Installation view, Sydney Elders, Continuing Aboriginal Stories, State Library of NSW. Photo: Joy Lai

Sydney Elders: Continuing Aboriginal Stories

State Library of NSW

In 2016 I was asked by the State Library of New South Wales to curate a project for the redevelopment and launch of their new exhibition spaces. While being briefed on the significance of the library I considered how its collection represents Aboriginal communities and how Aboriginal communities would want to be represented. In order to understand and negotiate these notions of representation and the relations of power they create and reflect, I thought about how our communities self-represent, where community knowledge accumulates and is maintained, and who we go to for our stories. Within this context elders are familiar anchor points. They are to whom we go for knowledge, and in doing so they continually connect us to our past while strengthening our future. Indeed, within our communities our elders are our libraries.

Critically engaging with the institution and the way knowledge and power is situated within such places, Sydney Elders: Continuing Aboriginal Stories brings together four of Sydney’s traditional owner elders to share their unique stories via digital media. On a practical level, working with local Sydney elders meant that the project could develop a meaningful relationship with each elder, their families and community. More importantly, working with local Sydney elders meant we could acknowledge and celebrate the library’s local Aboriginal community and tell one of Sydney’s most important stories, its Aboriginal story.

Aboriginal Sydney is often overlooked, yet it has a rich and compelling story to tell – from the dramatic sandstone cliffs adorned with rock art, to the establishment of the Blacktown Native Institute, to the rise of the black political movement in Redfern. Sydney represents the epicentre of colonisation, and the city today encompasses the boundaries of many Aboriginal nations, clans and languages, affecting people in different ways. Every Sydney Aboriginal family has had their own way of dealing with colonisation, their own story of resistance and methods of survival. These stories form a complex web that knits Sydney’s landscapes together.

In order to tell these stories with authority, and after much consultation, four key traditional owners elders agreed to be part of the project: Uncle Dennis Foley, from the north, Aunty Esme Timbery, from the south, Uncle Charles “Chicka” Madden, from the east, and Aunty Sandra Lee, from the west. Together they represent just some of the clans that sit within the river boundaries of the Hawkesbury, Nepean and Georges. The stories of these elders help paint a picture of what it is like to be an Aboriginal person who is ancestrally connected to this landscape and has continued the legacy of their ancestors by actively contributing to the community. Over a series of months these four elders generously let us into their homes and took us to important sites to record their stories on film. The process commenced by conducting long interviews charting their family’s stories, their own personal stories and memories, and their connections to Sydney.

Armed with their valuable knowledge we dove deep into the SLNSW collection, searching high and low for any material that connected with the elders and the stories they shared with us. After pulling together as much related material as we could find, the SLNSW then reciprocated and hosted each of the elders, enabling them to view the collection material relating to their stories. We again interviewed them as they looked through the material. Some found photographs of their family or images of places they knew well as children; others found references to places relating to their country and documentation of important events. It was a profoundly moving experience – the collection came alive and the elders’ stories resonated with the collection.

Installation view, Sydney Elders, Continuing Aboriginal Stories, State Library of NSW. Photo: Joy Lai
Installation view, Sydney Elders, Continuing Aboriginal Stories, State Library of NSW. Photo: Joy Lai

Uncle Dennis Foley is from the Gai-mariagal clan, whose homelands are Sydney’s Northern Suburbs. He spent much of his childhood growing up on country with his grandmother. These experiences form the basis for his book Repossession of Our Spirit: Traditional Owners of Northern Sydney. Through this connection he has developed a deep intergenerational understanding of the Northern Beaches, remembering sites such as the long-forgotten local fringe camp at Narrabeen Lagoon to the best swimming and fishing spots. In the SLNSW collection are rare images taken around the Narrabeen fringe camp over c. 1900–10, providing vision of his memory. During this project Uncle Dennis took us to Collins Beach, where in 1780 Governor Arthur Phillip was speared. Aware of this colonial history, Uncle Dennis instead recounts the way his uncles would fish the narrow bay in the 1950s to provide food for their community.

Uncle Dennis was able to find many historical images in the library’s collection that remind him of his early years with his grandmother and the stories she would tell him: “This is the way we were shown the landscape as kids. My grandmother and the other old aunties would tell me of the shape of the land before all the buildings and high-rises. You can see the freshwater pond, which later became the dairy, the odd fishing village, and you can see how isolated the northern beaches were. That’s why Aboriginal people survived here in such numbers up until the 1950s. The real settlement of the Northern Beaches happened after World War II. Roads and bridges got put in and places like this became holiday areas. It just blew out after that and it’s never stopped.”

Aunty Esme Timbery comes from the well-known Aboriginal community of La Perouse in Botany Bay. Originally established in the late 1800s, La Perouse remains one of Australia’s first Aboriginal missions, deep in the heart of Australia’s biggest metropolis. The Timberys are from the southern Bidjigal clan and are renowned fishermen and artists. Aunty Esme’s father was one of the best and she tells us how he went up and down the coast fishing and sharing his catch with the community. Yet it is Aunty Esme’s widely exhibited shell work that has captured people’s attention. Her great-grandmother was Queen Emma Timbery, an important community leader and celebrated shell-work artist, and the knowledge of this technique has been passed down the generations to Aunty Esme.

For this exhibition, Aunty Esme created for the first time a shell-worked church ‑ representing a building and institution that has defined much of her life. This beautiful artwork sits alongside an image taken of Aunty Esme when she was a girl, standing in front of her local church. Aunty Esme recalls: “Our lives revolved around that little church. We were there all the time. It was like a second home to us. Every Saturday we’d go into the bush and we’d get pocketfuls of wildflowers and take them back to decorate the church. Five corners and ten corners, flannel flowers and Christmas bells. I remember the day of that photo. We were Christian Endeavourers and we used to get invitations to sing at different churches, but this day was special. We were going to the Town Hall to sing. We had good voices back in those days. There’s been a terrible lot of memories in that little church. It was a blessing to go inside.”

Installation view, Sydney Elders, Continuing Aboriginal Stories, State Library of NSW. Photo: Joy Lai
Installation view, Sydney Elders, Continuing Aboriginal Stories, State Library of NSW. Photo: Joy Lai

In the east, from Gadigal country, is Uncle Chicka Madden, a familiar elder around the Redfern and inner-city area, where he has spent most of his life. Uncle Chicka has been employed within the construction industry and was involved in the building of many familiar Sydney landmarks and infrastructure projects, including Qantas House, the Gladesville Bridge, the Eastern Suburbs railway line and Carriageworks. The exhibition presents several of these sites under construction, highlighting the enormous effort involved in building Sydney. Uncle Chicka has also been seriously engaged in many Aboriginal community organisations, serving on local organisations such as the Aboriginal Medical Service, Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council and Aboriginal Hostels NSW. He is a life member of his beloved Redfern All Blacks Rugby League Football Club.

In his interview Uncle Chicka takes us back to many of the places where he lived and worked. He explains: “A lot of my cousins and mates worked as riggers and scaffolders in the city ‑ a lot of them worked down on the Opera House when that was being built. I got a job working with them on the Gladesville Bridge and Tarban Creek Bridge. I was getting 35 pound a week over there, before decimal currency came in. So I worked over there for about five years with Ossie and Benny Cruse and about two or three other Kooris, some from up the coast and around the city. It wasn’t hard work but it was solid, you could work six days a week there, sometimes seven. And the money was good.

Aunty Sandra Lee is a Boorooberongal woman from Western Sydney. Born and raised in the Blacktown area, she has lifelong connections to the region. Aunty Sandra traces her ancestry to Maria Lock, who was one of the first Aboriginal children to enter the Native Institute established in 1814 by Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Exhibited at Aunty Sandra’s request are some of the original documents written by Macquarie authorising the Native Institute. Maria went on to marry a convict, become a landowner and act as a strong leader for the Dharug people. Aunty Sandra has continued this advocacy for her community, working closely with local council and as an Elder on Campus Advisory Board Member for the University of Western Sydney.

In her interview Aunty Sandra talks about the strength she draws from her ancestor Maria Lock and the importance of sites such as the Native Institute in Australia’s history: “The Blacktown Native Institute site is on the corner of Rooty Hill and Richmond roads. The institute was set up by the early governors to train Aboriginal people to be white and keep control over them. My ancestors used to hand that land down for generation after generation. Then a fellow called Bodekin bought it when he was in government. He told the council that the land has to be given back to the Dharug people. But the paperwork got lost, and nobody knows where it is. I’d dearly love to see the government give it back to the Dharug people so we can build a culture centre for all Aboriginal people in the area.”

Uncle Chicka Madden and Jonathan Jones, 2018. Photo Joy Lai
Uncle Chicka Madden and Jonathan Jones, 2018. Photo Joy Lai

Although I’ve known some of these elders for a while now, sitting down with them and purposefully recording their stories, and connecting those stories with material in the SLNSW collection, was enormously insightful. Stories ‑ some of which I have heard many times before ‑ take on new meaning when illustrated in pictures or filmed on location. Objects awaken old memories, and the elders really enjoyed connecting with some of the material in the SLNSW collection, whether a photo of family or of country they remember before it was developed. These voices often come together to speak as one but also diverge and vary, reminding us of the many Aboriginal experiences that make up Sydney and the divided relationships created by colonisation. Aunty Esme, for instance, was overwhelmed when she found a photo of her Aunty in the collection, and Aunty Sandra was saddened by how much of her country has been destroyed by the ever-expanding city.

Prioritising the elders’ voices and their responses to the archive is central to this project. Following the content developed in the interviews, Sydney Elders: Continuing Aboriginal Stories weaves in collection items that resonated with the elders, along with additional digital content and a handful of personal items. Together these objects tell the richness of their stories. This process in many ways conflicts with how collection institutions orientate themselves toward community. All too often collections drive content: objects are taken to community and community diligently provides context. Here we let the stories determine the direction and content of the exhibition. This meant that we were researching unheard stories and seeking hidden material, not reaching for the familiar context.

Unsurprisingly, elders didn’t reference SLNSW collection items that are normally seen in exhibitions on Aboriginal Sydney; they chose diverse content that means something to them. A key moment in the research occurred when I was trawling through the collection looking for pictures of the Gladesville, Tarban Creek and Roseville bridges, all of which Uncle Chicka helped construct. When I requested the material the librarian remarked that I must have filled in the wrong number on the request slip as I was curating the “Aboriginal” project and this box was just of Sydney bridges and roadways, perhaps implying that Sydney’s built environment is not an Aboriginal story. It was a sharp reminder of where people’s understanding of Sydney Aboriginal history exists, and that our stories need to direct content to ensure our proper representation. Having the elders become active agents within the archive is important, as state institutions such as those that line Macquarie Street have excluded and suppressed Aboriginal voices and knowledges.

Installation view, Sydney Elders, Continuing Aboriginal Stories, State Library of NSW. Photo: Joy Lai
Installation view, Sydney Elders, Continuing Aboriginal Stories, State Library of NSW. Photo: Joy Lai

It needs to be remembered that the majority of Aboriginal material held in the SLNSW collection was not authored by Aboriginal people. Other people have told and continue to tell our histories and stories. The authoritative historical voice for Aboriginal knowledge comes from squatters, amateur anthropologists and colonial government authorities such as the police or church, while Aboriginal voices, including those of our elders, have long been discounted and excluded. This exhibition presents an opportunity to not necessarily re-write these wrongs but to create a space in which elders can speak to us; a space where they can tell us all something about the place in which we live while also enlivening the library’s collection. The exhibition construction has been conceived to provide a platform for these stories to inhabit. In order to reflect the role of the elders, the interviews were filmed, edited and screened in portrait format on 65-inch monitors, so that in the space the elders appear life-size: they look down the lens, commanding the audience’s attention and overshadowing the collection items.

In this way, the viewer can feel as if they are taken inside the elders’ homes, sharing a cup of tea and having a yarn. Although a proxy of the elders, the digital media display plays an important role in providing the audience with a meaningful and personal experience. As we know, it takes a long time and a lot of work to change people’s minds when it comes to Aboriginal stories. As an Aboriginal educator you often feel that it takes a one-on-one personal experience to change the minds of our fellow Australians, which is impossible due to our population disparity. In this way, digital media can provide an important recourse to assist our communities in telling our stories. With an awareness of the tension between Aboriginal communities and colonial institutions such as the SLNSW, the exhibition uses multiple panel walls that congregate, lean and rest on the institution’s walls.

These multiple panel walls reflect that Aboriginal stories are sadly not the pillars of Australia’s institutions. Our narratives, much like our communities, continue to exist on the fringe, to reside in forgotten corners. This idea is reflected in the construction of the exhibition panels, which create their own space free from the architecture. The exhibition walls form a new space, a new history, one where the elders’ interviews guide us on our way, playing on the relationship of Aboriginal people and the knowledge housed and displayed within western institutions. But the exhibition walls also celebrate the alternative ways in which Aboriginal people live and engage with space, creating new places to inhabit.

The construction of this space talks to the way individuals rest on each other and generate communities and collective knowledge. The monitors displaying the elders’ interviews are embedded within these leaning walls, alongside the collection material and additional digital content, including small films and soundscapes. These small films highlight important stories and sites revealed in the elders’ interviews. Often sites were filmed over five minutes on a tripod with a fixed frame, in effect creating a moving photo. This approach mirrors how we worked with the elders – we were interviewing sites and using country to wake up historical imagery. One example includes footage and sounds of Redfern train station showing the coming and going of people via the rail network. This highly textual media supports Uncle Chicka’s interview, as he describes not only his role working on the railway but the importance of the railway to the development of the Redfern community.

Another example is the small mission church that dominated Aunty Esme’s life. This still yet moving image, with the occasional bird flying through the frame and the sound of distant waves lapping at the shores of Botany Bay, is displayed next to historical photographs of the church. When viewing this together with Aunty Esme’s interview and her shell‑worked church, audiences gain an enriched understanding of the importance of this place to the community. More than anything, Sydney Elders: Continuing Aboriginal Stories highlights how public collections need community. Although the SLNSW holds important material relating to Aboriginal people, it is missing the knowledge in our families, our communities and in our elders.

Indeed, collections like that of the SLNSW are just cold archives full of pieces of paper that need to be decolonised and reframed as not the edifices of imperial power they were founded as but as spaces to facilitate community engagements and conversations. We are enormously privileged that these elders have offered us their stories, providing a much‑needed understanding of this place we call Sydney. In doing so, they assist with the process of decolonisation. From the comfort of their homes, these four elders weave us a narrative that connects the archive to place and memories they hold dear, awakening the library’s collection for everyone to enjoy.

Uncle Chicka Madden and Jonathan Jones, 2018. Photo Joy Lai
Uncle Chicka Madden and Jonathan Jones, 2018. Photo Joy Lai


Jonathan Jones is a member of the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi peoples of south‑east Australia.

The author would like to thank and acknowledge the elders, Uncle Dennis Foley, Aunty Esme Timbery, Uncle Charles “Chicka” Madden and Aunty Sandra Lee, their families and communities for making this project possible. This text draws on the exhibition and exhibition material. Sydney Elders: Continuing Aboriginal Stories is on display at the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney. Exhibition dates: 6 October 2018 to 22 March 2020.

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