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Alisa Duff, Agnes Shea and Eunice Porter, 6 December 2012

ALISA DUFF: Thank you everybody for coming here to the National Museum of Australia today. We’re here to celebrate the opening of Warakurna: All the Stories Got Into Our Minds and Eyes. My name is Alisa Duff and I am head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program here at the National Museum of Australia. I’d like to begin by formally acknowledging the traditional owners of to this Country and paying my respects to their elders past and present. You will please excuse me because I am about to go to the doctor later today. I am quite ill. I have extensive speech notes so hopefully I don’t wander off key at any point. But if I do, somebody please put your hand up and remind me that I need to go back to the notes.

Today we are going to have a very fast-tracked opening because I know that a lot of us just want to get in there and have a look at the artwork and take the opportunity to speak to the artists who we are delighted to have here today. So we will only be having three speakers: myself as the MC, Auntie Agnes Shea, who is our local Ngunnawal representative, and Mrs Eunice Porter, who is the chairperson of the Warakurna Artists.

I would like to firstly acknowledge some of our special guests who are here today, and they include these Warakurna artists: Eunice Porter, Dianne Golding and Judith Chambers. I would also like to pay my respects and acknowledge the Warakurna Arts Centre people who are here - Edwina Circuitt and Alexandra Firth; also the Director of Outstation Arts gallery in Darwin, Matt Ward; and our donors for this exhibition, even though they don’t want to be acknowledged, Vicki and Wayne McGeoch. I would also like to pay my respects to Lyn Allan, Tim Acker, Melinda Hinkson, Ian Dunlop, Cathy Preisley, Ingrid Barnes, Christian Keller and Roderick Quinn. You are, of course, all special and VIPs in your own way, and if I haven’t mentioned your name, it is not that you are any less.

I would like to begin now by reading a short biography of Auntie Agnes Shea. She was born at Oakhill at North Yass before being raised at Hollywood Reserve. Mrs Shea, Auntie Agnes, is a founding member of the United Ngunnawal Elders Council and she is a highly regarded elder of the Ngunnawal people. Auntie Agnes’s efforts to win respect between people from many cultures in the Canberra region has been instrumental in progress towards reconciliation. In 2004, Auntie Agnes was awarded a medal of the Order of Australia. She’s the first person to receive a lifetime achievement award, which was presented to her by the then Chief Minister of the ACT, Jon Stanhope. Auntie Agnes is also honoured by having a plaque in the ACT honour walk in Civic, just across from the Legislative Assembly. I would now like to ask you, Auntie Agnes, to come to the stage. [applause]

AGNES SHEA: Good morning everyone. It’s nice to see you all, and a lovely day for a very special occasion. I am very proud and honoured to be here today and I have my daughter Annette with me. On behalf of both of us and the other Ngunnawal families, thank you for inviting us to welcome you to our Country, the Ngunnawal. I would like to begin by acknowledging the Warakurna Artists - Eunice Porter, Judith Chambers and Dianne Golding. I would like to extend that welcome to all the other artists and distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen and also a very special welcome to all of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander friends. I will quickly say a little bit about the Ngunnawal community and then I will finish by explaining why an elder is asked to come and do 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.

The tradition of welcoming people is a cultural practice, and 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 for the people of the Country you are entering.

As one of the Ngunnawal elders, I am very proud to see when non-Indigenous organisations and government do ask an elder to come and do welcome to Country. It shows that they are also respecting our traditional culture and 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. The Ngunnawal people, as with all Aboriginal people, have a great heritage that we would like to share with all Australians from every walks of life. As you are aware, Canberra means ‘meeting place’ and Canberra has been a place of gathering for many Aboriginal 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 to celebrate the gift of heritage.

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. On behalf of the Ngunnawal people, my daughter and myself, thank you again, and I hope that you enjoy the exhibition because it’s really fabulous. It’s lovely. Again, welcome to our artists, and now I will finish in the words of the Ngunnawal people: [Indigenous language spoken], which means you’re welcome to leave your footprints on our land now or, in other words, welcome to Ngunnawal Country. Thank you. [applause]

ALISA DUFF: Thank you, Auntie Agnes. I would like to talk about Warakurna now. It’s a remote Aboriginal community located in Western Australia on the Rawlinson Ranges, close to the Northern Territory border. The fastest way that anyone can get to Warakurna from Canberra is to fly to either Melbourne or Sydney. You then have to change planes and take a flight to Uluru. Then you have to get in a hire car and drive for five hours due west. It’s worth the trip, if you ever get to go, because it’s an extraordinary place and an amazing community.

I was grappling with trying to figure out what the key to trying to understand this exhibition to an audience would be and I realised the best way to explain it was by talking about the Warumpi Band’s second album Go Bush. It might not make much sense, especially because the Warumpi Band seem like such a tangent to this, but that album Go Bush was part of the return - and it’s a shorthand to the Homelands Movement which was building during the 1970s and 1980s.

It is amazing for us because Go Bush talks about why people return to Country, why people return back home. When that album was released in 1987, the community of Warakurna had already had a good 15 years advance on the Warumpi Band in returning home. They’d been an incorporated community since 1976 and by the early 1980s they were already a part of the larger Ngaanyatjarraku Council. So when Warumpi were already singing about going back home, returning to their roots, returning to Country, the people at Warakurna had already done that – and they had done it for a decade and a half.

The site on which the current community of Warakurna is based isn’t where people originally settled upon. In the early 1970s there were a combination of different factors, which included government support for return to homelands, part of the Homelands Movement, which enabled people to return back to Country and settle there. So people went back to Warakurna. We know that place as Warakurna, but they know it by another name. And that name is very simple: it’s Home.

To be home - and I’ve just spent seven weeks in France so I am a little bit existentialist at the moment so you will forgive my existentialism and my theorising here - it’s a duality of the very natural and very complex states. There’s a sense of being grounded on your Country, the Country of your ancestors which is at times empowering, comforting and a sense of great responsibility as well. When you are on home and when you are returning back to Country, it’s not just a sense of being empowered but it’s also a decision, a self-determination, that you choose to take up the journey or the responsibility of your ancestors. When you are at home, everything is in context, everything makes sense. When you are home, everything is as it should be, everything is in its place.

I would like to direct you now to look at the paintings around the walls of the gallery and look at the sculptures, because this is what the Warakurna artists think about and this is what they actualise from being home. If you have a look at these stories around you, they’re amazing; they’re innovative; they’re complex; they’re diverse. The paintings that you see cover a range of styles including traditional dot painting. They also have abstraction and figurations. You can see from the sculptures in front of you how complex, diverse and innovative they are.

So it challenges the notion of what we know as Aboriginal art and also challenges the notion of what we understand about Aboriginal people being able to speak for themselves to actualise their lives and to present them. It’s something that we here at the National Museum of Australia are very proud to perpetuate as a curatorial principle, and that principle is that of the first voice, where we allow people to speak for themselves. It’s being able to speak for yourself without censorship or without limitation so that people can tell the stories of their lives and they can tell them as they are - not how we want them to be. That in itself allows people to enact their agency and to be who they are - which is fully realised human beings participating in this Country, participating in this society and participating in this economy.

When you have a look at these stories around the walls, you will see that they touch everybody, and the themes are quite common because they’re not just Aboriginal stories, they’re Australian stories - so they are our stories. When you look at them, you will notice there is something in them which relates to you. I like the Midnight Oil story because I like Midnight Oil. What’s interesting about them is that they speak to all of us as a young dynamic nation of Australians.

We here at the National Museum of Australia are both humbled and delighted that we are able to present this exhibition to the public. I would like to also thank Matt Ward for his foresight in recommending that these paintings come here to the National Museum of Australia as a narrative of social history. I would again like to thank the McGeoghs, Vicki and Wayne, for their generosity in continuing the record of our development as a nation something that we can all share in perpetuity for the future.

I would now like to ask Eunice Porter, the chairperson of Warakurna Arts, to come forward and speak. [applause]

EUNICE PORTER: Hello everybody. You know, when I was in school at Warburton, I used to draw pictures, and after that I’ve been working. And I seen my husband doing work with that old man [film maker Ian Dunlop], he’s there [in the audience]. You know we’re doing painting about long time when we are doing paint, nyaapa [what] sitting down, going around bush with our families, and going out hunting and holidays. I was doing that painting about my, way back when I was a little one, home girl, teenager. And got married and I went to Warakurna and I’m staying there. And we’re doing tjanpi, purnu, artefacts, and I made that flat one [woven fibre sculpture]. And we tell stories to the kids and show the Country – for this, your grandfather’s country. But I was grow up in Warburton school, home, I used to stay there. That’s why I am doing about all this story in the painting. Sometime I do Tjukurrpa painting about culture, dreaming. A Ngaanyatjarra lady come from WA. We do everything - tjanpi and all. [applause]

ALISA DUFF: Thank you, Mrs Porter. Please note there will be an artist talk tomorrow not in the sense of a formal artist talk but the artists will be here at 12.30 in the gallery and you can walk around with them and ask them questions about the paintings or simply listen to some of their stories in much more detail. Please come along tomorrow to the NMA if you would like to learn more about the paintings. This officially ends our proceedings for today. I would like to invite you now to head up to the Hall where we will have a morning tea. Please feel free to spend your time wandering around looking at the exhibition. If you feel hungry or you would like to have a snack, then head up to the Hall and we will put on morning tea for you. Thank you again for coming to our exhibition opening. Please enjoy Warakurna: All the Stories Got Into Our Minds and Eyes. Thank you. [applause]

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This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–22. 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: 01 January 2018

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