Community + Family
without beginning or end; eternal; everlasting.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are bound together by a strong sense of family and Community. Whether connected through blood relations, broader clan affiliations or the shared experience of colonisation, we identify as one of many peoples.
The forced relocation of Indigenous people to Christian missions and government-run reserves since first contact has had long-lasting consequences. Communities not traditionally associated with each other were grouped together and forced to change their cultural norms, systems and structures. For many communities, the breakdown of culture occurred rapidly within a generation; for others, it took several generations. In many communities, however, culture remains intact. And despite segregation, many strong communities have been forged through cross-cultural exchange and intermarriage, providing a sense of belonging for many of the displaced.
The stolen generations were profoundly affected by the breakdown of identity and cultural connections. These experiences have led to a redefinition of family and community and a coming together to build new ties and relationships.
Representations of family and community are important for challenging stereotypes about what it means to be Indigenous. By reclaiming representation, artists change the conversation about identity.
‘I am situated [in this painting] as a member of this group with time not separating our mutual connection to this Country.’
Julie Dowling is a Badimaya woman. Born in 1969 in Boorloo/Perth, Western Australia, she is an artist who draws on historical and oral stories. Through her Self-portrait: in our country, Dowling expresses her feelings of returning to her grandmother’s Country near Yalgoo, north-east of Geraldton, while drawing on an oral story told to her by her Great Uncle about gold in the landscape.
Dowling portrays herself in her dry russet Country, embodying the depiction of her grandmothers, her Ancestors, and together they form the bonds of time. As she explains:
‘I painted this self-portrait to express my feelings about returning to my grandmother’s Country, which is located near a small town called Yalgoo.
‘My great uncle George Latham told me the story of when white people asked my Ancestors to describe gold and where to find it. They said that gold looked like Yalgoo, which is the Badimaya/Budimia word for the fat deposits around the belly of a large goanna found in that area.’
What do you notice about Dowling embracing her Ancestors within a red ochre landscape?
Dowling’s art practice centres on truth-telling through portraiture of Aboriginal people and families, often highlighting issues that are important to her. Why do you think she has depicted herself with her Ancestors and what feeling has she created?
Using personal photos as references, create your own portrait of you and your family. Think about the importance of connecting to your family and Ancestors, and a place you are all connected to. Use lead or coloured pencils on paper to sketch your portrait.
'You’ve always got to be grounded in your own culture. You know, what means so much to you and your family. That’s really important to be preserved for younger generations.’
Lola Greeno was born on truwana/Cape Barren Island, lutruwita/Tasmania, in 1946. Shell-stringing is centred around family and the continuation of cultural practices. A highly respected Pakana Elder from lutruwita (Tasmania), Greeno’s art practice draws upon the tradition of stringing seashells into necklaces.
Knowledge of the seasons aids knowing the time and place to collect thousands of shells, many of which are unique to the region. This process often involves hours of washing, drying, polishing and punching holes before threading each delicate shell into innovative combinations, an expression of identity and connection to the island.
Greeno’s necklaces are not only striking to the eye but are powerful symbols of survival and cultural continuity:
‘A lot of my work is about cultural awareness, letting people know what we did, what we are doing, and it’s about passing on to future families, for them to know about where we come from ...’
Compare and contrast the king and queen maireener shells strung together in Greeno’s work of art. What are the similarities and differences you notice between the shells other than the size?
Why do you think the practice of shell-stringing in lutruwita/Tasmania is important to Greeno’s family and community?
Reflect on your cultural heritage and what that connection means to you and your family. Is there a cultural or special activity you do with your family? Create a work of art or sculpture so you can share this story and preserve it for future descendants.
Mary Pantjiti McLean
'When I was a little girl, I used to run around digging bardies. No feed, it was a hard life: mothers dig rabbits, collect quandongs, grind wild seeds for damper. Men all go out hunting kangaroo.’
Pantjiti Mary McLean is a Ngaatjatjarra woman who was born in the late 1920s south-west of Uluru/Ayers Rock, from the Yankunytjatjara people of central Australia. Her grandmother’s Country is located around the Docker River region of the Western Desert near the tri-state border of Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory.
In Palunya: that's all, McLean’s visual storytelling can be seen in her mosaic that brings together cartoon-like depictions of her experiences as a young woman. McLean painted scenes from her memory of her family and Community onto small storyboards, with the deep earth colours evoking the spirit of her desert Country.
McLean spent her early years under the control of government policies at Mount Margaret Mission and later tried her hand at mustering sheep at a cattle station. McLean’s early life can be seen in her work.
McLean features her family and Community in each square. What do you notice about the people and animals depicted?
Why do you think McLean painted her memories of her experiences onto small mosaic-like boards?
Create your own comic-style artworks featuring you and your family members. Think of moments in your life you would like to tell as visual stories. Capture these moments on separate sheets of paper or canvas and create your own mosaic of stories.