whisper the bones of dust
whisper the bones of dust is a continuation of my long-form photographic work that attempts to unravel aspects of the history of colonisation in Australia and the impact upon the First People of our nation. For this series, I will look at the historical events related to the myth of the ‘White Woman’ who was allegedly sighted by Angus McMillan in 1841 and later reported to local press. whisper the bones of dustwill be presented as an exhibition and subsequent photobook that explores this devastating and important historical story from my own personal perspective and research findings.
As a result of McMillan’s report to the Sydney Heraldand Port Phillip Patriothundreds of Aboriginal men, women and children were slaughtered in several massacres, the most horrific being the Warrigal Creek Massacre. This took place at Warrigal Creek, East Gippsland, Victoria in 1843 and it is estimated that up to one hundred and eighty Aboriginal men, women and children were slaughtered by Angus McMillan and his men.
One man in particular paid a heavy price as a direct result from the creation of this myth. Bangaleen and his family were captured, tortured and imprisoned after being accused of the crime of holding the white woman captive. She was never found.
Between 1842 and 1847 numerous searches were undertaken by various parties, all ultimately concluding with the same result: the death of many Indigenous people and no sighting or evidence of the mysterious white woman. The myth of the ‘White Woman’ has endured to present day and is a sorrowful misrepresentation of our colonial history, whilst the truth remains elusive and was taken to the grave of Angus McMillan.
Introduced diseases and alcohol were the cause of a dramatic decline in the Indigenous population, post colonisation. Many of these deaths were recorded enabling us to estimate the number of deaths and the region the Indigenous person was from. However, the number of deaths caused by the hands of the settlers themselves is yet to be determined as the research in this area continues by historians such as Peter Gardner and Henry Reynolds. The ‘silent’ slaughter of Aboriginal people became common, with no regard to gender or age. Secret raids were planned with the objective to rid their new home of people who were considered by many settlers to be nothing more than vermin. The settler’s retaliation for the spearing or stealing of cattle was out of all proportion and felt, not only by the perpetrator of the crime, but by many Aboriginal people (Gardner. P. D. (1987)).
During colonisation and for many years thereafter, cultural differences were not recognised and in fact, the Aboriginal culture was dying as a result of the loss of the elders and warriors who would customarily pass culture down to younger generations by way of traditional dance, art, language, ceremonies and rituals. A profound loss of land, culture and identity is the outcome for many of the descendants of the First People of Australia who died during this period. This loss has created a disconnection to land, identity and family for many Aboriginal people in present day by way of trans-generational trauma (Reynolds, H, (2006) & Read, P, (1999)).
I have had the privilege of being the sister of James, who was adopted by our family when he was 6 weeks old. At that time, we had no knowledge of his heritage and upon recognition of his culture, our family gained an awareness, from which I could not turn away. This triggered a profound reaction in me to enquire into and document the hidden realities of Australia’s past. This research and connection was formerly used in my project about James titled When you took me away.
My project will include photographic portraits, landscapes, vernacular images, archival documents and stories told by way of meeting people who are connected to this story. Images that are in some way ambiguous or blemished are forming in my mind and this is a technique I will develop in the following months. I am visualizing a form of video to include in the final presentation; conversations with people, a soundscape made on location, music or perhaps a combination. The idea of including natural textural elements in a form of still-life/sculpture, such as soil, leaves and water that emanate from the specific sites, will be explored and developed as my project continues.
I will use my digital camera to document the sites as a source for visualisation, my personal records and a visual diary. To produce my work, I will use large and medium format film cameras and an 8x10 pinhole camera. The use of film is an important element as I feel it connects with the era of my project and the visual emotion I am endeavoring to capture. The extinction of film has long been predicted; nevertheless, it has endured and has now become popular as a preferred medium by many artists/photographers. In my mind film connects to this work as a metaphor for the Aboriginal race, who were also predicted by early settlers to one day become extinct. Extending on the use of film, I will use alternative methods such as: Platinum/Palladium, Silver Gelatin and Wet Plate Collodion, to prepare the final prints (Appendix A).
whisper the bones of dustwill be presented as an exhibition, which will include hand-made prints, sound, sculpture and a photobook.
Ethics of representation together with cultural sensitivity issues will need to be recognised and addressed. For example, obtaining permission to enter the sites of trauma will be required from the relevant Aboriginal Co-operatives, organisations and landholders. Not proceeding in this manner will result in the failure of my work by way of inappropriate methods and intentions and could also result in further anguish for Indigenous peoples who remain emotionally attached to the past by way of trans-generational trauma.
Photographers that I am researching include Kazuma Obara’s Silent Histories and Mayumi Suzuki’s The Restoration Will. Both artists address a historic tragedy and use vernacular images and objects in their work. Obara’s Silent Historiesspeaks of the attack on a people by another nation, whilst Suzuki’s work is a cathartic study of devastation by a natural phenomenon. Photographic books by Morgan Ashcom, What The Living Carryand Bryan Schutmaak’sGreys the Mountain Comes are large format works, relating to community and memory. Other photographers I have looked at include Raphaela Rosella, an Indigenous documentary artist who works in long-form storytelling, Gordon Parks, an advocate for human rights and social justice issues and Susan Burnstine who uses experimental photographic techniques and alternative methods in her practice.
Theoretical research to date includes various books that detail the history of colonisation in Australia, poetry, memoirs, photographic texts, witnessing in contemporary art photography and transferal of shame and guilt in cultures. These include:
• Reparative Aestheticsby Susan Best has refined my thought process and methodology by informing me of a reparative approach, which remembers, exposes and heals social, personal and collective shame through the acknowledgement and exposure of guilt.
• Photography Changes Everything by Marvin Heiferman contains short texts by photographers, art critics, inventors and various other people providing thought provoking concepts and rationale about the photographic image and how it is viewed and used in all aspects of culture and life.
• The Post-Colonial Studies Reader by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffincontains 121 extracts, which introduce the major issues and debates in the field of post-colonial literature studies. These extracts are not theories but rather ideas which open the channels to initiate discourse on political, cultural and historical subjects.
• Blood on the Wattleby Bruce Elder, the OtherSide of the Frontierand Forgotten Warby Henry Reynolds, PD Garder’s Through Foreign Eyes andOur Founding Murdering Fatherand Don Watson’s Caladonias Australas. Each book has been didactic in my practice and methodology providing factual references to individual massacres that I am focusing on.
• The Longest Memoryby Fred D’Aguiar is a lyric and multi-form story of an 18thcentury African man, who’s people were subjugated by another nation and forced into slavery.
• Decolonizing Solidarityby Clare Lund and Reports from a Wild Country, ethics for decolonization by Deborah Bird Rose have influenced and informed my approach in ethics of representation and respect towards the people involved and informing my project.
• Other studies include books written by Indigenous people such as Oddogoo Ninigara’s First People,No Road (bitumen all the way)by Stephen Muekce and Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Too Afraid to Cry. Words of suffering, loss and tenderness resonate through the poetic and heartfelt text in each of these works.
• I have sourced many archived newspaper articles, documents and images through the Victorian State Library and Trove. Other research sources include: website articles, documentaries and films, the most recent being Sweet Country directed by Warren ThorntonandJeddadirected by Charles Chauvel.
• I have also undertaken interviews with Peter Gardner, Elders, Indigenous people in our community, landholders and local non-indigenous community members.
Proposed Research Questions/Concepts
• How do I photographically record and represent a shameful history that has been repressed by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, ethically and without creating a negative reaction?
• Why has the truth of the massacres and mistreatment to the First People of Australia been avoided in this country and can photography/art be used as a tool to enable the viewing public to reach a better understanding of our true history?
• Has the impact of trauma and displacement experienced by Indigenous people during the years of early colonisation affected current day relations between white and black Australia and if so why and how?
• Sexual relations between black/white people were illegal and considered ungodly in the early years of settlement. Personal relations were limited by the perception of supremacy of one race over another. This sentiment followed through to the early 1900s. Has there been a shift in attitude in present day?
The information I have gained during my research has reinforced my practice, understanding and opinion of why the past lays dormant in unspoken words and unobserved, traumatised landscapes. This weighs heavily in the hearts of many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians who recognise the significance and impact that white colonisation has had on the First People of Australia.
Bringing to light an unpleasant and critical time in our history is confronting and painful, nevertheless, it would be a transgression to ignore the factual historical events that have subsequently shaped the foundation of the Australia we live in today. I believe awareness of the true history of colonisation in Australia is inevitable and is a vital part of our healing and growth as a society.
Thus begins, whisper the bones of dust.