The trend towards rediscovering First Nations languages and cultural traditions across southern Australia is burgeoning, and Sutherland Shire’s Hazelhurst gallery – which has done much to bring really cogent shows from the Deserts to the city – has now collaborated with its local communities to celebrate the cultural strength of Dharawal Wuliwulawala . Sadly it’s just closed before I could upload this!
As the press release puts it, “Gallery staff have worked closely with the Sutherland Shire Council Aboriginal Advisory Committee, La Perouse Land Council, Gujaga Foundation, Kurranulla Aboriginal Corporation as well as the women elders from La Perouse and the Sutherland Shire in pulling together an exceptional showcase of the artistic talent held by some of our local female First Nations artists.”
Hazelhurst Arts Centre Director, Belinda Hanrahan goes so far as cite the exhibition as one of the most important collections set to be shown locally this year, saying, “It brought together works by a number of well-known names and emerging talent. We feature works from some of the great First Nations artists we have in southern Sydney including Esme Timbery, Marilyn Timbery, Phyllis Stewart, Suzanne Stewart, Deanna Schreiber, Annette Webb, Amy Hill, Dolly Brown, Gemma Brown, Julie Freeman, Markeeta Freeman, Merindah Funnell, Kerry Toomey and Strong Sisters: Aboriginal girls from Endeavour Sports High.”
The exhibition had three components: an introduction to local Dharawal history and a focus on three historic Dharawal women from the local area – Biddy Giles, Emma Timbery and Kate Saunders, especially their relationship to the La Perouse Community. Their descendants have taken part in a specially commissioned series of interviews involving several generations of women who talk about their connection to place, their families and their history. In another series of interviews the contributing artists talk about their works and their personal stories and connection to the area.
Dharawal women have always been keepers of culture and play a central role in family and community. Dharawal country spans from Sydney Harbour down to the Illawarra, where the main source of food and livelihood is from the sea and connecting rivers. Gamay (Botany Bay) is the place of first contact between Europeans and Indigenous Australia. It was also here where the effects and devastation of smallpox, illness, violence, stolen land, and government policies were felt first and hardest. It was then that Indigenous women fought to keep culture and community alive and strong.
At La Perouse in the 1870s an Aboriginal fishing village was established by the women of the surrounding southern Sydney area. It was here that they used their traditional knowledge and practices to make a living. Over the next decades, the remaining Aboriginal people from camps around Sydney Harbour and Gamay were relocated there. In 1895, La Perouse was formally established as one of the earliest Aboriginal reserves in NSW. Aboriginal people living on the reserve were affected by so-called government ‘protection’ policies restricting their freedoms and forcing them to segregate.
‘Queen’ Emma Timbery, Biddy Giles and Kate Saunders were all born in the 1840s and 1850s and identified themselves as Dharawal women. They played a significant role in the development of the La Perouse community, fighting against their removal south to Wallaga Lake and putting themselves under the protection of the church, also passing culture and history from one generation to the next. These Wuliwulawala have many hundreds of descendants, many still living on Dharawal country.
This is well documented in texts and films in the gallery. And, inevitably, the first artworks are a clutch of Sydney Harbour bridges made from shells. Lots of Timberys too. And pastel colours. But the glitter of the gallery lighting on the sparkling shells coating a Sydney Opera House stand out for their reflection of Utzon’s own tiling work. And Esme Timbery’s Larper Mission Church was a refreshing change of subject. A description of the effort involved in collecting these shells lifts the familiarity of this work into something almost mythic.
But then we move on to a number of decorative dotted canvases that are reminiscent of work that comes from the Keringke Art Centre at Santa Teresa in the NT – which I’ve always found to be devoid of anything approaching story or sense of Country. It often seems to be the fall-back style adopted by First Nations artists in the south. And I’ve often wondered why? Then an interview with Dharawal artist in Amy Hill-Trindall’s ‘Yarning Circle’ film caught my attention. “I’d always wanted to paint like Albert Namatjira”, she said. “But at Eora College they said I had to do dots”!
What has dotting to do with the visual experience of these freshwater/seawater people?
More in touch with their Country was the work of the mother and daughter team, Julie and Markeeta Freeman. They hail from out of Sydney at Wreck Bay – off Jervis Bay – and their marine world of fishes and mermaids was captured in a woven installation of hanging creatures; while their magnificent possum-skin cloak carried with it the legend of the woman Krobi wearing it while waiting for Bunda Murra, her man to return from a mission of mercy.
But then we come to the challenges. For many, the sight of a ‘golliwog’ doll is red rag to a bull – an abuse, a mockery of Blackness, inculcating white children into a world of racial vilification. Tony Albert has taken that view; but its origins surely lie in the work of Destiny Deacon. Her one-woman show, ‘Destiny‘ at the NGV last year summed up a lifetime of this imagery in the catalogue thus: “Destiny’s disturbing visual language marries two worlds : she contrasts seemingly innocuous childhood imagery with scenes taken from the darkest reaches of adulthood”.
Yuin woman Dolly Brown would seem to disagree – showing a quasi Nativity scene full of proud black dollies, consorting merrily with white dollies, dressing up in tiaras and jewels, sporting the Aboriginal flag, cosily swaddled in possum-skin warps. And her text offers nothing of the NGV’s doubts: “I would like to acknowledge all the strong and deadly black women who let me tell their stories through these dolls. We have some wonderful Aboriginal women in this community that are very proud of who they are, and proud to showcase themselves and tell their stories”.
The politics are certainly unmuted in the work of Gamilaroi artist Kerry Toomey from the Pilliga. She has a delicate hanging of tissue-paper heads – all different shades, but all from the same mould – both criticising the way different skin colour was at the core of Australia’s assimilation policies, but also underling the fragility of her Aboriginal culture. Then she moves into that culture with a display of head-pieces and photos illuminating the role of the widows’ cap in Gamilaroi history. Finally, she hits out at the role of anthropologists like Norman Tindale in minutely detailing physical particulars and tribal affiliations of First Nations individuals – including her ancestors.
“Toomey grapples with the dehumanisation of her family at the hands of Colonial Australia” is how the gallery caption puts it. But traducing Norman Tindale’s reputation without apparently knowing too much about it is unfortunate. For as Tindale recorded the details of individuals he was also proving the continued existence of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, establishing the discipline of tribal boundaries that denied the white foundation myth of Terra Nullius, and recording detailed knowledge of Aboriginal traditions which today allows people to recover language, identify artefacts and their mode of manufacture, recreate ceremonies, and make land claims. He also significantly pushed back the accepted date for the arrival of Aborigines in Australia; while study of the DNA in hair samples taken has allowed scientists to map the movement of Aborigines upon their arrival on the continent.
Not too dehumanising! Joyfully, the show starts and ends with a mural – the ‘Burri Burri Dhan Dreaming‘ – telling both of the orcas who brought lore to the Dharawal people while throwing in some of that practical knowledge that allowed the women to survive at La Perouse when it came to fishing for stingray and salmon. The work of elders? No, it’s painted, based on rock engravings found within 10kms of the gallery, by six Indigenous female students at the local Endeavour Sports High. Local legends – though, oddly, none of the students identifies as Dharawal.
17/4 – 14/6 Pics in 2021-5 Black babe, SOH, Kerry Toomey in cap https://www.sutherlandshire.nsw.gov.au/Community/Hazelhurst/Exhibitions/
Artist: Esme Timbery, Marilyn Timbery, Phyllis Stewart, Suzanne Stewart, Deanna Schreiber, Annette Webb, Amy Hill, Dolly Brown, Gemma Brown, Julie Freeman, Markeeta Freeman, Merindah Funnell, Kerry Toomey, Albert Namatjira, Tony Albert, Destiny Deacon,
Gallery: Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre ,