March 20: Is it possible to plumb deep familial and cultural ancestry using photography?
The Castlemaine State Festival has commenced and today I attended James Henry’s artist talk in his exhibition at the Castlemaine Art Museum.
The Museum is making a concerted effort to foreground the First Nations cultural heritage of our area. Enter the foyer and immediately in front of you is a glass case containing artefacts and artworks, ancient and recent, from the original owners of the area; evidence of the long aboriginal history of Castlemaine and district. It is a disrupted history, turned upside down in 1851—the estimated date of the photograph that you see magnificently enlarged and hanging by that glass case in the foyer; probably the very first photographic image of the original inhabitants of the district.
Miners in their thousands tore up the bed of Forest Creek and pierced deeply the surrounding hills and plains, leaving the bones of the earth in huge piles of mullock and tailings and stealing away the metal they thought was precious. In the process, just some thought to rescue the objects that now line that glass case. It is a fragile, broken and long-buried history.
Enter the adjacent gallery, and you will find photographs in a muted earthy hue extracted from full digital colour that segues tonally from John Hunter Kerr‘s A Corrorobby, but with a living tint. A gap of 170 years stands between Kerr and this photographer, First Nations artist James Henry.
I listened as he gathered visitors and talked about a project, still ongoing, that he is undertaking, supported by Creative Victoria through the Strategic Investment Fund. It is called 18 Families for the remaining Dja Dja Wurrung descendants who call this area of Central Victoria ‘country’; their home. So far, the photographic series represents some of them.
This set of environmental portraits is unusual. They speak for themselves … actually! Under each sequence is a QR code that provides access to recordings of James Henry’s interviews with the subjects to which you can listen on your mobile phone as you look at the images [also provided in one place here]. They talk about their heritage and family trees, about what it means to be Djaara and to honour their ancestors, they relate the mythology of this area, their struggle for recognition and to reclaim their lands, the importance of education, and the anguish of racism and assimilation.
Each interview is a soundscape; around us is the resonance of the bush, of birds and flies, or of the roadside or town, with passing cars and the chimes of the Post Office clock, and as Marlene Burchill and Graham Atkinson’s family talk, we hear their murmurs of agreement and sotto voce comments to each other.
James was asked, during his talk, about how he interacted with his subjects and whether they had a choice in locations and in selecting photographs. The project was underway from December 2020 and, given that timeline, was a test of his organisational skills as a professional portraitist and fashion photographer and documenter of film, music, events and festivals (see his website). He responded that he discussed appropriate and preferred locations with his subjects and while he understood that collaboration in choosing the photographs was a potentially beneficial, that his professional responsibility was to his audience in conveying the participants’ stories and to maintain an integrity between the groups of photographs.
It is not unusual for First Nations creatives to work across various media, as they have always done. Graduating from Newtown High School of the Performing Arts he trained in Contemporary Music at Eora Tafe in Darlinghurst, Sydney for his first career as a composer with Ngarra-Burria: First Peoples Composers and singer/songwriter as well as sound designer for various projects, but his work in photography stretches back to before 2000. Clearly it is his warm and breezy stage manner that puts his photographic subjects at ease, though he is, in commitment, a perfectionist, but as he frankly admits;
Balancing music and photography is a matter of whoever might book me in for a job on a certain date. Most of my personal and professional development of late has been focused on music. I do feel I stretch myself a bit thin doing both, but I like the diversity and I am managing to get enough work doing both that it doesn’t cause me too many troubles. I do wonder though how much better I’d be at one if I made it my sole focus.
Within time constraints, and because of a certain reserve amongst them, it proved impossible to arrange sessions with all eighteen Djaara families in the district, but that ensures an exhibition that portrays fewer participants in greater depth. Nor was it possible to photograph the largest family group actually in Mount Alexander Shire, and their session was undertaken in the re-established bush of Melbourne’s Royal Park near the Calder Highway leading to our town 115km away. The clan is seen walking amongst native and European trees, then grouping behind elder Aunty Marlene Burchill who gives way to its youngest member, Eliza, representing the future, before appearing in a more formal grouping which once again echoes J. H. Kerr’s historic image of now unknown individuals. In the audio Uncle Graham Atkinson stresses the importance of identifying individuals in photographs.
During James’s talk there was discussion of the way that original owners had been ‘cleared’ from their land by settlers who at first drove them away, and massacred many, as they fenced and cleared for their farms. Then, after miners had razed the natural environment, the remaining people were shepherded into the ‘protectorate’ at Mount Franklin to join others who had been there since 1848, before being moved in 1864, 200km away to Coranderrk Aboriginal Station established in 1863 on the Yarra Flats near Mt Riddle. Many moved or were relocated to Yorta Yorta territory at the junction of the Goulburn and Murray Rivers, intermarried with them, and the family connections were confused, before Uncle Rick Nelson with academics from Ballarat University and others identified the blood lines.
Kerri Douglas and Jacinta Douglas are photographed on Mt Tarrangower overlooking our neighbouring town, Maldon. They stand were the most recent volcanic activity in Victoria, which had continued for millennia, occurred about 5000 years ago, within living memory of the first peoples who have occupied and cultivated the area for at least 40,000 years. Kerri and Jacinta refer to the Dja Dja Wurrung story of how the volcano, young, brash and loud-mouthed Lalgambook (Mt Franklin) challenged big, heavy but wise Tarrengower who began to grumble and fume, but – being wiser – chose to ignore cheeky Lalgambook who responded by blowing fiery lava all over the place with smoke and ash, and hurling rocks and brimstone at Tarrangower who just continued to growl.
The debris can still be seen scattered, amongst which Kerri and Jacinta wander in James Henry’s portrait, framed to take in the scene of the behemoths’ battle, which stretches far across the Guildford Plateau, for long the site of First People’s ceremonies. Kerri says, in the accompanying sound recording that, though there is no scientific evidence that Tarrengower is a volcano, “to think that my ancestors would have seen the volcanoes erupting and hunted megafauna is just amazing.” Henry catches a sisterly gesture, one guiding the other’s gaze along her pointing hand by entwining their arms to pick out a distant landmark, perhaps the peak of Lalgambook/Franklin.
James related the story of being taken by Uncle Rick Nelson to the scar tree under which he sits in an image central to the exhibition, printed large and hanging in front of visitors as they enter the Sinclair Gallery of the Art Museum. Low, slanting afternoon light picks out the healed edge of the healthy, thick bark of an ancient tree and the grey, grained timber beneath, exposed when an ancestor took bark for a canoe, or to wrap the body of a deceased member of the tribe, then sat to rest just where Uncle Rick now does, projecting a presence, a mysterious silhouette, against the trunk on its flame-like wood-grain.
The colour from James’s Canon Mirrorless R and R6, is muted so that only the red, black and yellow Aboriginal Flag on the subject’s shirtsleeve stands out; the sky becomes a flat jasper green that almost matches the young leaves. Naomi Cass, Director of CAM Renewal (and director of Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography 2001–June 2018) warm-heartedly admitted during the artist’s talk that in sending the files to Colour Factory for printing, she had asked them to restore their full colour. On showing the proofs to James, she said, she learned of her mistake; the subtle modulation is deliberate, James’s intention being to span the millennia of First Peoples history in his images, to show a living heritage against an accretion of almost geological time in its ubiquitous weathered sandstone tones. This is an ancient, continuous culture that in these 18 families survives, and is still very much alive.
Participants Karen Jackson, Associate Provost, Indigenous of Moondani Balluk education unit at Victoria University is a Yorta Yorta/Dja Wurrung woman, and Rhiannon Jackson Dalglish who works at Aboriginal Housing Victoria in Fitzroy, met when Rhiannon contacted Karen about a funeral. After delving into ‘family secrets’ surrounding her father, who was adopted, she realised her connection with Karen as a cousin. They refer to ‘apical ancestors’, those before white settlement and thus at the apex of aboriginal civilisation, and their stories detail the complexities of familial relationships as tangled as the sapling trunks that James shows surrounding them as they climb together through Country.
James Henry’s work approaches his subjects with due respect. It is documentary, verging on public relations imagery in some respects, though with deep sincerity, and while he imitates neither, there is evidence that he draws inspiration from Gregory Crewdson‘s narrative arrangements and painter Eugene von Guerard‘s sense of the land as spectacle. While many examples of his work demonstrate a willingness to be creatively adventurous, and some might wonder what a Tracey Moffatt, Brenda Croft, Michael Riley, or Wayne Quilliam might have made of the project, the scope of the undertaking and its inherent sensitivities are handled with a forthright and sympathetic candour, to make a document with high local relevance that contributes to an issue that is attracting ever-increasing attention. This is a photographer worth keeping an eye on!