Life through a Noongar lens: photographs that tell the story


In 2015, Noongar’s wife, Dallas Phillips, walked into a Community Arts Network (CAN) Bush Babies photo-sharing workshop in Goomalling, WA, holding a box of Pascall’s chocolate full of hundreds of negatives.

Co-curator Michelle White explains that the photos were taken by Dallas’ late mother Mavis Phillips (née Walley) between the 1930s and 1970s, capturing everyday life in the Wheatbelt, from Noongar’s perspective.

Dallas transported the photographs throughout Western Australia for twenty years. She was unaware that she was carrying a rare collection of photographs, taken by one of Australia’s first Aboriginal photographers.

Today, this incredible archive forms the basis of an exhibition, The Mavis Phillips, n̩e Walley, Collection, currently on display at the Perth Center for Photography (May 15 РJuly 31), with a satellite exhibition alongside The Nook at the State Library of WA (May 21 РJuly 25).

Dr Lucy Van recently spoke with Dallas Phillips, who co-hosted the exhibits, to discuss their alternate narrative – one through a Noongar lens. This is an excerpt from their conversation.

“We weren’t natives like they thought,” says Dallas Phillips, who tells me about the collection of photographs of his mother, Mavis Phillips née Walley. “Of course, we were from the country,” she continues. But we were modern, that’s the implication.

She tells me how beautifully her mother dressed, how she dressed whenever they went to town. Dallas draws my attention to the meticulous way she and her siblings are dressed in the photo in the middle of the dandelion.

Mavis Phillips. vs. 1962 at the ‘ole farm’ Goomal Boodja Goomalling. NR 0005117, The Mavis Phillips, née Walley, Collection. Image courtesy of the artist.

To look at this image is to open your eyes to a world rich in spontaneity and innocence. The beauty of the children, the flourishing dandelion, the confident framing of the moment are unmistakable. What else does Dallas see in this photo?

“It shows how much mom took care of us and looked after us; how well we have been protected and loved… It is also a tribute to our father, ”continues Dallas, noting that his parents made a strong team.

They had to be to survive the humiliations and hardships they faced as the mother and father of a young Ballardong Noongar family whose lives were legally governed by the protectionist and assimilationist policies in Western Australia during the 20th century. .

“Mom and Dad had to get permission to get married from Neville-the-Devil [A.O. Neville, the notorious so-called Chief Protector of Aborigines]’Dallas tells me.

However, among the many outrages on cultural dignity and autonomy brought on by the government, according to Dallas, the worst for the family began shortly after Neville’s era with the implementation of the Native Welfare Act ( 1954), which led to the family being forcibly moved from the Smith Farm in Goomalling to the Goomalling Reservation.

“That’s when we fell,” says Dallas, explaining how the family went from a sustainable, independent life on the farm where “everyone worked as a team” and “nothing was wasted. “, to a life in conditions of overcrowding and deprivation. with other native families on the reserve.

“It was basically apartheid. “

– Dallas Phillips.

Here, the family was made dependent on rations and put under curfew, unable to leave and enter the main part of town without written permission.

Along with the nocturnal visit of the Wajela men in the reserve, came grog, violence and sexual exploitation. And finally came the biggest trauma: moving children to New Norcia, ostensibly to get an education, but in reality, to do unpaid household chores and, more tragically, to be at high risk of sexual abuse. on children.

In 2017, Dallas courageously testified before the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, an important step in its healing journey. In its final report, the commission found that one in five Benedictine priests from 1950 to 2010 allegedly abused children (three times the average for Catholic institutions in Australia).

The story goes far beyond ordinary hardships in the land of forced displacement, social exclusion, systemic abuse, family and cultural fragmentation, and intergenerational trauma.

Yet with the photographs taken by Mavis Phillips, this story also enters the territory of hope, beauty and strength, reminding us that the people of Noongar like the Phillips family not only survived, but found means to thrive even under the most serious existential threats.

The endurance of the box containing Mavis’ negatives – worn by her daughter for over 40 years until she brought them to the attention of CAN in 2015 – testifies to this.

That over 300 of the original negatives (that number exceeds 1000) could be restored as we see them today [in this exhibition] seems a thing of total joy. As Dallas says, “What she captured is just gold.”

Mavis Phillips (portrait). NR 0005338, The Mavis Phillips, née Walley, Collection. Image courtesy of the artist.

With the earliest photos dating from the late 1930s and the last ones from the 1970s, this collection of images shows something that is rarely seen in historical records: Noongar’s life as lived and valued from the point of view of view of Noongar.

Since the discovery of photography and the founding of the Swan River Settlement – they happen to be almost contemporary – photography of Indigenous peoples has been used by government officials, missionaries, ethnographers and anthropologists as a dehumanizing instrument of knowledge and control.

“I’ve seen a lot of photos of Noongar that look nothing like my mom’s,” says Dallas, emphasizing how his mom’s photos appear unstaged and vivid in contrast.

While missionary photographers forced their subjects to sit still and smile, to remove frilly dresses once the camera was put away, ‘[Mavis] captured us as we were.

The Mavis Phillips née Walley Collection makes historical records with sweeping evidence of happy, connected lives. At the same time, the collection is a testament to the specific joy that Mavis found in photography.

This awe-inspiring woman, an ingenious mother raising eleven children in the Wheat Belt, happens to be one of the earliest known indigenous photographers in Australia.

Known for constantly ‘clicking’, she seems to have found in photography a joy for visual composition and experimentation, a modern pleasure to watch, and a love for viewing beloved subjects – family, nature and home. – as they were for her. : just gold.

Placing this important archive of images in the public domain means they will never be buried again.

The Mavis Phillips (née Walley) collection is on display at the Perth Center for Photography (King Street Art Center) until July 31, and The Nook, State Library of Western Australia from May 21 to July 25.

This article is an edited excerpt from an essay catalog.


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