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  • Avi Amesbury

The Self Reconciliation Project

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

Artist-in-Residence Fremantle Art Centre (February to June 2022)


The project took me on an unimaginable journey of grief, empathy and understanding through loss.

During the Fremantle Art Centre residency, I focused on the notion of self reconciliation through research into my family history (an internal lens) in relation to politics, racial issues, community attitudes and the laws of the times.

The investigation started with looking at 100 years of my family history beginning with migration from Scotland to Quairading to the birth of my mother.

As one of the first settler families arriving in Quairading Western Australia we were given land-lots while the Noongar Ballardong people of the region were persecuted.


The project took me on a very personal and deeply emotional journey of grief, empathy and understanding through loss.


Like many families mine was extended – the cousin who was like a brother and the cherished uncle. I arrived in Perth in February and quietly, day by day, my mother slipped away. She passed away one month after I arrived. A week later my cousin died. Our uncle’s heart broke, he had lost his sister and then his son. He passed away three weeks later. I then found my brother fighting cancer.


The plan to interview my mother and uncle, to record their childhood stories and recollections of their father’s and grandfather’s migration and of settling and living in Quairading was lost. Although I did get some recordings of their childhood I was too late.


I spent days immersed in a tunnel of chaotic emotions. My universe became grief and loss, grief and loss, grief and loss.


In response, collecting objects, constructing brushes and mark making became my emotional and creative outlet. I created a wall of objects – brushes and drawings came to represent a wall of ‘memory and loss’. I used materials from my brother’s propertyin Wundowie (Noongar Whadjuk country) for the brushes and a much loved tablecloth of my mothers from our childhood for the binding. As I made the brushes and explored the marks each of them gave I was able to quietly be with my loss and grief.


I reflected on the importance of being with family at the end of their lives, and contemplated how, as settler/colonisers, we have devastated families, country, and culture of the Noongar peoples.



Tracing the family history

I met some lovely people in Quairading, friendly and eager to assist in any way they could. Everyone was generous with their time and information, helping me connect to my history and the history of the area. It’s quite amazing how the stories you hear from family members are peppered with half-truths and at times no truth at all, and then discovering new truths. The person being described on the page, seen in the photo, commemorated by a street name, or honoured in a memorial becomes real. This is the link, the line, the story, the moment to now, the moments to this.


Steering conversations I had with my family towards recollections of Noongar Ballardong families in the region, or as labourers on the family farm, was met with lowered eyes, and “Oh no never, but they were there, on the outskirts in the bush.”


Government policy and industrial machinery (particularly tractors) expedited the deliberate and systematic destruction of Indigenous culture and the devastation of Noongar Ballardong country. Once known for its abundance of wildflowers, sandalwood, and richness in bird, animal and insect life we created a vast flat landscape denuded of diverse forests and vegetation, and called it the wheat-belt.

My family, like many families, came to Australia seeking a better life. Migration was their way of escaping poverty, social stigmas and oppression in their own country.


I do not negate the hardships of our family, living under canvas for many many years in Quairading, the loss of young lives in the wars, the depression, the poverty, the loss of the farm, moving from place to place – a wood cutters camp with young adolescent daughters, to Dingbat Flats renown for one of Western Australia’s worst race riots. Nor do I dismiss the impacts of family violence, the fear and insecurity that passed from one generation to the next.


But I have begun to understand the grief of our First Nations people, of what has been lost, and how pain is inter-generational.


Tracing policy

Tracing government policy not only highlighted how our family and other settlers benefited, but gave insights into the oppression of First Nations peoples, instilling racism and violence at the core of our society.


The Homestead Act 1893 (incentives to settle land) and the decline of gold fever brought more settlers into the Quairading region, many from other states or from overseas. With us (settlers) came the clearing of land, fencing, surveyed roads, and the railway. We were directly or indirectly responsible for killings and massacres. It has been documented that in 1836 settlers in the York area, (in Noongar Ballardong country where Quairading is also located), collected ears of slain Aboriginal men as trophies.

Our laws supported systematic dispossession of a peoples and the annihilation of family connections and culture. (Examples listed below). The forced removal of Aboriginal children, now known as the Stolen Generation, was still happening in 1970, while I was safely and securely completing high school.


Creative process

My creative processes at Fremantle Art Centre largely moved away from the use of clay, exploring loss and grief through mark-making, sound, writing and story telling. As well as creating brushes and exploring their marks, I investigated the use of sound, creating soundscapes that combined recordings of birds and other wildlife, rain, wind and sea; clips from family interviews and readings of writings and poems. Although unresolved this work continues to be developed and I’m pursuing a collaboration with a musician/sound artist.

As the ‘wall of loss’ grew it became clear each of the objects I selected had a dual meaning.

My brother’s home (in Noongar Whadjuk country) was designed and lovingly built over many years, made entirely from bricks produced at the family brick-works in Narrogin (Noongar Gnaala Karla Boojar country). I selected one of these bricks to display in the ‘wall of loss’, initially to represent connection to home and then, when forced to sell due to his illness, the sadness of it’s sudden loss. This deeply felt loss was rooted in his connection to family, lineage and place.

A change of perspective and the ‘brick’ revealed it’s contrasting narrative, a symbol of colonisation and the cruelty it inflicts. I began to understand the feeling of grief by our First Nations people for their loss of country, and how ‘my’ society is built on and rooted in violence, oppression and degradation.


I went to Alice Springs for the Australian Ceramics Trienale, Apmere Mparntwe in July 2022. It was an exceptional event and offered new ways of thinking and approaches to understanding our cultural history and connection to country. For me Doris Stuart’s opening acknowledgment was profound: how can we be welcomed to country when we are already here, when we have already come in and moved the furniture around?


I now realise self reconciliation is a journey traveled alone and one that requires knowledge and confronting truth. To reconcile and move forward into the future, together, requires me to take a journey with the first peoples of Australia, to listen – but more importantly to hear, to respect and to follow.

Although I planned to engage with Indigenous organisations, artists and Elders while in Western Australia I was aware how delicate the line was between telling my story and imposing upon Indigenous communities. I had hoped to make contact face to face, on-the-ground, but my attempts to connect with the Noongar Ballardong peoples of Quairading proved difficult. Arranged meetings, studio visits and events presenting opportunities to meet Elders and artists were all canceled. I began to wonder, was this part of the journey? Was I being guided back to concentrate of my own coloniser/settler history? On reflection, and ‘hearing’ where I was being guided I’ve glimpsed something more, a slow unfolding.


Next step

I will continue to explore the notion of self reconciliation investigating connection to ‘place’ through the Australian landscape (an external lens). The aim is to bring together these two lines of inquiry and perspectives- family history and connection to ‘place’ – to gain greater knowledge and a deeper understanding of cultural histories and differences.


Although a personal journey, it is a national narrative about how we as a society are directly linked to colonisation and our settler history.

Avi Amesbury

14 November 2022





Image: State Library of Western Australia. Wheat lumbers Quairading.


Image: State Library of Western Australia. Wheat stacks at Burracoppin railway siding,1927.

Image: State Library of Western Australia. A camp and selection in Kwolyin,1907.

Image: State Library of Western Australia. Drays transporting sandalwood to Bencubbin Railway sidling,1928.

View of broad acre farming, Central wheat-belt W Noongar Ballardong country.


 

Native Administration Act 1836 – Aboriginal labour to be paid in rations and board, with workers confined to an employer and prevented from leaving a place of employment without the employers consent. i


1836 York area (Noongar Ballardong country) – settlers in the district collected ears of Aboriginal men slain as trophies. ii


1839 The smallpox vaccine was brought to Western Australia, but for the next 15 years it was used only for the white settlers, despite its virulent effects on Aboriginal populations.iii


1840 Western Australian government initiated a formal Native Police Force. iv


In 1848 as many as 8,000 kangaroo skins were taken from Noongar country in one year, with up to 20,000 skins planned for export from Albany in 1849. v


In 1869 the Board for the Protection of Aborigines was established giving the Board and their representatives power to remove Aboriginal children from their families. vi

Capital Punishment Act 1871 (amended 1875) – abolished public executions but exempting Aboriginal people who could still be executed in public. vii

Industrial Schools Act 1874 – established institution managers as legal guardians of Aboriginal workers under 21 and those children without a guardian. This focused on putting Indigenous children into service for settlers, with girls often returning to the institution pregnant. viii

Summary Jurisdiction Act1874 – definition of 'Aboriginal native' extended to include 'person of whole or half blood'. ix

Aboriginal Offenders Act 1883 – Justices of the Peace granted power to sentence a person defined as 'Aboriginal' to two years jail (increased to three years in 1893). x

Aborigines Protection Act (WA) 1886, (common name Half-Caste Act) – increasing power to regulate the employment and movement of Aboriginal people; power to indenture 'half-caste' and Aboriginal children from a suitable age until they turned twenty-one; and the seizure of 'half-caste' children. Employees were to be provided with "substantial, good and sufficient rations", clothing and blankets, not wages. It also states 'Aboriginals' may be prohibited from entering or remaining in towns. xi

In1890 the Aboriginal Protection Board introduced 'segregation and assimilation' policies to restrict and prohibit traditional cultural practices resulting in the loss of Indigenous identity, cultural knowledge and languages. xii

Police Act 1892 – made it unlawful for non-Aboriginal people to be in the company of 'Aboriginal natives' in certain circumstances without a good reason. xiii

Aboriginal Offenders Act 1893 (Amendment) – maximum term of imprisonment for an Aboriginal person by a Justice of the Peace increased from 2 to 3 years (and 5 years for previous offenders). xiv

Education Act of Western Australia 1893 – giving white parents the power to object to any Aboriginal child attending any school also attended by their children, a provision which saw Aboriginal children progressively and completely excluded from the state education system. xv

Constitutional Amendment Act 1893 – Aboriginal people were specifically denied the vote unless they owned freehold property worth 50 pounds (included 'half-bloods'). xvi

Aborigines Act 1987 – Aboriginal Protection Board was abolished and the Aborigines Department established. xvii

Land Act 1898 – Aboriginal people could be granted or could lease Crown land of no more than 200 acres. xviii

Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 – excludes Indigenous Australians from the census. xix

Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 – excludes Indigenous Australians from Commonwealth lawmaking powers.

Criminal Code Act 1901-1902 – discretion for sentence of Aboriginals to include whipping.xx

Franchise Act 1902 – disqualified Indigenous Australians, Asian people, African people and Pacific Islanders (except New Zealand Maori) from voting, even if they would otherwise be qualified as British subjects. xxi

Aborigines Act (WA) 1905

(a) Chief Protector made legal guardian of all Indigenous Australian children under 16 years and ‘half-castes’. xxii

(b) Chief Protector given power to declare or confine Noongar families to reserves, or remove them.

(c) Noongar people had to have a permit to work and live in towns.

(d) The Aborigines Act 1905 extended to segregation of education, and the

Department of Education opposed the enrollment of Aboriginal children in state schools. xxiii

Electoral Act 1907 – prohibited any 'Aboriginal native' from enrolling as an elector, or if enrolled, from voting in an election. xxiv

1910-1970 Stolen Generation – it is estimated that during the active period of various government policies, between 1 in 10 and 1 in 3 Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities. xxv


Aborigines Act Amendment Act 1911 – Chief Protector made the legal guardian of all illegitimate 'half-caste' children 'to the exclusion of the rights of a mother of an illegitimate half-caste child.' Aboriginal institutions to exercise the same powers as State institutions in respect of State children. xxvi


Licensing Act 1911 – Aboriginal people excluded from provision of sufficient accommodation for shearers and shed hands. xxvii


In 1915 AO Neville appointed Chief Protector and remained in the position until 1940. He saw the Aboriginal population of Western Australia as:

(a) 'full blood' Aborigines, who were to be segregated from the community in order that they could become extinct, and

(b) 'half-caste' Aborigines who were to be assimilated through intermarriage within the white community as quickly as possible. xxviii

Aboriginal Protection Act 1930 – allowing the removal of Aboriginal Australians by court order to a reserve and to keep Aboriginal Australians there until the order canceled. xxix

The Native Administration Act 1936 – extended the Commissioner of Native Affairs powers to have control over all people of Aboriginal descent, defining 'natives' to include nearly all people of full and part descent regardless of their lifestyle and expanded restrictions on movement and lifestyle until the age of twenty-one. From this age any person of `quarter-caste' or less was prohibited by law from associating with persons deemed to be `natives'.xxx


Native Administration Amendment Act 1941 – restricted right of Aboriginal people to move from north to south of the State across the 20th parallel of south latitude. xxxi


Native (Citizenship Rights) Act 1944 – to be granted 'citizenship' under this Act, an Aboriginal person had to convince a magistrate that he/she had severed all ties to extended family and friends (parents, siblings and own children excepted), was free from disease, would benefit from holding citizenship and was 'of industrious habits'. xxxii


Racial Discrimination Act 1975 – which for the first time since 1829 recognised Aboriginal people as equal under Australian law. xxxiii

Endnotes

v Kaartdijin Noongar – Noongar Knowledge Impact of Law Pre1905


vi Wikipedia Half-Caste Act

vii Government of Western Australia Department of Justices Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1871

viii Government of Western Australia Department of Justices Industrial Schools' Act 1874

ix Kaartdijin Noongar – Noongar Knowledge List of WA legislation

x Kaartdijin Noongar – Noongar Knowledge List of WA legislation

xiii Government of Western Australia Department of Justices Police Act 1892

xiv Government of Western Australia Department of Justices Aboriginal Offenders Act (Amendment) 1893

xvi Government of Western Australia Department of Justices The Constitution Act Amendment Act 1893

xviii Kaartdijin Noongar – Noongar Knowledge List of WA legislation

xix Kaartdijin Noongar – Noongar Knowledge List of WA legislation

xx Kaartdijin Noongar – Noongar Knowledge List of WA legislation

xxii Kaartdijin Noongar – Noongar Knowledge List of WA legislation

xxiii Kaartdijin Noongar – Noongar Knowledge List of WA legislation

xxiv Kaartdijin Noongar – Noongar Knowledge List of WA legislation

xxv Australian Museum The Stolen Generation


xxvii Kaartdijin Noongar – Noongar Knowledge List of WA legislation

xxviii Australian Human Rights Commissioner Bringing them Home – Chapter 7

xxix Kaartdijin Noongar – Noongar Knowledge List of WA legislation

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