Born in 1990, Hayley Millar-Baker is a Melbourne- based artist who works primarily within the medium of photography. Her practice is deeply rooted Country, Southeast culture and provides an incisive examination into the effects of colonisation on the Gunditjmara people (Western Victoria), through the lens of family history. Millar-Baker uses digital technology to carefully render place through photographic assemblage, layering details found in a landscape to create an alternative narrative. These images exist in circuitous time, where the past has not yet passed, and where future reckoning is proposed. As such, they are psychological landscapes, a layered approach to unpacking the complexity of Aboriginality.
In 2018, Millar-Baker was among eight artists chosen to exhibit in Primavera – a showcase of artists under 35 – at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Sydney), and this year is a finalist in the John Fries Award.
Varia Karipoff: Initially you studied Fine Art (painting) at RMIT; was there a singular moment when you put aside your painting practice?
Hayley Millar-Baker: I painted for roughly 12 years before changing over to photographic practices. Looking back from where I am now, I understand the circumstances that this change of medium happened under. I was strengthening my voice and becoming more and more determined to share the important stories I inherited as a Gunditjmara woman living on stolen land. I believed that to tell stories as ‘fact’ in a country that refuses to acknowledge its true past, I had to use photography. Photography is used to document; it is considered the truth. That ‘singular moment’ came in 2016, when I inherited my late grandfather’s collection of 120 negatives from my Nan.
VK: Were the narrative possibilities of working with photomontage what drew you to the medium?
HBM: Yes! As incredible and soothing as the process of painting is, it wasn’t cutting it in terms of creating complex narratives. I wanted to tell truths of multigenerational experiences; stories and Countries melded together, forming new identities. I wanted to rewrite histories, to change circumstances, to give new life where everything was taken. I call my work ‘photo-assemblages’ rather than collages or montages because I am meticulously assembling fragment by fragment with much purpose and calculation. How I create is not a playful process, it’s not by accident, and it’s not a surprising outcome. I’m assembling very important lives, times, and environments to tell very specific stories.
VK: How do you approach a new body of work? Is your creative process intuitive or analytical?
HBM: My new work comes about from ruminating on stories of my family and ancestors and takes countless months of research before I start to navigate that territory. I have to be mentally ready to enter into those specific spaces; if I’m not ready I’m opening up inherited trauma unequipped. Family history is what makes me tick. My practice involves deep research into the daily lives of my individual family members and their lived experiences prior to, during, and after colonisation. The questions that I turn over are how and why they changed mentally, physically and emotionally over time. Invasion and colonisation didn’t ask us for consent – we were forced to do what we had to do to survive. It’s very important for me to be able to honour my ancestors’ lives and tell their stories, and it’s also a recovery process bringing me closer to them.
VK: A Series of Unwarranted Events charts some of the unforgiveable atrocities inflicted on the Gunditjmara in the 19th century. The images are ghostly, altered and unpopulated. Why did you choose to present these stories in this way?
HBM: A Series of Unwarranted Events is the most sensitive work I’ve made to date. These stories don’t just belong to me, they belong to every Gunditjmara person past, present and future. Making these works I went into the creative process with guidelines and rules that I needed to abide by to keep the stories and images respectable, as not to cause pain to anyone. The landscapes are totally built from scratch; every tree, every rock, every ripple of water is photographed one by one to build a landscape. I chose to reveal the stories while protecting the land; it wasn’t even a question I posed to myself to expose these locations. As for A Series of Unwarranted Events being unpopulated, I think we have experienced enough traumas to not need to illustrate the aftermath of these massacres.
VK: You talk about the works weaving past, present and future experience together. How do you approach the concept of time in your work?
HBM: The concept of time is really important for me because I am a product of my mother’s experiences, who is a product of her mother’s experiences, who is a product of her mother’s experiences, and so on. Everything that happened before me has made my life, and I wouldn’t be who I am without my mother’s life. To disconnect the line wouldn’t make sense. Time is continuing, it lives, and it never ends. We all intersect at some point; it might not happen with the next direct offspring but surely, we come to meet again through experiences, memory, and trauma.
I began my photographic practice through the inheritance of my grandfather’s archive so for me it would make sense that I start with my mother’s life that weaved into my grandmother’s life, which came back into my life. There is no start and end point with time, it’s a massive net; I just need to choose what is crucial for specific narratives and what leads into another time and place.
VK: The series Cook Book (showing at Bundoora Homestead) is about resilience and shows Aboriginal tradition and customs enduring and adapting to Western tools. It’s also quite subversive and tinged with humour. How does this work fit into the themes of Those Monuments Don’t Know Us?
HBM: Cook Book is a difficult one to wrap my head around. While I find some of the images and the translation of language to English funny, it speaks so much to the damages caused by colonisation. Yes, we survived, yes, we evolved, yes, we still practice culture (even though it can be in different ways with different tools and materials), yes, we are speaking language, but the cost of evolving our culture was unjustified. That underlying reason why the evolutions came to be in itself will never be funny. Those Monuments Don’t Know Us is for the people that Australia doesn’t really tailor to. No matter what Australia does to accommodate us, it doesn’t embrace us. As the stickers go, ‘Fit in or fuck off’.
VK: What is something you have read or heard recently that made a deep impact on your practice?
HBM: My self-growth has a major impact on my practice. I’m constantly learning acceptance, which leads to my growth. But a lot of things I hear and read in the media and from the community make me so angry and sad. But I guess I just have to be smart about what I do. I’m better being intelligent with my reactions then operating in anger and disappointment.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.