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Bipotaim: Stories from the Torres Strait: exhibition launch

Pedro Stephen, Agnes Shea, Alisa Duff and Andrew Sayers, 13 September 2011

ANDREW SAYERS: Welcome everybody to the National Museum of Australia for the opening of Bipotaim: Stories from the Torres Strait. My name is Andrew Sayers, and I am the Director of the National Museum Australia. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the country on which we meet and to acknowledge in particular Auntie Agnes Shea who will welcome us to country shortly. I want to advise everybody that today’s proceedings are being audio recorded for the Museum’s website.

I would like particularly to welcome to the National Museum of Australia Napau Pedro Stephen, who is the mayor of the Torres Shire Council - Mayor Stephen is going to open the exhibition this morning - and also David Callow, the photographer whose work is all around us in this marvellous exhibition.

I would also like to welcome Mr Brendan Smyth, shadow minister for economic development, business and tourism; our colleague from across the peninsula Russ Taylor, the principal of AIATSIS; Mr Benny Hodges, a member of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Elected Body of the ACT government; and representatives from the board of directors of the ACT Torres Strait Island Corporation, Mrs Samantha Faulkner, Mr Danny Morseu, Miss Fiona Peterson and Mr Masepah Banu. Welcome.

This exhibition Bipotaim: Stories from the Torres Strait is an exhibition of photographs by David Callow complemented by objects from the National Museum’s collections. The title of the exhibition means ‘before time’, which could mean the olden times or, to others, the time before the 1967 Referendum.

The exhibition is a partnership with Gab Titui Cultural Centre and it shares stories about the lives, culture and identity of Torres Strait Islanders. Community members from across the region depicted in David Callow’s striking portraits compare current and traditional ways and practices and reflect on changes that have occurred in the Torres Strait during their lives.

We treasure the partnership we have here at the National Museum with Gab Titui. We have a memorandum of understanding. I particularly wanted to acknowledge members of the Gab Titui Cultural Centre, especially Bronwyn Jewell , Robyn Fernandez, Emma Loban , Mary Bani and also Thelma Savage, who is here as an intern at the National Museum of Australia at the moment. Also in putting the exhibition together, I would like to acknowledge the Torres Strait Regional Authority, the Torres Shire Council and community members from across the Torres Strait.

Since 2001, ten years ago when the National Museum opened, there has been a strong Torres Strait Islander presence in this gallery, which has been completely reinstalled for this marvellous exhibition. We have brought together this exhibition and Torres Strait Island objects from the National Museum’s National Historical Collection. It is a representative collection which we hope documents the breadth of national life and assists in the understanding and interpretation of Australians’ history and all Australians’ cultures.

I would now like to call on Mrs Agnes Shea OAM to welcome to country. Agnes will be followed by Alisa Duff who is our newly appointed head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program here at the National Museum, and then Mayor Napau Pedro Stephen who is our guest speaker. Would you please welcome Auntie Agnes.

AGNES SHEA: Good morning everyone. Nice to see you and we have been blessed with a lovely day outside. I am Auntie Agnes Shea and I am one of the Ngunnawal elders. I am very proud and honoured to be here for this very special and wonderful event - the Bipotaim: Before Time launch. Firstly I would like to acknowledge our distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, and a very special welcome to all of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island friends who have joined us today. I also extend that welcome to anyone who may have joined us for the first time and to those who have been here before welcome back. As an elder, I would like to acknowledge and pay my respects to other elders who have joined us here also. Firstly I would like to extend a very special welcome to a dear friend of mine Mr Brendan Smyth. He’s been really supportive and has always helped me whenever I have needed him. He is a wonderful and loving person.

I will now quickly say a bit about the Ngunnawal people and then explain why an elder is asked to come and could welcome to country. The Ngunnawal community are the traditional custodians of Canberra and the region. The audience may not be aware that the Ngunnawal nation is made up of several family groups, and not just individuals, who represent the interests of this country. Therefore as a community we have an elected body known as the United Ngunnawal Elders Council to represent us, along with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body of the ACT. This is important for you to understand and acknowledge for our identity is a collective identity. There are other Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples from many nations around the country and the world who have come to live on Ngunnawal land, and I would like to acknowledge and pay my respects to them also, especially those who have joined us here this morning.

The traditional welcoming of people is a cultural practice that was handed down by our old people from the beginning of time. What it means is that, before entering another person’s country, you would always announce your arrival and not enter until a traditional owner of the country welcomed you. The reason for this practice is to protect your spirit while you are in another person’s country but also show respect to the people of the country you are entering.

As one of the Ngunnawal elders, I am now very proud to see when non-Indigenous organisations and government do ask an elder to come and do welcome to country because it shows they are also respecting our traditional culture. It helps to build the reconciliation and bring respect between many cultures of people who now live in the ACT and region but also throughout Australia.

As many of you are aware, ‘Canberra’ in the Ngunnawal language means ‘meeting place’. Canberra has been a place of gathering for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island tribes of Australia to come together to deal with important businesses but also for ceremonial occasions. Our ancestors also believed in the importance of people gathering together for the purpose of building relationships, sharing knowledge and celebrating the gift of heritage and history. We believe it is important for all to recognise our unique histories and to gain understanding that our land is our heritage and how the loss of land has disconnected many Aboriginal peoples from their spiritual links, cultural heritage and identity.

Once again, thank you all for having me. I am very proud and honoured to be here on such a wonderful and special occasion. Now I will finish like I normally do in the words of the Ngunnawal people “Nagana yarabai yangu”, which means ‘You’re welcome to leave your footprints on our land,’ or in other words again, welcome to Ngunnawal country. Thank you.

ALISA DUFF: Thank you, Auntie Agnes Shea, for your welcome to country. I respectfully acknowledge the traditional owners of the Canberra region, and thank you for allowing us to be here on your land. Thank you National Museum of Australia Director, Andrew Sayers, for your introduction. I join Andrew in welcoming our special guests today to this exhibition opening of Bipotaim: Stories from the Torres Strait here in the Torres Strait gallery in the National Museum of Australia.

I would also like to welcome our special guests all the way from Thursday Island: Mayor Pedro Stephen from the Torres Shire Council and say to him Maiem, kaima esso. I acknowledge also the Bipotaim photographer David Callow, whose beautiful work you see around you here. I would also like to thank my staff member Pip McNaught, who is the curator of the Torres Strait gallery and whose hard work you see around you.

I would like to acknowledge the Indigenous interns we currently have here at the National Museum. We have an intern program where we take trainees from different organisations around Australia to come and work here and experience what it’s like within a museum and gallery context. Today we are lucky to have Thelma Savage from the Gab Titui Cultural Centre and also Liz Tew, who is our first Tasmanian intern from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. I would like to acknowledge members of the Canberra Torres Strait community and members of the Canberra-based Aboriginal community. Finally, I would like to welcome you, all of our guests, to our opening this morning.

Bipotaim: Stories from the Torres Strait is an exhibition on the theme of change and the role that memory plays in recording notions of culture, people and place and how these shift over time. This exhibition was initiated by the Gab Titui Cultural Centre, and it’s part of their ongoing cultural maintenance project. Cultural centres and keeping places have an important role in recording local histories and local knowledges specific to an area and a people. The work these centres do is critical in underpinning the function of our institution in terms of our recording, collecting and telling these stories of contemporary Australia. As Andrew mentioned, the National Museum of Australia has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Gab Titui Cultural Centre. We look forward to developing a close and productive relationship in the years to come.

Bipotaim is a broad theme of change across generations, genders and different islands, as you can see around you, and it provides a snapshot of what individuals hold as being important pivotal events in their lives. For some, this key change is the 1967 Referendum; for others it’s the Coming of the Light when the London Missionary Society introduced Christianity into the Torres Strait in 1871. Within this exhibition community members reflect on significant changes in their lives, whether it’s through a sudden change or incremental shifts over time.

Torres Strait Islanders are an important minority within a minority of Indigenous Australians. We are ethnically different from mainland Aboriginal people and we are culturally distinct. Positioned between Papua New Guinea to the north and Cape York to the south, Islanders have for thousands of years negotiated and traded with our neighbours within a framework of culture and respect that we call ‘ailan kastom’. .

Canberra is a special place for many Torres Strait Islanders. In 1992 the High Court of Australia recognised the Native Title of Rice, Passi and Mabo prior to European colonisation and settlement. This changed forever the notion of ‘terra nullius’, empty land. For Torres Strait Islanders, this is a place where we are welcome and where our voices are heard. The National Museum of Australia is proud to have the first dedicated gallery for Torres Strait Islanders where our stories can be told and where we can contribute to the developing discussion of what it means to be Australian. Thank you.

PEDRO STEPHEN: Debe deim, kau migi bauthai nar. That is good morning in our language from the east and west. I want to pay my respects to Auntie Agnes and the traditional owners of the place in which hold this function. I would like to acknowledge also our hosts that have invited me and allowed me to come down and to share with you - Andrew Sayers. I would also like to acknowledge our daughter from the Torres Strait, Alisa Duff, in her position as head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program at the National Museum of Australia.

I would also like to acknowledge all the families – I call you families, because this work is about families - that have enabled us to showcase our life and our stories here in the capital city of Australia. I would like to acknowledge David [Callow], the photographer, and especially the determination of David living on TI. Although it is a very small place, sometimes it’s hard to find someone or to actually nail someone down. David was very persistent in actually chasing me. I want to thank David for that gift that he has that can produce what we see here in depicting our images around this beautiful Museum place.

In my mind I think about ‘keepers’, and I think it was mentioned by one speaker, the word ‘keeper’ actually is the attributes belonging to our people of the Torres Strait. As Alisa points out, we sit in the crossroad of the Torres Strait between two countries, two nations. It means the gift that we have to be reminded that we are not owners, we are not conquerors but we are keepers - keepers of what we believe is the value that will sustain us. In recognition as I open my talk here to you this morning, I would like to acknowledge all my ancestors, past and present, for giving me this opportunity that I speak.

‘Before time’ for me is about change when I actually had a conversation with David. Change is something that was instilled in my life and have what I say [tataran?] my life, has shaped my life. It was a word that came not from what I heard at school or anywhere in my time as I grew up, but it was actually the word that echoed and still echoed in my mind as I stand here. It was a word from my father’s mouth that he said to me - and I actually echo that in the capture of words under my portrait - that change always will come. We can’t stop a change, but one thing we can do is that we have to lead change. If we don’t do anything about change, then we become a victim. That was the thing that has fanned the flame of leadership in my life to take a stand, because my father was the first chairman of the reserve that was actually on Thursday Island.

Thursday Island is only a five square kilometre island but Islanders weren’t allowed to live there. When the settlement was settled, the traditional owners, the Kaurareg people, were moved away. Most of us from the outer islands, we lived in our respective homes on which the government automatically made those islands a reserve. But on Thursday Island there was no reserve so they created a reserve called Tamwoy after the name of one of the leaders from the Western Islands. We were given the same elected democracy for the Indigenous people that lived on Thursday Island but we would only just live in the reserve, and my father became the first chairman.

So automatically I thought that I would follow his footsteps and I would become a chairman and follow him when he finished to be chairman of Tamwoy. But one thing he did say to me, ‘When I talk about change, I don’t mean that you follow me, because you will always live my footsteps because you’re part of me. I wanted you to see things or to go places that I can only think about and I dream about.’

One of the things he said to me was that the local government has been the grassroot or the base of colonialism in our area, but it’s always been that the mayor’s position has been occupied by non-Indigenous people. He said, ‘That is your challenge. I don’t want you to be chairman of Tamwoy but to be a councillor at the Torres Shire Council.’ I am glad that he actually convinced me. I did not want to go because there was a perception always in my mind that on the other side of the hill, on TI, that belongs to the white people; on this side of the hill it belongs to us, the blacks. But I did not allow that perception in my mind to hold me back because I have total trust in what my father was saying. I thank God because I have held the position since 1991, and I am making my mind up whether I still stay. There are a lot of changes that will happen in the Torres Strait. And also, as I talk about change, I want to acknowledge all the Torres Strait Islander families and representatives that have come and made their home here in Canberra, especially seeing the leadership here and look at other leadership that is around. A mina big esso to each and every one of you for your commitment.

I wanted to say that - I actually talk about this ‘before time’ and heard about ‘before time’ in an interpretation but I want to tell you about ‘before time’ from my interpretation. ‘Before time’ for me is about change. It means past, present and future. It means these pictures that you see around the walls and esso for those who have allowed us to have our picture portrayed here in this place, because as we hear the saying that ‘a picture tells a thousand words’, each of these pictures reminds me of our connection - that the dots are being connected here in this place and a continual reminder of where we are.

It reminds me of three ‘S’ words when I examine and reflect on what ‘before time’ means. For me it actually means ‘sovereignty’ of who we are. Of all those akas, from the akas who told that story for our young ones that are here, it’s about our sovereign rights as people and we will never lose that. We will always stand and affirm, as long there will be a Torres Strait Islander, the sovereignty right of Torres Strait Island remains. One of my heart desire is that on Monday we will also talk about constitutional recognition. I don’t want the name Torres Strait just to be depicted on a preamble that takes away my sovereign rights because I will always be a sovereign people. So the pictures that we see on the walls today depicts the sovereignty rights of us.

The next ‘S’ is ‘structure’ meaning that we come from a structured nation of people where we are a nation within a nation. I respect our brothers on the mainland - a nation within a nation - a very special way of who we are. We come because the only foundation of our structure is our family and we continue to base [ourselves] on that.

The last ‘S’ word is ‘sustain’ or ‘survival’ that will always be that attribute in each and every one of us. I was really proud to walk through the Museum this morning on my way to this opening and just reflect on the history of our great country and standing here as a very proud Islander to know that my athes, my uncles, my akas, my aunties, have been involved in two of the most important industries of this country: the mining and railway industry, and the marine industry. Those industries I talk about with all pride when I address our students at school. I say to them that because we come from a nation of people that they have fire where hands b’long thempla meaning that from six to six or from dawn to dusk they continue to work. The actual work ethics and high standards of our Torres Strait Islander people perceive their roles and responsibility in life. You know, a cussa thing - it’s not a thing we take for granted but it’s so important that we not only build ourselves but we build others. Just walking through there and reminding me again actually fanned the flame in my heart to continue to move on.

In closing, I want to say once again kaima esso, esso au for the privilege that I would stand here today and speak on behalf of my nation and to be part of alliances and partnerships with those that showcase our life. It’s not just in a picture on a wall. I suppose for me it’s when I remember the word ‘keeper’. Those individual faces you see around this display in this gallery have been taken from a living work, that those stories blo our akas and athes will pass on for our generations to come will be the stories that have come from nunakup, our heart, will come from there. So what you see in the faces of those that have been displayed so proudly around this gallery are the stories that have been taken from the hearts of their forefathers and their forebearers and are showcased here to fan the flame of the desire for us to build and to continue on from our past to our present and to our future. For those to come we have a great responsibility to walk hand in hand, and it’s with that that I come humbly before you – a pasin before you and with the privileges that have been given me to declare the Before Time exhibition open. Esso[applause]

ANDREW SAYERS: Thank you very much, Mayor Pedro Stephen. It was a great privilege to have you speak on behalf of your nation here at the National Museum, and your words about change and leadership were inspiring and profound. At the National Museum I think we have a fundamental responsibility to connect the past and the present in really meaningful ways and to look forward to the future. I would now like to invite everybody here to enjoy the exhibition and also to join us for morning tea, which is going to be in what was the Axis restaurant off the Main Hall of the Museum. You need to make your way back across the Garden of Dreams or through the Museum to the Main Hall where we will have morning tea to celebrate the opening of the Bipotaim: Stories from the Torres Strait exhibition. Thank you. [applause]

Date published: 13 October 2011