(Transcript from World News Radio)
An art exhibition in regional New South Wales is bringing a new perspective to Aboriginal mission life as recently as the second half of the 20th century.
Asher Milgate, a non-Indigenous man, has gone back to his home town to learn about the side of life he never really knew — the Aboriginal side.
This report by Lydia Feng and Biwa Kwan.
For Asher Milgate, it started simply as a personal interest.
He wanted to learn more about the Aboriginal community in his home town of Wellington, in central-west New South Wales.
“I had always had Aboriginal friends growing up. As I got older, I realised I actually didn’t know very much about them. The further I delved into my friends’ parents’ and grandparents’ lives, I just realised how little I actually knew and how much I could learn from just sitting down and speaking with the elders.”
Mr Milgate began photographing and recording the untold stories of the Aboriginal elders he interviewed.
Five years later, with the help of government funding, that process has culminated in the art exhibition “Survivors,” now on display at Dubbo’s Western Plains Cultural Centre.
It features a series of black-and-white portraits and recordings of 18 Wiradjuri elders and elders-in-waiting who grew up on Nanima Mission in Wellington.
Established in the early 1800s, Nanima was the first inland Aboriginal mission and Australia’s longest continually operating Aboriginal reserve.
Visitors at the exhibition can put on headphones and listen to the stories of those who lived there, from 95-year-old Uncle Billy Lou.
“Ah, man, I think of those days, I wish everything would start all over again.”
To elder Aunty Joyce Williams, remembering being taught to swim.
“They used to throw us in the river. And we’d be nearly drowning, and they’d pull us out. Scouts’ honour. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true.”
The fear and displacement experienced at the mission left an indelible mark on elder Denise Kelly.
“As a child, losing a lot of my family members in the Stolen Generation and having my grandmother remove me so that I wasn’t part of it … you know, just being told to get off the mission and not having the choice to live out there on the Common anymore … We were told we had to move, and one family member was told, as a baby, if you weren’t removed from the mission, that the baby would be taken away.”
Even today, Ms Kelly says, deep injustice exists on missions in Australia but remains shrouded in secrecy.
“You still have missions out there where people aren’t allowed to say what’s going on. They still don’t have the freedom of speech. They’re still being dictated to by the hierarchy and the white society.”
Ms Kelly says the prejudice still lingers beyond the missions today, too.
“I’m 56, and there are still some shops that I can walk into and, if there’s a white person in that shop, they will get served before me, regardless of whether I’ve walked in there. And I have walked into shops in town now, and I still have security walk around the shops with me.”
She emphasises the importance of change — but from Aboriginal people, too.
“Like a lot of the younger Aboriginal people don’t like the white people because of how they treated their families back then, but, you know, you’ve got to change. Like here I am working in a Catholic school … I was not allowed in a Catholic church. But if I don’t break down a barrier, then who’s going to break it down?”
By featuring in the art exhibition, Ms Kelly says it enables the Aboriginal community to tell its side of the story.
She says she trusted Asher Milgate.
“I knew that, with him doing it, it would give us a chance to have our own voice, be able to talk out and not be able to get in trouble for doing it, whereas, before, we weren’t allowed to talk out, weren’t allowed to say what was inside.”
Curator Kent Buchanan says “Survivor” is an integral part of Australian history, helping establish a dialogue with the Indigenous community.
“By examining this aspect of New South Wales, we are able to really shed a light on the experience around Australia. And I think many people forget that the Aboriginal people of the east coast of Australia were the first to be colonised.”
Furthermore, Mr Buchanan says, it fills a gap in people’s understanding of practices towards Aboriginal people in Australia’s history.
“I think, for the most part, people aren’t actually aware of the kind of segregationist practices that were a part of setting those missions up, the fact that Aboriginal people living on those reserves were essentially banned from practising culture.”
Interestingly, the Indigenous elders reveal, they found a friend in the Chinese.
“The Aboriginal people in the Wellington Valley, their main ally was the Chinese market gardeners, who had market gardens down by the river. The Chinese who ran those market gardens would provide food to Aboriginal people, they would provide them with jobs, and so there was a very strong connection between essentially these kind of two outsider groups.”
Asher Milgate’s work has been praised as a powerful symbol of reconciliation.
But he says the work behind the exhibition has been a learning experience for him.
“This work is really acknowledging the Aboriginal community, and, myself being non-Indigenous, it’s a great example of two different communities coming together. And if you look at the history of first contact, Aboriginal people have always had to adapt and learn from how to deal with the white people, basically, from back in those early times, and I think it’s probably about time now that the white people start to learn about Aboriginal people.”
Mr Milgate says crafting the exhibition proved cathartic as well as life-changing, an experience he hopes to impart to others.
“What I’d really like for people to get out of the exhibition is to enter another world, enter a world that you’re not familiar with. These images are quite large — a metre on the longer side, and we’ve got 18 — so, when you walk into the gallery space, you have nowhere to hide, you’re in their presence. And they’re opening their hearts and their stories for you to listen, and all you have to do is put the headphones on. And I believe, if one person takes the time to listen to one person speak, that will forever change their life.”