by Charmaine Papertalk Green, John Kinsella
Published November 2022
ART is the second collaborative poetry yarn from Yamatji poet, scholar, artist and activist Charmaine Papertalk Green and settler poet John Kinsella. This yarn is distinct from but builds on the rigorous and timely dialogue the two authors began in False Claims of Colonial Thieves (2018). Like False Claims, ART is a collaborative work, where each poet works in tandem in a seamless discussion that is simultaneously a sovereign conversation and a critique of nation. Papertalk Green and Kinsella showcase their poetic talents in a dynamic exchange that responds to the artistic offerings of the late Nyoongar painter Shane Pickett (1957-2010).
Throughout this engagement with ART I will be breaking with the conventional western academic protocol of referring to authors by their surnames only. As a First Nations writer and scholar, the idea of referring to First Nations community members, and our allies by their surnames not only jars me – it is completely out of sync with First Nations protocols and practices of respect and friendship. I’ve written before about the need for Blak writers and scholars to model cultural rigour in our engagements with Blak writing and in the production of Blak-on-Blak critique. Part of cultural rigour is changing and/or refusing to engage with language and practices that were not appropriate to our works.
In keeping with this, for the remainder of this essay, I will refer to the two poets, by their first names – Charmaine and John. And later, the late Shane Pickett as Shane. Alongside modelling culturally appropriate language in Blak-on-Blak critique, referring to the two poets, and later the artists whose work inspires much of the poetic dialogue, by their first names evidences the personal connections and the depth of collaboration beyond typical western research conventions that has been integral to the process that produced ART.
I had the privilege of reviewing False Claims and described it as a radical intervention in Australian publishing in this nation of invaded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Countries – one that is seldom seen in any Australian context. Yet it is only such conversations that will inch this invaded nation towards any kind of truth telling and reckoning with its violent, unresolved past.
In False Claims Charmaine described the exchange between herself and John as a yarn. Yarning is a First Nations practice that predates the Invasion, and has continued to sustain us as a people over the last 235 years. What came to the fore in False Claims through a series of sharp, beautifully crafted and poised poems was the most important conversation of our time — how do First Nations Peoples and settler-invaders move forward in a shared conversation that acknowledges the past, and looks to the future of our Countries, the nation, and our planet?
Since the publication of False Claims in 2018 by Australia’s only all First Nations managed press, Magabala Books, there has been no other publisher brave enough to take up a poetic yarn between First Nations’ and settler poets. Once again, it is Magabala Books, without whom many First Nations voices in this nation would go unheard and many stories would remain untold, who bring us the second and equally radical intervention in both publishing and politics from Charmaine and John.
I mentioned ART is a collaboration – a word that is all too loosely bandied around in settler colonial circles. And a word that too often spawns a dangerous practice of settler writers, researchers, and scholars alike taking First Nations stories, or knowledge, or experiences and using them to further their own agendas within white institutions. Settler use of the term ‘collaboration’ has engendered a spate of Australian Research Council grants, research centres, publications, scholarly monographs, documentaries, and large cash prizes for settler research and researchers that sees little or none of the proceeds go back to the communities where the so-called ‘collaboration’ happened.
In my experience as a child growing up in the 1960s and 70s in rural Australia and later as a young adult in the early 80s as one of few Blak students studying a degree in humanities, collaboration looked like a group of whitefellas – most often people who called themselves archaeologists, or anthropologists or most likely historians – who front up to communities full of pomp and promises to ‘tell this important story to the nation and beyond’. Sadly, all too often, my experience (then and now), and that of many other Blakfellas, when archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians use the word collaboration, it is code for: we’ll record your story, go away, write it up in our words, sieve it through the theories of other academics who’ve already made a career on the backs of Blaks in a process settlers call historiography, take the credit for it, pick up the research grant and the prize and market it as collaboration.
That’s why ‘History’ in this settler nation fails us. Only literature – the faces and voices behind the stories of this land – can subvert the national narrative that has entrapped us by what acclaimed Waanyi writer Alexis Wright describes as ‘a colonising spider’.
There are many things radical about Charmaine and John’s poetic yarn. The first thing is that this really is a collaboration grown out of and nurtured by many years of respect, friendship and understanding built on and from a shared space.
In a settler colony, collaboration is not about sharing textual space equally in the same way equality is not achieved by treating all people the same. Treating all people the same results in a repetition of the status quo. And so too, with textual collaborations such as ART, the space of lands never ceded, and lands stolen needs is rewritten in a way that gives one voice – that of Charmaine the first word/s and stories of place; while the voice of John writes their way out of the space with words that cut through colonial jargon and the national myths of history. The difference between this work and many of those labelled collaboration is that this collaboration has been a long time in the making – it didn’t just start with this poetic yarn. Nor will it end there either.
Charmaine is the custodian of lands never ceded. She opens the dialogue with a grounding statement in a poem called Data Sovereignty Words:
This is my data, and
This is my sovereign right.
No more whitewashing
Let Truth be told.
The poem unfolds in the form of a letter addressed to Australian ‘Whitewashers’. Charmaine goes on to pose a series of questions that have plagued Aboriginal people like Charmaine and me, and all those among us who do not fit the national stereotype of a First Nations person cosmetically and politically. Charmaine asks of the settler reader – why do you find it so difficult to understand ‘my kind’ and ‘my people’?
Racism operates on many fields simultaneously. One such field is the visual field of racism. All of us who don’t fit the colonial stereotype like Charmaine – like me and many other light-skinned First Nations people – have been made to feel lesser and least on more than one occasion. ‘My kind’, Charmaine goes on to elaborate, ‘you know the fair-skinned not real Aboriginal kind’, the ‘one you tried to make feel different and displaced.’
But Charmaine refuses the coloniser’s gaze in this opening piece and feels the ‘exact opposite’ as she is strong, Yamaji, proud, grounded, and defensively supportive of her culture. She emerges from the settler-Australian mindsets – the literary and political legacies it has attempted to assign us – like: smoothing the pillow of a dying race and the ‘half-caste problem’ (sic).
I was only 21 years
Old in 1984 when Western Australian Lang Hancock
mining land thief said, “the half caste is where most
of the troubles comes, I would dope the water up so
they were sterile and breed themselves out…
I was just 22 years of age and living in the nation’s capital when Hancock said this. Hancock’s words, along with footage of him, were included verbatim in the 1984 documentary film Couldn’t Be Fairer – an exposé of the racism suffered by First Nations Australians directed by Dennis O’Rourke and narrated by the late Aboriginal activist, Mick Miller. It painted a raw and visceral portrait of First Nations life in Australia’s Deep South, the northern state of Queensland. The film’s title is a reference to then Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s comment on First Nations peoples that: We treat them (sic) the same as everyone else — couldn’t be fairer.
The documentary aired on national television in the same year. While it attracted swathes of comments from urban white middle class armchair activists who tried their best to distance themselves from those they described as ‘outback, backward, red-neck white Australians’, few picked up on the irony of Bjelke-Petersen’s use of the word ‘fairer’ beyond the literal. More poignantly, as Charmaine and John’s conversation evidences, skin-politics – although the language around it changes – still dominate First Nations and settler relationships in this nation today.
way of ‘talking about’ falls out of date?
Different words for different times?
But injustice is clear as the iron mountain
the lauded miner makes disappear. (John)
Australia is not fair. Australia – as it is now called under the colonised government – always was and always will be Aboriginal land. White Australia has a Blak history. Continued bandying around of the term ‘fair’ in Australian socio-cultural, political, and historical discourse is dangerous and remains alarmingly underscrutinised. It continues to implant ongoing subconscious racism and cultural chauvinism in the minds of generations of settler Australians. And how about – Advance Australia Fair? This song is not just a nod to the illusion of equality that never existed here in the first place; it is a subliminal endorsement of Australia’s racist skin politics and cultural chauvinism that continue today. How can we go on and mend as a nation when the nation’s national anthem heralds and promotes racism and cultural supremacy?
As Charmaine writes 37 years later:
The intention was always about making
‘my kind’ disappear and making my ancestors’ culture invisible
and taking, owning and keeping the land.
Therefore, I write/I protest/I talk/
To be born on stolen land under the governance of ‘colonial thieves’ is not to accept that you are a passive colonised subject. Charmaine refuses this through all her poetry in many ways – one of these is by using her name at several points in this conversation. She writes it into the opening poem ‘Data Sovereignty’:
Yours Truly, A Strong Surviving Yamji Woman – Charmaine.
Yamaji voices remain to emerge
Through descendants like Charmaine
Poets don’t often use their own names within their works, but Charmaine states her name in both ART and the earlier collaborative work with John, False Claims,as a continuing act of refusal.
John is descended from colonial invaders. In this and the earlier collaboration between these two poets who are connected to the same place through different her/histories, it is always Charmaine who speaks first and last. John enters the conversation with a piece called ‘Indexing’. The word carries colonial connotations: to list, to section, to compile, to order, to catalogue, to register, to record, to timetable, to program, and to table. The first stanza is worth quoting in full as it places John within yet writing against the colonial system he is descended from.
Indexing The Land Selectors Guide to the Crown Lands
Of Western Australia issued by direction of…
Commissioner of Crown Lands’ in Perth By Authority of the Government Printer
1897 you might realise the absence and sameness, that real estate
advertising, marketing, and government approvals
to ‘develop’ are much the same as being colonial
has many degrees as well as many avenues of denial.
The poem that unfolds is rich with images of the settler-invasion cycle as it sweeps across First Nations Countries, claiming and renaming everything in its path. There are gardens, dwellings, orchards, root-crops, transport infrastructure, soil quality, productivity, economic communities, resources, and agricultural districts. Underneath these external physical and visual impositions on Country are the subtexts and paratexts.
…building economic communities with all their threads
and subtexts, paratexts, and separate indexes to separate
The paratext here is the legal jargon of invasion – words and phrases like settlement, maps, settler blocks, mixed farming, soil quality and transport infrastructure.
What is most striking to me, as to many First Nations peoples and our non-First Nations allies, about the genocide in Australia, beyond the unacknowledged violence and unfinished business of the aftermath of invasion, is the apparent ‘legality’ and ‘modernity’ of the language that made it possible. And the seemingly benign, technical language that invaders sold to the rest of the world as history ever after. It was modern technology that made possible the pace and effectiveness of the killings here in Australia, alongside modern laws that provided the judicial niceties that condoned it. It was modern education, coupled with colonial ignorance, that helped create the conditions where official silence and legally-sanctioned cover-ups could prevail.
John’s words blow the cover off the subtexts of invasion and dispossession. The truth is laid bare.
Lend lease war talk later – building up/to quota, supply drafts. Forfeits. Rentals and even freebies/as Mt Bruce when on bare bones had us consider/at least Us. Them. Now payable. Within expiry/date. Or waived through landscaping /the index.
There are settler politicians and right-leaning academics in Australia who would like to use the discourse of the ignorance of past generations without explaining their inhumane behaviour and the consequences of their criminal acts. Some contemporary politicians in Australia still claim that their European ancestors acted to the ‘standards of the time’, and the present generation does not need to acknowledge, apologize, and compensate for the crimes committed to the First Nations Australians.
Charmaine and John’s words cut through the tired historical platitude of ‘the standards of the time’ to expose the ongoing violence of colonialism. Charmaine writes in a piece called ‘1967’:
Kalgoorlie, Greenough and Geraldton had/High NO votes holding hands and mindsets/And they are still holding hands with the level of/Murders, Deaths in Custody, Police violence/And their online social media pages are eerily/Similar with hatred, violence and threats on/our young.
John responds in a poem by the same title:
The ‘now’ is only so for/those who believe in it, not for the percentage/who look back and regret justice messing/ with their false claims, their pseudo-legacies.
The catalyst for Charmaine and John’s yarn is a series of paintings by the late Nyoongar artist Shane Pickett. Shane Pickett’s presence permeates every piece of the poetic yarn that takes place within the pages of ART. Some might describe this as a triangular-project involving three entities. I don’t read it this way though, because triangles are made of hard lines and sharp corners – a bit like the paddocks and blocks both Charmaine and John write of as colonial imposition. Instead Shane is the conduit through which the dialogue between the two poets unfolds; and his presence permeates the entire collection.
Shane described his paintings as ‘windows into the Dreaming’. The strength of his culture and connection to Country was delivered through his many works with breath-taking lyrical intensity. Over the course of his three-decade career, Shane developed a new visual language to represent the cornerstones of the culture of his Nyoongar people: the pathways of ancestors, traditional healing practices and places, and especially the six seasons used by the Nyoongar to divide the year.
Much of the dialogue between Charmaine and John draws out each poet’s response to specific art works by Shane. In a poem called ‘On the Art of Shane Pickett: A Visual Feast of Seeing’, Charmaine writes of stepping into a Hay Street Gallery and encountering the work:
An artist shifting the
Layers of country and
Story into seeing for
Not only your eyes
In ‘Mapping Culture Celebrating’, she writes:
The mapping cultures
Dotted pathways across
Country and held up
And held together by
the Dreaming from
cave and rock art
energy from seeing
John responds in ‘On the Art of Shane Pickett: Celebration of Seeing’ in words that ‘see’ but do not claim to ‘know’ the layers of country and story that Charmaine describes:
To rockshift before eyes
they say – a map, yes?
A plan I might follow
a bit then turn back
flushed with reverence.
Shane’s work invites both poets to reflect on their own lives and histories on Country. The paintings themselves become a conduit for social commentary on Australian classism, inequality and bipartisan minimalist approaches to social welfare and housing.
In ‘Response: Shane Pickett’s ‘Morning Clouds and Warming Day’ Charmaine reflects on a childhood spent ‘below the 26th parallel’ in ‘Pilbara heat inside a ‘fibro home’.
In Western Australia when the/social housing criteria did not/include fans for cooling down people/ice blocks from the trans were taken/And then is recent heat waves/In Geraldton with power outages causing/The hot temperature to creep inside homes/Destroying food and pushing emotions hot
This poem also speaks to the way film and television crews like to present what they perceive as ‘remote outback, desert Australia’ to their urban viewers. Charmaine recalls an art trip to Boolardy Station with ‘Yamaji Art and scientists together’ in temperatures soaring to ‘50 degrees’:
…yet the film crew/still wanted a big fire for yarning around at/night for the effects with the clouds rushing past
Charmaine and John’s interwoven dialogue examines the politics of the contemporary art world, of museums, archives, and galleries. Following on from a selection of artworks titled Unravelling Archives 1, 2 & 3 reproduced from a series called Alternative Archive: Decolonising Reclaiming, Debunking’ by Charmaine and Mark Smith are a suite of poems that respond to colonial archives and museums.
Charmaine opens in a poem bearing the same title as the series with the first archive of place where Yamaji ‘data and knowledge are carved deeply’ into every part of Country – rocks, caves, trees, rivers, waterholes, ceremonial grounds, night skies:
Our archives extend beyond museums, libraries, churches and government records.
In the western world where the commonly held view of an archive or a museum is a ‘manmade object’ such archives have been constructed ‘for the western world’ to create myths like the ‘Terra Nullius Myth’ and the ‘Hawes Myth’.
Our artworks interrogate both myths which have seen Yamaji become/invisible in their won ancestral lands – creating conversations of/visibility.
In poem directly afterwards called ‘Exhibit: ours is not ‘ours’ [Museum Thief]’ John responds in a statement that paints a stark picture of colonial hubris. It is well worth quoting at length here.
To colonial ways/of modern living/that are never/really ‘our’ own/but something/that happened/that’s been put/to rights, surely, telling ourselves/without irony/or self-awareness/of ‘have you seen’/the exhibit/exhibiting/exhibition/of their ours,/while not connecting/the dots we know/how to talk about/it with permission/don’t we, learning/as we go but not/as we have gone?
There are many ways that this collection interrupts, challenges and pushes the boundaries of what a poetry book and a collaboration can be. Could be. In addition to a selection of artworks, ART features a lengthy uncut Art Yarn between the two poets.
John begins the yarn by speaking of his maternal grandfather – an artist who on commission painted the giant Queen Elizabeth for the 1854 ‘Royal Visit’ and the giant Captain Cook for the bicentenary celebrations in 1970.
He migrated/from London at 12 in 1913 (just before the War),/and kept London in his head all his life.
Charmaine’s maternal grandfather was a station hand who had tuberculosis and went to Perth in 1950. She never heard of her grandfather doing any paintings but his daughter, her Aunty Mary was a ‘magical bark painter’.
Mullewa CWA hosted her exhibition in Mullewa/Aunty was also a station housemaid as a young woman/Just like her mother and older sisters were back then/
And Charmaine asks:
I wonder if they could dream of being creative in those times?
John says later in the ‘Art Yarn’:
But the colonial mindsets passing on/colonial views make no pictures I want in my head…
Charmaine responds with:
Thank goodness that is only a colonial mindset sitting on the/museum, art gallery, and library shelves slowly gathering dust…
John rounds off the yarn by posing the most important, and sadly still least asked question of the last 2035 years:
Who gets to do the saying.
He answers his own question:
I know this, and I write/myself out of the conversation.
Much of the physical space of Australia has long been stolen and will never be returned to First Nations peoples. But there is still plenty of space and plenty of room for us as First Nations people to tell our own stories, write our own pasts and present and futures, if only the colonial mindset would yield us the textual space, in the way this conversation between First Nations and settler poet has done.
ART concludes with a conversation between Shane’s son Trevor and Charmaine. Trevor discusses Shane’s life, influences and the significance of his painting and worldviews. There are many gems in this conversation, but the one that leaps out to me is Shane’s generosity; and how such generosity can sometimes be exploited by younger generations who fail to acknowledge their cultural responsibility and the influence/s of the elders who have inspired them.
Trevor says: He’d never go off at them about copying his work. As we got older,/we would ask him “why don’t you say something? Why don’t you chip them for copying you? That’s copyright you know.” He’d always say/ “Nah, if they learned from me, well, then that’s fine, because then I can/see my work in their work”.
It is not possible to undo the mistakes of the past but there are things that can be done in the present to improve the future. These poems, by enhancing and spreading the understanding of the past, may not just be powerful to read but may also point to a better future.
In a poem called ‘Everlastings (2021)’, which is a response to an earlier artwork reproduced within the collection called ‘Wildflower in Time’, Charmaine writes:
The energy of renewal and love from the earth/passing from country and Ancestor sand grain memories/Into the spirit of our newer next generations/They will be forever happy to see the wildflower every year
In Wajarri we gently hum an everlasting lullaby/ “Ugundungu, ugundunga, ugundungu pretty one makes me smile.
It is activist writers like proud Yamaji woman Charmaine Papertalk Green and settler poet John Kinsella who write against the continuing overt and covert skin-politics of Advance Australia Fair; and the national discourse of capital ‘H’ history that still writes us wrong. It is writers such as this who together resist this and say: White Australia has a Blak future.