Visualising Human Rights

Art+ Book Extract


In Visualising Human Rights editor Jane Lydon presents a collection of essays that explore the role of visual imagery in defining and contesting human rights within an Australian context. In chapter five, reproduced with permission below, Indigenous artist Brenda L Croft describes the importance of her journeys to her father’s Country, for which she is dispossessed.

by Brenda L Croft

When you first go home, you are setting out on two journeys. First is the physical journey… sitting in a car and driving to meet long-lost relatives. The second journey may take a lot longer.
Coral Edwards (1)

My father Joseph (Joe) Croft’s ongoing, fractured journey home took place over many decades during his life. It has endured in the two decades since his death, as I continue on his behalf by retrac(k)ing my family’s tangled kinship connections through, upon, and immersed in Country. (2)

He first returned home in May 1974, when our family travelled from the small country town in New South Wales where we lived to Darwin to be with his ailing mother, Bessie. We spent three weeks together at one of the cottages at Retta Dixon Home, where Bessie was the laundress and de facto ‘nana’ to its incarcerated children, some of whom were my cousins. She died seven months later. (3)

Sadly, only two photographs of my father and grandmother survive as a record of their reunification – one in black-and-white, the other in colour. Although my mother had taken hundreds of photographs in Darwin, all the films except one were accidentally destroyed during processing after we returned home.

I was ten years old on that trip, and while some memories have faded as the years have passed, that short time remains indelibly imprinted upon my heart, mind and soul.

Perhaps the deeply felt loss of those visual records are what spurred me on my path as an artist/researcher, conducting cultural archaeology into personal and public archives on my own ongoing journey, seeking ‘home’, wherever that may be. Underlying much of my work is an intention to surmise if an actual place can exist for people such as myself – descendants of the Stolen Generations, many of us dispossessed of our homelands, languages and communities.

The second stage of my father’s journey home occurred fifteen years later, when he drove almost 800 kilometres down the Buchanan and Buntine Highways from Darwin to Kalkaringi and Daguragu, seeking more details of Bessie’s connections to the Gurindji community. While Joe had always known that he was Gurindji, Bessie had told him during our visit that he was also Mudburra, but within our family history there were conflicting versions. Although Joe had been told by Bessie that he was born on Victoria River Downs, 71 kilometres northeast of Wave Hill, confusion existed as to whether she was his mother or his mother’s sister.

This led my father to seek clarification from community elders at Wave Hill; however, this led to even less clarity as they believed him to be the child of another woman who was deceased, Mona Noonai. (4) Further interviews were also conducted with Stolen Generations members who had been incarcerated alongside my father in the Indigenous institutions of Kahlin Compound, Darwin; Pine Creek Home, Pine Creek; and ‘The Bungalow’, Alice Springs. Joe recorded these interviews on audio-cassette tapes, while long-time family friend and photographer Elaine Pelot Kitchener (later Syron) documented his travels from Alice Springs to Katherine, Wave Hill and Darwin on photographic film. This research formed the foundation for what was to be Joe’s autobiography, but he did not manage to complete it before he died in July 1996. (5)

The third stage of my father’s journey home took place following his funeral in Sydney, when my brother Tim and I took his ashes home to Wave Hill for a memorial service in the Baptist Church and burial in Kalkaringi Cemetery on 22 August, the day before the thirtieth anniversary of the Gurindji Walk-Off. To my brother and I, it seemed fitting that the two events were unintentionally connected, as they intrinsically embodied the personal and the political.

My own journey home took an analogous path to my father’s and encompassed similar, often intangible, methods: geographical, spiritual, literal, metaphysical.

After that first trip in 1974, I returned as an adult in 1987, then again in 1989. In 1991, I followed my father’s trek to Wave Hill, meeting family and community members he had talked with and recorded interviews with two years earlier. I would drive out to the grid on the road between Kalkaringi and Daguragu at sunset and watch the desert skies shape-shift in colour and tone as the night deepened. If I shut my eyes and listened intently, I could almost hear the echo of the conversations that Joe had recorded.

In the two plus decades since my father’s death, I have found myself following his and our peoples’ footsteps – going over the same ground time and again, retracing, re-tracking, revising, revisiting, recollecting, reconnecting. My family’s layered history has always informed my creative practice, whether in visual, written or spoken presentation. Over five years from 2012 to 2016, the act of walking on, through and over hallowed ground has seen me try to retrace the footprints of those who covered the 22 kilometres of the Wave Hill Walk-Off Track half a century ago. I wanted to do this as a tribute to those whose profound collective and communal act of courage, resilience and determination were the genesis of the national land rights movement in Australia. I wanted to do this in memory of all those who were walked and driven off their homelands, away from their families and communities or, worse, massacred on their Country because of others’ desire for their land. I wanted to do this in honour of my grandmother Bessie, my father Joseph, my father’s siblings who were taken. I wanted to do this for my brothers Lindsay and Tim, and for Tim’s children – my father’s grandchildren – Luca, Sasha and Maddie.

However, I could not do this alone, so I sought permission from family and community and was grateful when family members not only approved but also offered to walk with me, effectively guiding my way. I remain indebted to my family for their support and encouragement.

I walked sections repeatedly, sometimes in a solo act of meditation while recording the soundscape; at other times, with family members, in silence or talking, depending on the situation. I felt simultaneously released yet compressed by the expansive, bleaching skies, the searing heat of midday or late afternoon, or the chill of pre-dawn. Trips took place during the dry season of mid-year, the enervating monsoonal build-up to the wet and the torrential downpour of early rains. Blood moons rose over Wattie Creek and Kalkaringi, lighting up the desert night in orange and red. Black cockatoos roosting at dusk by Lawi, a waterhole at Wattie Creek, provided an avian chorus backdrop to my musings.

While walking and recording, I would sometimes close my eyes to consider what happened not so long ago, wondering what might or could have been had the kartiya (white people) been less avaricious in their desire for land.

While the newcomers wished the land was unpopulated and empty, they were unable to survive without the unpaid ngumpit/ngumpin (Aboriginal people) labour force that created the beef barons’ wealth.

During the long hours on the road back and forth from Darwin to Gurindji Country, I would listen to the interviews conducted by my father, my brother Lindsay and myself. The vehicle would feel as if it was full of all those people, now long gone, and ghosts of the archives who were keeping me company and on the right track. I have delved ever deeper into my family’s past, immersing myself in personal and public archives, each search more labyrinthine than the last, revealing increasingly fragile documents and, with the loss of elders, elusive memories.

There have been many times and places where I have felt lost: wandering in circles, stumbling, seeming to make little or no ground or even going backwards. When I am standing on, walking in, engaging with all these aspects of Country, if I listen intently, I can almost hear echoes of those recorded, disembodied conversations – perhaps they are spirit guides from the everywhen.

By coming home you’re not just coming home to your family, you’re finally coming home to yourself, to the self that is your birthright. (6)

In June 2014, while on a journey with senior traditional custodians to document cultural sites, our convoy stopped at a place known as No. 17 Bore. It was the first day in a fortnight of travels through Gurindji homelands with these senior knowledge-holders who were relating stories transmitted through ancestral connections since time immemorial. Immutable Gurindji cosmologies were revealed, alongside disclosures of colonial conflict sparked by the arrival of the cattlemen in the late 1800s. The latter accounts are steeped in blood – massacre narratives festering wounds, carved like scarification marks into the collective, corporeal Gurindji soul.

As I alighted from the Toyota ‘troopie’ I had been driving, my eyes were drawn to the rocky terrain beneath my feet. Despite the impact on the land from untold head of cattle for over 130 years, a cultural talisman caught my eye and I bent down to pick up a magnificent stone axe. My aunt Violet Nanaku Wadrill, watching from another vehicle, beckoned me over and I handed the axe to her through the window, watching as she turned it over in her hands. In my care for the time being, this axe has become my Venn diagram. (7) Whenever I feel I am losing my way – in the archives, within my research or when creating artworks – I return to this object and the images I took that day. As I turn the axe over, fitting it perfectly within my palm, I am awed by the skill of the maker who shaped it at an indefinable moment in time. (8)

I experience a similar response when holding a handmade pannikin that I collected from the old dump at Jinparrak (Old Wave Hill Station) during a separate journey back home. Discarded between 1924 (when the second station was established further away from the flood plains of Victoria River) and the Walk-Off in 1966, the cup was fashioned from an old food tin and twisted fencing wire.

Although it is rusted, the vessel has a solidity that provides comfort in the same way that the stone axe does; both objects ground me in and on my journey, not only through their aesthetic sublimity but also because of their distinct cultural profundity. One has been created in the same manner since time immemorial; the other has been made from necessity and available means during frontier contact, revealing the colonial impact on peoples, their lands and customs.

We Ngumpin/Ngumpit who are dispossessed from place, ceremony and kin are like the fragments flaked from that ancient stone tool, quarried from our homelands. Individually, we have all been chipped from that same solid piece of rock, but some of us are still making the long journey home – wherever, however and through whatever methodologies that may involve.

Visualising Human Rights can be purchased in good bookstores and online from UWA Publishing.

1. C. Edwards, ‘Introduction’, The Lost Children, Transworld Publishers, Moorebank, 1989, p. xxiv.
2. Reprinted from B. L. Croft, ‘Still in My Mind: Gurindji Experience, Location and Visuality’, UQ Art Museum, 14 August 2017
3. Retta Dixon Home (1946–1982) was established at Bagot Road Aboriginal Reserve in 1946 by the Aborigines Inland Mission. See Find & Connect, ‘Retta Dixon Home
4. From the records that I have been able to access in recent years, it is clear that Bessie was Joe’s mother. However, back then there was confusion. Many children were removed during those early days and with incomplete records it made it difficult to know just how many and who they were. Elders who my father spoke with in 1989 assessed that he was another child removed around the same period. I raised this disparity with family at Wave Hill and Victoria River Downs, but as there are no people left alive from that era now, it is impossible to completely verify. As my niece said to me recently: ‘Aunty Brenda, we are all Victoria River people; you are our family, no matter what’.
5. The audio recordings were deposited with AIATSIS (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies), which funded my father’s research trip – Croft_J01: 12503–12510. A separate oral history interview is held in the collection of the National Library of Australia: J. Croft and P. Read, ‘Interview with Joe Croft’ [sound recording], 1989.
6. C. Edwards, ‘Introduction’, p. xxiv.
7. A mathematical term for a set, collection or group of things used to illustrate fixed, shared and logical relationships that exist between a few or select categories, which emanate from ‘a universe’; E. Stapel, ‘Venn Diagrams’, Purplemath, last accessed 17 January 2017
8. Part of this essay was drawn from ‘Retrac(k)-ing Country and (S)kin: Walking the Wave Hill Walk-Off Track (and Other Sites of Cultural Contestation)’, Westerly, vol. 61, no. 1, 2016, pp. 76–82, which also discusses my reflections on the stone axe. It was written as part of my ongoing creative doctoral research project, ‘Still in My Mind: Gurindji Location, Experience and Visuality’.