Essay: Luke Vitaleon the Bankstown Biennale

The Many Histories of Salt Pan Creek

In 1933, Aboriginal elder Joe Anderson, also known as King Burraga, was filmed on the banks of the Salt Pan Creek calling on all Aboriginal people in New South Wales to petition King Edward VIII to improve their conditions. This black and white Cinesound footage played at theatres across the country before film screenings where audiences would have heard Anderson say: 

All the Black man wants is representation in Federal Parliament. There is plenty fish in the river for us all, and land to grow all we want. One hundred and fifty years ago, the Aboriginal owned Australia, and today, he demands more than the white man’s charity. He wants the right to live!

In recent years, Joe Anderson and this piece of black and white footage has been revisited in the context of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Black Lives Matter movement. Historian John Maynard, for example, wrote in January 2020 that the voice to parliament proposed in the Uluru Statement was not a new idea, tracing it back to the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association in the 1920s and Anderson’s speech in the 1930s. A few months later, when the Black Lives Matter protests erupted after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, Stan Grant used the footage to demonstrate a long history of First Nations resistance, while contextualising the American movement within Australia’s history. 

The Bankstown Biennale, presented this year at the Bankstown Arts Centre and at sites across Bankstown, contributes to this broader effort to mark and amplify Anderson’s political legacy in relation to these contemporary movements. Nicole Monks notes in her curatorial statement that ‘almost 100 years on First Nations people are still echoing [Anderson’s] calls to action.’ Aroha Groves is more specific and direct when she states that her sculptural piece ‘speaks to the origins of The Voice to Parliament stemming from the recorded pronouncement by Joe Anderson, ‘King Burraga’ of the need for First Nations’ representation in Parliament in the 1930s.’

Other artists participating in the exhibition have chosen to reinterpret Joe Anderson’s words in relation to other contemporary concerns. Jason Wing, for example, interprets Anderson’s declaration that ‘there is also plenty fish in the river for us all’ as a ‘warning of the tragedy of the commons’. Wing’s stencils of large-scale fish traps spray-painted on the paving outside the Arts Centre are intended to function as ‘an alarming reminder of the climate crisis and human rights crisis in Australia’. Kerrie Kenton’s sculpture of a fish net/trap decorated with fishing hooks and line also responds to that particular section of Anderson’s speech.

While engaging with the contemporary significance of Joe Anderson’s speech, the Bankstown Biennale is also engaging with it in a more local sense. In the foyer at the entrance of the Bankstown Arts Centre, a TV screen is playing the footage of Anderson’s speech alongside oral history interviews conducted by Keira-Leigh and Karliah Green, students at East Hills Girls High School, with local elders Uncle Shayne Williams, Aunty Carol Brown and Uncle Terry Lennis who talk about their connections to Salt Pan Creek and the surrounding area. 

The Salt Pan Creek, where Joe Anderson stood in the video, branches off the Georges River between Lugarno and Padstow Heights and flows north, alongside the suburbs of Peakhurst, Padstow and Riverwood, and into Bankstown where its form and direction becomes a bit more vague, channelled into small concrete and brick drains that criss-cross the Bankstown floodplain. The Bankstown Arts Centre is built on top of this floodplain. Vandana Ram’s curatorial statement highlights the way in which this body of water connects the history of Bankstown to the history of the nation: ‘The waterways feeding Salt Pan Creek flow beneath the Arts Centre and its precinct, and the Biennale provides the mechanism to amplify this story, marking [Anderson’s] political legacy at a national level.’

Today, the spot where Anderson stood before the camera and spoke to the people of Australia is marked with round plaque on a sandstone base that sits at the very end of Ogilvy Street in Peakhurst, behind a metal railing and on the edge of a gully. It was erected by the Georges River Council as part of its ‘Historical Markers Program’ that was launched in 2018 – two years after the council was formed from the amalgamation of the Hurstville and Kogarah councils – ‘to highlight and recognise people and places of historical and cultural importance, as recommended by the local community.’ It was one of the five sites recognised in the program’s inaugural year.

Another historical marker stands around the corner at the end of Charm Place. Stuck awkwardly on the verge before a house this is a more modest marker erected by the previous Hurstville Council. It is a shorter monument, and simpler in design, plain white letting on blue metal, set on a concrete base. This monument marks the ‘Salt Pan Creek Aboriginal Community’ which was established here in the early decades of the twentieth century. It goes on to say that the community lived in up to six dwellings on neighbouring residential properties. One of these properties was owned by Ellen Anderson where she lived with her husband Hugh and their children – Joe was one of their sons. This community relocated to nearby land in the early 1930s.

Ellen Anderson was a Dharawal woman who grew up near Wollongong. Her mother, who she often visited, lived further up the Georges River at Mill Creek (or Guragurang, its name in Dharawal) near Menai. In the early 1880s, Ellen was living at a camp on the northern side of Botany Bay, which was evicted by the recently established Aborigines Protection Board in its efforts to move Aboriginal people away from Sydney. The Board was of the opinion that there were no longer any living members of the original Sydney clans and that all Aboriginal people living in Sydney at the time had migrated from other parts of the state. Classified as outsiders, the attachments that Aboriginal people such as Ellen had to the city were seen as invalid.  

Forced out of Sydney, Ellen moved down to the Murray River mission at Maloga. It was there where Ellen met Hughie, a Goulburn River man whom she eventually married. When the Aboriginal Protection Board began to play a more hands-on role at the mission, Ellen and Hughie decided it was time to leave, moving through a variety of communities, before moving to land close to the Salt Pan Creek at Peakhurst. After purchasing a block of land there in 1910, Ellen and Hughie were joined by a number of other Aboriginal people looking to escape the Aboriginal Protection Board. Fellow Dharawal man William Rowley purchased an adjacent block, and the two families were joined by a number of others seeking to escape the Protection Board including the Glasses from Cowra, the Kelleys from Forster, and the Groves from Walhallow Station on the Castlereagh River.

Ellen purchased another property closer to the creek, the site at Charm Place, in 1920. Freehold possession gave them freedom, security, legal protection and it also meant that Protection Board officials had less right of entry to inspect the welfare of children. The community continued to grow and was seen as a retreat or an escape from the surveillance of the camps and missions. As historians Heather Goodall and Allison Cadzow put it succinctly, Salt Pan Creek ‘represented freedom’. This was a freedom that differentiated it from the other main Aboriginal community in Sydney, the community at La Perouse which was much more closely connected to the Aboriginal Protection Board. The Salt Pan Creek became a shelter for political radicals seeking a secure shelter away from La Perouse. Members of the camp, including Joe Anderson, were engaged in the politics of the time through campfire discussions and public speeches delivered in the city markets on Friday nights. 

Although Salt Pan Creek offered an escape from La Perouse, the two communities were not isolated or separate from each other. Some Aboriginal people such as the Rowley and Williams families moved between the two communities. In the 1930s, the young men from the two communities combined to form a rugby league teamed named the Waratah Football Club, nicknamed the All Blacks, which played games regularly in the St George district. In 1934, the team beat a white team of the combined St George Juniors in an exhibition match played at Earl Park in Arncliffe which was the headquarters and home ground of the St George Dragons at the time. Matchday entertainment included boomerang-throwing demonstrations and a performance from an Aboriginal gum leaf band. Joe Anderson was amongst the crowd that afternoon, dressed in the green and red of the team. Having recorded his speech the year before, Anderson had become a well-known figure and The Sun reported on the game under the headline ‘King Joe Had To Pay To Cheer On His Team’.

Although Salt Pan Creek allowed Aboriginal people in Sydney a way to escape the gaze of the Protection Board, they were not able to escape the gaze of their white neighbours or the local council. In April 1926, a group of local residents called the Lugarno Progress Association wrote to Hurstville Council complaining about the state of the camp and the behaviour of the people living there. The Council sent their Health Inspector over to take a look and he found nine men, seven women and fourteen children living in six buildings and tents spread out over a space of about three acres. Three of the buildings were well-constructed weatherboard cottages that were better than the accommodation available at La Perouse. Inside the buildings, the inspector found them clean and well-kept with adequate ventilation and lighting. As such, the council had little grounds for removing them especially since the land was owned by some of the people living there.

However, the surveillance did not end there, and would become more intense over the following decade, especially after Ellen was forced to sell off her land in 1930 after the death of Hughie in July 1928 and the beginning of the Great Depression. The community moved off her land onto a new site nearby. With less legal protection, calls from local residents and media continued to demand that the community be removed with the residents sent to ‘the compound’ at La Perouse. Pressure to move to La Perouse did not only come from their neighbours but during the Great Depression the government put further pressure on Aboriginal people to move into government sanctioned camps under the direction of the Aboriginal Protection Board.

The Hurstville Council’s Health Inspector was called in again in 1936 and he gave them 12 months to clear out from the scrub. He said that the council had ‘decided that these humpies were holding back the progress of a beautiful district’. The community protested and managed to stay on for another two years until the Health Inspector was called in again a few weeks after Joe Anderson’s death in late 1938. The Health Inspector ‘found that a number of bag humpies and shacks had been illegally erected by visiting and resident blacks.’ Once again, he said that the Aboriginal people at Salt Pan Creek were ‘spoiling the beautiful bush area’. 

Reporting on Joe Anderson’s death, The Telegraph published an article in January 1939 which discussed some of his political ideas – namely, his belief that Aboriginal people should be represented in parliament and should be allowed free tram and train travel. It also reported that there was no heir to King Burraga’s ‘throne’. However, after the death of Joe and the death of the Salt Pan Creek community a few weeks later, there have been heirs to the legacy of both the man and the camp. As Goodall and Cadzow point out, many leaders in Aboriginal politics over the following decades, right up to the 1980s, were connected in some way to the Salt Pan Creek community. Some had lived in the community as youths and later became important leaders and activists – such as, the Patten brothers in the late-1930s, Bert Groves in the 1950s and 1960s, Charlie Leon in the 1960s, Tom Williams in the 1970s and Ted Thomas and Jacko Campbell in the 1980s. Bert Groves’s daughter, Aroha Groves, was one of the artists exhibiting at the Bankstown Biennale in late 2022.

At around the same time that Joe Anderson and other Aboriginal people at Salt Pan Creek were fighting for land rights, recognition, representation and the right to just stay in the area, an Italian boy named Dino Danesi was living a few suburbs over in Lakemba at a house on Ernest St. 

His father, Luigi Danesi, was living in Innisfail in North Queensland where he was engaged in his own fight for recognition. He and his brother Costante were the respective leaders of the Foreign Cutters Defence League and Italian Progressive Club which were at the forefront of the fight against British Preference which had placed quotas on ‘non-British’ labour in the sugar industry as a result of a ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ made between the three main bodies of the North Queensland sugar industry: the Australian Workers Union, the Australian Sugar Producers’ Association and the Queensland Canegrowers’ Association. They led a multiethnic coalition made up of Italian, Spanish, Maltese, Yugoslav and other non-British European cane farmers and cutters to defend their rights to employ whoever they wanted or to work wherever they wanted. While their struggle was aimed at protecting the rights of farmers and cutters regardless of nationality, they did on occasion appeal to have the rights of British subjectivity recognised regardless of whether they were British subjects by birth (such as the Australian and British-born), naturalization (such as the Italian-born) or by colonisation (such as the Maltese-born). 

In 1935, Luigi wrote to his 12-year-old son in Lakemba about how lucky they were to be living in Australia:

We are in this Great Australia, this wonderfull Country, that I like very much, and I hope that you like too.

The Australia has the best rool on the world, and her laws they are the best lawes in the World. No other Country is better than Australia, and I thanks very much God that He have let that we are, in this beautiful Country.


Dear Son we are Australians, and we must stand behind the Australia, because the Australia is our lovely Country.

I recommend you to study, and become a good Australian citizen.

A copy of this letter now sits in Luigi Danesi’s record of internment. Both he and his brother were among the approximately 5000 Italians who were interned as enemy aliens during World War II. Compared to other states, internment was much more indiscriminate and precautionary in Queensland where 43.11 per cent of registered male aliens were interned – by comparison, in Victoria only 2.97 per cent were interned. As a result, committed anti-fascists such as the Danesi brothers were detained alongside their Fascist enemies by an Australian Government anxious about a possible invasion from the north. Danesi was detained at Gaythorne and Cowra internment camps from April 1942 until his release in September 1943. On release he was allowed to go back to living in Innisfail, and although he was restricted from leaving town, this was seen as a privilege as Italians were generally not allowed to return to areas north of the Tropic of Capricorn.

While his father was living in internment camps, Dino was living in army camps, stationed in NSW, Queensland and the Northern Territory. In October 1941, when he was 18 years old, Dino joined other young Australians his age at the army drill sheds in Belmore, where he and his mother and sisters were now living at a house on Tudor Street. He started his term of service in May 1942, just two weeks after his father was interned, and after spending a few years stationed at various sites across the country, he left for Bougainville in June 1945 just two months before the Japanese surrendered there. For his contributions, Dino received a Pacific Star medal as well as a Defence Medal, War Medal and Australian Service Medal.  

Historian Lara Palombo has argued that the wartime camps that Italians such as Luigi and Costante Danesi were detained at were an extension of earlier colonial camps that were established to contain Indigenous peoples. The kind of camps that residents of the Salt Pan Creek community had left and were trying to live away from. According to Palombo, ‘the camp’ has been ‘a fundamental technology through which the white settler-colonial state has worked to banish and eliminate those racialised bodies it has deemed as dangerous or disposable.’

Since World War II, various other migrant groups have been deemed to be dangerous by the white settler-colonial state and thus racialised accordingly. Since the 1990s, the primary threat has often been individuals of Muslim faith or of Middle Eastern background. In her work for the Bankstown Biennale, Cigdem Aydemir ‘playfully explores the image and idea of the burqa or niqab as possible terrorist threat’. Abdul Abdullah also interrogates this history with his work which ‘continues an ongoing investigation in the disjuncture between popular understandings of an egalitarian, inclusive Australian identity and the material and historical realities that dispute that claim.’ Titled Boundless Plains to Share, this work also ‘calls into question who that statement includes and who it excludes. Over an image of an Australian-esque landscape two hands shake in agreement, while many hands are raised for attention behind them.’ 

The story of Luigi Danesi illustrates the themes that Abdullah is investigating. His campaign against British Preference and his experience of internment demonstrates that Italians at that time were excluded from those boundless plains shared by Australians despite their attempts for attention and recognition. However, although they were subject to similar technologies of restriction, containment and elimination, there was still a fundamental difference between Indigenous populations and diasporic populations such as the Italians. As Palombo also points out, ‘in the very times moment of diasporic internments of ‘Australian residents’ and ‘British subjects,’ as subjects occupying the position of Australian citizens, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were still denied, under the regime of the Protection Acts, the possibility to occupy this position and the attendant rights that it conferred.’ In other words, while Italians such as Luigi, Costante and Dino Danesi could occupy the position of British subject, Aboriginal people such as Ellen, Hughie or Joe Anderson could not.

A recent example of state control of Aboriginal lives which was then deployed to control other problematic populations was the Northern Territory Intervention, known formally as the Northern Territory National Emergency Response (Cth) Act in 2007. In order to pass this Act, the Federal Government under John Howard suspended the Racial Discrimination Act. It was able to do so partly due to the result of the 1967 Referendum which gave Federal Parliament the right to make laws about Aboriginal people – before the referendum, only state governments had that power. One of the impetuses for constitutional reform set out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart is amending the 1967 changes to ensure that Federal Parliament can only make laws that are for the benefit of Aboriginal people and thus avoid similar situations as the NT intervention in the future.

This is a story that circles back to Bankstown because one of the technologies of the Intervention was the Basics Card, part of an income management scheme that limited the recipients of welfare to shopping at government approved retailers. After being introduced in Aboriginal communities in the NT, the Federal Government set their sights on another problematic population – the unemployed – living in other parts of Australia. Bankstown was chosen as one of five sites to trial the implementation of this card outside of the original context in which it emerged. Resistance to the Basics Card brought the Aboriginal communities in the NT and the multicultural community of Bankstown closer together. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal activists united in solidarity. 

There is a longer history of solidarity between settler and Aboriginal populations in the area which was present also at Salt Pan Creek in the 1930s. According to historian Paul Irish, when Ellen Anderson was forced to sell her block in 1930, Joe’s friend John Hannon purchased it and allowed the Aboriginal community to remain, despite the protests of other non-Aboriginal residents. Furthermore, although the existence of the community was consistently threatened by the campaigning of their white neighbours, organised into ‘progressive associations’, friendlier relations were maintained with other groups such as the Hurstville Presbyterian Ladies’ Guild who would organise afternoons of food and entertainment at the site. After one such occasion in 1935, the local newspaper in Hurstville reported that Joe Anderson had ‘thanked the ladies, and said it was the best treat his people had ever been given.’ The Aboriginal community also showed their appreciation for their white neighbours – for example, when the storekeeper of the local general store passed away in 1934, members of the Aboriginal community were the first to arrive at his funeral at Woronora Cemetery, bringing flowers with them. These are just a few example of the ‘entanglements’ that Paul Irish argues characterised the lives of Aboriginal (and non-Aboriginal) people in Sydney in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century.

A key part of urban history is entanglements or cross-cultural overlaps. If anything, this is more relevant today than it has ever been. In Irish’s work, and other histories that focus on Salt Pan Creek, the Georges River or Sydney more generally, the entanglements are a product of Aboriginal-British relations. Non-British individuals and groups in these stories are usually visitors, not migrants or settlers. One exception to this is the group of Italian workers who tended grapevines further up the Georges River at Williams Creek near Holsworthy on land owned by Lucy Leane, a Dharug woman, and her English husband, William. Two of Lucy’s daughters married Italian men, one of whom was a Sicilian named Salvatore Passanisi.

The Bankstown Biennale presented an opportunity to explore and deepen these cross-cultural entanglements. While the exhibition is a First Nations led interrogation of local narratives, there are participants from non-Aboriginal backgrounds who are dealing with their own position within settler-colonial Australia that often involves interrogating embodied entanglements. For example, Abdul Abdullah identifies ‘as a Muslim with both Malay/Indonesian and convict/settler Australian heritage’ and Paula Do Prado’s practice ‘surfaces the intersection of her Bantu, Iberian and Charrúan ancestral lineages.’

Similarly, Aboriginal participants in the exhibition identify with a variety of ancestral lineages. Among the participants are those from Barkindji, Yuin, Walbunja, Dhoorga Gurandgi, Gomeroi, Weilwan, Dharawal, Kaytetye, Anmatyerr, Arrernte, Darug, Wangal, Yuwaalaraay and various other cultural groups from across Australia. Individual artists often claim more than one of these heritages. Moreover, some Aboriginal artists also identify with both settler and Aboriginal heritages, such as Nicole Monks who identifies as Yamaji Wajarri, Dutch and English and Jason Wing whose art practice is inspired just as much by his Chinese heritage as his Birpai heritage. The diversity of these participants shows that just as it had done so in the 1930s, the Salt Pan Creek continues to bring Aboriginal people together from across the country.

In their research into the history of Aboriginal people on Georges River and the creeks that it flows into, Goodall and Cadzow talk about the importance of both locality and mobility. They highlight a process of placemaking or ‘making locality’ in which places are made through the social relationships of the people living there who may be simultaneously in conversation with homelands elsewhere. In this line of thinking, Salt Pan Creek and its landscape are ‘created through the actions and attitudes of the people who come to it with their many networks of histories and cultures, all interacting with the changing physical environment of the river itself.’ 

The Bankstown Biennale is ‘making locality’ by bringing together Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists together from across the country and whose practice is often in conversation with homelands elsewhere. No less, in an area that today is one of the most multicultural areas in the country. The networks or entanglements from which the Bankstown Biennale emerges are as dense and complicated as the mangroves that line the banks of the Salt Pan Creek itself.  

This essay was commissioned for SubTerrains, the 2022 Bankstown Biennale.