Thursday, May 29, 2014

Reconciliation - What IS that?

I went to a reconciliation breakfast in Fitzroy yesterday arranged by my wonderful friend Siu Chan. It was at Charcoal Lane that somewhat contentious reconstruction of the old Aboriginal Health Service in Gertrude St Fitzroy. I stayed the night before at Maggie Fooke's Arts Hotel in George St thanks again to Siu's arrangement and Maggie's generosity. I hadn't walked up Gertrude St at 7am for 20 years or more. Whenever I go to Fitzroy these days I feel melancholic because of the ghosts everywhere. I see so many people who are not there now. Not literally, but my memories are so powerful that I am hardly present myself as I am returned to an earlier time while standing in the same place. Les's family live large in these memories but also many other people. I remember Uncle Trevor, who I always loved for the story about him holding up the art supply shop with a paint brush stuck up his jumper. One that he had taken off the shelves. I remember having breakfast with Les at the Burek shop just next door to the Royal Hotel, that at one time was owned by Uncle Eugene who won it in a two up game. I remember being in the Royal and being abused by an angry Aboriginal man and being gently told by Les that he was someone who had had a hard time of it. I understood that Les didn't need to stand up for my honour as I was already the one with the power just by virtue of my whiteness. I remember walking the streets at night singing Patsy Cline songs, looking for Les, who had been speeding for too long and needed to be guided home to bed. I remember visiting the uncles in the park beneath the flats. I remember the first time I met Les's mother, Gwen Lovett, on the 17th floor of the high rise. She hadn't been out of the flat for many years due to her agoraphobia, set off by an attack in the lifts. I remember going on marches in NAIDOC week. We all met in Gertrude St, outside the Health Service and in a tight little pack walked through the city streets shouting Land Rights Now. Les, Mille, Bear and many others were walking down Gertrude St with me yesterday morning. They came into Charcoal Lane and were amazed by the fancy restaurant with young Aboriginal people serving food and the pack of people there to support the sale of a beautiful photograph of Jack Charles by Rob McNicols to raise money for an Aboriginal music festival. As Kyle Vander Kuyp gave the address, after a welcome to country, I began to cry. I couldn't stop. I had to leave. I was both moved but also deeply sad about all those people who wouldn't see the changes they had participated in. I wished they could be there.

The most poignant thing about this for me, on reflection, is how this must be for Aboriginal people who are all surrounded by so much loss and death. So many tragic circumstances. So much bereavement.
I sometimes wake in the morning and feel the deep well of sadness and grief, that is mostly still water, ripple and threaten to tip over the lip that holds it in, beginning a flood. I am surrounded by support in the very structure of society that I belong to. I can go and get a coffee, call a friend, go to work or the studio, a multiple of ways to hold back the flood. Not so for many Aboriginal people who stay home to avoid the feelings of rejection that are either out there, or imagined as being out there, based on past experiences.

I came across a Youtube clip that provides the best explanation for reconciliation I have ever heard.
It is 17 minutes long but worth every minute. If you are Australian or live in Australia you should watch it and send it around to everyone you know.

Les at Trades Hall - Photo by Marina Baker

Friday, May 9, 2014

Dust Storm (booroomugga) - from Burrowye to Booroomugga

Before Patrick John Kelly came to the country of the Wangaaypuwan (wongaibon) people he bought a property on the murray called Burrowye Station. I am currently following up whose land this was but it turns out I may know someone who is the descendant of these people. More to come on this.
After coming back to Moonahculla from Cobar and spending another few nights there, including going to the Blues and Roots festival curtesy of Cecily, I left to take the rented SUV back to Melbourne. However, I couldn't resist taking a detour to see if I could find Burrowye.
I drove east from Deniliquin to Albury and after stopping at a tourist info area I found the right road to take.
It didn't look very far on the map but turned out to be much longer due to the windy road. As the sun dipped in the sky I was plagued by thoughts that I was stupid to try to find this place which would most likely only consist of a road sign which, when I found it, I would have to turn back from and drive in the dark risking kangaroos on the road.
I pressed on regardless.
I did find the sign and the station. It was nestled in a valley surrounded by beautiful hills on the banks of the Murray river.

As I stood photographing the front gate thinking how lucky I was to have found it, my luck increased four fold as a farmer drove towards me in an old blue tractor just like the toy one I had as a child. He was James Houston the great grandson of the man who bought Burrowye at the turn of the 20th century. He graciously invited me to meet his very pregnant wife Charlotte who he said was interested in the history of the property. When I stepped into their house I immediately knew they were not the stereotype of the crusty old farmer I had expected to find. As it turned out, after some very rapid and excited (by me anyway) conversations, they were also artists and had both worked up north on Aboriginal communities and new many of the issues I was dealing with in my project. My attempt to excuse myself and plan to head back down the windy road to Albury was interrupted by an invitation to stay the night. Unexpectedly several hours later, I was sitting on the floor by the fire, drinking tea from bone china and eating a delicious desert.  I then slept in  a bed with the most beautiful old linen, presumable from James grandmother's day. Aside from their most wonderful country hospitality, I felt that I had connected in an unusual way with people who thought very similarly to me. They also gave me names of books and copies of photographs and details of the property which included PJ Kelly. I was also invited back to stay in their cottage which they are planning - synchronicity plus - on setting up as an artist residency! Obviously someone was guiding me on this trip from start to finish.

James and Charlotte Houston
They also had a delightful son named Joe. In the morning before I left I was driven up to the top of the nearby hill to see an extraordinary view. I was reminded of the colonial saying in regard to land ownership 'as far as the eye can see'. 

Evidently Patrick John Kelly had disliked the 'claustrophobic' effect of the mountains after coming from his fathers property in Sth Australia so he moved to northern NSW. I was entranced by those same mountains especially in the morning as the mist slowly rose.

View from the original orchard

James and Charlotte told me about a massacre they had been told about directly on the other side of the Murray from their property. I wondered if Patrick Kelly had been involved but it appears it happened 30 years before he arrived. However he would have been aware of it in the local memory. 
When I left I went looking for the spot. James said it was unmarked but it was near a place called Dora Dora. The only thing left at Dora Dora was the remains of an old pub.
As I drove down the road they had directed me to I stopped to look at a lone eagle circling in one spot. It was a small creek and a valley between two hills. The eagle continued circling and I took photos. It seemed significant. I decided that it was a sign that I was in the right spot. Another two turns in the road an there was the Dora Dora pub.

This journey has been amazing, yielding such rich stories and wonderful material to now uncover. I feel more at peace than I did before I went. My conclusion about this is that nothing my people did is unconfrontable, even if it is the worst of all things. Even if they were involved in massacres, participated in the worst of atrocities, (which by their very presence at the time, they would have either been directly involved in, or have turned a blind eye to, playing golf while their fellow human beings were ripped from their land and way of life) I am able to confront it and own it. This is far better than avoiding these issues and pretending that it's all in the past. That way is full of troubled shadows and furtive glances away from the direct gaze of my fellow human beings who happen to be Aboriginal.

This is also just the beginning. My next stage of work will be profoundly influenced by this experience. My fingers are already twitching.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The ghosts of Booroomugga

After spending time in the Cobar Museum and confronting the facts about how the traditional owners were treated in the lifetime of my grandmother, being moved off their lands under the extraordinary title of 'dispersal', we were able to get the phone number of the current owners of Booroomugga and arrange to go out there that same afternoon. It was an 40k trip back towards Nyngan and then 30K off the road into the flat red dirt country that I remembered as a child. The first cattle gird had the following sign on it which reminded us that this land was still off limits to the uninvited.

We arrived at the home paddock close to dusk when that glorious golden light coated the landscape with a sentimental glow. The Greers were very friendly and helpful, providing me with papers about the history of the property that had been prepared by a real estate agent who had done some research into its history. It stated that P J Kelly had owned a property called Burrowye on the Murray before coming to Cobar region in 1882.. The original homestead had been burned down (apparently on purpose by a previous owner) but the wool shed was still standing. It had been clad with corrugated iron but the original timber frame and boards still lined the inside. They took us over to have a look. It was a big shed with 20 stands for shearers.

As we were leaving it was suggested that we stop by the Kelly family headstone where Meg Kelly's (the last surviving family member to live on the property) ashes were buried. Then the ghosts stories came out. The Greer's believed that Meg haunted the place. They gave several examples of locked doors opening and even a car being shoved hard from the rear with no apparent explanation just when it was near the head stone. Then David Greer's daughter asked had we noticed the old wardrobe door swinging back and forth when we were in the wool shed with not a breath of wind to move it.
Somehow it didn't surprise me. I have been compelled to recreate something of this family even to the extent of constructing a replica of Isabella's dress and jewellery from an old photograph.

We returned to Cobar as the sun went down. My head was fizzing with ideas and possibilites. I felt as though I had finally come home but not to a place, rather to an idea that had been buried underneath many layers of avoidance and misdirected guilt. It is as though taking responsibility for what my people were and have done has freed me to really look at it, uncover it, discover it and own it in a way that allows me to be fully who I am. An Australian of Anglo Celtic origin, born on Wurrundjerri land. I know that this is just the beginning and there are many more skins of the onion to peel back but I am excited rather than daunted.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Colonial Ancestors - Road Trip Stage 2 - A day in Cobar

Day two took us to Cobar. The Cobar Museum holds several objects donated from Booroomugga including a buggy and a food storage house which is the base of a large tree. It is presented as the mystery of the museum, one that people are invited to guess what it was used for.  Also many things that I inherently recognised as wares from the 'olden days' including a saddle bag which was similar to one that Meg Kelly had given me on my previous trip to Booroomugga.

The best material in the museum for me was the section about the Wangaaypuwan (Wongaibon) people who were the Aboriginal people in the Cobar region. Their language is Ngiyambaa which broadly translates a 'language in general', universal language' or 'worldspeak'
The Wangaaypuwan people were the largest group of Ngiyambaa speakers, deriving this name from their word for 'no', 'wangaay'. There were three subgroups that derived their names from the surrounding landscapes. One of these groups is the Pilaarrkiyalu (belah tree) people and their decendants, who lived in the Keewong - Cowra tank area.

Belah Trees
A deeply moving dedication in the museum said it all.
'For the people who said:
"Ngiyanuna paluhaarra wangaay mayi wiiyakal Ngiyambaa ngiyarapa"
"When we die, there will be nobody left who can speak Ngiyampaa"

The people with ties to the Cobar area now live in widely scattered areas in NSW from Bourke to Brewarrina to Wilcannia and Broken Hill, down to Menindee, Albury, Ivanhoe, Condoblin, Griffith and over to Dubbo. The 'Dispersal Policy' (which I am now researching) resulted in Wangaaypuwan people being resettled to other areas.
* this material is directly quoted from the museum display

The Dispersal Policy
The Cowra Tank was the last major settlement of Wongaibon people on their traditional lands prior to their dispersal to Menindee in 1933

Cowra Tank

Cowra Tank Mission School

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Colonial Ancestors - Road Trip Stage Two - searching for Booroomugga, day one!

Old Steam Engine in the home paddock at Booroomugga

Cecily and I set off on the second stage of our trip with a very vague understanding of what we would find. The outcome confirmed for me the artists way of researching as synchronicity ruled and we made connections we would not have made if we had known where we were going at the start.
We were searching for Booroomugga, the property that my great grandfather had occupied in 1882. I had grown up believing that he was a great pioneer and proudly believed that I had come from 'pioneer stock'. It took 21 years before I began to learn otherwise.

The road to the past
We drove to Nyngan first as I remembered going there when I was 10 with my Mum's cousin Meg Kelly who was the last surviving member of the Kelly family and ran the remains of the huge property which was so big that as a child I remembered it being on the map of Australia.
This was the only time I had been to Booroomugga. It was a trip with my mother Nan and my first cousin Anne Stanwix. Anne had just lost her mother, which I was mostly insensitive to. We both loved the old homestead and the vastness of the property. The story was told that Isabella Robertson Kelly, used to walk around the verandah of the homestead for her exercise and after 16 times she had walked a mile. 'The men' went out kangaroo shooting one night and they bought me home a joey they had found in the pouch of one of the dead kangaroos which, bizarrely, I took home on the plane to Melbourne at the end of our trip.
I had noticed that as soon as we left Deniliquin and the safety of home turf heading to the outback, Cecily had become anxious. She was wary of how she would be treated by the largely white service providers in outback NSW. She was expecting racism based on past experience. Thankfully we had nothing but kindness, but I did see that I was able to mediate these relationship which made it easier for both sides to relate. The first night we stayed in a fabulous hotel in Nyngan (Outback Motor Inn) which was a lucky first choice. As soon as I went to check in I knew we would be fine as they had Aboriginal paintings on the walls. They were very friendly and hosted the best meals I had had in a motel.
When we arrived we noticed an Aboriginal woman sitting having a cigarette outside with another woman. Cecily thought she looked like her grandmother and was interested to see if there was any connection. I was also interested to see if she knew any of the people from the area.
I think I surprised her when in answer to her question on what we were doing there, I said I had come to find out whose land my people stole. She turned out to be the Executive Director of Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation at the Department of the Premier and Cabinet for the government of South Australia. We all had dinner together and she was most supportive of my project, asking if she could assist with connections in Sth Australia, saying the exhibition must be seen nationally. That was a great boost to my confidence as well as a great start to the trip northwest.

Travelling in a SUV