Lipstick and Land Rights: matriarchal sovereign history and the cyber frontier

I am a Wiradjuri/Gomeroi poet and podcaster living on Gadigal Nura and often responding to the gentrification of my Redfern/Waterloo Community. I don't get to speak about my practice much and I write about it less, preferring to use my body and spoken word as presence and expression. For the past decade, I’ve signed off as Yilinhi, a word that means war in my father’s language. I did this after someone told me my poetry was like a punch in the gut, and I wanted to get better at piercing hearts and minds. I call myself a spoken word poet, but I am so much more. What I do speaks to something ancient and immeasurable in colonial ideas of time. It speaks to and harnesses our ancient sound technology.

Listeners have to sit, hear, feel, connect and reflect: not just take my Blak words from a white page, mining pearls of wisdom, language diamonds or inner city vernacular. Keeping my poetry, writing and performing off the white page has made space to record audio poems, soundscapes and world building as an assertion of audio sovereignty, while inserting myself into spaces built on the myth that we were wiped out by colonisation. And I hate hearing white people read my words, making my own work of language reclamation and decolonisation sound foreign to my own ears.

Maybe you can understand the complexities that dance around and through the intersections I represent and hold space in, so that you can understand what it means to stand here and talk about my people, our survival and resistance. About what it means when my body becomes the instrument, and my voice becomes my most efficient weaponry. A weapon I'm constantly sharpening. Because even though I have my own hesitations about the publishing world, I am always grateful for those who can help me re-evaluate the importance of access for our mob.

Coleen Shirley Perry Smith 'Mum Shirl' standing in the doorway of the first Aboriginal Legal Service in Redfern.
Photo: Elaine Pelot Syron. 

Redfern is known as the Blak Heart of this country, or the birthplace of self-determination as we know it, and for good reason. It was in this community in the 1960s and ‘70s that this country first saw Aboriginal community controlled organisations erected on the frontline of invasion. To understand the magic of this community is to stand in awe of and honour the history of our collective survival. For it is from this point that our resistance reverberated across our many nations, in every corner of our country where the colonisers attempted to plant their ‘butchers apron’, as Uncle Robert Egginton would say, there were always Aboriginal people telling them to fuck off! Contrary to the fabricated narrative that exists, none of our people welcomed the invaders and none of us gave up our connection to our lands or our sovereignty. They did say quite bluntly ‘fuck around and find out’ how efficient our weaponry is.

It is from this point, the closest high ground to the south of the landing site where the white ghosts first stepped upon our lands, that our people have gathered and strategized since 1788. As our resistance to colonisation reverberated across this country so did our survival guides and self-determining governance structures by way of the establishment of the first Aboriginal Medical Services, Aboriginal Legal Services, Aboriginal Housing initiatives, Aboriginal Land Councils, Aboriginal early educational centres and National Blak Theatre and Blak Arts.

The Blak Arts industry that exists today was birthed from National Black Theatre in Redfern, but many have forgotten that renaissance. Many have forgotten my Uncle Paul Coe’s words and have watered down the political messages embedded within the first iterations of black theatre: he always said ‘Black Arts is just as much about Land Rights as it is about self-expression and representation’.

Lillian Crombie and dancers at National Black Theatre workshop in Redfern. Photo courtesy of the Redfern/Waterloo Community Archive.

Gary Foley has also spoken about how efficient the arts were for spreading the message of black power and Land Rights. He said they had reached more people through theatre and performance than they ever did on the ground marching, and as a young poet learning about developing and facilitating educational programs at university, I realised how true these statements were, how revolutionary this act of embodying a narrative of resistance is, and how efficient it became as an educational tool for me, but also how ancient that act of embodiment is.

Gentrification has provided the ultimate solution to ‘the Aboriginal problem’ in Sydney. In the 1960s the Aboriginal and Zenadth Kes (colonially known as Torres Strait Islander peoples) population was close to 40, 000 in Redfern, Waterloo and surrounding areas. In the 2016 census, only 300 Aboriginal people lived in the area; more than half of that population contracted COVID-19 during the last lockdown, the majority of them children.

In 2020 I started the 300 Bloodlines project with the help of a small grant from Sydney City Council, supported by Radio Skid Row 88.9FM for preliminary research into how to best document the remaining family oral histories during the pandemic. I used this name because it was literally about the remaining 300 Aboriginal people and their families/bloodlines: this was the logical addition to the Redfern/Waterloo community archive, the real life culmination of the work I did with Joel Sherwood Spring on the Survival Guide Podcast at Skid Row.

The podcast initiated the process of documenting the insidious nature of gentrification in our community and exposing the colonial toolkit that is currently being deployed and reworked wherever the colony mutates. It unearthed tools, utilised and popularised by the previous generations of revolutionary Blak thinkers, orators, fighters and mobilisers who just happen to be my parents, Aunties and Uncles and other well-loved local radical thinkers. I’ve been privileged to learn from them and the archive exists to speak back to the industrial complex that has appropriated our old peoples' struggles, their achievements, their images and their voices. It has been to reinstate our autonomy as a community and as a collective of diverse black peoples all existing in a historically significant space right on the doorstep of Sydney's CBD.

We don't need more white academics recording and benefiting from a struggle they have no place in, although we do need to make sure resources to do this work are accessible for our communities. My biggest challenge is not having physical space to do so, and figuring out how to continue this work, currently from a nook under my stairs. Carving out spaces online seems to be the safest and most practical option today.

Not only is this project forming and enacting an Indigenous data sovereignty practice and process in an urban landscape, it is reclaiming our visual sovereignty, giving voice to the organisers and the generation of great Blak thinkers and orators before us. A lot of iconic images from the marches and protests of the 1970s were taken by white women, some of them lived in the community. Others had a more extractive relationship with our struggle. Whereas the images in the Redfern/Waterloo archive were taken by the very people in the land rights movement and community members documenting our incredible narratives and experiences that have changed history for us all.

Barbara McGrady talks about her images of the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy as Lorna and Jenny Munro watch on, 2016.
Photo: Jarek Gasiorek. 

The images in the archive were extremely intimate and raw and started a conversation about access and Blackfulla photographers. Aunty Barbara McGrady told me she was given a camera by affluent white friends and wondered what would have happened if she hadn't met those well meaning friends. It piqued my curiosity even further, Aunty Barbara has worked tirelessly challenging the colonial gaze, staring down the barrel through her camera lens and ultimately deciding how our people are seen. My family archive was especially valuable due to that access, as my Dad and Uncles were obsessed with photography and had access to cameras ultimately documenting a very important time of our collective Blak consciousness. This archive was a love letter to my community, namely the women who held these archives: my Mum Jenny Munro and Aunty Phyllis Simpson. I and realised how much of our Blak movement for justice has forgotten the matriarchy that held it together through very precarious times.

Today we have the world at our fingertips in the physical form of our mobile phones but more importantly the world gets to look into our lives and experiences through that same lens, making these online spaces invaluable to independent artists, and community mobilisers—especially those who exist on the fringes of society. It is in these spaces we have access to self-publishing, documentation and self-promotion. When our future ancestors and matriarchs exist online, they become a visual embodiment and manifestation of our sovereignty, ancestors and country and that representation today is very diverse and intersectional. The conversations held in communities all over the world are being initiated by young people, informed by elders and practices and are influenced by the visibility we see online. It has also become a space where discussions about solidarity are happening in real time and where global connections are made across colonised lands. It is the new frontier and we are all staking our claim to cyber sovereignty within that frontier.

Lipstick and Land Rights is the name of a series of talks I started this year and speaks to the recentering of matriarchal voices within the Land Rights movement in so called Australia and the new cyber frontier online. It is an assertion of sovereignty, a reclamation of space for the most talked over demographic or our communities, the forgotten warriors of our resistance to be honored, our women and femmes.

Jenny Munro addresses crowd gathered in front of a bonfire at the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the Block after an SOS Save BLAK AUSTRALIA rally for communities in Western Australia under threat of closure in 2014. Photo: Lorna Munro

Not much is known of the women of the Land Rights movement. Scarce records exist of our resisting invasion due to those records being written by white male colonialists. I realised this during my work with the community archive, the work we did there really disrupted the existing ideas about this time in our histories. Matriarchy has never forgotten the matriarchs who held the frontline while simultaneously rebirthing our collective Blak consciousness. It is this legacy that projects a beacon of hope into our future survival and illuminates who is taking us into that future.

It is the siren effect utilised by all great women in history, as seen in 1788 at Manly (in what is now known as Sydney) just a few days after the first fleet landed. Manly was named by the colonisers noting how ‘manly’ Aboriginal men were, namely: Arabanoo and Bennelong. This was the place they were abducted from. Before that it was known as Eve’s Bay. On the 29th of January the colonisers begged to be taken to see ‘naked beauties’ as they had seen women from a distance, but the first known recording of interactions can be read today as a very successful ambush, led by Kamaraegal women and girls, on that same spot Governor Phillip was later speared.

The point I’m trying to convey in all my work is that women have always been visible on the frontline of our resistance, from 1788 until now. Today they can be found online shaking boonti, sharing decolonial survival tools and war stories and sharpening their weapons while preparing to go out into a world that celebrates their genocide. Black women and femmes existing online, dancing or doing makeup are seen as a threat to people’s existence on stolen land: so why not utilise this as well? After all, makeup is warpaint.

I dedicate my poem to the women of the revolution from the past whose shoulders we stand on:

Agnes Coe, Anita Scott, Jenny Munro, Isobel Coe, Shirley Smith Perry, Essie Coffee, Maureen Watson, Moodie Merritt, Muggo Ingram, Alma Thorpe, Pearl Gibbs, Marj Tucker Monica Morgan Glenda and Marg Thorpe, Kath Walker, Lin Craigie Thompson, Alana Doolan, Cilla Pryor, Irene Watson, Alice Woods and those who will take us into the future and beyond.

 

Lorna Munro, or 'Yilinhi' is a Wiradjuri Gomeroi woman and a multidisciplinary artist, poet and podcaster. Her poem Lipstick and Landrights: a poetic response was published in Artlink Indigenous_Visualising Sovereignty, December 2020.