WORDS: Stacey Davidson | IMAGES: Leah Ladson
It’s difficult to comprehend how the Stolen Generation shattered families, how the shards of fear, shame and pain transcended into future generations.
For Yorta Yorta women Annie and her mum Lorraine Brigdale, who now live on Dja Dja Wurrung country, the journey to understanding and accepting their Aboriginal culture has been a mosaic of ups and downs. But their journey is important – it’s healing them and it’s teaching others.
After starting out on a path to being the fourth generation to mask their Aboriginal heritage, Annie and Lorraine only found the courage about 10 years ago to identify as Aboriginal. Now, they are determined to contribute to change and understanding by telling their stories through art and education programs.
The estrangement from culture began when Annie’s great-grandmother was forced to leave her home at the Cummerangunja mission in New South Wales to live in Victoria. When she left, she not only left her family, but she cut ties with her culture and who she was.
“When she got married, she had to disassociate herself from all Aboriginal people and not admit she was Aboriginal; we think she might have signed a certificate of exemption,” says Lorraine.
This certificate would have allowed her access to the benefits Australian citizens enjoyed, such as education, health, housing and employment.
“She never had anything to do with her family after that. So, the thing of not identifying as Aboriginal goes back to our grandmother.”
This denial was carried through to Lorraine’s mum.
“When I was born, children were still being taken, the Stolen Generation was still alive. Mum used to dress us up and we always had to be well presented; in the back of her mind would have been thinking ‘what if this happens’ and she lived as a white person,” says Lorraine.
After living years of her own life as a non-Aboriginal person, Annie made the courageous decision to openly identify as Aboriginal, and once she acknowledged who she was, it opened a floodgate. Not only did this see Annie and her mum connect with lost family, but it’s translated into their art and an instinctual understanding of their culture.
“There were all these layers of years of fear and shame and not being allowed to have that contact,” says Annie.
“All of a sudden your life changes when you allow it in.
“There’s this pull of needing to spend time on country and share this beautiful culture and this history, but my message is these journeys like mine are really personal and every person has a different journey.
“There’s not one type of Aboriginal person, we are all different people who have different sides to our journey and they can be emotional, hard and confronting.
“You are also allowing judgement to come in, but you are living a whole life and as a mother I want to pass this onto my children, I didn’t want this culture to stop with me and mum, I want to pass it on because it almost stopped with our family.”
Lorraine described the decision to open herself to her culture as never being a choice, but something that was driven from within.
“At all the stages in my life I felt like I didn’t belong. When I made the move to Bendigo and that meant lots more contact with country and Aboriginal people, that has made a big difference to my confidence and ability to be who I wanted to be. Now I feel like there is a hole that has been filled,” says Lorraine
Both women connect strongly to their culture through art and as their journey has developed, it has been the platform to learn, share and create conversations about Aboriginal culture – not only for themselves but for the wider Australian community.
While their creativity has been fluid over the years, Annie’s art practise has settled into painting, while Lorraine’s creativity spans weaving, pottery and making natural paints and ink from ochre, minerals and botanicals.
“It’s not odd for an Aboriginal artist to have lots of different things they do – weaving, carving and painting – and I feel my connection in my art practise,” says Annie.
“I could see mum have a pull to ochre and I believe that’s a connection to culture, that you receive information when you are meant to receive it, when you are ready for it.
“It’s almost like you are sent messages when you need them. If you spend time on Country, Country will give you the information you need.”
Lorraine agreed: “Art for me has always been a meditation and I see that in Annie and the way she works as well. I know the ancestors give me direction in terms of my art, so my art practise has gone in different directions, and I have a lot of ancestors, they all want to have their say”.
Annie and Lorraine have started conversations on their culture through their art and working with children in schools and workshops, and they want the conversations to continue.
“We can have meaningful change in this generation if we have children really involved and immersed in it,” says Annie.
Lorraine adds, “Talking to people about it, whether it be through our school programs, or when we have an exhibition, every time we do it, it’s like all these grains of sand, and if you have millions of grains of sand, you have a sandhill and that’s a sandhill of knowledge.
“That starts to bring us towards a place in Australia where people go, ‘I start to understand’.”
Annie and Lorraine Brigdale are creative Yorta Yorta women using art therapy to reconnect with Country.