Essay: Bronwyn Bancrofton being an Aboriginal artist

Being an Aboriginal Artist is not a Lifestyle Choice

Bancroft image - Meet me at the Mountain
Bronwyn Bancroft, 2015, Meet me at the Mountain, acrylic on canvas, 150 x 150 cm. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Sharon Hickey. Artist statement: ‘This painting was created to celebrate the tenacity, endurance and beauty of my family. I have attempted to encapsulate my pride in family and country. My dearest uncle recently died and this painting is a tribute to his life. He was 94. When I die I will meet him at the mountain.’

This is an edited transcript of a talk given by Bronwyn Bancroft at the Sydney College of the Arts on 19 August 2015.

My name is Bronwyn Bancroft and I am a Bundjalung Nation woman from Northern New South Wales. My Father was Aboriginal and my Mother is Polish and Scottish.

I am an Artist. In my role as an Artist I see an obligation through my art to make a difference. I stand up for change in relation to issues that confront me in the society that I live in today.

The title of this paper is ‘Being an Aboriginal Artist is not a Lifestyle Choice’. I knew that statement by the Prime Minister was politically inflammatory and as such I had a perfect hook to get you reading. This is the first step in creating participation and promoting experiences. I hope to explore here the essence of what it is to be human and how we may be able to explore this story through the viewfinder of one person’s life.

Politics is just one of the drivers that motivates me to attempt to overcome issues that confront us on a daily basis.

On 11 March 2015, Latika Bourke reported that:

An unrepentant Tony Abbott is refusing to apologise for saying taxpayers should not be expected to fund the ‘lifestyle choices’ of Australians living in remote communities, despite a backlash from Indigenous leaders.

Prime Minister Abbott’s statement was made in response to the Western Australian Government’s plan to close up to 150 remote communities in that state. It’s not surprising that many of these communities are sitting on vast repositories of minerals.

In November 2014 WA Premier Colin Barnett stated that half of the 274 regional communities under review would be closed.  A$4.5 billion in Federal and State funding was then being allocated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services and resources in Western Australia. Premier Barnett also declared Aboriginal people in remote communities had failed.

Almost simultaneously, the portfolio of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sector that Prime Minister Abbott claims as his and should be championing,  reported that A$30 million in essential services funding was being cut to Western Australia.

These calamitous statements by senior elected figures sent tremors of outrage through social media platforms and rallies in protest were organised nationally. Effectively, they forced Premier Barnett to withdraw his proposed plan. This outcome was only realised when members of our Australian communities rallied on behalf of the Aboriginal people in that state.

Aboriginal people living in those communities are connected as traditional custodians. This point needs to be accepted for what that represents. It’s not just a simple exercise of moving the population around to fit into government services. It’s about maintaining a link with ancestors and control over the future with your children and the potential desecration of sites.

Desecration was realised when the Burrup Peninsula, which just happens to be the largest concentration of rock art in the world and is approximately 30,000 years old, was de-registered from the protected Heritage Register by the same Western Australian government.

In 1816 Governor Lachlan Macquarie made orders to soldiers:

All Aborigines from Sydney onwards are to be made prisoners of war and if they resist they are to be shot and their bodies hung from trees in the most conspicuous places near where they fall, so as to strike terror into the hearts of the surviving natives.

The barbarity of such a statement never stops ringing in the ears of Aboriginal people and I am just one person who will spend my life fighting the inequality that has and still exists for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia today.

Jeffrey Hepenstall sent an email to Senator Nova Peris at Parliament House on 16 August 2015 at 5.39am:

I am a racist and proud of it. I am sick and tired of hearing about the stolen generations. White women had their babies taken from them in the name of keeping everything in society just right and above board. You are just another bleeding heart coon. You people are a Stone Age race that should have died out, but the British didn’t have the backbone to do it.

You pricks are lucky that the Dutch or the Spanish didn’t get here first as they would have done a better job of it!

Peris posted this email on Facebook in support of the Racism #Stopswithme campaign.

This is just one brief overview of incidents in Aboriginal affairs in Australia. I have not gone into detail. I merely want to highlight the inequity that will always exist for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people while we do not acknowledge the colonisation issues that still haunt us as a nation.

In acknowledging that change must occur I do not have the answers to the complexity of what that represents.

Constitutional recognition for Aboriginal Australians is one facet of this. The proposal for a treaty with Aboriginal Australians similar to what was negotiated in New Zealand with the Waitangi treaty are just two issues that we must tackle amongst many. I can only flag to you that there is still a lot of work to be done.

Obviously I could cherrypick alarming moments in the unsettling of Australia by colonisation and its effects but I don’t want to. It creates large reservoirs of despair and anxiety in me and I am one who is proactive in contributing to make change. I want to share something positive with you. I want to talk of expression, of art, my art.

I’m not one to be all hoity toity with this stuff but if you humour me I’m going to try and present my cultural and Artistic identity to you and I will attempt to highlight the importance of country/family and the continual reinvigoration of the basic realities of life and my existence here.
It is hard to imagine a life lived if you have not lived it. From the very first time that I could discern shade from light, line from tone, I have been in love with art and the creation of that art.

Whether it was drawing on the walls (as a small child) to hiding under the grey chairs of the kitchen, where if you rubbed your eyes hard enough, the under-pattern would create a kinetic and psychedelic pattern.

Trees, bark, rocks and sky set me on a journey to record and exact the beauty of nature, through my eyes.

I am here today because I am a creative creature, a creator if you will. But it is a long way from where I began.

My father, Bill was Aboriginal. Bill informs a lot of my story in life. His general happiness, have-a-go attitude together with bucket loads of forgiveness and full on charisma, ensure his place in my heart and my ongoing life, as a talisman.

He grew up in a small regional area, Lionsville, Northern New South Wales, Western Bundjalung, part of the greater Bundjalung Nation, part of many Aboriginal nations that make up Australia.

His mother’s name was Alice and she gave birth to five children, four boys and one girl.

Her sister had four children to the same man, Arthur Bancroft, but she died in childbirth and my Nan came to care for the children and married the same man. This was not a common situation for Australia at the time, as Arthur was English and the sisters were Aboriginal.

We are a family who has withstood massacre, survived treacherous racial policies and vitriolic attacks from ignorant and scared human beings. We have been knitted together by the remoteness of existence and triumphed over adversity by sheer grit and determination.

This is what makes me who I am.

I have been moulded by the past and shaped by the events of my life, the good, the bad and the ugly, but ultimately this is the essential force of my being. I have absolute pride in the tenacity of my family, engaging in their enduring chapters in our Australian history.

I was Bill’s last child, one of seven children. My mother, Dorothy was a homemaker and while Dad worked as a sleeper cutter, she kept her home and children on a very tight leash. And this part of my family story has inspired me to become the person I’ve become, to carry on the oldest continuous surviving culture in the world.

Mum and Dad moved to Tenterfield from a very small place called Drake. My mother, Dorothy had a Polish mother and a Scottish father and they lived their life in Tenterfield, with five children, Mum being the eldest.

My Mum’s father, Arthur, lent our family money to secure a home.  Dad worked in the bush to pay back his father in law, which he did in 1978. It took Dad 20 years to repay that money. We were poor. We went to church. We played a lot of sport and were involved in the small town of 3,000 people.

These rural frontiers were harsh places. Aboriginal people have often been moved to places, placed on missions, moved away from family and often could not get jobs ‘in town’.

My father gave his life to us so that we could gain an education. All of his children went to Year 10 or were able to secure apprenticeships. My eldest sister, Letitia and I finished the HSC and went on to tertiary education while Dad was alive. Dad looked on education as a source of enlightenment, but also as an equaliser.

He would say, ‘You have to be 3 times as good as ol’ whitey, then you might just get recognised’.

My journey sprang from these humble beginnings. I was a quirky child. Sports orientated and always drawing. Drawing was an escape for me from three tormenting brothers, who I am sure set out to plague me. I completed my HSC certificate in 1975. I had studied art by correspondence from Sydney, as only two students were studying it at my school. Not having a full time teacher made it difficult. In high school, I did have a good art teacher, Jean Braid, who believed in my talent. This belief was like a beacon in a sea of insecurity. I gained entry to the newly created Canberra School of Art at the ripe old age of 17 and left Tenterfield.

I completed my Arts degree, doing an additional year due to a racist comment about ‘not doing Abo shit here’ in the painting department. I was so distressed that I attempted to change to an Arts degree in English at ANU, seeking a meeting with the Vice Chancellor, but missed out by a day and returned to the art school.

These life hurdles are just that. As my father used to say, ‘Bronwyn, you don’t have to go through the brick wall, you can climb it, go around it or tunnel underneath it’.

After my initial foundation year at the Canberra School of Art, I transferred to a new course being implemented, Visual Communications, which was a photography and design course. I took Drawing as every elective. I had found my niche. I was married in 1976 and living in Canberra.

I completed my arts degree in Visual Communications in 1981 and we moved to Sydney to follow my husband’s career as an actor.

I was not your typical wife from that generation. I wanted and needed to do my Art. I was driven by my desire to create. I was seeking autonomy as a woman. In 1985, I started a shop in Rozelle called Designer Aboriginals Pty Ltd. I know the ‘English’ grammar is incorrect but I wanted it to be named this. My son was six weeks old and my husband was in a Quentin Tarantino-type movie called Dead End Drive In.

I was determined to find myself above the domesticity and chaos of nappies, house cleaning and cooking and I found it at Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative in 1987. I became one of the Founding Members, alongside Euphemia Bostock, Jeffrey Samuels, Michael Riley, Fiona Foley, Tracey Moffatt, Brenda Croft, Arone Meeks, Fern Martens and Avril Quaill.

Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative, now at Flood St Leichhardt, has been an integral part of my life journey as an Aboriginal Artist. Being able to exhibit and co-exist with other Aboriginal Artists in an urban environment was profoundly unique and ultimately inspiring.

The Co-operative, like many arts organisations in Australia, has experienced tumultuous highs and lows over its existence. Several imminent closures were remitted by sheer determination to stay open against all odds. The most dramatic event for me occurred over six years ago when I received a call from a distressed chairperson stating that the Co-operative was closing and was I interested in assisting in the struggle to hold the Co-operative’s place in Australian history. Naively, I consented. The situation was indeed dire.

The remit was huge. Of course, at the time I had no idea the debt was so large; that unfolded pretty quickly. We got together a team and we started with the basics. Many volunteers contributed in these initial stages and many, including myself are still volunteering at the Co-operative. The battle to retrieve the honour of the history of the Co-operative and the inherent right for Aboriginal people here in NSW, to have a space to exhibit their work in a large city, had begun. Over 28 years we have encouraged regional Aboriginal Artists from New South Wales to engage in the space and overcome small town mentalities.

In 2009, I contacted Robyn Ayres, the Director at Arts Law Australia to enquire about a constitutional change that would assist with moving forward as a Co-operative. Robyn recommended Allens Law Firm as a possibility for this minimal ask, on a pro bono basis. I met with one of the partners, Vijay Cugati, and he forwarded our request to their pro bono board for approval and we moved ahead with this initial request.

Friendships were formed, understandings established and enormous contributions to the fight for survival for Boomalli were created. Allens Law Firm have been assisting us on a pro bono basis for the last six years. Allens have fought hard on behalf of Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative, winning some smaller battles quickly that allowed us to keep afloat before the defining moment when we proved we were back on track with the successful transfer of the building to the Co-operative.

The vein of this conversation evolves from being potentially evicted by the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA). We were informed by a senior bureaucrat that we had a month to get out. The memory of sitting in this huge space, with art on the walls, people volunteering, having no money still gives me shivers down my backbone. We were being evicted by the government. Obviously, not the first time that this has occurred in the history of Australia for Aboriginal people.

We have a fighting spirit. The flame of our family’s history cannot go out! We asserted our right to be and we embarked on an incredible journey. Allens conducted searches on behalf of Boomalli and discovered that DEWHA did not own the building and had no foundation to be instructing us to vacate the building.

It was discovered that another entity, the Indigenous Land Corporation, held the caveat on the building, which was transferred from purchases made for Aboriginal groups and organisations by the now defunct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (abolished in 2005 by the Howard government).

I have to tell you, this was an epiphany. How could we have come so close to being decimated? If we had been intimidated by the messenger of doom from DEWHA in the form of a senior program manager, Boomalli would not be here.

On 28 June 2011 the property at 55-59 Flood St, Leichhardt was transferred from Tullagulla to Boomalli. Thousands of hours later and an intense workload as the senior strategist for scheduling, programming and the overall running of the organisation I can proudly affirm that the Co-operative is back on track or as we like to say ‘Black on track!’

Other areas that I am passionate about are the protection of Artists’ rights and I have been involved in this area for decades. I currently sit on three boards, Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative, Copyright Agency and Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME).

The Copyright Agency directorship allows me to provide an Artist’s voice to the complex issues that have evolved in relation to digitisation and the protection of Copyright for Artists. I believe that Artists have the right to be fairly renumerated for their work.

The Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience was established 11 years ago by my son, Jack Manning Bancroft who was then studying media at Sydney University. He was confronted by the lack of Aboriginal students who were attending university and so with a few friends and an unfailing optimism, they started AIME. We have grown from a small group of Aboriginal students at Alexandria Park High School to 4,500 Aboriginal students nationwide, in 11 years.

AIME is a game changer for Aboriginal students, their families and communities as for some of the children, they are the first in their family to transition to Year 12.

The exchange between University students (mentors) and Aboriginal students is a two-way learning structure and is breaking down barriers. I have a firm belief that this generation will be able to build on the foundations laid down by their elders.

I am currently also the senior applicant for my family in our Native Title Determination for the Western Bundjalung Nation.

Native Title is a highly problematic process. The forensic nature of compiling information and genealogy is taxing and could be interpreted as discriminating against the claimants.

One phrase that had to be contested with the government solicitors was ‘the right to oxygen’.

This example gives some indication of the intensity involved in such negotiations and some of the numerous clauses that are part of the process of Native Title Determinations.

I took the responsibility to be the senior applicant because I want our family and the other applicants’ families to achieve recognition of traditional custodial rights.

The complexity of the Native Title negotiations and the process of engaging in that just highlights the enormity of the challenges that face us as a nation as we continue to create our evolving society. No matter how complex the issues I undertake to rise to the challenge consistently in the pursuit of advancing real change.

To highlight the complexity of Native Title Recognition we can shine a light on Edward Ogilvie, born in 1814. Ogilvie was a man who became intertwined into the history of our area and areas of other Aboriginal Nations. As a free settler Ogilvie was granted 2,000 acres (800 hectares) by the government of the day. He was an acquisitive landowner and in time extended his holdings over time to the Liverpool Plains.

In 1840, at the age of 26, Edward pushed into our country, with a black tracker, called Billy Cobra, he took up – which means he squatted 56 miles of both sides of the river.

There was acrimony towards Ogilvie as more people came to the Area. He was a master to no man and wanted to acquire as much of the land as possible.

He could do little about miners, who took up areas because of a gold rush at Lionsville. My grandfather was one of those miners and he was able to buy the land that I currently own. He allowed us to live continuously in the country of our ancestors.

My grandfather had to fight to stay on our land, with very real threats made by Edward Ogilvie to use aggression to move our family off.

My grandfather, Arthur Bancroft, paid for his land. Edward Ogilvie, who became a magistrate over time, did not pay for the land he selected in our Bundjalung nation.

These historical examples of land being granted created a different history for the area. The ripple effect of land being quarantined for a single family, with fences, boundaries and military violence was a foreign concept that interrupted the natural flow of existence for our people.

This minuscule snapshot might assist you in understanding the ongoing drive and momentum by Aboriginal people to achieve truth in this country.

Lastly, I want to finish with a story. A story that I tried my best to bring together in an exhibition that took place this year called ‘Riverstones and Ramifications’. This exhibition, hosted by Blacktown City Arts Centre, was created as a tribute to my family and, in particular, my wonderful Uncle Pat who died last year, aged 94.

Uncle Pat lived in and around our Lionsville all of his life. He was a miner, a drover, a horseman, whip maker and much more. He made an enormous contribution to my knowledge of our area and how to live in the bush.

My home at Lionsville is off the grid. I have no technology, no television and my nearest neighbour is 15 minutes away by car. You live in the heart of the landscape with a river running by the house.

Uncle Pat referred to our country as a secret place. It is profound and overwhelming in celebrating the splendour of nature. This place informs all of my work and has done for three decades. I go home on average six or seven times a year and my cousins care take when I am not there.

As an Artist my role is to explore all my creative and spiritual entities. I am the explorer of my own subconscious. I labour over my art, I agitate, I cogitate and I immerse myself in a life that is incredibly complex. I want my life and my role as an Aboriginal Artist to stand for something. I want to assist in making change through Art.

Through the act of creating there is a chance to connect with memories, history, social change and the subliminal essence of being a part of a human existence.

My inspiration is drawn from the deep and rich reservoirs of my family, my country and my history.

This is an edited transcript of a talk given by Bronwyn Bancroft at the Sydney College of the Arts as part of the SCA Art Talks series. View details of the whole program.