Closeup on text in Jazz Money's Rodeo Baby! (2022), installation view, ACMI
Jazz Money, Rodeo Baby! detail (2022) installation view, ACMI
Stories & Ideas

Tue 17 Jan 2023

Rodeo Baby! Archives and returning love to our ancestors

First Peoples How I See It: Blak Art and Film Preservation
Colourful wall - external authors

Nathan Sentance & Jodie Dowd

Writers

Nathan Sentance and Jodie Dowd reflect on Indigenous representations in archival collections and the Right of Reply.

If archival collections are the rodeo, who is playing cowboy with our images?

Jazz Money

The narratives of colonisation that arose from the Australian colonial project have produced an archival legacy that is often incomplete, frequently biased and renders Indigenous people invisible or positions Indigenous people as the subject or the other.

Kirsten Thorpe

In the days preceding our visit to Jazz Money’s Rodeo Baby! at ACMI we were with family, vibrating with laughter, thwacking playing cards on the table trying to one up each other. The hums of snores and country music and the swarm of heat gently blanketing us. Story sharing weaving between card game strategising. The tops of trees flickering and rubbing, reminding us of the nurturing eyes of our Elders who passed but are still smiling at our joy. The fullness of us in this space, these moments, could never be captured by colonial archives.

Historically, as Indigenous peoples, we were fragmented by the archive. Our fullness chopped at like a tree for firewood. This was to minimise us so we may fit in the cells designated for us in archival collections. As such, images of us in these collections rather than display our humanity, deny it, steal it, warp it. Our Ancestors depicted in archival images were generally unnamed, stripped of our names as the non-Indigenous agents taking our photos or describing the images thought of the people that they were capturing or describing as subjects like trees on the landscape, lacking in not only humanity but in the individuality that would have made recording their name worthwhile. In lieu of names, archival images’ titles and other accompanying archival metadata regularly use derogatory language and slurs to describe and define our Ancestors. Furthermore, these images were often used by non-Indigenous researchers as “evidence” for our perceived savagery. In her thesis, ‘Unclasping the White Hand: reclaiming and refiguring the archives to support Indigenous wellbeing and sovereignty’, Dr Kirsten Thorpe states that, as a result of these perceptions, archives have been mechanisms, weapons if you will, for justifying the Australian colonial project by describing us as less than human thus needing civilising and less deserving of our lands. [1]

However, those captured in these images are our loved ones. They are our kin, our relations, they are of and from Country. They are sovereign beings. Just as Jazz Money reminds us that the archive is a legacy we inherit, the strength, brilliance, rebelliousness, determination, cheekiness, storytelling and stories of our Ancestors are legacies we inherit. Even though their fullness is not depicted or described in the archive.

Repatriation has long been called for by Indigenous communities as a way to restore dignity to those captured in the archives. This can be a return to home, to their Country where they can be locally cared for and be in the proper relationships for their stories to thrive or given rest if the community sees fit. Rodeo Baby! is a different type of return, it is what Ali Gumillya Baker, Simone Ulalka Tur, Faye Rosas Blanch and Natalie Harkin describe as “repatriating love to our Ancestors” [2]. Jazz has done the difficult task of negotiating archives, spaces that were never designed for our use, to create this work. And through it, Jazz has opposed archives’ attempts to reduce Ancestors to documentation, images of them to solely be tools of the colonial gaze. It is an act of honouring.

Jazz Money, Rodeo Baby! (2022), installation view, from 'Jazz Money on Rodeo Baby! | How I See It: Blak Art and Film'

Jazz Money, Rodeo Baby! (2022), installation view, ACMI. Still from 'Jazz Money on Rodeo Baby! | How I See It: Blak Art and Film', published on YouTube 3 Jan 2023 (https://youtu.be/CMJyUjKo_d0)

Learn more about this work and the artist

Rodeo Baby! joins a continuum of Indigenous voices throughout the last several decades critiquing the colonial archive, asking those who work in, use, and support archival collections for more space for Indigenous community members to honour relationships with, reconnect to, and bring fullness to our community depicted in archives. It is a continuous call to action for archives to recognise the colonial biases that established them and to move out of the way for Indigenous community members to increase our agency in the construction of memory. As Indigenous peoples working in archives, knowing the barriers that prevent more repatriation of love to the Ancestors in collections, we know this call to action is what archival institutions and fellow archival workers need to hear.

This call to action has been highlighted by the Indigenous Archives Collective founded by Dr Kirsten Thorpe and Dr Shannon Faulkhead, which has developed a position statement on the Right of Reply to Indigenous Knowledges and Information Held in Archives. This could be one method to rectify colonial biases in collection and repatriate love to the ancestors in archives. The Right of Reply is the right for Indigenous peoples to respond to and challenge records, and for these challenges to live beside the historical interpretation of records.

The Right of Reply is contingent on Indigenous peoples Right to Know what records about them, their cultures and histories exist in collections. We cannot respond, challenge and connect to the records if we don’t know they exist and where they are. This is important as records about Indigenous peoples have been dispersed throughout the world. The onus is on institutions to ensure the relevant communities know about the records they hold.

Digital repositories like Trove [3] increase access to collections without the need for communities to visit multiple organisations that they may otherwise be unable to access due to the cost of travel. Sadly, the future of Trove and public access to its six billion digital items are under threat due to funding cuts and without additional funding Trove will be shut down by July 2023 [4].

In its present state, Trove promotes the Right to Know through making cultural materials easily accessible which in turn promotes the Right of Reply by Indigenous communities through the feedback links available on the website. This form of the Right to Reply contextualises the records by centring First Nations knowledge.

National Library of Australia viewed across Lake Burley Griffin from Commonwealth Park

Trove is owned by the National Library of Australia, Canberra (Image courtesy Bidgee, Wikimedia Commons)

Indigenous voices are crucial to make meaning in archives as the key knowledge holders and truth-tellers on our history and culture. Understanding the cultural significance of collections is crucial to ensuring the appropriate care of each cultural belonging and information, and it is through appropriate care of cultural materials that the archives can become culturally safe.

Ensuring spaces feel safe is another contingency that is needed for the Right of Reply as Indigenous people won’t want to enter spaces if they feel the spaces disrespect and denigrate them. In Rodeo Baby! Jazz expresses that, for Indigenous Australians, the archive “is a particularly loaded space. A record of our mistreatment, a record of our survival, a record of the things that the colonisers – those same people creating the archives of the past – sought to destroy”. Indigenous peoples may actively avoid cultural institutions as they can be places of Sorry Business (Thorpe, K. 2022) due to their history of collecting bodies of our Ancestors, detailing secret and sacred ceremonies and recording cultural practices that our Ancestors and Elders were forbidden to practice. This needs to be something institutions acknowledge and reckon with, so they do not cause further harm to those who want to honour their Ancestors.

Cultural knowledges and photographs of our people contained in the archives are being reclaimed and awakened by Indigenous people accessing the collections. In fact, while noting the ongoing coloniality of the archives, Lauren Booker, in her essay in Indigenous Women's Voices: 20 Years on from Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies [5], explains that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists “are not waiting for permission to enact Indigenous agency in the historical narrative and future direction of collections and institutional (mis)representations”.

Through Rodeo Baby! Jazz asks us ‘how do we emphasise joy and beauty without hiding from the hardship of the legacy?’ and it is through the creation of works such as Rodeo Baby! and it is through Indigenous peoples making meaning of the archives that they can become culturally safe. Truth telling should be the focus of cultural materials in archives; as Jazz says, “there’s something really powerful about returning to these sites of tension and sort of restoring honour to people, those really strong ancestors and kin who were maybe documented in ways that weren’t ethical, but we now have the ability to sort of return that ethic and honour to these people.” This is what a Right of Reply can be if institutions face the hard truths. The rodeo is on stolen land, our land, we need the cowboys of the colony to move out of the way as is our right.

Statement of positionality

As a Wiradjuri man and a Noongar woman living as guests on the unceded, traditional and ancestral lands of Gaimaragal Country and caring for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural belongings in museums and archives, we honour and pay our respects to the Ancestors and Elders whose lives, experiences, culture and bodies have been captured in these spaces and recognise the significant strength and guidance of First Nations GLAM professionals who have lead the work to repatriate love to our Ancestors and ensure that First Nations voices are recorded to make meaning of cultural belongings. The writing of this article was guided through our lived experience as First Nations peoples who have a combined 30 years as professionals working across the GLAM sector.

Nathan “Mudyi” Sentance (he/him/nhila) is a Wiradjuri man from the Mowgee clan, who grew up on Darkinjung Country, NSW. Nathan works to ensure that Indigenous stories being told in cultural and memory institutions, such as galleries, libraries, archives, and museums are being told and controlled by Indigenous people.

Jodie Dowd (she/her) is a Noongar (Menang, Gitja, Wangai) curator, basket weaver and writer who grew up on Gunnai/Kurnai Country, VIC. With 15 years’ experience working across the GLAM sector in various community, state, national and international organisations, Jodie currently works with Stolen Generations Survivors to access their personal records in archives and record Survivor stories as a Right to Reply.


This essay was written for How I See It: Blak Art and Film. See the exhibition at ACMI.

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Reference

[1] Thorpe, K. (2022) ‘Unclasping the White Hand: Reclaiming and Refiguring the Archives to Support Indigenous Wellbeing and Sovereignty’ (thesis).

[2] Baker, A. G., Tur, S. U., Blanch, F. R., & Harkin, N. (2020). Repatriating love to our ancestors. In C. Fforde. ,C. McKeown., & H. Keeler (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Indigenous Repatriation (pp. 854-873). Routledge.

[3] Indigenous Archives Collective (2021). The Indigenous Archives Collective Position Statement on the right of reply to Indigenous Knowledges and Information held in Archives. Archives and Manuscripts, 49(3), 244–252.

[3] Hosted by the National Library of Australia, Trove is a digital repository of collections from the NLA and partner organisations enabling online access to cultural materials including photographs, documents, maps, newspapers, and web archives.

[4] Jones, M., & Verhoeven, D. (2022, December 25). Trove's funding runs out in July 2023 – and the National Library is threatening to pull the plug. it's time for a radical overhaul. The Conversation. Retrieved January 6, 2023.

[5] Booker, L. (2022). Resist and assert – Indigenous wok in GLAM. In tebrakunna country, E. Lee, & J. Evans (Eds.), Indigenous women's voices: 20 years on from Linda Tuhiwai Smith's Decolonizing Methodologies (pp. 153–168). essay, Zed Books.