‘As a writer and artist, I have a voice to speak the truth of culture and Country, tell my story, effect change and heal.’ Barrina South reflects on a meeting of First Nations cultural creatives on Ngunnawal Country.
Feature image: ‘Gathering’ flyer designed and illustrated by Elinor Archer, Palawa woman on Ngunnawal Country.
The last time I was at the Belconnen Arts Centre, the walls told the stories of Barkindji country. The prints and sculptures spoke of the Barka [Darling River], its tributaries and lake systems and how we should all respect the Ngatyi [Rainbow Serpent ] that lives in it. It was the opening night of Barka: The Forgotten River, a collaboration between Barka Wiimpatja artist Uncle Badger Bates, Justine Muller and the Wilcannia community.
The artworks showcased a deep concern for the collapse and near-disappearance of the Barka-Darling River. This was BC (before COVID), and the gallery was full. People embraced each other and there was not a mask in sight. As a proud Barkindji woman, many of the artworks spoke to me and I found myself in front of the artwork Parntu Thayilana Wiithi [Cod eating yabbies] by Uncle Badger Bates. The artwork now hangs in my loungeroom and I look at it every day. It is a reminder that as a writer and artist, I have a voice to speak the truth of culture and Country, tell my story, effect change and heal.
Many years later, I find myself back at the Belconnen Arts Centre as Writer-in-Residence for the Creative Recovery and Resilience Forum, focused on First Nations creatives. The aim of the forum is to explore themes, issues and opportunities for the creative sector relating to recovery and resilience in the ACT and surrounds.
The scene is quite different to Uncle Badger’s show, we socially distance, wear masks and greet each other with eyebrows raised, or bump elbows. But as the room fills, there is that feeling, the one when First Nations people come together, it is the feeling of being one family. As the music of Archie and Ruby is piped through the audio speakers, we greet each other, some for the first time. We find out the important stuff over a cuppa: ‘Where you from? Who’s your mob? and Who do you know?’ We connect.
Before the official event kicks off, facilitated by the incredible Casey Keed and Assistant Director for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Arts Engagement Don Christopher, we are introduced to the two exhibitions on show. The first show that greets us is Colonisation by Jennifer Kemarre Martiniello OAM. The other, in the main gallery, is Life Source by Leah Brideson.
Jenni is a Southern Arrernte, Chinese and Anglo-Celtic woman. Jenni explains to us that colonisation is a tumour in the consciousness of this nation that requires ‘radical curative intervention’ if we are to survive and thrive. She further explains that breaking the silence around colonisation and documenting her Cancer Journey demystifies and heals, as does the Land, our Mother. Similarly, Leah, a Kamilaroi woman, focuses on activism, healing and Country, in particular rivers. We learn that Leah has spent time reading and listening to the landscape through a cultural lens, which in turn has been a Life Source supporting her to heal.
One thing that both artists have in common is that they create their work off-Country.
As we regroup, the official Yarning Circle starts with a Welcome to Country by Ngunnawal custodian and artist Tina Brown. Tina shares with us her knowledge of Country, her family and her art practice. After the Welcome, Casey and Don share the agenda for the forum and reminds the Yarning Circle that the afternoon is about like-minded First Nations creatives coming together and sharing our thoughts on how we can improve and promote our art across the ACT and surrounds. Both reinforce that this is not a ‘community consultation’ process but the start of conversation going forward. A collective sigh of relief is heard, a few laughs, and the ice is broken.
The group starts to open up and share with one another. The main questions for discussion include: What does it means to be creative on someone else’s Country? How can we as creatives support each other to tell our stories? How can we open the door for the next generation?
Most of the creatives identified themselves as having connections off Ngunnawal Country and outside of the ACT. The group spends time exploring the question, How do we as creative show respect through our art practice? As the only Ngunnawal custodian and artist in the room, Tina starts the conversation by providing the group with advice and guidance on how to be creative in a respectful way, and how to acknowledge land through honour and respect.
The Yarning Circle also heard from some of the creative team of Ngadjung [water], a new work premiering at Belconnen Arts in August 2022. The team shared their approaches to truth telling, insights into respecting Country and ensuring a pathway for the next generation of creatives.
Once again I am reminded of what connects us and the significance of water. Years before Uncle Badger’s show I wrote this poem, published by Us Mob Writing in Too Deadly: Our Voice, Our Way, Our Business (2017):
bulging banks, sodden with water
nature’s refuse washes away downstream
dry branches bounce, to the rhythm of the current
tree trunks, freshly painted with the river flow, turn to marble
scars made by the Old people, reminders of past floods
the farm fence delves into the river and straight up the other side
They fence the rivers too
crumpled water tanks lie on their sides
kerosene tins, bed frames
broken glass remains, in memorial to those who once lived by the Baaka
you can imagine the women form the Mission
talking as they care for their children playing in the river
a place of respite from government gaze and control
For a first meeting, the afternoon spent together as First Nations creatives was a success. We each made a connection, shared our thoughts and experiences, and more importantly started a dialogue on the big issues facing First Nations creatives in the ACT and surrounds. Don reassured the group that this was the beginning of ongoing yarns which are important for exploring and teasing out the questions raised.
As the last of the afternoon tea is being put away and the group dispersed, I was struck by how positive the afternoon was. In particular, how open everyone was to sharing their questions and experiences, plus a genuine respect for each other to ensure First Nations creatives excel in the ACT and surrounds. The themes in Barka: The Forgotten River and the two shows Colonisation and Life Source, as well as what was shared by the group, shows that First Nations creatives have in common themes of speaking the truth of culture and Country, telling our stories, to effect change and heal.
I am looking forward to the next yarn over a cuppa and continuing to explore the common themes to find out how we can ensure the success of First Nations arts, not only for ourselves here in the ACT and surrounds, but as leaders for all First Nations creatives across the country.