Aboriginal Culture and Joe Farrag

While we were visiting the Yugambeh Museum of Aboriginal people and culture we met Rory O’Connor who gave us a tour and told us of the museums efforts to create a true representation of Aboriginal people and keep alive the cultural richness of their history. Part of this was an explanation of Bora Rings that were places for “men’s business” and were used as places to meet and talk, for young men to be initiated and for fighting to resolve disputes. We visited one of the rings at Burleigh Head.

As traffic rushed past on the Pacific Highway only yards away there was a place of calm and stillness, The ring was raised around the edge and slightly sunken at the centre surrounded by a low wooden fence. The spectacle of this ancient place next to the noise and fumes of a major road made the place seem like it was clinging on to the edge of the modern world
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Just outside the ring there is a memorial to Aboriginal people who served in defence of their country. The inscription reads:

“This rock is placed here to honour Yugambeh men and women who served in defence of
this country. Yugambeh is the linguistic name of the Aboriginal people whose tribal region
extends inland from the Logan and Nerang rivers and includes the areas covered by all the
adjacent streams and creeks. Yugambeh family groups include Kombumerri, Wangeribubba, Migunburri, Munajahli, Gugigin, Birinburra and others. We honour those who served in the armed forces and those who made the supreme sacrifice. The symbolism of this rock serves to highlight the role played by Indigenous Australians in defence of this country.”

Just as the Bora ring is little known yet passed daily by thousands of Australians it seems that the role of Aboriginal people in the history of the continent is also unknown and passed by. Mary Graham who was travelling with us asked us to pay our respects before we left. We stood in silence for a few moments as the traffic roared past. I was not only thinking of the Aboriginal people who have met here and those who have fallen in conflict but also about people in other countries who seem to slip outside mainstream recognition.

There is a Square in Liverpool called Falkner Square with a small park at its centre. A few years ago I filmed there with Joe Farrag for Passport to Liverpool. Joe told stories about supporting Everton and the banter and humour of football supporters but he also showed me a small memorial he had had a hand in erecting tucked away in a corner beneath overhanging trees. The memorial was to black sailors who had lost their lives in the Merchant Navy during the Second World War. Another community often forgotten in the remembrances of those who gave their lives.

As this visit goes on and we film interviews with Aboriginal people I am reminded that their concerns and issues are repeated across the world.

Visit to Joe Skeen

On Tuesday we drove about 30 miles out of Brisbane with Mary Graham and John Denduck to visit Aboriginal arts and craftsman Joe Skeen. After being diverted through a field and around a lake (In Mary’s Mitsubishi) by a chap driving sheep, we arrived at Joe’s ranch style house. The sun was warm as we wandered through a brilliant array of sheds, containers, studio, dogs in cages, a tethered goat and various flotsam and jetsam to arrive at the house. Joe’s not a young man, maybe in his mid seventies. He was upright in a brightly coloured shirt and baseball cap and spoke with a relaxed manner of a man who has seen it all and possibly painted it all.

The most moving moment of our visit was Joe bringing out a large framed photograph of the mission in which he grew up. There he was in the second row along side maybe another fifty or sixty young faces all part of the stolen generation of young Aboriginal children separated from their families by the Australian government “for their own good” in an attempt to rid the land of Aboriginal culture. The legacy of this must hang heavily on the shoulders of the Australian administration but they still seem to be debating the position of the Aboriginal community within modern Australia. People like Joe who were torn from their families have been offered an apology in February 2008 by Kevin Rudd the former Prime Minister but have received no compensation for treatment of unimaginable inhumanity.

Despite this Joe has made a life for himself as an artist producing impressive paintings and as a craftsman producing boomerangs, clapsticks and didjuridos. We went in to one of Joe’s fields and threw a boomerang or two. They went into trees, around the field and over hedges… but I can report that it’s harder than you might think to make your boomerang come back!

The final surprise of the visit was being taken over to a tree to see a frilly necked lizard basking in the sunshine. It was invisible to us until Joe pointed it out. It looked like a creature that had inhabited this island-continent for thousands of years and as such it deserves our respect.

First week down under

I’ve been in Australia now for just over a week working with Matt Johnson and filming with the Aboriginal participants in the project.

I was picked up at the airport by Mary Graham and John Denduck. It was 1.00am Brisbane time but it was a warn and much needed welcome after a 26 hour flight via Dubai and Singapore. It was my first encounter with Mary’s disarming sense of humour and John’s deployment of few words to great effect.

For the first two nights I was staying in the Aboriginal Community Centre, Murri Mura, opposite Musgrave Park in South Brisbane. The Centre is part renovated with cables hanging from the ceiling and stud walls not quite yet in place. In a gesture of welcome and solidarity John stayed with me on the first night although I couldn’t have been happier to see a bed and pillow.

Since then we have filmed much including Matt’s arrival the following day and a discussion about Aboriginal culture between Matt and Mary sparked off by looking through a book published in 1988 by Burnum Burnum called, “Aboriginal Australia – A Travellers Guide.” This contained many illustrations of my romantic view of what Aboriginal culture was. People shown in rural settings, apparently at one with nature and featuring ritual scarring on the body. What the last few days have taught me is that many Aboriginal people live urban lives and have had to adapt their culture to deal with the pressures of a modern existence in a busy and unforgiving city.

On that first day we drove over to Jermain Tyson’s place in Inala, an Australian version of a British council housing estate. Jermain is a lovely chap both welcoming and generous with his time. He spoke to us about some of the problems with urban life for Aboriginal people – especially the young. There seems to be a dislocation between the young and “mainstream” Australian life. It reminded me of the situation of young people I had worked with in Widnes, England. Perhaps the difficulties Jermain outlined are not specific to the Aboriginal people in Brisbane but are mirrored across the world in disadvantaged communities.

On Friday we went to Queensland University to interview Norm Sheehan who had just delivered a lecture on his perspectives around education and Aboriginal young people. He had worked for many years in education and the central thesis of his talk was that if you engage with young people on a personal level they are more inclined to participate successfully in education. A line of thought applicable around the planet!

We met another of our co-researchers on Saturday, Lesley van Moelenbroek. She’s a larger than life woman full of great banter and laughter. Her hubby Russell cooked on the BBQ and it felt like a real Australian gathering. Lesley has worked in Aboriginal communities for many years and feels strongly about injustices done during that time.
She spoke about realising her identity as an Aboriginal woman and what that means to her. She is a caring and family centred woman.

Family and kinship is a theme that has emerged as central to Aboriginal culture. Strong bonds are woven throughout communities and help is never far away for those who have fallen on hard times or who need a helping hand. I’m reminded of our interview with Tony Bennett back in Ashington and of his descriptions of the mining community helping each other through when times got hard. He was unsure if that same spirit still existed as strongly in the era of closed mines and fragmented communities. Lesley was insistent that it does indeed continue here in Australia.
Lesley’s husband, Russell is a ship’s cook and the juicy lamb and pork went down a treat as the temperature dropped and the moon came up.

At 9.00pm (midday in Ashington) Matt has organised a Skype call to the UK and there on the screen appeared Fiona and Tony – one half of the Ashington group – the wonders of technology.

Although they have not yet met in the flesh there is an obvious bond between the two hemispheres. Jokes were exchanged and serious comments on social justice were aired demonstrating issues are not bound to individual countries but have echo’s in each continent. When the two halves meet in either country it will be interesting to hear their perspectives on issues that seem to be central to both sides – health, education, employment, use of resources… the list goes on.

What became clear in the exchanges is that humour is very important to both communities both as a tool to lambaste the perceived authorities control and to take the wind out of anyone’s sails who “get too big for their boots.”

More to come.

Brightmoon Goes Global!

This post is heading your way from Down-Under, where we are filming the Australian leg of a documentary about good culture with an Aboriginal community.

The film compares and contrasts how two communities deal with precariousness – an Aboriginal community in and around Brisbane and a community in Ashington, Northumbria.

The work is being produced in association with Lancaster University along side Matt Johnson who is leading the academic side of the project.

We have been met with a really warm welcome here and I’ll be keeping you up with events as we film over a two week period.
The film compares and contrasts how two communities deal with precariousness – an Aboriginal community in and around Brisbane and a community in Ashington, Northumbria.

The work is being produced in association with Lancaster University along side Matt Johnson who is leading the academic side of thhe project.