Poster detail WINHANGANHA 2023 - Supplied by the NFSA
WINHANGANHA 2023. Supplied by the NFSA

Palawa writer Alice Bellette responds to Jazz Money's poetic film, which reclaims images and memories of First Nations people residing in archival collections.

Warning | some blood-memory lessons should begin with a slow and deep inhale knowing in that moment before exhale where this archival-poetic journey might never end the next breath may clot, won’t feel so easy.

– Natalie Harkin, Archival Poetics [1]

I’ve written before about artist Jazz Money’s archival poetics in reference to their artwork Rodeo Baby! Their new film WINHANGANHA, which translated from Wiradjuri to English approximates to ‘remember, know, think’, was commissioned by the NFSA for their RE/Vision project; it also attends to the theme of the paradoxical and haunted archival practice of reaching into the past.

It’s this dialectic, something like the poles of a magnet – attraction and repulsion – which has come to define the past year of my life, in a patterning similar to noticing synchronicity in numbers; the more I resist something the more I desire it. Inside of this tension, multiple truths erupt and coexist, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not so much. The archive remains a perturbed setting for which the coexistent truths of grief and vitality contend with one another. To reiterate from previous writing, this is not an original thought on my part and my explorations have been informed by blak women like Natalie Harkin (Archival Poetics) and Jeanine Leane (Walk Back Over) who have attended to the archive’s paradoxes before me.

Jazz Money has made five gentle gatherings in WINHANGANHA that structure its thematic arc. Each is punctuated by the artist reading their own poetry, which by the end unfurls not as five separate poems, but as parts of a whole one. In fact, Jazz Money themself described the project as a visual poem, which is an appropriate way to define such a carefully crafted work. The chapters function structurally as the poem’s stanzas; the cuts in the footage are as intentional as the internal logics of line breaks, or enjambment, where continuities are rendered implicitly. The gestures of movement – like fabric shuddering, rippling in a draft – is set rhythmically by a short clip of Leah Purcell in The Drover’s Wife with a broom, her swishing as she sweeps, DOBBY’s (Rhyan Clampham’s) soundtrack fading in, in time to the motion of the sinewy lithe form of a dancer.

I made sense of the structure as follows:

chapter one

Jazz Money establishes the physical presence, beauty, prowess of black bodies, the bodies “written in muscle and flesh”. Look at them, in all their magnificence. Look at the memories and bloodlines they hold. But remember that in the archive, these bodies are spectres – absences equal to their muscle and flesh – projected onto records to serve an agenda. How do we hold a ghost in our hands? Perhaps by moving them into the light.

WINHANGANHA 2023 - There's love bursting through the archives - Supplied by the NFSA

WINHANGANHA (2023): 'There's love bursting through the archives'. Supplied by the NFSA

chapter two

While this was the most difficult section to watch, it feels essential to establish the context – by directly invoking D.W. Griffiths, no less – that the images of blak bodies were not gathered by a loving gaze. Stored away, this storied gaze makes its own meaning. These images hold the bodies in them under duress, led in handcuffs by the police, fixed in celluloid so as to become a knowable subject. And human skulls are souvenirs. Including within this segment short pieces of footage of the archive space itself draws attention to colonial archival practice. But the stories of Country are not recorded in this way, they are like a palimpsest, where we can see these first inscriptions scraping back the settler “mythscaping”.

WINHANGANHA 2023 - There's promise hiding in the archives - Supplied by the NFSA

WINHANGANHA (2023): 'There’s promise hiding in the archives'. Supplied by the NFSA

chapter three

The gaze is turned back on itself, viewed through the sight of a rifle scope. When the firearms discharge, Jazz Money turns our attention to the legacy of resistance work on the ground, gathering to demonstrate, a tradition of bodies – of flesh and of muscle – and voices on the frontlines. And failing that? Burn it to the ground. There will be rebirth from the ashes.

WINHANGANHA 2023 - There's passion marching through the archives - Supplied by the NFSA

WINHANGANHA (2023): 'There's passion marching through the archives'. Supplied by the NFSA

chapter four

“did they not know how long fire can burn in the root?”

The smoulder catches ablaze again, signalling the brightness of resurgence. This is where Jazz Money’s thesis erupts from beneath the surface. Images of mobility cut in sequence; there is power in connection, power in dynamism. And we are now the ones recording our images, our voices, and this gaze rests upon these bodies with a tenderness afforded by this sovereignty of story. It’s the smoulder in the root, knowing that even when we can’t see it, it remains. Under Uncle Archie Roach’s crooning, images of blak joy across time capture a different story.

WINHANGANHA 2023 - There's a fire burning in the archives - Supplied by the NFSA copy

WINHANGANHA (2023): 'There's a fire burning in the archives'. Supplied by the NFSA

Chapter five

A coda to chapter one, this final chapter cranks it up a notch. I am elated by Jazz Money’s decision to include an excerpt from The Sapphires: a musical montage sequence of the four women on tour, joyously showcasing their energy, talent and style. I hold a fond memory of watching the movie with my sister, a shared moment in time that I treasure. I think this is the point – that we can inscribe images of ourselves with love and joy. The power and persistence of body and blood become the “ceremonies of scar” that Jazz Money refers to in their poem. Our embodiments, and our connections to the bodies in the archive remain our stories by virtue of the ceremonies of scar that create and hold the archive of the body.

WINHANGANHA 2023 - There are people dancing through the archives - Supplied by the NFSA

WINHANGANHA (2023) 'There are people dancing through the archives'. Supplied by the NFSA

In the callout for their commission, the NFSA asked “who are we now?” and Jazz Money answers, uninterested in the settler state of affairs, with a suggestion that we are overdue for a reckoning. By invoking the archive’s paradox, they illuminate a site of such violence as also a repository where the joy, love and memory that connects us to one another across time and place, lies quietly dormant. And I wondered while I let these carefully chosen images wash over me, what was left behind? The images that remain in these digital crypts, awaiting their turn to re-enter the light. It is a comfort knowing that whilst WINHANGANHA was being assembled, some of these records were encountered, the images of the bodies therein witnessed, recognised, honoured by at least one blakfulla’s project and labour of love.

So, while it is true that archives represent a site of unquestionable violence, our re-inscriptions, our reappraisals, our reanimations offer a lifeline to the unconsenting persons otherwise left to languish in their limbo state, known only by an itemised, indexed record. In its preoccupation with sanitising the past to create a clinical rendering of what is to be deemed remember-able, the colonial project failed to recognise the other methods and practices of storing memory: the archive of the body. Acts of reassembling records reminds us of what we carry with us, and re-arms us with vital connectivity. WINHANGANHA is a celebration of this. I’m looking forward to the future, as First Nations’ custodianship of records continues to expand and for the creative artefacts that will inevitably flourish under our care.

– Alice Bellette

Watch the film at ACMI

Read more about Jazz Money's explorations of the archive

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