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Powerful Indigenous women

by June Oscar AO, 25 July 2017

June Oscar AO, recently appointed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, lauds three iconic Aboriginal figures in the Portrait Gallery collection who have inspired and influenced her.

Ningali Lawford-Wolf, 1996 (printed 2016) by Stuart Spence
Ningali Lawford-Wolf, 1996 (printed 2016) by Stuart Spence

Ningali Lawford-Wolf (Ningali, Nagarra – through our customary law kinship structure) is my mother, and I Nyanyjili, am her daughter. We grew up in the same town, Fitzroy Crossing, together. I am incredibly proud of her achievements. She has taken life fiercely in her stride and brought the modern and traditional together within herself, and put it on show for us all to see. That is what this portrait says to me. It says: ‘I know who I am; I am a woman of now. My now is creative, energetic, and it is made up of many complex and brilliant parts.’ In this photograph, Ningali makes it very clear that there is no contradiction in keeping the past alive in our present. She does it with a glint in her eyes, which says ‘you may not believe me, but this is truth’. We are our histories and our ancestors, and the wisdom they have taught us is alive within us all. The fish gracefully resting on her shoulder is an image as modern today as it was 60,000 years ago. There is something incredibly intimate about how the fish rests across her chest and how her fingertips, with only the slightest of touches, keeps the fish poised, balanced and still. This shows us our very being as Aboriginal people – our profound connection to our heritage and the natural world around us.

This portrait brings Ningali to the stage, in a performance that is real, raw and beautiful. She is clearly holding the gaze of a transfixed audience. As a performer, Ningali is ablaze with energy in her determination to embody the resilience, the strengths and struggles of herself and our people. She has a remarkable skill to perform our world into being, to dance it into life, and to make it tangible for us all, in the most modern of contexts.

In Ningali’s stare, in the strength of her body, she holds her mother – a senior law and ceremony boss. All Ningali family are highly talented and skilled. The best performer is the one who sweeps us into the narrative with them. Ningali does that better than anyone I’ve witnessed. She makes us forget the veil between life and art. She weaves us into her stories so we see something more about ourselves and humanity.

Marcia Langton is a true intellectual powerhouse. The clean, clear colours and lines of this portrait make me think of her sharp arguments; she strikes a wise pose in amongst the pastels and greys.  Her words cut through the haze and confusion of discussion to make points of precision. Throughout my career, I have admired Marcia’s strong critiques on Indigenous policy issues and broader political affairs. As a community advocate, she made me believe that voices from the ground could have wide-ranging influences on policy and legislation. As I move into the national justice arena, it is people such as Marcia that give me the strength to believe in my convictions. 

However, convictions alone (like opinions) make few inroads. To make a real difference, voices need clarity, arguments must make rational sense, and our positions need to be supported by meaningful evidence. Marcia’s voice penetrates policy confusion, and elevates lived experience to the same heights as intellectualism, while still maintaining the importance of western forms of education. When Marcia supported the community-mandated alcohol restrictions in Fitzroy Crossing it gave me and my longstanding friend and colleague Emily Carter, who was leading the campaign with me, the courage we needed to keep going. Her voice, her words, reaffirmed our position during a difficult time. The thing was, we had the evidence; alcohol was devastating our communities and the cycle of trauma and harm had to be broken. With the evidence, we could act. Marcia has never shied away from these positions herself. Sound evidence, when responded to effectively, ensures a process of self-determined decision-making, and actions that will have impact.

This is a hard position to fight for and a thankless task at many points of the journey. Marcia has never given up. Ideas are her reality; they are her wisdom, and her tenacity ensures that they are always heard, and heard for the betterment of our nation. She has made so many Indigenous women and men believe in their own voices, and most importantly believe that our Indigenous knowledge needs to be a foundational part of western academic institutions. Marcia demands an equality in our ways of knowing. This portrait gives ownership of the western academic institution to Marcia. She stands there with such wisdom and clarity. The academy has grown her into being as much as she has ruptured it with new ways of thinking.
What self-belief Marcia gives us!

We do not have to be afraid of academic institutions. These incredible houses of education can be responsive to our needs and effective in supporting and sustaining our Indigenous knowledge. Marcia’s portrait flings open the door to the academy, granting us all equal access to education. She will always be someone that I will watch and learn from.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Old Emily. What a wonderful woman. A burning light of courage from our recent traditional past, and one of the most talented artists of all time. Emily is an artistic giant. Her voice, her presence, her connection to our land lives on in paintings that hang on the walls of our national galleries. Her pride is our national pride and heritage. Her paintings never fail to take your breath away: the sweeping enormity and striking vibrant colours of our countries that make up Australia. She painted the landscape that our ancestors lived and walked across, and constructed our society around. Everything that we are has come from this land, and Emily’s depiction of it is captivating, moving and heartbreaking.

Emily was part of my grandmother’s era and into my mother’s generation. She was not a part of my own familial history, but shared many commonalities of the shifting socio-political context which the women who ‘grew me up’ lived through. They were women who had to make tough decisions to care for their children while caught between two worlds and the greatest upheaval of our history. Emily grew old, and then began painting as a new world marched in and dismantled many aspects of our society.

This portrait of Emily by Jenny Sages is dignified, while somehow capturing all of what I have described – the vast and changing nature of the terrain she painted, and the huge changes in our history that she had to survive.  The lines of the sketch seem to trace the enormity of that period of history which has etched wisdom across her skin. There is hardship in the squint of her eyes and across her brow, but there is also a magnificent resilience. A commitment to the fact that our history is momentous and it would not end with her generation. Emily sits as a shining and honoured emblem of our past. Simultaneously, she embraces the future and transforms our knowledge into dancing paints, to be loved and understood by all Australian citizens, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, for generations to come.

All three of these women believe in legacy. They have held onto and depicted our cultural heritage and knowledge in multiple ways, by using their incredible talents and skills. All have a form of artistic expression; all are incredibly creative, proclaiming the importance of our Indigenous identity and society with words, paints, movement, print and voice.

All three have constantly worked to unite the past with the present to propel us into a vibrant and healthy future for our people and all Australians. Each portrait captures their essence, their commonalities and the universal experience of all Indigenous women. Women who have faced overwhelming challenges and have survived and thrived by harnessing our strength, resilience and the pride of being Indigenous, belonging as we do to the oldest continuous living civilization on earth.