18 Elders and elders-in-waiting reflect on their lives, growing up and living on Nanima Mission in Wellington, inland New South Wales – the oldest continually run mission in all of Australia. This is an extraordinary, important and powerful historical document – 18 personal stories are told and their oral histories recorded. We can all learn from this compelling and committed project. It is time to listen.
SURVIVORS records stories from Wellington’s elders – and elders in waiting – about their lives growing up at Nanima Mission, the Common and on the outskirts of town, such as Bushrangers Creek and the Bell River Flats. In 1832, the first inland Aboriginal mission was established in Wellington by a Rev.Watson. In 1910 it became known as the Nanima Mission.
This mission became the longest continually operating Aboriginal reserve in Australia. The elders of Wellington shared with the artist some of their most intimate memories: tales of their families, of love, of regret, of hope and hardship.
The SURVIVORS Project grew out of a sense of the artist wanting to document the life of the traditional owners, the Binjang people of the Wiradjuri nation and record their histories to share, before they were forever lost and left unheard.
The SURVIVORS Project acknowledges the past, the present and the future of a resilient and proud ancient people, retaining knowledge and the stories for future generations.
Milgate says: Being a local non Indigenous person and being granted the permission and acceptance to work so closely with the community to produce a work of this kind, I believe is the start of reconciliation in our community. A grass roots development that I hope will bring together our whole community by creating understanding, respect and acceptance.
Asher Milgate (b.1982) was born and raised in Wellington. Growing up his parents were teachers at the local school – his mother still working there part-time. Milgate left the town to study at University and like many young people he then moved to Sydney – living now in Coogee. Milgate has always loved returning to his childhood town, feeling a strong sense of connection and emotion whenever he visits. This rich landscape is in his blood – the familiarity of the people, the contours of country, the smells, the light – the very air and space that contains it.
And so he wondered, if he felt like this at 30 years of age, what must it feel like for the traditional owners?
Milgate says, this project has humbled me a lot. I am a white Australian and I grew up amongst these people and in this place. I couldn’t see things clearly as a child, but now as an adult I have more perspective. I went to school and played football with many of the grandsons and sons of the people I interviewed. They were my friends. This gave me some confidence to contact the people I interviewed for this project. I wanted to record and share their stories.
About the gallery presentation
SURVIVORS uses photography, audio and video to tell the stories.
Large format B&W Giclee photographic prints (100mm x 667mm) displayed as an exhibition of prints, with sets of head phones underneath each portrait.
Each audio clip will run for approximately 3 mins.
The audio pays respect to the oral tradition of passing on knowledge.
Printed by Warren Macris for High Res Digital – Australia’s most recognised Photographic Fine Art Printing experts.
About the Photographer Asher Milgate
In 2007 Milgate moved to Sydney to pursue an abstract photographic career. He soon found representation and by 2008 was taken in by Sara Roney Gallery in Paddington. During his time with the gallery, he explored, developed and processed who he was and what he wanted as a photographer.
A chance meeting in 2009 with Curator and Photographer, Sandy Edwards, helped Milgate find his way home, so to speak, to the town he grew up in, Wellington, NSW, with this project in mind.
Asher Milgate tells his own story
The further away I travel, the more I crave her landscapes, her familiar smells, the people, the old haunts. I feel it in my bones; in my blood.
Wellington, in the central west of NSW, isn’t just my home, it’s part of me.
The older I get, the more deeply I connect with the people and the land. It’s joy with an element of pain; like the memories of a loved one. Wellington has left its mark on my soul – and there’s no turning back.
It occurred to me that if my home town, in thirty years, can make me, Asher Milgate, feel this way, what must it be like for the traditional owners, the First Australians who are connected through the generations?
What must they feel? What must it be like for them?
That’s what I set out to discover. Over the years, I’ve developed strong links to the town’s Aboriginal community. A common love of the land and a deep mutual respect place me in a unique position of great privilege; to hear firsthand the stories that helped define this small part of our country.
It is both a great honour and a solemn responsibility. I have embarked on a work of art that will immortalise the Wellington of times gone by; one which I believe will carry great overarching significance for the town. Moreover, it’s a work that I believe – by reflecting the town’s rich history – will engender a greater sense of self among its Aboriginal population.
The Survivors project fuses artistic and didactic purpose into one cohesive whole. It is a multifaceted approach to storytelling that quite literally gives elders a ‘voice’ while personifying the intangibles of their experience; their joys and their struggles.
I’ll tell you how. In timeless Aboriginal tradition, I’ve devoted countless hours to ‘yarning’ with elders – and elders in waiting – about life at the Nanima Mission, the Common and the camps on the outskirts of town. They have shared with me some of their most intimate memories; tales of their families, their great loves, their regrets and hardships.
The Survivors project pairs a recording of these stirring recollections with a photographic portrait of the recording’s protagonist.
While chilling, uplifting and evocative, in my opinion, the spoken word is encumbered by limitations. Through my portraiture, I seek to uncover the parts of the story left untold. The parts, for which, there are often no words.
Each medium will breathe life into the other, lending texture, context and depth of field. When they hear the recording, the viewer can explain the twinkle in the subject’s eyes, the furrow in his or her brow, or the wonder in their smile.
Survivors will help retain Indigenous oral history, challenging misconceptions about Aboriginal people. My work seeks to preserve the beliefs of these great people, their legends and traditions. A catalyst for healing; a reminder of who we are; of who we were, so we can see more completely where we want to be.
Asher Milgate, 2015
Extracts from the recordings
Aunty Joyce Williams. Born 24 November 1926
A lot of people. Aboriginal. Years ago, they lived on the rivers, on the Bell River where all the market gardens were. They used to come out to the mission in trucks and people would just hop on the trucks and come in.
One good thing about that, was that it never cost nothing for vegetables. For years, you could take whatever you wanted. I always said that they were part of our survival. Especially the Chinese…they were nice.
If you needed money for something, you could get it off them and pay them back when you was working in their gardens and they were good. And I reckon they were apart of our survival! I enjoyed life all my life. We were living not on the mission, but off the mission out on the Common.
My father and my mother, brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews, grandfathers, grandmothers…Everyone was happy!
Joyce remembers living on Nanima with her mother and Grandparents. She was born on the mission itself, her Granny May delivered her. Joyce was married in Sydney where Bangara Dance Company is situated in Redfern. Joyce attributes the survival of Aboriginal people in Wellington largely on the opportunity to work for the Chinese Market Gardens on the Bell River.
Extracts from the recordings
Billy Lou Carr. Born 17 October 1919
Lots of people were nice and kind too. We used to go to dances every night. Old bloke Patty Ryan out here, played the concertina and an old broken violin. Bloody good music! Then a bloke came from Cowra, Kenny Grace, old dark fulla. Ooh could play the piano ‘cordion…and his son Harry Grace on the gumleaf and the violin.
I think of them days I wish everything could start all over again. But that has been, come and gone. And won’t return. It’s like buying a ticket on the train. When you lose it, you can’t go on the train and get a new one. But you bought the ticket and you dropped it. That’s the way life is…
Billy Lou Carr was a gun shearer and so was his father. Billy was born at the old hospital. He lived on the Common. He was also known as the best dressed blackfulla in Wellington.
Extracts from the recordings
Aunty Violet Carr. Born 18 September 1933
I was born here in Wellington out at the town Common, on the Macquarie River. My other sister, Claudia too. We were all born out there. The old midwives they delivered us, old Granny May and old Aunty Julia Stewart, Aunty Vieira May. She was a midwife too.
My Dad built a house out of kerosene tins right just outside of Nanima, past the pepper trees, across the creek on the Macquarie River and that was were we were all born…
Claudia and I along with the Gloria and Billy Bower, the Forrest kids, Joyce, Nolean and Pauline were the first from Nanima to come into town to go to school, we used to catch the dredge bus with the workmen. Claudia went to primary and I went to the high school.
Violet Carr was the first Aboriginal person to be employed on the Victorian Tramways. Violet remembers when Nanima School first entered the Small School’s Carnival in Wellington, the teacher bought the material and the old ladies sewed the uniforms. Nanima won the Cup. In Violet’s family there are 5 generations of shearers.
Extracts from the recordings
Neville Brown. Born 07 June 1951
Well, I reckon more than a stolen generation. I don’t believe the words ‘a stolen generation’. I reckon a stolen culture is a better word, because when they came we couldn’t do nothing, we couldn’t speak our own language, dance, practice ceremony or eat traditionally.
The kids they’d take were mainly the fair ones, who belong to the white man. I get pissed off with it. What is a stolen generation? Who is a stolen generation? A lot of people think, because they take you out of your community and put you somewhere else, that’s stolen generation. I don’t believe that. I believe they stole our culture, then stole our kids.
Neville has been involved in Aboriginal Affairs for over 40 years. He stands up for the rights of those less fortunate then himself. His stepfather Toby Piper taught him how to survive. Instilling a hard work ethic and skills such as slaughtering sheep, picking beans in the market gardens and tax returns at age 8. Neville was Dux of his School two years in a row.