by Jonathan Jones
Sydney Elders is an exhibition of interviews, objects and artworks created in collaboration with Uncle Chicka Madden, Aunty Esme Timbery, Aunty Sandra Lee and Uncle Dennis Foley. It tells the stories of four traditional owners of the region we know today as Sydney. This project was developed for the State Library of New South Wales as part their redevelopment and the 2018 launch of their new galleries, and has emerged as an appropriate way of telling Sydney’s Aboriginal story within the State Library. Each Sydney Aboriginal family has dealt with colonisation in their own way, they have their own stories of resistance and methods of survival. These stories form a beautifully complex web that knits Sydney’s landscapes together. In order to tell these stories with authority and to create a layered portrait of the city, we have turned to four traditional owners and elders who guide us through their histories.
Uncle Dennis is a Gai-mariagal man from northern Sydney. He spent much of his early life growing up on his grandmother’s country on the Northern Beaches and has since worked in education. A descendant of Maria Locke, Aunty Sandra is a Dharug elder from Blacktown, where she is an active member of the Western Sydney Aboriginal community. Uncle Chicka is from Gadigal country and a recognised member of the Redfern and inner-city community. He has worked most of his life in the construction industry and has been involved in many Aboriginal organisations. Aunty Esme is a celebrated Bidjigal and Dharawal artist and elder from the Aboriginal mission community of La Perouse on the shores of Botany Bay. Aunty Esme is a renowned shell-work artist whose artworks have been widely collected. Each elder represents the different nations, clans and groups that have survived in Sydney.
The process of working with the elders has centred on conducting long interviews that chart their family’s histories, their own personal stories and their connections to Sydney. We did the initial interviews at their homes, on their country. We then dove deep into the State Library’s collection, searching high and low for any material that connected with the elders and the stories they shared. After pulling together as much related material as we could find, the elders visited the Library and we again interviewed each as they looked through the material. They provided much-needed knowledge about objects in the collection. In this way the exhibition brings into view the Aboriginal knowledges, histories and voices that are locked away in collections.
Sydney Elders has been designed around the interviews we filmed with Uncle Chicka, Aunty Esme, Aunty Sandra and Uncle Dennis in their homes and on their country. Prioritising their voices and presence is the real focus of this project. In the exhibition space their interviews are screened in portrait format so that they appear life-sized; the viewer can feel as if they are taken inside the elders’ homes, sharing a cup of tea and having a yarn.
Sydney Elders: Continuing Aboriginal Storiesis on display at the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, over Saturday 6 October 2018 – Sunday 13 October 2019. Admission is free.