Paola Balla, Paul Collis, Lisa Fuller, Ian McLean, Matt Poll, Una Rey, Lisa Slade, Jen Webb, Margo Neale, 23 February 2018
MARGO NEALE: Thank you everybody for coming back. So you’re obviously — it would have been a worry if only half of you’d come back. We’d have to say, ‘Oh my goodness. The morning didn’t work.’ Anyway, thank you for all coming back so promptly. We’re going to kick off the second session, the second half of the day. There’s a quote, ‘I have the songlines of storytelling’. And of course today that’s been nuanced significantly by a number of people. This next session is an exploration of the relationship between the ancient stories of many cultures and Indigenous storytelling. And in this comparison, with the potential for future-proofing songlines — sorry, between Indigenous and non-indigenous modes of storytelling, and looking at what kind of space is there in future-proofing songlines in the wider sense.
So how do Indigenous modes of storytelling register with the forms and structures of non-Indigenous narrative styles? What comparisons can be made with said stream-of-consciousness narratives. And there’s a number of other interesting references will be made by Jen Webb, who’s the Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research at the University of Cambridge. She’s another one of those distinguished, as some call — and Howard’s another one. If you don’t know it, they’re distinguished professors. Not amateurs, much better.
So she’s one of them, and she’s got two fabulous people who work with her out of the University of Canberra. One’s Lisa Fuller, who’s an Indigenous publisher, writer, and award winner of the David Unaipon [Award] in 2017. I’ll tell you a little bit more about that in a minute. And Paul Collis is an Indigenous academic, and the author of Dancing Home, another winner of the David Unaipon Award, with the Dancing Home book. He will — technology’s fantastic because he’ll be here on prerecord as well. In the old days, you just replaced them. But no, they can’t get away. He ran away, but we got him.
So in terms of Jen Webb, distinguished professor — I’m very naughty to keep doing that. Other way around? You’re doing Paul first? Paul first. Poor Paul, because he’s not here. So he’s a Barkindji man, and he will introduce himself. He’s from Bourke, far northwest New South Wales. He’s an emerging writer and poet, as I’ve cryptically said before. And he works at the University of Canberra, teaching Creative Writing. He holds a PhD in Cultural Theory and Creative Writing. And this first novel, as I said, Dancing Home, which clearly you’ll all have to rush out and get, won that award in 2017 and was published by the University of Queensland Press in 2017.
[Video starts] PAUL COLLIS: Let me tell you about this songline, this Dreaming track of mine, Porcupine Dreaming. It starts way down in Victoria, near the Murray River, and it runs up the Darling, up the Baka. You people call that Darling River. It means ‘my darling’, anyway. There it goes, right towards the east. Towards the east, through [inaudible] country, through stone country. Up past Mt Oxley, which is a main Dreaming site out that way, out in the west, in the far northwest corner.
Go on up to Queensland. Up into Queensland, up through [Indigenous word] country. My mother’s people. Wari people, [inaudible] people. And it goes right again, straight towards Uluru. All the way to Uluru.
Now, that Dreaming track, that old songline, that’s coming to be. A long time ago, before man walked around the earth, there were these giant animals, and there was an old porcupine mother. She had her babies on her back, and this giant dingo was chasing her. And as she run, this old porcupine, she chucked her babies off her back underneath these trees, and they had to stay real quiet. The little babies, they went to sleep.
In time, those little babies grew into these hills, and they zigzagged right across the landscape, all the way up to Uluru. I walked on it one time. But before that time, I’d seen this old man in Bourke, and he said, ‘Oh go on now, boy’. He talked like that, you know? ‘I’m going on now, boy’. Which way you going? He said, ‘I’ll go this way’, and he put his hand up towards the sky. I watched him walk away, a long way away into the dust, and the dust gathered him up. He disappeared.
My grandfather, he come in from the station. I said, ‘Grandfather, my uncle — he’s gone’. He said, ‘Yes, son. I know. He’s gone Dreaming’. I said, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ He said, ‘It’s a songline. He’s gone on the songline’. He said, ‘One day I’ll take you there’. One day, when I was about 10 years old, my grandfather took me out to the Dreaming track. He showed me the sacred place. He said, ‘This is your Dreaming track here, son’, and he told me the story about the porcupine and the dingo. Then he told me the law that runs with that.
He said, ‘This is sacred country. When you go through law, you walk these hills. See them hills where the little babies are?’ He said, ‘They’re sacred. You’ve got to be real quiet out here. No mucking around. No noise’. He said, ‘When you’re quiet like that, you’ll see the country back. It’s a songline,’ that’s what he said. I thought about that for many years, and many years after. I did go through law, and I went back out that country. I was up in nearby country, and I started walking them hills. They’re about, oh maybe three or four mile apart, and they zigzag all the way across. It’s flat country out there.
I walked up the top of one, and I sat there. I won’t tell you what I did. Then I walked down, walked over the next one, same thing. I did this for two days. I had to walk a long way. Somewhere along the way I found myself, and I [inaudible] myself. It’s hard to explain. I’d become almost like part of the dust, you know, part of the earth itself. It was really beautiful.
Anyone on that songline, that knows that songline, they take you in. They give you protection. They’ll even fight for you, give you food, give you a place to sleep. And the same with them people, if they come your way. You take them in because they are porcupine Dreaming like you, like me. They’re porcupine Dreaming.
In my novel, Dancing Home, a blackie comes out of jail, he’s a Wiradjuri warrior. And as he passes through the mountains, the Blue Mountains, he sees our songline cut to ribbons. Our mother earth, she’s there scarred and bleeding with these new roads that go through, new songlines, but they made too much noise for old mother earth. And Blackie, he knows, when he gets up near [inaudible], he gets out of the car. It’s been raining, you know? He starts dancing on the ground and takes his shoes off, kicks them away. Takes his shirt off, throws it away, and he starts dancing on the ground. He goes, ‘Ah, ah, ah.’
He starts dancing. The mud flies up, hits him in the face. And he’s dancing a bit louder. ‘Ah, ah, ah. Brrrrrr. Shshsh.’ That old country comes alive because it knows that the Wiradjuri warrior is back there, using the songline. Bringing the country back to earth, back to life. And when all them birds sing out real loud when you come on that songline, when they know you’re there, you know? They’ll even come down from the sky. They’ll nest in the trees, and they’ll look at you. They sing out real loud. They’re happy because you brought the country back with Dreaming, and Dreaming is law.
So there’s a porcupine Dreaming law that goes with boys when they go through initiation. I don’t know about the girls, that’s a different story. With them, I can’t say, you know? But the boys, when they go through law, they do this stuff. They walk the hills, man. They’re out there for a long time. Sometimes they could be out there for two years before they come back in. And you’re getting the law. Because the Dreaming track, the songline is the law. It carries the law. It is part of the law, and you are in there Dreaming. When you’re in that Dreaming, nothing else really matters. You’re just outside of everything. You’re inside Dreaming. It’s wrapped up.
And I think of that old man, when he said, ‘I’m going on now. I’ll go this way’. And when I watched him walk away, the dust gathered him up. I still think about that old man, that old uncle. One day I’ll see him again. One day I’ll see him again. It’s been very hot this summer, in this autumn of my life. But soon, soon I’ll walk Dreaming. I’ll see them old people again. It’ll be good to see old friends.
MARGO NEALE: You can see why his book, Dancing Home, won the award, if he writes like that. It’s fabulous.
The next person we have — do you like that dramatic effect we had where the [inaudible] out of sync? We just thought we’d give it a try, just to add a bit of — so you had to pay more attention.
MARGO NEALE: No, no, no. That’s a logical explanation. Anyway, so the next thing is, the next person. Not the next thing. So sorry, Lisa. Lisa Fuller. As I said earlier, she won the 2017 David Unaipon Award for an unpublished Indigenous writer, and more recently the 2018 Eleanor Dark Flagship Fellowship.
So Lisa has a Masters of Creative Writing. She attended the 2014 residential editorial program, and is a joint winner — so many winners here — joint winner of the 2014 Anne Edgeworth Fellowship. She’s previously published poetry and short fiction in Indigenous Etchings: Treaty in 2011, By Close of Business by Us Mob Writing in 2013, and ‘Ochre Lines’ in Verity La in 2017, as well as in Too Deadly: Our Boys, Our Way, Our Business, 2017 as well. So very busy the last couple of years.
As an editor and publisher by trade, Lisa is currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Canberra. She’s part of the Jen [Webb] mob out there. At the University of Canberra, she focuses on oral and archival research in her community, which is very much the theme of the day. So welcome Lisa.
LISA FULLER: Sorry, I would have cut that back if I knew Margo had to read it out. Sorry about that, Margo. I’d just like to start off by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet here today, the Ngunnawal people. And I’d like to pay my respects to them, their elders, past, present, and future.
I’m a Wuilli Wuilli woman. I come from a small town called [inaudible] in southeast Queensland. I’m also descended from Gurang Gurang and Wakka Wakka mobs. So it’s important for me to acknowledge them because it’s my way of acknowledging my grandmother and my great-grandmother, who were matriarchs to their mobs.
I, as Margo said, was a publisher for about seven years, and I’ve been an editor for about eight. According to my mum, I have always been a writer. Writing and storytelling have always been linked for me, but I’ve started to question this recently with my PhD at UC. When I first started I thought I had it all figured out, you know? I was going to do A, use B, and it’ll equal C. No good.
When I was doing my Masters, actually, I sat down with my aunties, and one of them said to me, ‘When are you going to do the true history of this town?’ I thought, ‘Oh you know, I’ve been at Aboriginal Studies Press’. I thought, ‘This’ll be easy, a straight non-fiction community history. No worries.’ But when I started to think about how exactly my community would best engage with the work, that’s when my trouble started.
Changing any story from oral to written has inherent issues with it, regardless of your background, your heritage, your culture, because you necessarily lose expression and nuance any time you move forms. Adapting stories from my mob into written form means not just this difficulty, but also changing from one culture to another. Publishing is a very Eurocentric process, and one that requires works to be written largely for a non-Aboriginal audience if you’re planning to get it published.
This is a simple matter of money. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are less than three per cent of our population, and publishers have to earn some money. So they have to aim it to as wide an audience as possible. As a result though, you lose the cultural context with the work. That’s my feeling, and people will disagree, I’m sure. Historically, and still today, oral storytelling doesn’t have the same acceptance and cache in mainstream Australia as something that has been written down, which is hugely problematic for me, for obvious reasons.
But what this means is a book carries with it a certain level of legitimacy for a work within it. This can lead to the unintended view, by wider Australian society, that this is the real version of an event or belief. A great example is the Dreaming stories and how they change and adapt as the travel the songlines, depending on the peoples, cultures, and beliefs involved, and particularly as the landscape changes. This doesn’t mean that one story is not just as important as another. Much like the many translations and interpretations of the Bible, who is to say what is true and authentic?
For my PhD, I’ve been struggling on how to work within my own culture and that of the academy, and using that in my writing. Or even asking myself if I should. Although it’s a bit late for that now, with the David Unaipon Award. But I got my aunties’ okay with that one, so I’ll let that go. I’ve had to confront, and still have to deal with, the idea that a lot of my own practices have been colonised by my experience as a publisher and editor in a non-Aboriginal society and within the academy, and question exactly where the divide lies between my cultural and academic practices and responsibilities.
Book publishing has become more problematic to me than it was just a year ago, especially this idea of authenticity, but a story that is made to adhere to a Eurocentric process and a form that can be understood by a dominant culture. I’ve come across a lot of direct conflict between these issues. [Points to slide] You can see. This doesn’t represent anyone. The fonts are mucked up a bit. Sorry about that. I hope you can read that. There’s my culture responsibilities and beliefs, my academic training, and I should have said my editorial training and my publishing training as well.
As an example of this, my mob have their own version of the Seven Sisters story, but I don’t have permission to speak about that today, so I won’t. Most Australian societies hold knowledge — I’m sorry. Most Western societies hold knowledge up as free and easily accessible by anyone who wants to view it, whereas I was brought up in a culture that requires knowledge be earned and acquired slowly.
Documentation of culture makes this knowledge accessible in a way that it was never intended to be within my mob. It can also lead to this idea that one particular story is not only authentic but traditional — again, another word I have huge issues with. The very idea denies that culture and story is constantly adapting and evolving with peoples’ cultures, languages and place. I would never want my work to be used to tell someone in my community that their stories aren’t authentic or traditional today, tomorrow, or years from now, simply because I wrote them down.
The core of my mob’s storytelling is around the connectedness of all things. From daily life to spiritual life, and everything in between. With the world around us that we see, and what we don’t. Yet my academic training requires that I focus my PhD into smaller, and smaller, and smaller segments, and I’m just not sure how to do it. Paul has demonstrated, with his brilliant video, the depth and breadth that storytelling can take. Layers and layers of meaning are in that. It’s so complex, and you’d need to hear it a lot of times to be able to pull everything out of it and really appreciate what’s going on.
Like close-ups of infinite strands of a spider’s web without end: each strand is beautiful and distinct, but it holds no form without the connection to the strands around it. That’s not to say that there aren’t many amazing Aboriginal and Torres Strait writers out there who are dealing with this right now and doing so in a very successful way. I’m talking about this from my PhD and from my training as an editor, publisher, and as a woman from my mob.
As a writer and an editor, I’ve noticed that no matter the cultural diversity, there are a few things that seem to be consistent with Aboriginal writers. And Torres Strait Islander writers — I’m sorry. We write how we speak. We talk all around a topic, and then we come back to it. We repeat things. Sometimes the story will change in the repetition. More information is added, more layers and complex information given as the listener proves they are worth trusting with the information.
While I recognise that straight transcription doesn’t make for a good book, my question is, if you edit all of this, forcing it into a more Eurocentric structure for publication, doesn’t this necessarily lose a lot of what makes it authentic and different in the first place?
Confused? I know I am. Editing and publishing — okay. As an editor and publisher, I completely agree and acknowledge that it’s always one of negotiation. Again, I am speaking from my position, and there is no such thing as an ‘Aboriginal position’ on this. And as such, there are absolutely no right answers, because we’re all very different. We’re different cultures, languages, peoples, nations, and individuals. But I really do feel that context is key, and adaptability and patience is at the core of that. If the players involved have an understanding of the cultural differences, or at least have a willingness to step back and understand their own positions and where they speak from, then I think we’re on the right track.
At the heart of our culture, my mob emphasised the need to listen. Listen carefully, listen closely, and keep listening until it starts making sense to you. We believe that while not all elements of a story will make sense to you now, it will when you’re ready to hear it, and that’s what I’m hoping will happen with my PhD. Thank you.
MARGO NEALE: Thank you Lisa, for opening up another envelope on the cross-cultural expressions and the difficulties that are in there. The thing is, perhaps filmmaking might be easier than writing.
So now we’ll talk to, or Jen’s going to talk to us. Jen Webb, who I said earlier is the Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research. Her recent publications include Researching Creative Writing, Art and Human Rights: Contemporary Asian Contexts by Manchester UP [University Press], and the OUP [Oxford University Press] bibliography entry for [Pierre] Bourdieu in 2017.
I mean, there’s no way, in a page, you could even begin to touch on the publications of Jen, but this is a good little summary. Her poetry includes Stolen Stories, Borrowed Lines, and Sentences from the Archive, which is very recent work, pressed in 2016. She’s a chief investigator on the ISC discovery projects, working in the field, creative graduates in Australia and China. So she’s another one that zaps around. So what do you do? I’m sorry. Is that the name of the title — and so what do you do? And the other one is graduates in the creative and cultural industries. Did I get it right?
I first met Jen at the QAG in probably 1996/7, during the Asia Pacific Triennial, when she was part-time editor of the APT catalogue. And then I turned around for five minutes, bugger me dead, and here she is in Canberra being a professor and doing lots and lots of writing and poetry and so on. But the other good thing about her — not only her work is great, but her capacity to mentor, foster, and bring out the best in all those around her, I think is worthy of note. So she’s offered to speak with us today about a topic in relation to the literature, the narrative modes. Thanks Jen.
JEN WEBB: Wow. Third-degree lighting. I actually feel a complete fraud. I’m the only person, probably in this whole room, who knows pretty well nothing about Aboriginal culture. I haven’t ever studied it. I know nothing about songlines except the word, which I find beautiful. I’ve learned more this morning than I’ve ever known about songlines, so thank you for that.
What that means is I can’t talk about songlines, nor do I have any community. I don’t actually belong anywhere. There is no national community that sees me as their member in any permanent sense. So I just kind of float around, and I live in the world of stories and poetry. And that suits me to a certain extent.
So I’ll stick then to the idea of story with literature as a backdrop. I don’t want to talk about the [inaudible] in Europe in the late 1890s, and 1912, when a bunch of European artists and writers nicked off to Africa, Asia, and Australia, and stole their images and made fresh work. We know it happened. That’s in the past. I do want to start with ancient stories because that’s where I started as a child. I was sick all my childhood, and so I read.
I read what I call myth, and I’ll come back to that in a minute. I loved it. It seemed to be a whole world was possible. That the transformative power was present in these stories, these impossible acts of fight and flight. Freedom from the straitjacket of scientific reason. Rocks could talk to humans. Humans could become birds and trees and stars. The gods walked among us, and it all made perfect sense.
Now, I’m not the only person, by any means, who is fascinated by these. Human beings are. We have been telling these stories as long as we’ve been humans, and they have shaped individuals and communities through the capacity, I think, largely to deliver form within the chaos of everyday life. These sort of stories exploit the operations of metaphor, and by doing so they structure our ways of thinking, our ways of knowing, and our ways of navigating our world.
So across the history of human beings, story is there. A dense and complicated weaving of narrative, and plot, and character, and storylines, and the rhythms of being in breath. I’ll put up some images. That’s my favourite myth. I feel like that’s my life.
Margo mentioned Salman Rushdie and Bruce Chatwin’s visit to Australia in 1984, so I thought I’d just jump now from the ancient world of stories to the 1980s world of Australia very, very briefly. Rushdie left a box of notes. He has sold his papers to the library.
One of the notes is just a fragment, which he called ‘Bruce Chatwin, a Dreaming Track’. I won’t go into what that means. You’d have to kind of appropriate that term. But what his notes show is that Rushdie was deeply moved by the place, by Australia. He was deeply moved by being here in what he calls, and I’m quoting here, ‘The most astonishing, because least marked by man, landscape I’d ever laid eyes on’. He had clearly never seen your maps.
Most of his impressions of Australia, as evident in his notes, come from White Australia. He had one visit to Uluru, where he did climb the rock, and later regretted it. He also had rather half-understood ideas about Dreamings and songlines.
My own experience about Australia is, in a tiny humble way, quite similar. In 1988 and ’89, I lived with my then-husband and our primary-school-aged children on Mount Gibson Station, in Western Australia, which is about 500k northeast of Perth. Now I’d come from South Africa. My husband had come from Canada. Both of us had come via a decade or so in New Zealand. So we knew a lot about Australia because we’d seen Crocodile Dundee.
In other words, we were blind. We were illiterate. We knew that where we were living was effectively a cathedral, but we didn’t know whose cathedral it was. We learned a bit more about it later. The WA museum curators would come up quite often to look at sites and make sure they were being looked after. Then there was an old man, a dogger who used to walk the emu fence line, knocking over dogs. When he came past our station, he’d stay with us, have a meal, and have a bed for a few nights, and tell us stories.
They told us what we were on was a [inaudible] country. They showed us the location of some of the sacred sites. We learned what they thought might be some of the background stories for some of these sites. But as the museum people said themselves back then, they were working in the dark. They were relying on inferences and assumptions because the local people had been so thoroughly dispossessed by the settlers. And I’m happy to say there’s actually a real return now. That station is now a national park, and being properly looked after, and the traditional owners are actually reworking the site and presumably singing the stories back into life.
So my family and I, we blundered around on that great big chunk of land. We never were sure if we were standing where we should not be standing. We never properly graphed the stories behind those places, or were sure how they figured in our everyday lives. This is one of those sites, [Indigenous word]. It didn’t even have a name then. Well, it had a name. White people didn’t know the name, and therefore it didn’t have a name. It’s very, very ancient. Tens of thousands of years, people had been coming from around that part of WA to meet and to cook and to gather, to do business. And the museum protected that site constantly. My kids and I would just go stand on the edge of the dry lake, and look at it, and go, ‘Oh my god’.
Clearly, it was astounding. We were awed by it. We were careful to treat it with respect because we didn’t know what else to do, you know? It’s obviously a precious site. Like Rushdie, we were very moved by the space. Like Rushdie, we received it at second-hand. Not from the people whose land it was, so we had no real sense of what it was all about. How could we have? It was in a different language.
And when I say language, I mean story as a mode of language use. Any narrative, any particular story operates in an actual named language with its own lexicon and grammar and syntax. It also operates well beyond language, in the domain of figure, in the domain of affect. Story is very rarely concerned with deductive reason or with facts. It is very concerned with the communication of ideas and images and emotion and characters that help us make sense of the world.
Because of this, as Barthes tells us, it is always threaded through every breath we take. Our way of engaging with the world is narrative. We make sense of it. We make sense of ourselves, and we are made sense of by story. So you know, it’s present in every age, every place. It’s international, transhistorical, transcultural. It’s simply there, like life itself. Which is not to say it’s always the same narrative, but there are familiar tropes and familiar characters and scenarios that emerge and re-emerge across cultures.
Ancient narrative is a huge and often chaotic corpus, and since at least until recently it was orally transmitted and in many places remains primarily orally transmitted, the narrative arcs and particular details often change quite significantly with the teller or with the context of the telling, which is kind of where — you know, I picked some of this up from Lisa as well. What do you do then, when it’s constantly changing?
So there are similarities in stories told from across time and culture. As a mythologist, Joseph Campbell, argues in his massive study of — sorry, Lisa. Again, I will apologise to you properly in a minute. Myth across culture. The Seven Sisters is such an important one, and we’re all very aware of that. It has captured people from around the world. They’re the subject of ancient stories from Greece and Japan, China, Egypt, India, Iran, from across Africa, the Americas, Polynesia, Australia, anybody with eyes. Every community, you could see the stars, want to understand them. The stars spoke to them, and stories emerged from that.
In most of the versions, the sisters and often their mother are being harassed by randy and angry gods and men. In a lot of the versions they are very heroic. They take on the challenge of the sexual predator. They fight back. And although they lose a lot, they are transformed, and they do end up gaining something glorious.
The version I was raised on was the Greek one, where the sisters were the daughters of the Titan Atlas, who holds the world on his shoulders, which I think is a nice image, and of the sea nymph [inaudible]. So they belong to both land and water, and of course now to the heavens. They were monstered by the hunter Orion. The way good Zeus decided to save them was to transform them in various ways, and then send them to the sky. And then, in his own generous way, he set Orion right there beside them, still perving at them.
With all the meanings and uses and being of these stories, I keep bumping into tales of the abuse of women throughout all the early stories, and their resistance when [inaudible] to such abuse. I think this is really evident, in at least some of the Aboriginal Australian versions I’ve seen in this exhibition, or I might just think that because I saw the show in the middle of the Me Too movement. I’m not the only one. There’s a blogger from the States, actually, who put this up in 2016 [points to slide], so before the show. I know. What the f—k, right? Coming out with a veritable rape circus of Greek mythology. It’s hard to image any of us having a positive attitude about women saying no to sex. But here we are, in this Aboriginal story, about to learn what the f—k ‘no’ means. I love it.
So what’s it all about? I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s all about. I’m not a mythologist. And here I will finally apologise properly to Lisa. When we’re talking about the session, I kept saying, but then finally she very gently said, ‘Well actually, it’s not myth. Don’t say myth. These are real stories.’ She’s right. They are real stories. The word myth though does get a bad rap in post-enlightenment contexts. Adorno wrote about it. Enlightenment’s progress was the disenchantment of the world. It wanted to dispel myths, to overthrow fantasy with knowledge.
Now, in this sort of view myth is associated with unreason, positioned outside the domain of knowledge and within the realm of fantasy. Okay. I mean, myth is not typically concerned with empirical reality. It’s concerned with story. But the word itself, as most of you probably know, comes from the Greek mythos, which doesn’t mean fantasy. It means speech, thought, story.
So a myth then — I think all the stories that we tell, whether they are written in poetry or a book of prize-winning novels or whether they are between ourselves — myth can be understood as something that generates ways of saying and thinking, that provide spaces in which cultural experiences can be portrayed and explored. So I do apologise for using the word ‘myth’ because of its negative associations, but where I do use it, I’m talking about story, possibility, pedagogy — they’re always very full of pedagogy — packed with insights, understandings, and ways of coping with the world.
Above all, story, literature, mythology, poetry, however we frame these things, these things are knowledge. And they’re so important from the ancient world because if anybody ever needed clear and concrete thinking, it was the ancients all around the world. They didn’t have Google to answer questions. They didn’t have satellites to tell them where they were. They didn’t have machines that go ping to cure arcane ailments. They therefore needed really good systems of observation, testing, analysis, record keeping, and communication of such knowledge. Stories are an ideal way to say this.
So [inaudible] points out that story and reason remain discrete ways of thinking, but they are actually much more closely allied than is conventionally accepted. Both are about ways of managing the very real complexities of what we call reality, and they do it in language. Holocaust survivor Primo Levi deals with the problematic. He’s talking about stars, and he says, ‘For a discussion of stars, our language is inadequate and seems laughable, as if someone were trying to plough with a feather. It’s a language that was born with us. It has our dimensions. It is human.’ So for Levi, these limits are framed by language and framed by our capacity to make stories.
What he didn’t, at that point at least, acknowledge, was that language is not just human signs. Language contains the environment, social norms and morays, memories, meanings, and it isn’t just human. What the disenchantment of the world deprived us of is the shared community we have with land, and plant, and animals, which is so evident in songlines. Story returns this to us. We see it all the time, of course, in children’s stories, but also in a lot of literary work. And I think perhaps of Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider.
On the other side of the world, Laurie Anderson touches on a similar issue, which is our shared relations with all living beings. She says John Lilly, the guy who says he can talk to dolphins, said he was in an aquarium, and he was talking to a big whale that kept swimming around and around in his tank. And the whale kept asking him questions telepathically. One of the questions the whale kept asking was do all oceans have walls?
Literature, poetry, picture books, anything written with an openness to the world works on our senses. And our senses, if we pay attention to them, tell us so much about the feeling of being, about the ethics of being. They tell us about what matters in the here and now of today, as well as the enduring issues that either dog or enchant human communities across time. And as the previous speakers have all made clear, they give us the tools to understand or to navigate the social and human and physical and numinous worlds. Thank you.
MARGO NEALE: If you could think about what it is you’d really like to comment on. We can go into a conversation. Whatever feels right. A conversation amongst each other, or a question, or a response of some kind. It’s kind of open tether, if that’s the word.
MARGO NEALE: All right. We do have —
QUESTION: Hi. My name’s Sarah. I have a question for Lisa. You’re talking about the difficulties with the cultural translation of oral stories to printed text. Are there other forms or media that you think would work better?
LISA FULLER: The problem is I’m a writer, an editor and a publisher. I’m definitely focused in on book-length forms. So it’s hard for me to say that. I was actually really hoping to be here for the entire symposium, but unfortunately I had a class. I don’t know. Maybe there’s other people in the room who would be better placed to talk about that. In my experience though, the best way to get it is around a fire with my aunties and my uncles.
MARGO NEALE: The next panel who got thrust into the limelight a few minutes earlier than they anticipated, is dealing with the question, of course, of art — as you can see, or paint, or whatever you define art as. The visual model of communication. How can art be used to preserve the legacy of songlines? Examining the changing relationship between how communities work with museums, rather than how museums work with communities.
Future exhibitions, new frameworks for understanding songlines and Dreamings, and art as history and other narrative forms may be explored. I wrote this, but I don’t know what they did with it. So may or may not be any of that, but that’s the starting point. We have Professor Ian McLean here to chair it. He’s the Hugh Ramsay Chair of Australian Art History at the University of Melbourne, and Senior Research Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Wollongong.
He’s published extensively, as I’m sure many of you know, on Australian art, and particularly Indigenous art. Did a fantastic recent book called Rattling Spears which has sold out and is coming out cheaper, not because it’s lesser, but because it’s softcover. Is that correct? Oh, he’s not listening. [Laughs.] His books include Indigenous Archives, the Making and Unmaking of Aboriginal Art, with Darren Jorgenson, Rattling Spears, as I just said, A History of Indigenous Australian Art. The other is A Double Desire, which I have a chapter in called Transculturation and Indigenous Art: How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art. Prior to that was White Aborigines: Identity Politics in Australian Art.
And of course he was very close to Gordon Bennett, the Australian artist. He did, I think, co-wrote that book called The Art of Gordon Bennett. Now, I’ve done a lot of work with Ian over the years, and he’s a solid character. He’s good. So whatever that means. He’s just very different than me. He’s quiet. He’s considered. We both ended up in the Philip Adams show together one time, and you know how Philip Adams kind of rattles on? Unless you’re Bruce Shapiro, he cuts you off, right? Do you notice that? So he just cuts you off. He had a bit of trouble cutting me off, but it was interesting. By the time Ian would consider the question to give a considerate response, well we’d all moved on.
Anyway, I was glad I was there to fill the gaps with god-knows-what. And then we have Lisa Slade. I know a lot of these people are known to you, but it’s the only proper way to do this. Lisa is the Assistant Director of Artistic Programs at the Art Gallery of South Australia, and has worked with artists from the [inaudible] lands since arriving in Adelaide in 2011. Her most recent curatorial projects include ‘Sappers and Shrapnel: Contemporary Art and the Art of the Trenches’. And her forthcoming projects include the re-presentation of the Australian art collection at the Art Gallery of South Australia, which we launched in November this year.
She’s done a lot in the area of Indigenous art as well, and is truly a gem to be working with us in our field, which of course — and any other day I’d say it’s not Indigenous art, it’s Australian art, but that distinction is something else to unpack. And I think you were going to talk a little bit about the Seven Sisters story, weren’t you? So the most hallowed of subjects painted by the five [sisters — I’m sure you will see some there — the Ken sisters, from [Indigenous word] or came through [inaudible] arts. Junkara [inaudible], Archie Young, Freda Brady, Morenka Tulken, and Sandra Ken. The favourite subject is [Indigenous word] or Seven Sisters. And you’ll see a number of examples in the exhibition.
Their birthright and bond is part of this, and this is a big story. They’ve laid this down and painted up many times in recent years, in escalating fashion I’d say, with the most recent iteration included in this year’s forthcoming Adelaide biennial. Anyway, that’s her platform for taking off today.
There’s two more to go. I’d better hurry up. Goodness me. Might need a pit stop before I finish. So Matt Poll, who’s sitting at the end, and I’ll get back to Paola in a minute. For the past eight years, Matt has worked as Assistant Curator at the Macleay Museum Indigenous heritage Collections — so we’ve got an art gallery, museum, and university mix here — as well as being the University of Sydney’s Repatriation Project Officer.
His current Masters by Research project seeks to further develop methods of collections, historic records, and archival materials in the reconstruction of cultural identities, exploring how visual artists in particular have developed auto-ethnographic methods of engaging with historical information outside of academic frameworks. So again, we’re talking about boundary riders. He certainly comes into that realm, as these people all do in different ways.
Paola Balla there, second from my left. I came across Paola in recent years really. First, through the fabulous exhibition she did with — was it with Max Delaney at ACCA [Australian Centre for Contemporary Art]?
PAOLA BALLA: Yes.
MARGO NEALE: Anyway, in Melbourne, called Sovereignty. And I thought, ‘Might see it, might not. Same old, same old.’ I went in and it was fabulous. What I took away with it, apart from lots of great ideas — curatorial ideas and new ways of presenting our material — was the red that you see in this exhibition, the men’s red room, came from the red that Paola and Max used there. Clearly it came with much more than that, but that’s a tangible connection to this place here.
She’s done another one recently with a number of other lady curators, cross-cultural, called Finished Business —
PAOLA BALLA: Unfinished.
MARGO NEALE: Unfinished Business. How could I forget that? It was such a catchcry. That’s also in the same place, and worth looking at if you’re going to Melbourne any time. She’s an artist, curator, and writer. She founded the Indigenous Arts and Cultural Program. And — can you say that for me?
PAOLA BALLA: Wominjeka.
MARGO NEALE: Wominjeka Festival at FCAC [Footscray Community Arts Centre]. Electra as well, based at the Moondani Balluk Indigenous Academic Centre at Victoria University. Malinda and I and this mob were all together very recently over — and you need to know that. Gary Foley’s archives are being digitised, and there will be other stuff added, like Roberta Sykes. So it’s really making accessible an Indigenous perspective on Australian history. And, you know, it’ll be a very colourful and dynamic perspective. So we’re all working on that because Gary keeps telling us he’s going to kick the bucket. But you know, he’s been saying that for about 20 years. But we all know life is a terminal illness, so we’re all subject to that.
Anyway, she currently is the inaugural Lisa Blair Indigenous Research Scholar. Some of you may remember Lisa Blair. She was a really fabulous lady. She went too early. Her [Electra] writings appear in Etchings Indigenous, The Lifted Brow, Peril magazine, Weather Stations for Tony Birch, and The Victorian Writer. And she’s now a regular guest speaker and facilitator at a whole range of things. We’re really pleased — and there’s so much about her, but it’ll be up on the web. I just think it’s important to know we have, and you’ve seen here today, we have amongst us a lot of very fabulous young people coming on stream, who are skilled, knowledgeable, and out there, and working with us all in a fabulous way. So thank you very much Paola, Matt, Lisa, and Ian. I owe it to you.
IAN MCLEAN: Thank you Margo. Is this on? It’s not on.
MARGO NEALE: I told you he was quiet.
IAN MCLEAN: Thank you Margo. Margo has too many stories to tell. I’d just like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that we’re on. What we’re going to do, what we’ve decided to do, or what I’ve told them we’re going to do — because what we have here is, we have a — I’ve asked them to put these particular hats on. These people are sort of doing multi-tasking. We have Lisa from National Art Gallery. We have Paola, who curates contemporary art, the contemporary art space. And then, over there on the periphery, we have the museum. So what I thought we’d try to talk about, or unpack I suppose, is the different curatorial strategies of these three different institutions, and how they — both their differences and the sort of crossovers that are occurring in the exhibition that this conference is all about.
As I’m sure you’ll realise, we are dealing here with another binary. We’ve been chucking around a few binaries today, myth and reason, oral and written, and another great binary of our times is the museum and the art gallery. The contemporary art space is a much later comer. It didn’t sort of come in until about the 1990s. I don’t want to say too much about that, but I did say something — where’s Margo gone? Over there. I did get one word in to Philip Adams.
MARGO NEALE: [inaudible]
IAN MCLEAN: And one was that back in the 19thcentury, when the art gallery and the museum as public institutions came into being, in places like France and England, they decided they needed one museum for the winners, and that was the art gallery, and another museum for the losers. So all the Indigenous art ended up in the museum, and all the Western art ended up in the art gallery. And that sort of continued really, right up until quite recently. Up until really about when the contemporary art museum comes in. And it’s in the contemporary art space that we actually start getting Indigenous and Western art being exhibited side by side. First of all, in Australia really, in the 1980s.
So they’re the sort of things we want to talk about. The only thing I would sort of say is I think Indigenous art has probably done more than any other art form to begin to collapse that difference. So that when an art gallery or a museum puts on an exhibition of an Indigenous art, and Margo’s worried, is she exhibiting it as art? Is it going to look good as art? Whereas, over in the art gallery they’re worried, are we getting the story right? So these things start to cross. But anyway, I don’t want to take away from what all these people are going to say.
We’re just going to begin by taking it in turns of saying a few words about what — our sort of position statement I suppose. And then we’ll try and have a bit of a discussion and dialogue. And maybe we can end up with some questions from the audience.
Margo, when have I got to end? Because I know we’ve started about 20 minutes early, haven’t we?
MARGO NEALE: A little past three o’clock.
IAN MCLEAN: So we’ve got 45 minutes. Okay.
LISA SLADE: Thanks Ian. I work on [Indigenous word] country, and in Adelaide, this idea of the relationship between the museum and the art gallery is thrown into sharp relief because we live side by side. There are just metres between the South Australian Museum and the Art Gallery of South Australia. So this very question of how we go about working with artists and singing up culture is one that we, both institutions, take very, very seriously.
What I might do is, I’ve just got three images that Margo’s already alluded to, The [Indigenous word]. And to me, it provides us with a little bit of a case study. If I just show those three pics there, and I might just talk to the approach that we have at the art gallery, because I think the images will help you get a sense of that. The Art Gallery of South Australia has increasingly engaged in recent years with contemporary artists. And I make no distinction here between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal with all artists, in fact international artists as well. In many ways, the Art Gallery of South Australia has attempted to redefine itself by looking more like the contemporary art gallery. Is it through that process that it’s managed to throw off some of the shackles of the past, perhaps?
Just to underscore Ian’s point about collections, our collection of Aboriginal art began in 1939, when Louis McCubbin quite reluctantly accepted the acquisition of an Albert Namatjira. He was offered a second, but said, ‘No thanks. We’ve got one. We’re okay.’ In 1948, we received, as did all state galleries, works from the Azeal expedition, and they were the bastard barks, as Margo’s called them — I love that term in your paper on that series — as well as the works on paper or card, which are actually even more of a kind of bastard in a sense than the Azeal box.
1948’s an important year, particularly in South Australia. We have the beginning of [inaudible], celebrating an anniversary this year. We also have some really important work happening around 1948. If I think about 1948 in our collection, it’s probably one of the most significant years. We’ve got [inaudible] who arrives as a war immigrant via Papua New Guinea because Andre Breton told him to go there because it was the capital, the centre of the surrealist world. So he arrives with Papuan artefacts and starts to create an antipodean surrealism right out of Adelaide.
So just to kind of dump you in, I suppose, into the charter or the world that is the Art Gallery of South Australia’s now, our job in rehanging the collection, and we’re doing that as we speak, is to really think about these narratives, these stories. And I would really encourage you to think about the idea of song. We’ve been talking, and hopefully — we haven’t done any singing today. I think that’s what’s missing in the program, Margo. But I feel as though there could have been some singing today because I think this idea of enchantment and chorus and an aria — just think of all the synonyms for song and I think you’ll start to think about what art can possibly do.
I just want to sing a little bit. Not literally. You’ve already seen that. I’m just going to show you three images, and I won’t take up too much of the panel’s time. The first is a painting that was commissioned by Art Bank, who are a collective who essentially place art into non-art zones. So very radical Trojan Horse-ing. They develop a collection, which is strong in Aboriginal art, that is shown in commercial spaces and other spaces across the country. They’ve commissioned this work, which is [Indigenous word]. Here in the foreground of this diptych we see the matriarch, Panini Mic, performing. This is in marsh. She is singing. We can’t hear her, unfortunately, but she is singing at this point. And behind her we have all of the pyrotechnical pleasure that is the painting of the Ken sisters.
I just wanted to focus on the Ken sisters. They are in the exhibition. What a fantastic mirroring opportunity, to think about the idea of a sororital songline. That is, a sisterhood songline. In the Ken sisters, we have an extension of this extraordinary matriarchal power, matrilineal power. So Panini Mic is the matriarch, and their grandmother of course passed. But the five sisters often paint the Seven Sisters. So here, within [inaudible] law, we have this window into what we’ve been talking about today, and that is the constant re-enchantment, the refusal of a past, and the idea of a continuous present.
This painting, [Indigenous word] is the honey ant of course, and [Indigenous word]. This work was photographed, and I’ve included Rhonda Dick and Brenda Douglas in the credit there, because importantly the work that is coming out of this ground is absolutely coming out of this ground on every level. Those canvases are laid down, painted up, held up, stretched by [inaudible]. These works are documented by [inaudible]. And I guess just to refer back to Ian’s provocation, at the Art Gallery of South Australia it is our role to aid that happening. I’m not going to show you any images inside the Art Gallery of South Australia because the act of painting, the act of [Indigenous word], the act of this sororital sisterhood Dreaming, if you like, happens right here. So it’s only these images that I’ll show you in the next three.
I’m very interested in what this means as an art historian. I’m interested in what [inaudible] painting does to Australian art history and our obsession with the now-troubled landscape tradition. So if you think about the history of painting, it’s usually masculine, usually solo. Canvas is usually upright. What happens when the canvas is laid down? What happens when the canvas is a collaborative enterprise? What happens when singing occurs? And I think the next work so beautifully illustrates this.
Moreover, we have a call and response. I would articulate that the process of painting used by the Ken sisters, and there’s more than the Ken sisters involved here. But the process of actually painting is a call and response. It is actually the term that we often use for ancient singing practices, where one mark is made, one mark invites another. This painting is called [Indigenous word], so it takes its name from this Dreaming. It’s a painting that was made, first shown actually, in Hazelhurst just south of Sydney. It’s now in our collection at the art gallery. Twenty-three artists. The youngest of them is 17, the oldest in her 70s. So future-proofing, there we have it. And the four out of the five Ken sisters contributed to this particular painting.
All of the kind of pyrotechnics are there. We have the terrestrial. We have the rock holes, the creek beds, Cave Hill as you’ve seen it. This painting was made not far from there. And of course we’ve also got the firmament. We’ve got the astral happening at the same time. Perhaps the way out of our quandary with Australian landscape painting, that domain which seems a little bit dead now, is through thinking very differently about landscape. And I think the Ken sisters might help us get there. And I think they would agree with me. I mean, they won the Wynne Prize. As you know, the Wynne Prize is the Australian prize for landscape.
And my final image is this image here. This painting has just arrived in Adelaide. It’s just gone up onto the walls in recent days. Here you have the five Ken sisters. From youngest on the left, [inaudible], the eldest on the right. This relationship between the young and the old is so important in the [inaudible]. The storytelling that goes on between the two, the importance of learning the pedagogical principle is enacted through the [Indigenous word]. And of course Panini Mic, their mother, is there on the right hand side. This painting is called [Indigenous word], which is the sister’s story. It will literally be shown to the public for the first time a week from today.
I’ve got a quote by [inaudible], who lives in the same community [inaudible] with the Ken sisters. She gave this fantastic response to the question of, well what does the [Indigenous word] mean today? If you don’t mind indulging me just for a tick, I’m going to read it out, just so you can share her world view about the ongoing resonance of the [Indigenous word]. And certainly this is, as a temporary custodian of this painting, I would argue that this is something that we at the gallery take very seriously.
The Ken sisters arrive in Adelaide next Friday, and they will sing in this work, Nupia Kaka Burton. Nupia has been taking to art publications, writing in both Pintinjarra and having her words translated, and has become a really important [Indigenous word] voice. Why is this story important for future generations? Well the story maps country and tells [Indigenous word] the secrets of that country, along the map. But the benefit of the story goes farther than this. This is a story about strong women. It’s about women looking after each other and working together to stay safe. The story focuses on the relationship between the oldest sister and the youngest. The oldest sister demonstrates to all the younger sisters how devoted she is to her role as the family protector and leader.
The story speaks to the importance of strength of the group of women together, and the importance of never leaving the family or woman member behind. The story is absolutely as relevant today as it has ever been. Young women aren’t facing the dangers of [Indigenous word] today, in Alice Springs or in Adelaide, but they’re surrounded by dangers and challenges. The cultural knowledge that is shared through the Seven Sisters story empowers [Indigenous word] women as much today as it did all of those years ago, before the white man’s world. Thank you.
PAOLA BALLA: I’m not sure if this is on. It’s on. I pay my respects to Ngunnawal people and land country and waters here, and thank them and country for holding me safe in this trip. And thank you, Margo, for inviting me because it’s a real honour.
Just sort of touching on what you started us off with Ian, it’s very affirming seeing this exhibition, and it’s been a really profound week-and-a-half. Some very significant things have happened for me, particularly as a [Indigenous word] woman. So I’m a long way from home. We are freshwater and saltwater people, and I am Wemba Wemba first. That is our matriarchal lineage that I belong to, and patriarchal through our [Indigenous word] country. I was really resonating, Lisa, with what you were talking about. And it’s nice to meet you because we’ve been published together before in Etchings. So I’ll give you a cuddle later.
But the importance of matriarchy is becoming more and more pronounced in my life. It’s the focus of my work and PhD, which is actually about disrupting artistic terra nullius. So it’s a space in which Aboriginal women, community women, and activists, aunties, mothers, grandmothers, and all of our sister-girls work in speaking back and speaking black. And in that sort of paraphrasing [inaudible] work, Professor Aileen Morton-Robinson’s work in talking up to the white woman. Professor Tracey Bunda in The Sovereign Aboriginal Warrior Woman, and I’m very grateful that she’s one of my mentors and supervisors in my PhD.
Mine is a creative practice PhD, so it’s practice-led, and it’s very much about the ways in which we activate spaces, we make work on country and in community spaces, that might or might not end up in the gallery space or in the museum space. We’re not making work with that intention, that that’s where it finishes up. And it doesn’t even finish up there. It’s an ongoing story, and I think that’s very important because it is about future-proofing. It’s about that danger that Auntie just spoke about, about maybe not [Indigenous word], but we have been and we do continue to be in danger from men, and patriarchal colonial violence continues for us as Aboriginal women in this country.
That’s one of the reasons why I work as a curator and artist, because it’s a space in which I can tell story, and tell the stories of resistance of our women, which is so vitally important. My PowerPoint’s not working. I’m not greatly technological. I need Lynette’s help in this. I met some friends today that I think I need to do some work with. All meant to be, I think. So sometimes I make mistakes with the PowerPoints and that technological side of it. That’s where my collaborators come in handy.
I was going to show a couple of images from Sovereignty that you mentioned, so thank you, Margo, for that. When I was invited by ACCA, by Max Delaney in particular, to curate Sovereignty with him, it was a big step because there hadn’t been an Aboriginal exhibition or artist represented in ACCA for over 12 years, which was a glaring omission in our city, particularly for the amount of art that is made in Melbourne and south-eastern Australia, by Victorian Aboriginal people in particular. We’re often overlooked in the contemporary art scene, and culturally for not being black enough or authentic enough as Aboriginal people. And one of the things that singing songlines does for me is it gives me great joy, and I’m very much reminded of, and I feel very loved up in that exhibition.
The impression I’ve gotten mostly from it is love. Love for country, love for sisters, love and the effort it takes to maintain story. But I’m also filled with grief because so many of our songlines at home are broken. As part of our exhibition at ACCA, one of the forums that I put together as part of the public programming was something called ‘Matriarchs Speak’. I invited a very important matriarchal family, the Thorpe family, to hold a forum on one of those days. It was completely sold out, and we had people on a waiting list. So we had Aunty Marge Thorpe, who’s a great activist, and her daughters, one of whom is an artist, one is an activist, and one is Lydia Thorpe who’s just become the very first Aboriginal woman in Victorian parliament, a Greens member. She’s brilliant.
Aunty Marge spoke to her about something that day. She said that she’d met old people from up north, and they’d said to her, ‘You know, you’ve got stories down in your country that are connected to ours. So the songline, don’t ever think they’re all gone for you because they come right down’. We have Bunjil’s Cave. Bunjil is our creative spirit in Victoria — for want of a better term, Victoria, it’s not ours. But our country’s down there. And in Bunjil’s Cave, in the western districts, he’s accompanied by two dingoes. You know, hearing that story today about dingoes, and this old fellow said to Annie Marge, ‘Those dingoes travelled a long way, from our country down into yours. And we can help you put those stories back together’.
And Aunty Marge is very passionate about that. Not just for the sake of making art about it, not about making a community project or a particular outcome, but for it being a transformational, a sovereign, and a treaty process to help us heal. So I’m very interested in that. I feel very fired up. There are some significant things that my daughter and myself and my mother have experienced in the last week-and-a-half that I can’t talk about, but are very important. And I feel very inspired by the stories I’ve heard today, and very motivated, and very emotional. And yesterday, being in the exhibition was really powerful for me, Margo. So thank you. And to be in the room where you use the same red, which is very —
MARGO NEALE: It’s as red as your lipstick.
PAOLA BALLA: Yes. I always wear it. I always wear it. I wear it especially because when I was younger men told me not to do it. An older cousin told me, and I said, ‘You watch me’. So I wore it more, you know? I was raised by very strong women who enjoy speaking back, and very courageous, my mother and grandmother. And my great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother, I follow in their lineage. So that red’s really important to me because I had to fight — not fight Max too hard, I was able to push him over pretty easy. There was someone else in the gallery we were working with on the colour selection, and they wanted one of those ochre colours, one of those more Aboriginal colours. I said, ‘Bugger that. That is not happening. It’s got to be a blood red, a lipstick red. It’s got to be a strong, powerful red’, because that was the matriarchal room in the exhibition. So the only way that I’d agree to co-curate the show with Max was if he agreed that there would be a woman-only space, and that we would have more women in the show than men. And that’s not because I don’t respect my patriarchs. It’s because we needed to fight some of these false stories that we’re not cultured, as Aboriginal women, and that we don’t hold knowledge. That we’re not respected enough, you know? So I needed to make sure there was a space in which all people that visited that exhibition would just listen deeply to Aboriginal women’s stories. So that’s why that red is there.
But it was really interesting because Margo contacted me and said, ‘What was that colour you used, and can we share it?’ you know? But she told me it was going to be for a patriarchal purpose. But it’s really good, and it’s reminded me of something that Aunty Tracey has really sort of tapped me on the shoulder about and said recently. ‘In all your matriarchal work and your focus, that’s really good, bub. But remember that you’re also patriarchal, that it’s also in our family.’ I’m raising my son, and my son is 14 this year, and he’s at a very important age right now. So it’s making me think. And seeing brother’s video today about reconnecting those stories up in Broome, it’s just a lot for me to take home.
So when I get that plane home tonight I’ll be writing a lot of notes down and thinking about things I need to do when I see my mum and son and daughter.
IAN MCLEAN: Thanks Paola.
MATT POLL: Thanks. That was amazing. My name is Matt. I work at the Macleay Museum at Sydney University. It’s been really amazing. It’s about the third time I’ve seen the songlines show, and each time I experience it a bit differently, which I think is due to the content and how diverse and multifaceted all the different histories are. You know, as a museum show, to be so dominated by paintings, it really adds to the strength of the history that’s being represented there.
I guess coming from a museum background, I’m incredibly fortunate at the moment to be working with a really big team. Through a very generous benefactor, the University of Sydney, we’re building a big, six-story, new museum due to open 2020/2021. And working as the curator of the Indigenous heritage collections we have, for the first time ever, this opportunity. I don’t know if anyone has seen the old Macleay Museum exhibition space. It was about as big as this stage. So to actually have the space to really let these collections, which are also quite problematic collections — there’s no way we can sort of dodge the responsibilities about — our earliest collections stretch back to the 19th century, for example, pre-1981. And the amazing thing about them is these natural history collectors, the Macleay is predominantly a natural history museum, but the relationships between natural history collectors and their Aboriginal guides, and the ways that Aboriginal knowledges were embedded into natural history collections is just fascinating.
In jumping from the 19th century to the 21st, which is the opportunity we have to do with this museum, is we can actually reconstruct these really vast networks and assemblages of people, places, historical artefacts, natural history specimens, and tell much deeper stories. The other half of the collection that I work with is the old University of Sydney anthropology department collection, which more than three-quarters of was transferred here in the 1950s to become the foundational collection of the National Museum of Australia. So even just reassembling the little fragments that we have left, it was a bit willy-nilly how that collection was divided. But piecing the stories together and getting these bigger pictures of what these assemblages can mean to especially modern community members, as [inaudible] was saying.
I mean, I’ve had experiences where — because we have a huge repatriation project, predominantly in New South Wales at the moment. And community members, in their later stages of life have come in thinking that there’s just nothing, and we can show them these whole drawers of stone tool artefacts collected from their country. And just seeing people literally break down and think, these objects are ancestors to me. I had so much of my history — I’ve been displaced and dispossessed of so much of my history, that even sometimes the smallest stone tool fragment is all people have, this link to their past, to the generations of their ancestors who that tiny fragment of information represents.
So we’re incredibly lucky to have an opportunity and a platform to re-present the concept of tying these exhibitions together, is to sort of embed community perspectives in the way that they’re displayed. So it’s certainly not being lazy because it’s actually twice as much work, that as curators you’ve really got to learn to sort of — and seeing shows like Songlines, which is a perfect template of this. The same as Encounters, the same as Kaninjaku: Stories from the Canning Stock Route. We’re actually seeing the ways that Aboriginal history is being told on Aboriginal terms, without the lenses of anthropology or natural history or different sort of things. We’re seeing these deeper narratives of place. Imagine if we were doing these shows 100 years ago, how far down the track we would be now, you know? It’s a shame that it’s only 2017 that we’re seeing this type of work done. I think that’s the main thing.
IAN MCLEAN: Maybe I’ll just throw a question to all three of you. You can answer it separately though. You know, the main theme of this is future-proofing. But one thing that struck me, listening to a lot of the talks, is that the way you think about future-proofing is through past-proofing, proofing the past or bringing the past to life again. Our focus in the university where I teach, all the students, they want to do contemporary art subjects. You’re a contemporary art curator and a contemporary artist. Lisa just said they’re turning the Art Gallery of South Australia into a contemporary art space. So my question is, I suppose, how do we think about the future through the past? How do you bring the past alive into the present?
I suppose in the exhibition here, Songlines, nearly all the art is very contemporary, except perhaps the high-tech dome, which is a very contemporary thing, but it gives you a sense of a much deeper history. I wondered — maybe this is a question I can ask you too, Margo. No, I won’t. Okay. But you know, it was still a very contemporary focus, and I would imagine, in this museum there are a lot of much older artefacts relating to the Seven Sisters story that could have been brought out and used. I was just thinking that when Matt was talking then. Sometimes you do go into — I know I went into — it was the second Documenta ago, not the second but the one before. Documenta is a world exhibition of contemporary art. They had art there that was like 4000 years old, brought in from Egypt or somewhere, and sort of displayed it.
In a contemporary art context, I suppose, it brought the art alive again and didn’t just leave it as — I think Lynette used that term. Sort of as history, as if well that’s history. That’s in the past. That’s sort of my question to you three, in the context of how you each work, I suppose.
LISA SLADE: Can I go first? The word ‘contemporary’ means ‘with time’, of course. And when Ian just repeated my words about the Art Gallery of South Australia becoming a contemporary art museum, I thought, ‘My god, I gave the wrong impression’. You’re going to think you’ll go there to see art that’s been made in the last 10 years. That’s not at all my point. The point is that we actually have to see the contemporary within, across time. And to quote [inaudible], the future of the past is contingent. It’s unstable. We need to check in on the past.
A Yolngu artist has recently been working with us in Amalla, and we’ve kind of returned part of our collection to the Yolngu, digitally in the first instance. And he said, ‘I just have to see if it’s still alive. I have to see if it’s still there, and it’s still alive’. To answer your question of how do you ensure that history in the past is current and of now. To me, it’s holding the hand of the artist, or inviting the artist in, which is one way that we can — and by the artists I’m talking about the ongoing community of artists, the lineage, the long lineage of artists who help us to do that, to check, to see if the work is still alive.
PAOLA BALLA: All English is problematic. It’s very immature, and it’s very inadequate in describing who we are as the First Peoples. You know, we have the world’s oldest living peoples and culture, which means we’re the world’s first artists, philosophers, teachers, educators, scientists, mathematicians, everything. And this notion — I think there’s so many binaries that get really problematic for us around urban, remote, regional, bush, artists, traditional — all of that.
But in regards to future, we have always been future-focused peoples. This is why old people tell us things, or they choose to tell us things when they believe we might be ready. Because we have such low life expectancy, we often lose our elders before they believe we’re ready for knowledge transmission. So there are things that happen because we are still, we’re not postcolonial. We’re still dealing with the colonial project, just in different forms. And that’s why I’m so excited about art and the possibilities for how you can speak back into those spaces and disrupt them. Disrupting is very important.
But we’ve always been future-focused. Down home there’s a [Indigenous word] elder, called Uncle Patton, and he says — there’s a sound byte of him on our local Aboriginal radio station KND, and he said, ‘Think about what kind of ancestor you want to be’. That was one of my key considerations in curating Sovereignty, and I spoke about the fact that we’ve always been future-focused. My grandmother was telling me about how to prepare for climate trauma, not change but trauma, as many Aboriginal people and activists and Indigenous activists all over the world speak about it. She was telling me. She said, ‘Babe, you know the world’s going to end’. She said, ‘The world as we know it will end, and all of those that have caused the suffering will suffer. And all the little people, all the brown people, all the Indigenous people, the black people are going to come up to the top’. And she said, ‘And we’ll be all right because we know how to survive’.
She said, ‘We can live without electricity. We can live without all these trappings, all the things we’ve been told to aspire to and chase after.’ And she said, ‘Don’t worry. You’re going to be all right. But don’t live near the coast’. I was eight years old when my Nan started telling me the world was going to end, and I was terrified because around that time Ronald Reagan was going to push his big red button and blow us all to pieces, you know? And now it’s that other idiot. So, you know, the knowledge of our matriarchs and patriarchs persist. And they knew. They were talking about the future. They knew that everything was going to happen, and they were just — I spoke to Leonard about this earlier, that they were waiting for the technology to catch up before they tell you those things. You know?
MATT POLL: Just to follow on, I think digitisation and digitisation of collections information is where you’re seeing some of the most challenging questions arise, I guess. In the space of what’s happened in the last 20 years, just how much more we’ve learned. One of the things I’m really interested in is reconstructing assemblages across different institutions. The way that they get broken up is quite fascinating. In Robin Torrent’s and Annie Clark’s recent publication, they did an audit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural material held in museums around the world, and they came up with a figure of 250,000 objects.
If we need to connect, especially in the southeast where I predominantly work, there’s so many younger generations and people who think that this evidence of occupation and resilience and survival isn’t there, but it is there. But even, as a lot of you would know working in museums and being experts in this area, it’s not easy as an expert to try and reassemble all these diverse fragments of information. And through digital documentation, recording in language, creating these sort of spaces, we have some fantastic technologies at the moment. So in five generations’ time some young person will be able to watch an elder walk through country explaining it to them.
The new technologies, I think, help us preserve some of the elders’ transmission methods. So yes. To think of future-proofing, we need to have a lot more discussions, probably at a national level, about what are the moral and ethical ways that we should be sharing information about different language groups and different cultural objects held in museums.
MARGO NEALE: [inaudible] — you may be familiar with the saying — many people have claimed it — that when you look behind you, you see the future in your footprints. I think that says a lot about — you know, our sense of time is more spiral. It’s not linear. There isn’t a past, a future, and a present. They’re not separate. I think we’ve seen that today, many times. The future is in your footprints. And just one example of that was the — oh, and another one I’ve heard in the Pacific, which goes into that a bit, is the idea of your identity is always in front of you, not behind you. Tradition is always in front of you, not behind you. So you can think that one through.
The Vatican, when I curated the Vatican collection for the canonisation of Mary Mackillop some years ago, the whole view of the Indigenous collection, it was described as century-old material. There’s a big story there. But the view that I was taking, and other around me, was that this collection wasn’t an old collection. It wasn’t from the past. It was actually a collection that was just dormant for the time being. So it didn’t belong in the past. It didn’t belong yet in the future, but it was just there. And our job was the breathe life back into it, to take it out of its dormancy. So I’ll just leave that one there.
IAN MCLEAN: We’ve got 10 minutes, so I’d like to throw it up. Did someone just put their hand up?
IAN MCLEAN: You have to now.
QUESTION: Someone asked the question before. Is there a better way to represent — oh, thanks Margo. Is there a better way to represent? I’m really conflicted with museums, galleries, and the representation of art. The response that came from the writer was, is there a better way to represent cultural identity or practice than writing, you know? Is there another medium? You actually came back with the perfect response, and the response was sitting around a campfire at night, yarning and storying, and having knowledge delivered to me when I’m ready to accept it.
I just want to touch on that point because if you read the anthropological reports, archaeological reports and then the anthropological studies that then go with those archaeological reports, if you think when are those archaeological studies conducted. They’re conducted during the day. And the consciousness, the space, the delivery of message is different at night than it is during the day. So we are bombarded with written factual documentation. Is this real? Is this legitimate? It’s written, so therefore it’s the truth. But that truth has been gathered during the day, and it’s an objectification of the social cultural practices.
And the other point that was made, that was really important was — and I want to share something with you because we’ve just entered some information into the Denning Law Journal to make it an internationally recognised document that can’t be retracted by the Australian Government. So I’d like to catch up with you later, sis.
When you talk about footprints, or someone else mentioned something about society. When you hand knowledge to a younger one, or when you receive knowledge, and when you are given your totem, or when you’re mapping your totems through the landscape, you’re given a social responsibility. So the art and the transmission of — sorry, this goes back to the myth, when you made the comment about the myth. Even perceiving myth as story or narrative, you have to consider that it’s the social responsibility.
So when you receive that information, you’re endowed and imbued and responsible for the social infrastructure. And that social infrastructure gives you your identity, and you have your social responsibility. That is what you have taken, and responsible for giving. And your totem, that totemic naming structure gives you your identity within that infrastructure, so social responsibility.
And I think that is why, when you get your paint, when you do ceremony and you get the painting done on your body, and you get the song, and the elders give you the song and the painting on your body. And then you go to the dance or the ceremonial grounds, or what the women participate in as a ceremonial practice. The interconnectedness of all the art forms gives you that tacit, tactile, and symbiotic phylogenetic unconscious imbuement.
IAN MCLEAN: I’m not sure if there’s a question there, but does anyone here want to respond?
LISA SLADE: I just want to say thank you. The other thing I didn’t talk about, what I’m feeling and hearing from you too is about reciprocity and how important that is. I had the honour of seeing Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith speak, who’s an incredible Maori scholar and wrote Decolonising Methodologies. If you haven’t read that, you should read that. She talks about the importance of reciprocity as a practice. And because we’re a people who have been decimated by genocide and had so much taken from us, it’s very easy slip into feel-good experiences around art and gallery presentations, that somehow you’ve reached some sort of success, or that you’ve achieved something.
I remember once, I was stressed out during my Masters, and I made the mistake of complaining to my mum about it. She said, ‘Your Masters? What the eff does that mean?’ — you know? She reminded me that it was a privilege to study, and she reminded me really to wake up to myself and to have perspective about what it was I was doing and why I was doing it. And instead of complaining about needing more help, or needing this, or needing that, I needed to just do that work. Because my education is, for me, a hard-won battle that all of our people fought for. My grandmother was pushed out of school by Grade 3 when she was 12. Mum only got to about Year 10. So for me to be able to go through — and it’s very important, and it goes back to Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s work. Those are Indigenous-carved paths for us into universities, and into schools and into galleries, and into museums. They’re not gifts given to us by white people. Tony Birch talks about this. He says that often, when achievements are made, like the national apology, that white people, the system will often wrap it up into a neat little package and say, ‘Well, we gave you that. So now you need to move forward.’ So it’s very important for me — I keep that perspective all the time about what I’m giving back. And what I am gifted with when community, particularly our women and aunties start trusting me with particular stories to present in public space. It’s very, very important, and it’s okay to get ripped, get told off, and to get checked if you’ve made a mistake.
The reality is that we will all disagree. We’ll fight. Today people talked about it, you know? Different versions about the same story. So for me it’s just about respecting that, and not trying to become a romanticised version of ourselves that’s very palatable and easy to digest in public. You have to stay true to your families, your clan groups, your language groups, your country, and keep practising reciprocity. Make sure that it’s an evolving process, and if there’s any such thing as future-proofing, it’s about demonstrating that to younger people because there’s a lot of people that want to emulate your work, and just say, ‘Well, I want to be a curator. How’d you get to where you are?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, it’s not just a profession for me. It’s my cultural responsibility. It’s what people in my family decided they would trust me with. And the more I prove myself to them, the more they trust me with particular things.’
Not everything. I wouldn’t deserve that. I’m not ready for that, and everything’s just a bit of a foreign concept anyway. But the things that I need to know, you know? So it’ll be unfolded to me as I go, and I’ll hopefully do the same thing if I’m given permission to do that, you know?
IAN MCLEAN: Okay.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks everybody. It’s been really great to hear what the four of you, and others today, have had to offer here. I’d like to ask a question about patronage and investment in future-proofing, because none of this happens without not only an investment of money but of time, and vision, and plans, and policy, et cetera.
I guess I might start with you, Lisa, because you’ve consistently, I mean — for quite a few years now, been supporting, for example, the work of the Ken sisters and the Jala artists, and that part of the pintinjarra lands. There have been amazing things that have happened through the gallery, both at [inaudible] and in the biennials, et cetera. How do you understand the role of your institution — this might be something for Matt as well, in that future-proofing? And what sort of length of vision do you have? You used the metaphor of holding hands, in that hand-holding relationship how dependent is that on other more contingent political and economic currents in the country? And Margo might have something to say about this too? I don’t know.
LISA SLADE: It’s certainly precarious, and it has to be constantly fought for. It’s funny that the word patronage, of course, is a patre word, isn’t it? It’s a ‘father’ word. So there’s a certain amount of paternalism in that. I think therein lies a word of warning. So for instance, we tend not to use the word ‘commission’. I used it in the context of the Art Bank commission. But we tend not to ‘commission’ because it sets up a relationship. We try, in our structure — it’s boring — but in our structure of payments, et cetera, we try and support artists to make work, and then we move to the next step.
We happen to have a circle of philanthropists that are predominantly white, most of them from, interestingly, kind of post-Hapsburg origin. South Australia is a really interesting, very strange place when it comes to philanthropy. It’s fantastic actually. But there is a very strong passion for culture-making, and I think the South Australians have been — well, the circle of South Australians who support us financially have — and most of our things are funded by private benefaction. The state government helps us keep the doors open, but we certainly don’t make any acquisitions through state funding. We don’t do major projects through state funding.
So, for us, it’s bringing people along to make sure that that paternalism is measured. It’s really interesting. I want to throw to you, Matt, on the question. Because when you said, ‘I could feel the audience’, when you said, ‘We’re building’ — How many floors? Six, did you say? Yes, see listen — everyone knows. Six floors from private benefaction, I thought that’s really interesting. Can you talk about that?
MATT POLL: Only in the sense from what I know. It’s given in the spirit of pure philanthropy, which is quite hands off. I don’t have a huge position, I guess, on the ethics of it. But in our experience, independence is crucial when it comes to that sort of stuff. Our repatriation project, for example, is independent as well. We’re not part of the national program. And what that’s done is given us the opportunity to build new relationships. Like when you return something, you don’t just wipe your hands and walk away. It’s actually the start of a whole new relationship because, you know, you’ve admitted that this is something that’s happened, and we would like to return this. And then it’s given back.
Then the relationships that happen after that is where the really interesting things happen. I think, on a federal scale, we could be politically more interested in the arts and the opportunities it creates, from what little I know. You just don’t see it as getting the respect, at that really top level, that it should.
LISA SLADE: It is interesting — [crosstalk].
MATT POLL: Yes.
LISA SLADE: It is interesting though, that what patronage or philanthropy can do is to help you change the past. I’m really interested in Aboriginal guides, but I’ve never read anything on the Macleays and their Aboriginal guides. I know more about [inaudible] guides, and the [inaudible] guides who are working with colonial artists and collectors. But there’s a whole kind of history there, isn’t there? Within that — and all of a sudden the Macleays are kind of — in some way history, even their history, that colonial history is completely altered, potentially, by that pathway.
MATT POLL: That’s for sure. I just realised that. But yes. The Macleay bequest and the Nicholson bequest, the classical antiquities museum at Sydney University as well, were both very generous acts of philanthropy. You know, entire museums bequested as teaching and research spaces. And, you know, in the most generous spirit. That’s what I see the artists in Seven Sisters doing as well. It’s incredibly generous of them to open up this little glimpse into this remarkable story that they have as well. I think you can flip the tables, and artists can be quite philanthropic as well, especially community members. I think we’ve all had that experience, just the generosity of spirit that’s out there.
QUESTION: Paola, I had such a connection to your words, when you said to think about what kind of ancestor you want to be. And I think our world could do with a worldview like that. I’m wondering how that worldview can be spread, whether that be through art or other means?
PAOLA BALLA: Well yes. It’s all credit to Uncle Herb because it’s never left my thinking, since I heard him say that. I think it’s a question ... he wasn’t just talking to us, other Koori people. He was talking to everybody, and he’s that kind of elder. He’s a very generous man. He was also a star on Australia’s Got Talent, playing the gum leaf, if anyone saw that. That’s Uncle Herb. He’s beautiful. He’s very generous, and he’s got that thing that so many of our elders have. He thinks about everyone. He’s thinking about the future. The old fellas spoke about here is what instigated Songlines, the exhibition. About what kind of nation do you want to be? What kind of country do you want to be? There’s so much to learn from this exhibition about how we can actually envision a new, better future.
I think kids give me a lot of hope. Children my son’s age and younger, they’re so much more sophisticated, the way they use technology, the way they think about it. They’re openhearted, and they’re more willing to receive our stories, I think, in a non-judgemental way. We just have to keep training them to think like that, and we need better leadership from this government, which is never going to happen. We just see the same one come in and out.
That question about Gough before. I think they saw the future that Gough might have made for us all. It might have been a different one. That’s why they got rid of him. They got rid of Keating after the Redfern apology. That’s the sort of short-sighted thinking you see from white Australian governments. I think the real possibility is with people, and galleries, and museums, and arts leaders, and creative people, and teachers. That’s where the change is going to happen, in grassroots activism and young people in this country.
IAN MCLEAN: So we’re going to have a short 10-minute break. We’ve already got three, four speakers lined up for when we come back, from this side of the room to that side of the room. So see you in half past, a bit after half-past. Thank you very much.
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–21. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 28 February 2019