On February 12th 2008, the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made an apology to the 'Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history' for the 'mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations [...] for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss [...] 'for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture'. Read Full Apology
Listening to this were staff and members of the Aboriginal Reference Group (ARG) from Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery, and as gallery director Debbie Abraham said, 'we just all thought something has to happen'. Unbeknownst to them at the time, this was going to be the trigger for a project that would have a huge impact, not only on the artists involved, but the wider community of Lake Macquarie and beyond.
'The group met and decided it was the right time for a response, we were ready, the gallery was ready, and our community both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, were ready to respond in kind, from stories of our own families, and stolen families within the Lake Macquarie Newcastle area.' - Curator Donna Fernando.
This was the genesis of yapang marruma, making our way, stories of the stolen, an exhibition of painting, sculpture, photography, installation and sound art, produced by Aboriginal artists in response to the Apology. It is an interdisciplinary exhibition, which challenges as much as acknowledges the profundity of this historical event, its relevance to past injustices and its continuing ambiguity.
'Lest We Forget' 2008 by Cherie Johnson -Fired and incised terracotta clay. Photograph courtesy the artist and Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery.
'Families selected for the project, were consulted and with great sensitivity. Their reality is the combined historical truth of our people - not easy in the telling, and certainly not easy for the listener [...] In their honesty, the stories are compelling and sometimes harrowing. In turn, however, they are filled with compassion, courage and hope - they are songlines of survival.' - Curator Donna Fernando.
It's these 'songlines of survival' which create the soundtrack of the exhibition, produced by composer Rod Smith, a member of the Anawain people from the north coast region of New South Wales. It features contributions by Darlene Beitsch and Tat & Ellie Whaleboat in a powerful and emotive soundtrack of scored music, songs, field recordings and spoken word.
Photograph courtesy of Rod Smith.
There are some raw emotions here, so expect to be moved and cajoled as the work evolves through semi-chronological and biographical impressions of the many Stolen Generations of Indigenous Australians, told as vignettes of stories and tone poems. This is no more so than on track six, Woman's Sorrow, a harrowing depiction of the pain and loss Indigenous families went through, having their children forcibly removed by government officials and taken to homes run by Christian Missionaries. The spectacle of a child being prized from a mothers arms, just leaves a shocking and indelible impression of this brutal part of Australian history. The emotions summoned by such tragic events are universal, and will strike deep into the consciousness of any human being, something the track conjures with an eerie resigned quietude.
Listen to Womans Sorrow
FAQ's on Stolen Generations
Understandably this work could so easily have gone down a path of rebuttals and castigation, however Smith skillfully manages to weave humour and farce into depictions of the sheer naivety and barbarity of British Imperialism and in turn Colonialist Australia. The irreverence of tracks like Missionary Saviours and God Save Australia are good illustrations, and will quite likely leave you with a smirk on your face as you wipe the tears from your eyes. Equally, his use of timbre, texture and rhythm in tracks like The Dreaming and War Dance underscore signifiers of context and place. (See top left audio selection)
Listen to God Save Australia
Listen to The Quotes of Righteosness
In this sense the entire yapang marruma project seeks to enlighten rather than reproach, as Smith says, 'It's not only been educational for non-Indigenous people who came along to see the exhibition, there are also a lot of Aboriginal people who have grown up in an urban society [...] a lot of kids are not getting an education of a black history, which is very rarely told in this country'.
'Uncle Gary and Auntie Brenda' 2008. Photograph Mervyn Bishop, courtesy of the artist and sitters.
Taking this further and fearing possible negative reactions from the local white community, gallery director Debbie Abraham reflects on this learning process and how their fears proved unfounded;
'We got an overwhelming response from maybe three to four hundred people through our visitors book saying 'I had no idea, and now I get why the Apology was needed. For some of the families involved it was quite cathartic, these are stories that some people have never told, and that was quite an emotional experience for them and their families. Essentially we all came to work and cried everyday but by the end of it we were all filled with a kind of nervous laughter'.
It is this acknowledging of the past and hope for the future conjoined, that makes the entire yapang marruma project so powerful and responsive. Rod Smith may be little known to the greater sound art fraternity, however what he has produced in this soundscape is an innovative and exploratory work of extraordinary significance.
Listen to The Apology
This article was researched through interviews with Rod Smith, Donna Fernando and Debbie Abraham. For more information on the project and CD soundtrack contact dabraham [at] lakemac.nsw.gov.au
Debbie Abraham and Brett Adlington presented yapang marruma to the RAISE YOUR VOICE: Fourth National Public Galleries Summit 2009. View this very moving presentation.