A few weeks ago, the local Melbourne council that looks after suburbs from Brunswick to Coburg renamed itself as Merri-bek City Council. The significant decision challenges how slavery was rooted in the previous title Moreland, named after a Jamaican slave estate. It’s also fortuitously heightened by the exhibition Sydney Road Blaks at Counihan Gallery in Brunswick—where Aboriginal, South Sea and Pacific Islander artists make the suburb’s history known.
Curators Kim Kruger, Savanna Kruger and Lisa Hilli reveal the area’s connection to slavery, showing how settler amnesia and denial erases Australia’s role in this. Sydney Road Blaks tells the story of 10 enslaved South Sea Islander men who in 1847 were seen walking down Sydney Road; part of up to 200 other men who were ‘imported’ by Benjamin Boyd, a Scottish entrepreneur and slaver.
The 10 men were led to believe they were being brought here as visitors not slaves. As Kim Kruger explains, “A lot is known about Boyd, but hardly anything about the men. The colonial reports go into great detail about what they looked like and what they were up to—but we do not know their names, their villages, their hopes and dreams.”
In two striking photo series by Kim Kruger, we are invited to imagine what the 10 men may have felt as they walked down Sydney Road. Within ten miles of Melbourne situates them at the start of their journey outside what is now a Kmart along the Campbellfield end of Sydney Road. Their steely expressions illuminate a self-determination that could not be broken despite their enslavement. In this contemporary reimagining, they traverse the road with bags of goods that they may have taken from their master. Using a shopping trolley, it’s as if they’re claiming the colonial infrastructures now taken for granted that were built on their labour.
In the second series, Splitting logs for a “feed”, the men drink at the Retreat Hotel on Sydney Road. Sombre, restful and pensive, the group portraits encourage the viewer to imagine the extreme conditions they escaped—and the joy, relief and caution as they contemplated what comes next.
The curators also effectively weave Blak perspectives into the narrative to foreground the “apocalyptic time for Wurundjeri people” when “their Country was rapidly stolen, fenced off and their movement severely restricted”, as Kruger explains. To demonstrate this tremendous upheaval and continued sovereignty, the gallery is centred as a Wurundjeri place through an evocative installation by Stacie Piper and Mandy Nicholson. Titled Baanj Biik (Water Country), Biik-ut (Below Country), Wominjeka, Wurundjeri Biik Water, Below Country, What Connects Us, Welcome, Safety on Wurunderi Country, the large digital prints by Nicholson are enlivened by Piper’s audio visuals projected over top, celebrating the cultural ceremonies that continue on Country.
Paola Balla’s Wurkatayil mula-ngert – black star reasserts Blakness through three acrylic paintings on wood panels. The works disrupt the colonial street scape by affirming language and cultural motifs. And Sofii Belling-Harding’s Urban Legendz is a collage fusing contemporary Blak and South Sea Islander people and culture whose presence and contributions are strongly felt in the area today.
By illuminating the story of the 10 men and the intersections with Blak culture and survivance, the curators refuse to create a narrative that is celebratory without interrogating whiteness and racial hierarchies—back then and now. Destiny Deacon’s Dolly’s Eyes, powerfully speaks to the surveillance that the South Sea Islander men experienced in 1847, to the racial profiling that continues to this day. Large transparent eyes printed on the gallery’s front window have a double vision: they look out onto the street while watching you in the space. Their presence embodies the fear, suspicion and scrutiny that the sight of 10 Blak men on Sydney Road caused in 1847—a phenomenon which continues to oppress Blak bodies in public space today.
As Kim Kruger says, “We wanted to share the ways in which Aboriginal and South Sea Islander people were treated at the time, and now.” The exhibition achieves this with great success, asking the viewer to consider hidden histories but more importantly their ongoing impact today.