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Essie Coffey (Bush Queen) and Orlando Gemes
, 1978 (printed 2003)

by Juno Gemes

gelatin silver photograph (sheet: 50.9 cm x 60.6 cm, image: 31.8 cm x 44.0 cm)

Essie Coffey OAM (1940-1998), community worker, singer, actor and film-maker, was a woman of the Muruwari people of north-western NSW and southern Queensland. Born Essiana Goodgabah, she narrowly escaped forced placement on a reserve. Her father brought the family up in a series of rural communities, moving around the country to follow seasonal work. In the 1950s she settled with her husband Albert ‘Doc’ Coffey in the New South Wales town of Brewarrina, where the couple raised eighteen children, ten of them adopted. Essie became a driving force in the town’s Aboriginal movement, earning herself the affectionate title of ‘Bush Queen of Brewarrina’. Co-founder of the Western Aboriginal Legal Service and an inaugural member of the National Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, she refused an MBE. With Martha Ansara she made the award-winning 1978 film My Survival as an Aboriginal – a copy of which she presented to the Queen at the opening of Canberra’s new Parliament House in 1988 – and its sequel, My Life as I Live It (1993). Orlando Gemes, son of photographer Juno Gemes, grew up along the Hawkesbury River and travelled with his mother as she documented the Aboriginal movement for decades. He is now a founding partner and portfolio manager of a London-based credit investment firm.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Gift of the artist 2005
Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program
Accession number: 2005.48