There’s one thing I want to tell yas now… no white person gonna brainwash me. I’m gonna lead my own life, me and my family, and live off the land. I will not live a white man way. And that’s straight from me, Essie Coffey"
Essie Coffey folds a blanket and lays it on the ground. She sits around a small fire with her family; they speak, laugh, cook a fish on the coals and share a meal together. Her words, “that’s straight from me, Essie Coffey”, replay in my head long after her 1978 truth-telling documentary My Survival as an Aboriginal comes to an end. The Murawari woman is talking straight to us, across time and space, proudly documenting and preserving culture for generations to come. Coffey’s film was the first ever made by an Aboriginal woman, and showed Aboriginal life in a way that dared to challenge injustice and imagine a better future for our communities.
My Survival as an Aboriginal embodies much of what excites me about the work in How I See It: Blak Art and Film. Each artist embraces the possibilities of new technologies, sparking imagination and sharing stories that remember where we’ve come from and speculate on where we are going next. The works reflect a deep responsibility to place and people, and a refusal to accept the way things have been done in the past. They look the painful and often-contradictory parts of our arts, media and screen histories in the eye, and defy them, with a smile and a wink. Working across art, film, writing, dance, architecture and documentary, those featured find space beyond binaries and categories, flourishing in the in-between. The artworks and films defy genre and rules of making that are inherently colonial. Collectively, these works provide alternate ways of seeing the world and imagine futures beyond struggle. Spanning from the 1970s to now, How I See It demonstrates the ways that Blakfullas have fought and will continue to fight for our own destiny.
There are many depictions of First Nations people on our screens and in the archives, but how many of them accurately convey who we are, what we stand for and the nuances of our being? “It was very clear to me that the stories that Aboriginal people saw as important about ourselves – a self-defined vision of the future – hardly ever featured in the media”, says Waanji writer Alexis Wright.
What is visible, however, are stories told about us, not by us. As Yiman and Bidjara intellectual Professor Marcia Langton argues, non-Indigenous people who have little contact with First Peoples rely on the media’s depictions as their only window into Aboriginal life. Their ‘imagined Aboriginal’ therefore assumes the position of reality. In non-Indigenous people’s version of reality, dysfunction, deficit, violence and disadvantage are synonymous with being Aboriginal. In considering the impact of these representations, Langton draws on the late bell hooks’ writing on stereotypes:
Like fictions, they are created to serve as substitutions, standing in for what is real. They are there not to tell it like it is but to invite and encourage pretense. They are a fantasy, a projection onto the Other that makes them less threatening. Stereotypes abound when there is distance. They are an invention, a pretense that one knows when the steps that would make real knowing possible, cannot be taken – are not allowed."
It is therefore a powerful, healing and radical act for Indigenous people to tell our own stories. We speak back not only to dismantle the versions of us violently imposed to drive the colonial agenda, but to set the record straight; as Yaegl film programmer and artistic director of Winda Film Festival Pauline Clague says, “To create the space for our niche to grow and prosper, replacing false constructs with a space of richer interrogation and value that expands the genres of cinema.” When our images are controlled by others, so too is our potential to imagine a future beyond control.
However, mere representation will not save us; it has its limits. Just seeing Blak faces on screen does not create the conditions that we need to achieve our freedom. Yorta Yorta and Wiradjuri man Uncle Bill Onus was key in igniting our drive for representation by appearing on mainstream television and hosting Alcheringa in 1967; he was the only Aboriginal television anchor at the time. By claiming space as a presenter and narrating scenes related to Aboriginal culture, Uncle Bill showed us what was possible and opened the door for generations of actors and filmmakers to start sharing our own stories. It was people like Bruce McGuinness, Essie Coffey, Gary Foley, Aileen Corpus, Justine Saunders, Kylie Belling, Hyllus Maris, Bob Maza, Bindi Williams and Jack Charles, among many others, who recognised the significance of having Indigenous people on screen, but equally how important it was for us to control the narrative. No longer was it okay for non-Indigenous people to write our history and tell our stories. Self-representation was key. Gumbaynggirr and Barkindji writer Merinda Dutton says, “In repositioning ourselves as authors of our own stories, we force settlers to reckon with their own accounts of us.”
In 1978, Murawari activist, community worker and musician Essie Coffey became the first Aboriginal woman to direct a documentary film with My Survival as an Aboriginal. Having worked in her community of Brewarrina for many years, establishing the Western Aboriginal Legal Service and teaching school children cultural practice on Country, she decided to make a film about the story of her life and community. In taking the lead behind the camera, she created an uncompromising vision of life in Brewarrina that deconstructed stereotypes placed on Aboriginal people. In one section of the film, Coffey transports us into dreamlike scenes that compare the realities of life with fantasies forged by non-Indigenous people. The camera zooms in on the thin lips of a white teacher telling a class of Aboriginal students that Captain Cook ‘discovered’ Australia. Coffey herself plays the role of a white housewife in her kitchen, acting out what some consider the Australian dream; while others like herself consider this an Aboriginal nightmare. Through filmmaking, Coffey was able to share her stories of survival, truth and pain with the world, at a time when the voices of Aboriginal people were rising up.
Since the 1990s, KuKu and Erub/Mer artist Destiny Deacon has been applying the pressure to settlers to reckon with their imaginings of us in her photography and video works. In the 1992 work Welcome to my Koori world, a series of short sketches originally made in collaboration with Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi artist Michael Riley for the ABC series Blackout, Deacon uses satire to play up the absurd and offensive stereotypes forced onto Aboriginal women through her character Delores. Her works feature Easter eggs that are just for Blak audiences; designed to make us laugh and to make non-Indigenous audiences uncomfortable and unsure whether they can laugh too. Humour and the ability to laugh in the face of injustice is something that Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara artist, curator, writer and academic Dr Paola Balla references in her text, ‘Blak Campfire Magic’ later in this book. Balla writes, “Our sense of humour and intimacy with the absurd is part of not just our surviving the ‘horrorscape’ that is the colony – it is our thriving, our joy, our cherished moments.” Balla’s words reflect the interconnectedness between humour, rage, laughter, sadness and all that lies in between, the paradox of which unsettles non-Indigenous viewers but for Blakfullas reflects our everyday lives and the way we can – and must – find joy in the darkness.
Deacon’s photographic works do the same, capturing the power of imagination so unique to the artist. In a series of works made in the 1990s in the style of VHS slicks – Peach Blossom’s revenge, Draclubra and Little Miss Wonder! – she imagines Indigenous people as stars in B-grade movies, something that had to be imagined in the 90s when Indigenous representation on stage and screen was rare and often riddled with inaccuracies and limitations. Actor and Woppaburra woman Justine Saunders once said: “Low points in my working life have come from having to fight the stereotype, the white interpretation of the black story – the naked, ragged Aboriginal girl running round the bush looking picturesque.” She said often the characters she was typecast to play were “someone’s woman, bashed, shot, raped, burnt or drunk… I was sick of living among cockroaches and eating the paint off the walls, so what else could I do? After a while I thought, ‘Enough! I’m an actor and I’m not doing those roles anymore. I can speak English’.”
In Where’s Mickey? (2002), Deacon creates a Blak revisioning of Minnie Mouse, one where the character is centrestage. Deacon makes us smile, and as a testimonial on the cover of Little Miss Wonder! says, will make you “chuckle ‘til you spit blood”. These works reflect on representation in pop culture and the media, and playfully ask why Indigenous people and our stories are left out of these spaces, whilst simultaneously questioning why when we do find ourselves in the limelight, the images we see don’t reflect our reality. Deacon’s works challenge non-Indigenous audiences to not believe what their narrow vision allows them to see, whilst instilling pride and joy into Indigenous viewers.
With this rich history of First Peoples challenging and refusing to be categorised as ‘the Other’, comes a new generation who are grappling with the past, drawing from the archives and imagining liberation. Since white hands carried the camera into what is now known as Australia, Indigenous people have, without consent, been the subject of photographers and filmmakers who have constructed our images and determined our futures. From the mid-1800s in Victoria and New South Wales, many Aboriginal people were forced onto missions and reserves, resulting in relentless surveillance and control of Aboriginal life that proceeded through the years under the Aboriginal Protection Acts, and continues today. This surveillance is reflected in the thousands of photographs that were taken of Aboriginal families in these places. For example, images that were taken of Aboriginal people at Coranderrk, a reserve located in Healesville on Wurundjeri Country from the 1860s, created a visual language that shared settler narratives of Aboriginality with scientists and anthropologists globally. However, as Jane Lydon argues, those posing for photographs exerted their influence over the photographic process. They could sometimes determine the settings and conditions in which they were photographed, charge a fee to photographers, and often extended their right to refuse. So, while Aboriginal people weren’t holding the camera, they sometimes had agency in how their images were captured. Images of strength, resilience, pride and survival are stored within these archives.
Taungurung artist Steven Rhall’s ongoing installation Avert (2017– ) considers the complicated relationship between Indigenous people and the white gaze, and the omnipresence of surveillance in our everyday lives. Avert allows the artist to refuse and, instead of being ‘the observed’, become ‘the observer’. Rhall reverses the gaze with surveillance cameras pointed at the eyes of the audience, not allowing for passive observation, and in doing so, implicates the audience in the work. Rhall also uses the gallery as a framing device. He cuts holes in the walls, forcing the audience to view the work through peep holes – but ensures our view is obfuscated – never revealing the work in full. Architectural interventions like this hold a mirror to museum and gallery practices, including the institution’s role in promoting harmful narratives that Indigenous artists continue to resist and reimagine. Not only is the gaze problematic, but Rhall’s work brings into question the very framework in which the artwork exists.
Wiradjuri artist and poet Jazz Money’s work Rodeo Baby! (2022), commissioned by ACMI, interrogates archives as sites of tension. In 2021, Money spent hours going through archival video material, from family home movies to mainstream film and television, including films like Lee Robinson’s The Phantom Stockman (1953) and Dick Ross’ The Shadow of the Boomerang (1960). In these archives, Money saw a number of recordings of Blakfullas in the rodeo, either filmed by white families on trips across the continent or captured for dramatic features. Money recalls her experience viewing this material as full of contradiction: the joy of seeing Blak faces and excellence on screen, but also the tension, anger and sadness of knowing how the footage was taken; with little agency sitting with those documented, thinking about how those recorded and their descendants may never access or own their images. Presented as a large-scale photographic essay printed on fabric, the work references First Nations scholars who critique colonial archival practices and the way these archives flatten, hollow and minimise the wholeness of the people that their lens has captured – reduced to bodies or faces on screen. Money collages these images with a broad range of visual sources from film and television made through an Indigenous lens, such as Arrernte and Kalkadoon filmmaker Rachel Perkins’ Radiance (1998) and Kaytetye filmmaker Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (2009). Exploring the personal, living site of archives, Narungga activist-poet Natalie Harkin writes:
As Money’s work highlights, generations of First Peoples have questioned and are questioning the ethics of storing, accessing and sharing images within the archive. Will new technologies threaten or help protect our images and our peoples, if we don’t have ownership or control over what lives in the archive? What about our cultural and intellectual property? What impacts do contemporary practices have on people, culture and land?
Wiradjuri artist and architect Joel Sherwood Spring considers these questions and confronts the social and environmental ethics of new technologies in the construction, storage and sharing of our images. His new commission for ACMI, DIGGERMODE (2022), comprises an immersive multi-channel installation.
State acts of surveillance, recording and archiving had the power to place our family stories in the public domain, or obliterate stories within a broader history of erasure; filed away, silent and hidden until bidden. But our bodies too are archives where memories, stories, and lived experiences are stored, etched and anchored in our bloodlines deep…”
Using an online artificial intelligence (AI) text-to-image generator, Sherwood Spring has created landscapes in the style of Albert Namatjira paintings, which include imagery of the Country being extracted, perhaps as a foreshadowing or warning of our potential future. Sherwood Spring has trained the neural pathways of another AI, who interacts in first person with the artist throughout the work when asked questions like, “Who’s your Mob?”, contemplating whether a computer-based system could be trained to ‘remember’ the Country it comes from, and whether it should. In doing this, Sherwood Spring speculates that materials hold memory – that computer chips and semiconductor processors remember the Country that their materials, such as sand for silicon, are extracted from.
DIGGERMODE muses on the problems that arise from new technologies providing instantaneous and open access to cultural belongings and documentation of our people. The work highlights the environmental impact of our digital world; it is Indigenous peoples who most intimately feel the growing impacts of capitalism and climate change on their lands and ways of being.
Alexis Wright argues that our capacity to tell our stories into the future is tethered to our lands, as that is where our stories come from. Therefore, there is no future without land back. Just as settlers have leveraged screen and media to restrict Indigenous people to caricatures and archetypes for their own agenda, so too have settler artistic depictions of the land strategically and violently fed into the dispossession of Aboriginal people from our homelands. Pauline Clague has researched the archetypes found in cinema and proposes that unique to Indigenous cinema globally is the way the land is represented as a key character.
Ngarigo artist Peter Waples-Crowe’s single-channel video installation Ngaya (I Am) (2022), also commissioned by ACMI, focuses on the Snowy Mountains, the forced displacement of Ngarigo people from their lands, and the environmental repercussions of this removal. Waples-Crowe layers imagery from various sources including tourism campaigns, archival footage of the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme, and footage of his own family. A disco ball spins over a burning landscape, mountains flood and a jet skiier rides past as fragmented images of Ngarigo Country and First Nations people are collaged together. The 1863 oil painting North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciuszko by Eugene von Guérard forms the backdrop for much of the film. Waples-Crowe uses the painting to speak back to and dismantle the legacy of colonial depictions of Country, which fed into the myth of terra nullius. He mocks the relationship that non-Indigenous people have to place, with land seen as something to be stolen, owned and exploited for their own purposes. Waples-Crowe critiques destructive practices that continue to occur, such as the introduction of non-native species, recent bushfires, carving out ski resorts for tourism and government interventions like the Snowy Scheme. He speaks to the discomfort of being an outsider on his own land, having not grown up on Country and learning to connect from afar through others’ depictions of it. While these ideas may not typically be anything to smile or laugh at, Waples-Crowe’s irreverance is typical to the way that Blak and queer artists use humour to create a balance between the good and the bad, to ease the pain of our consistent oppression across our multiple layers of identity.
Considering the interrelationship between the future and the past, as well as the land and virtual spaces, Boon Wurrung, Wemba Wemba and Trawlwoolway artist Jarra Karalinar Steel leans into nostalgia, while simultaneously imagining an alternate reality or not-so-distant future in her new ACMI-commissioned installation More Than Just a Game (2022). Within this installation, Steel has made a videogame in collaboration with Wiradjuri and Ngiyampaa illustrator Charlotte Allingham. Players navigate a young Koorie protagonist through the urban environment of Melbourne’s CBD; a reminder that we are still ‘on Country’ while in the cities. Steel’s installation makes you feel like you’ve gone back in time to a 90s videogame arcade, with neon lighting and custom flooring, featuring possum and kangaroo spirits, to set the scene. The arcade cabinet itself is constructed from reclaimed timber, and carved referencing traditional Kulin designs from cultural objects held in museum collections. Games in the 90s weren’t made with a young Koorie girl as the protagonist or target audience, and Indigenous people are still significantly underrepresented in the gaming industry. Like the artists and filmmakers of our past who have embraced new technologies to share their experiences, Steel is reaching new audiences and inspiring the next generation of creators to do the same by taking our stories into new spaces.
As with training an AI to think like a human, Bundjulung and Ngāpuhi artist Amrita Hepi uses the 1960s 'dolphin house' experiment to examine the imposed hierarchy of intelligences and the ethics of forcing knowledge onto others. In this experiment, scientists funded by NASA attempted to teach dolphins human language in the hope that it would help them learn how to communicate with extraterrestrial life. Scripture for a smoke screen: Episode 1 – dolphin house (2022), commissioned by ACMI and Samstag Museum of Art, collates ephemera connected to NASA’s study with new footage of Hepi dancing and communicating with an inflatable dolphin. Working predominantly as a dancer and choreographer, Hepi investigates what happens when we are constantly under surveillance, and when the images and stories presented to the world about us come from the gaze of someone else. The work asks, who is deemed intelligent and what are the metrics through which intelligence is measured? Western knowledge systems, including science and language, place themselves at the top of the food chain – but there are many complex knowledge systems in societies, human and otherwise, outside of that. There is a comedic and absurd element to Hepi’s work, just as there is to the original experiment, which was ultimately deemed a failure. Can we trust what we see is real? We must leave room for misinterpretation and mistranslation when we are not getting information directly from the source, when the source is corrupted, and when the systems of value and knowledge come from an outside place.
Blak artists and filmmakers possess the vision to propagate futures better than those we have inherited through colonialism, and the fearlessness to present this to the world. Ask any Blakfulla and they will tell you that we hope to leave this place a little better for the next generation. Those creating today take the baton from a long line of defiant photographers, filmmakers and storytellers who tell it like it is, and use their voices to challenge and reframe the narrative. How I See It presents stories that consider the ethics of representation and image creation, raising questions around the impacts of digital technologies on our environment as well as how we store, access and share digital archives. The diverse creative practices of the artists and filmmakers reflect the boundless ways in which First Peoples tell stories. They make work that considers where it fits within the very walls of the institutions that have fed into these limited and harmful representations that we continue to resist against. The writers who are featured in the following pages of this publication delve further into these ideas, extending into speculative fiction, the legacies of archives and personal reflections on how we both shape and are shaped by the stories told by our communities. The artists, filmmakers and writers look back and speak back to the power of the gaze – they defy it, subvert it and go beyond. How I See It reframes the archive and what we have inherited, to imagine limitless futures.
Kate ten Buuren is a Taungurung curator, artist and writer working on Kulin Country. Kate is an active member of First Nations arts collective this mob who make space for young artists to connect and create on their own terms. Kate currently works as a curator at ACMI and was previously curator at the Koorie Heritage Trust. Most recently, she co-curated Collective Movements at Monash University Museum of Art, which celebrated the legacy and contemporary practice of First Nations creative collectives and community groups from across Victoria.
- Alexis Wright, ‘What Happens When You Tell Somebody Else’s Story?’, Meanjin, Summer 2016
- Marcia Langton, ‘Well I Heard it on the Radio and I Saw it on the Television’, North Sydney, NSW: Australian Film Commission, 1993, p. 33
- Mykaela Saunders, ‘Stories of Our Disfunction Have Been Greatly Exaggerated’, Sydney Review of Books, 29 August 2022
- bell hooks, ‘Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination’, in ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula Treichler, Cultural Studies, New York: Routledge, 1992, p. 341, emphasis added
- Pauline Clague, ‘Indigenous Storytelling: Deconstructing the Archetypes’, Artlink, 1 June 2019
- Merinda Dutton, ‘Disrupting the Colonial Narrative: Reading, Reckoning and Reimagining’, The Griffith Review, edition 76, April 2022
- Justine Saunders quoted in Gerry Carman, ‘A Fight Against the Stereotype’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 April 2007
- Jane Lydon, Eye Contact: Photographing Indigenous Australians, Durham: Duke University Press, 2006, p. 2
- Natalie Harkin, ‘The Poetics of (Re)Mapping Archives: Memory in the Blood’, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature: Country vol. 14 no. 3, 2014
- Alexis Wright, ‘A Self-Governing Literature’, Meanjin, Winter 2020
- Clague, 2019