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Seats of segregation

WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Uncovering the history behind the Bowraville theatre seats

National Museum curator Troy Pickwick reflects on a meeting with Gumbayngirr elder Martin Ballangarry during a visit to the Bowraville theatre in northern New South Wales in 2008.

Group shot showing five people standing outside a doorway.
Author Troy Pickwick, left, with Martin Ballangarry, Bob Lehane, Kipley Nink and Lisa Milner at the Bowraville Theatre. Photo: George Serras.

As part of our exhibition research we met with Martin Ballangarry – Gumbayngirr elder, campaigner, spokesperson, OAM – to learn about his childhood days when he used to go to the local cinema.

This cinema at Bowraville was no different to many other cinemas throughout Australia, where white Australians could sit comfortably in plush chairs, while Indigenous Australians would sit on bench-like seats or even lie on the floor.

Martin tells us: 'We would walk down this side, then come around to the back of the theatre. We weren't allowed in the front door.'

Martin recalls it was only one step, but it really was crossing a boundary. At the back entrance, he points and says: 'This light has always been here. It never did set off much light.'

Martin walks on and recalls: 'These steps here, the old fellas, drinkers really, used to play hopscotch on them, jump up and down the stairs. We used to love watching them. For a 10-year-old kid, it was our entertainment. We were welcomed at these steps.'

Martin Ballangarry at the rear of the Bowraville theatre
Martin Ballangarry shows the rear entrance used by Aboriginal patrons. Photo: George Serras.

Recent history

Amazing, I think. This took place three or four generations ago. This took place in far out locations of this 'fine' country. This took place in other countries.

Wrong, no, this took place in Australia, in places close to big cities, within a single generation because a man told us his story.

We were there – Museum staff, communicators, photographers, listeners – and what Martin was telling us was not 'right'.

What he was telling us made us all think about this country – issues of migration, traditional custodians, settlement – which reminded us of the politics of this 'nation'. Yet it all seemed collectively summed up by a single man telling a story.

Photos, stories, objects. This is what we are here for. This is what we want. This is history. This is objects. This is the National Museum of Australia.

Two rows of conjoined theatre seating. Two plain wooden chairs stand at the front. Two plusher upholstered chairs at the back.
Segregated seating from the Bowraville Theatre. Photo: George Serras.

Seats tell a broader story

Martin is a quite softly spoken man. Sometimes his pronunciation is blurred. This is all slightly deceiving, because while he might be 'uneducated', he is also a philosopher, a well-respected member of the community and a brilliant pianist.

Martin had no problem telling us his story of not being able to sit with others in the local cinema. As he recalls, 'you had to be strong.'

After 40 years, the seats – more like hard benches that resemble a child's cubby house seating arrangement – were dug out from under the cinema as dusty objects.

Martin recalls: 'They were hard on your back, so as kids we would lie on the floor. We would all line up, sometimes 10, maybe 15 people, adults, kids; we were all lying down here. Around 10 minutes before the end of the film, we were ushered out of the cinema, out the back and up the side.'

Martin's people – the Gumbayngirr nation – are from the area around the small town of Bowraville, New South Wales. Less than 60 kilometres from Coffs Harbour, it is a moderate strip of beautiful beaches, cafes, and rising buildings. It is also where today's international rugby sides train for their games.

Modern day facilities, in modern day times – seems like it has been like that forever. Yet Indigenous Australians may argue about the term 'modern day', because they feel that they have been excluded from many of the developments in the area.

They may be right, and it may be as simple, yet confronting, as looking at the two different types of cinema chairs.

By Troy Pickwick, assistant curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program

Front facade of Bowraville theatre.
Front facade of Bowraville theatre. Photo: George Serras.
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