Photo by Rick

Photo by Ricky Maynard

One of the highlights of the Labour Day weekend was to get out to Pataka in Porirua and see the Ricky Maynard exhibition. And it was well worth the trip.

One of the lasting impressions of my interaction with Aboriginal people is the abiding sense of loss imparted to successive generations.

Unless an individual is brought up in a strongly traditional cultural setting then they are in large part carry all the negative aspects of being Aboriginal, meaning they’re black and the absolute bottom of the totem pole, but few of the positives, such the cultural understandings that give meaning and pride to lives.

What culture does for people is gives them something concrete and worthy to hang their hat on. Italians and Greeks in Australia have cuisine for example, meaning they can contribute something unique to the nation that elevates their social status. As their group has moved closer to the mainstream they are able to recall their parents or grandparents cultural lessons and lean on them, even making capital of that culture, both social and financial.

But Aboriginal people have had that taken from them by force, deliberately, over as many as six generations.

Maynard’s exhibition is one of the better captures of that sense of lose. He has three sets of photos shown, and I’ll admit to being shocked to realise that one set is of a group I worked with in St. Kilda. The second set is a series of remarkable portraits such as the one above, in which the lined and weathered faces of Aboriginal people of the Wik Clan are captured in their glory, the antithesis of our beauty-obsessed and superficial society. But it’s in the photos depicting men mutton-birding that he’s found his heart of the tragedy that overtook Aboriginal people.

The mutton-birders are the descendants of a small number of individuals placed on the Bass Strait islands after the genocide of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Clans. In a series of systematic attacks these people were exterminated by settlers and convicts, with the survivors “rescued” and dumped unceremoniously on a set of wind-swept and barren islands “for their protection”. It is a dark and sorry chapter in a 150-year history of such events in Australia.

What the photos spoke to me was the separation of these people from their culture and their past. They mutton-bird these days as a link to their predecessors, and it is a tradition of sorts, but one empty of the deeper rites and ceremonies enjoyed by Aboriginal people in the far North of the country. It’s hard to see why these people are more indigenous than any other person who might have been brought up in Tasmanian, and it is the doubt sowed in the viewer that acts to further undermine the Aboriginality of the individuals depicted, making that viewer complicit in the ongoing destruction of that identity.

It’s a great set of pictures, and one highly recommended.

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