australians died in police custody and no police officer has been convicted for these deaths.

Talk the Change/Change the Talk is a modest and quietly reflective exhibition, which includes radio and oral histories, historic photography, music and visual art. It highlights the struggles of Aboriginal individuals and communities for recognition and justice, the right to speak their own languages and to protect their children from being taken by white authorities. While often a deeply disturbing picture, it is also one of resilience and hope. There is humour and determination in statements like Auntie Mae Robinson’s when people say Captain Cook discovered Australia. “My ancestors didn’t lose it, so how could he have discovered it?” Auntie Mae was the first Aboriginal person to graduate from what became the School of Education at the Milperra College of Advanced Education (1983). She remains a strong advocate for teaching Aboriginal history and culture in schools.

1-IMG_4366Well known contemporary artists like Karla Dickens of Wiradjuri descent, display a number of works of protest in the exhibition. She is thankful for the commitment of predecessors, who established the Australian Aborigines’ Progressive Association, and pays tribute to them in a quilt, Having a Voice is Tiresome (2014) while simultaneously expressing frustration that change is coming so slowly.

Speaking of Wiradjuri, it’s worth reading Patti Miller’s The Mind of a Thief, which won the 2013 NSW Premier’s History Award. Patti is a descendant of a German immigrant, who settled on Wiradjuri country, near Wellington in central NSW in the 1850s and whose family has farmed there ever since. She too has felt a connection to land and her explorations of family history and its possible Wiradjuri connections uncover a minefield of history and legislation. She grows to understand how Wiradjuri perspectives are quite different and yet complementary to her own and how respect for elders and their wisdom has diminished, to everyone’s loss. Complexity of Aboriginal relationships is compounded by the Land Council set up by the state government to represent local indigenous people.

A series of art works by Darug descendant Leanne Tobin illustrates the difficulties. The many clans of the Darug were the traditional people of the greater Sydney region and bore the first impact of invasion. For many years, it was assumed that they had all died out. “Even now,” she says, “Darug people are often seen to be ‘too white to be black’, and the continued denial of our very existence by local Aboriginal Land Councils allows continuing selling off and destruction of our tribal lands without consultation with the rightful custodians.”

1-IMG_4367Cathie Louise Banton is a granddaughter of Herbert (Bert) Groves, president of the Aborigines’ Progressive Association. Another participant in the exhibition, Cathie recorded an interview with Lena Nahlous, in which she outlined her parent’s struggle with poverty and the brief removal of their five children by white authorities. Later, she endured a violent marriage for 26 years, before finally escaping. Now she finds comfort, support and creative liberation in the Guntawang Aboriginal Women’s Group, which she helped to found in the Fairfield area in August 2013. Guntawang was initiated by Wendy Morgan, who retired from the Commonwealth public service after nearly 30 years and their third founding member was Margaret Roberts. Now 15 women attend fortnightly Guntawang meetings.

“Guntawang’s aims are to help support and strengthen social cohesion and identity for Aboriginal people, encourage creative expression and innovation cross a broad range of arts and crafts activities, and build self esteem for participants to become involved in the wider community.” Members exhibit a series of individual quilts, see above, which tell stories of their dreaming, where they grew up, their families, community totems and belonging to the land. Two of the quilts talk about discrimination and exclusion from the constitution.

Jacinta-Tobin-LOMusician and composer Jacinta Tobin, right, provided some of the lively musical entertainment at the launch. “We can do things differently,” she said. “We don’t have to go down the same angry path as before. Two thirds of our people were lost in the first five years. . . . . . Listen to country – not all the stories you hear are true – listen to country.” Then with a laugh she added, “We won anyway, by marrying into you mob!”

Two more opportunities to immerse yourself in indigenous experience are coming in January. Dharawal Aboriginal Corporation will host the Airds Summer Film and Music Screening series, organised by Campbelltown Arts Centre across four Saturdays. It will screen films like The Sapphires, Bran Nue Dae and the premiere of Black Comedy season two. Then there is the Sydney Festival program Fire Bucket, where you are invited into backyards in Sydney CBD, Redfern and Parramatta. Here you can sit with 93 year old Mt Druitt identity and Bidgambul elder Uncle Wes Marne around the fire bucket, while he yarns with friend and theatre director Alicia Talbot. Every night will be different as they talk of stories, dreams and wisdom. Bookings 1300 856 876 or online.

And then there is the remarkable announcement this week, which has largely gone under the radar – Aboriginal languages to become new HSC subject. “At long last, the Framework for Aboriginal Languages and Torres Strait Islander Languages has been released by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority as part of the national curriculum,” writes Professor Jakelin Troy in the Sydney Morning Herald. Professor Troy is director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at the University of Sydney and lead author of the Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages. “The success of this framework will ultimately hinge upon the level of government backing and financial support our teachers receive. There is still a huge amount of work ahead to support communities and schools to work together to create local language curriculum,” she says.

Another illuminating step towards a different response to our history.