Growing up Yorta Yorta, Spaces for Community and the Story of Kaiela Arts—

Belinda Briggs in Conversation with Bryan Andy

Just to make those reading this yarn aware: you and I go back many years to when we were kids. My family lived down in Melbourne, on Boonwurrung Country, and for many a school holiday my family would load-up the car and drive up to Cummeragunja, to my Mother May’s Country—Yorta Yorta Country. We would be with my Grandparents Colin and Faye Walker, who lived next to our cousin Janelle Atkinson—or Dort as she’s known. Often, you’d be there hanging out with Dort and I remember you as our young, giggly and shy cousin. It’s been really lovely—a joy in fact—to watch you grow and get ‘married up’, have kids and watch how you’ve settled into a career in the arts. But for the benefit of those reading this, in your own words, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born and raised as a Yorta Yorta winyar in Dungala Kaiela Woka (Country), home to Yorta Yorta Peoples. This is where the foundations and core of my identity is shaped—by the experiences of growing up here amongst siblings, swathes of cousins, aunts and uncles between Shepparton, Mooroopna, Barmah, Cummeragunja, Echuca, Moama and everywhere in between. My world view begins here. I am also Wemba Wemba through my mother and both my grandmothers. Our family connections and stories are dotted up and down the Dungala between Albury to Mildura, at Balranald and Robinvale, expanding into western New South Wales around the Willandra Lakes and at Hillston. We have story in Wiradjuri Country through my mum and down on Wurundjeri Country through my dad too.

BA:  Can you tell us about what was going on in the Aboriginal community and the world around you when you were growing up?

BB:  I feel fortunate to have grown up in a time where I witnessed the power of family and community spirit that was forging our futures through the establishment of Aboriginal organisations, their locally developed programs and services. Our families and communities in Victoria and along the Victoria–New South Wales border were so well connected—even without the technology we have today. Some might even say better than today. The depth, richness and strength of those connections between everyone and those places were different to today. Those connections were culturally, socially and historically bound by a different time and didn’t have to compete with the invasive influence of the digital world. I guess what I’m saying is that, having grown up pre the digital age, my learnings outside of school was from living and observing those and that around me.

BA:  I remember having a yarn with our cousin Tiriki [Onus] a while back, and he told me how every time he’d log into a Zoom meeting that was related to Shepparton, he said, ‘Belinda’s always there on the screen’. We had a giggle, but it’s true, you’re very much part of the Shepparton community, and you’re involved with many different community organisations and groups.

BB:  Haha, so funny! I think the influence of my parents and upbringing in the community, the love of my family and community and the love I have for us, taught me a lot about who we are, where we’re from and what makes us who we are. That connection that comes with that sense of belonging is a fundamental part of my sense of wellbeing. I think those experiences I had growing up were invaluable and set strong foundations that I continue to draw on today.

BA:  Can you tell us about your community involvement? Has that been part of your journey?

BB:  I didn’t have any clue about what I would do when I finished school and, to some degree, I wasn’t fussed by that (not sure what my parents thought haha). But being part of a community means there is always work to be done. So, you just pitch in, even if it’s just for moral support, making cuppas or helping to clean up after an event. My first job was with the Koori Resource and Information Centre and I was basically just answering phones, taking messages, collecting the mail and I think just sitting in on meetings to observe. In some ways I don’t remember them as meetings as such but just my family—in the extended community way—coming together to make things happen and find ways to look after us and our needs as a community. There was always lots of cuppas, food and laughing. I’m sure it wasn’t like that exactly all the time but it’s the memory I took away from it. This way of life continues very much through Rumbalara Football Netball Club and Kaiela Arts today— especially when our Elders gather.

BA:  I wonder if you could tell us about your work with the Koorie Heritage Trust in Melbourne, because I think it forms an important part of who you are today.

BB:  It was 1999 by the time I joined the Koorie Heritage Trust (KHT). I don’t quite remember how it came about now. I think I remember having an interview with then CEO and founder Uncle Jim Berg and Gunnai/Kurnai woman, curator Kerrie Clarke (then Paton) for the role of curatorial assistant. I don’t recall really knowing or having an expectation about what I’d be doing, or awareness about the significance of the cultural load this organisation was carrying at the time.

The KHT was located in the basement of what is now the State Library and then, the Museum of Victoria. I remember the exhibition Koorie was being deinstalled. I remember the flag colours and in particular the massacre map. But I had limited comprehension about what an exhibition was outside my own experiences growing up. Exhibitions, museums, art galleries, they weren’t something I grew up with. The Shepparton Aboriginal Keeping Place—as it was known in the 1990s—was my baseline of understanding. I think I remember maybe one school trip to the Shepparton Art Gallery during my early high school years. I understood it was a place for telling stories and in particular our stories, the ones that aren’t told in the mainstream, in schools or anywhere else. I think this was true too for my comprehension of art—I understood art in the context of what I was raised with.

BA:  How did your time at the Koorie Heritage Trust shape your outlook on working with Aboriginal art, cultural artefacts and communities?

BB:  I was really proud to work at KHT. Proud of its incredible history, the legacy it carried and of what it stood for—the three Ps: preserve, promote and protect. Seeing those old creations, the personal mark making on each wooden tool or weapon, the unique fibres, forms and patterns of baskets, my mind marvelled at the significance of each of these items. I think I was overwhelmed with a sense of love, respect, and responsibility towards the intimate items whose maker perhaps was now only in this world in spirit.

Traditional, contemporary or otherwise, the sense of responsibility and care I felt was the same. Each held its own story, some known to us, many only to those of another time and place. I think the experience of being immersed in the collection—incrementally in that time between 1999 and 2000— populated a visual archive in my mind, a map too, that dually affirmed the belonging of others and mine in relation to that work, that artist, their expression and story.

BA:  I imagine your work at the Koorie Heritage Trust would have allowed you to foster a lot of connections with mob from all over the south-east of our country. Who are some of the people and communities you worked with? Who are some of the community members who’ve inspired you on that journey?

BB:  I do remember many artworks and artists whose works made an impression on me: Lin Onus, Ray Thomas, Kevin Williams, Les Griggs, Kelly Koumalatsos, Jenny Murray-Jones, Gayle Maddigan, Lyn Thorpe, Tommy McRae, Aunty Connie Hart, Aunty Edith Terrick, Aunty Dot Peters… so many more!

My memories of exhibitions are vague. I do remember one exhibition titled Yakapna—a Yorta Yorta word that translates to mean ‘family’. I remember Jenny Murray-Jones paintings and her works that illustrated the impact of colonisation and in particular Christianity through missions. Her work depicted gorgeous little girls, their faces sad, dressed in white, perhaps ready for Sunday school or church and in the background a building with a cross on it.

BA:  How did you get involved with Kaiela Arts, and why?

BB:  I initially joined as an artist member. I just wanted to be in a creative space, and have access to materials, tools and like minds to experiment and try new things. But it wasn’t long before it was suggested I could be on the board. I thought I could learn from the experience as I hadn’t been on a board until then, and that I would contribute in the best way that I could. Kaiela Arts is an embodiment of the historical, social, cultural aspects of Yorta Yorta Woka. Its name is a Yorta Yorta word meaning ‘father of waters’, that celebrates the waterway—the prosperous life it continues to sustain including all plants, creatures, ours, our belonging to it and those who make home here on Yorta Yorta Woka.

Kaiela Arts is a meeting place for our community and allows us to connect through our mutual love of creating, making and continuing what our Ancestors gave us.

‘Its name is a Yorta Yorta word meaning “father of waters”, that celebrates the waterway—the prosperous life it continues to sustain including all plants, creatures, ours, our belonging to it and those who make home here on Yorta Yorta Woka.’

BA:  Kaiela Arts now sits in the newly-built Shepparton Art Museum, but Kaiela Arts had its own space and gallery on Fryers Street. Can you tell us about the history of Kaiela Arts?

BB:  Art and creativity has always been part of our lives as a means of communication, expression, celebration of our identities and as a way to supplement income once it became apparent it could have a monetary value. But we haven’t had a dedicated place to nurture. Post moving into town off the mission and flats, opportunities to sell or exhibit artwork were limited. In the days before Gallery Kaiela, as it was formerly known, my dad remembers putting up his own money for community members to buy paints and brushes and they would exhibit at the Shepparton Show or the Goulburn Valley Hospital Fete. For a short time we had an organisation called Jemuria that delivered TAFE courses including art. I remember as a six-year-old my mum, aunts and cousins making leather bags and pressing patterns into them.

Kaiela Arts is a continuance of our community seeking to create spaces that enable us to self-determine, lead, resource and empower all aspects of our lives. Our first home was in the reception area of a local Aboriginal organisation, The Kaiela Planning Council, and after outgrowing this space, moved into a commercial rental space just around the corner on High Street where most became familiar with us. It emerges from a community space, seeking to self-determine and continue to uphold the legacy of our Elders who fought for us to have better lives.

BA:  What are some of the opportunities that exist for artists at Kaiela Arts? What mediums are used among the current artists engaged with Kaiela Arts?

BB:  Kaiela Arts is a place for connection through making and creation to each other, our Woka, the broader community and beyond. Artists enjoy weaving, woodwork, painting in watercolour or acrylic, emu egg carving and working with clay. As well as partnering with Spacecraft to create screen- printed textiles for commercial opportunities, we’ve enjoyed seeing artists have their work feature on the runway for the National Indigenous Fashion Awards and Bendigo Art Gallery’s contemporary Indigenous fashion survey exhibition Piinpi which is currently in Paris! Some artists enjoy teaching or sharing their skills through our education and public programs.

BA:  Why are spaces and places like Kaiela Arts so important?

BB:  They are important spaces to make accessible knowledge, perspectives, truths and understandings about the human and spiritual condition and experiences of Aboriginal people in this world that are so often marginalised and whitewashed. Places like Kaiela provide important information not often found in the mainstream; ideas for critical thinking and historical accounts that can give a more complete version of the way we come to be who we are today and possibly where we are going. Kaiela Arts, like so many other Aboriginal art spaces or keeping places, are a source of pride—they affirm our identities, provide a place of belonging and can be a source of inspiration in holding up legacies that we don’t often get to see on our Country.

BA:  Kaiela Arts occupies a lovely position on the ground floor of Shepparton Art Museum, overlooking a wetland-like lake that’s like a quintessential Yorta Yorta oasis. It’s a new space, almost like a new beginning. What do you think are some of the opportunities that exist for Kaiela Arts into the future?

BB:  There is the collective shared story of the people of this landscape that is definitely woven into the fabric of the cultural legacy that that our families and organisations, including Kaiela Arts, uphold. It wasn’t too long ago in 1939 our families walked off Cummeragunja and were living on the flats, using the nearby tip for its resources and as a place of refuge when the river flooded due to it being on higher ground. It’s so beautiful to me to see our Elders walking up the path to our doors, sitting at the table drinking their cuppas, sharing food, diligently painting away as they yarn and laugh. I think making sure we are enjoying what we do is important, continuing to be a place that community are proud of and place we can continue to innovate and collaborate between ourselves and with others.

‘There is the collective shared story of the people of this landscape that is definitely woven into the fabric of the cultural legacy that that our families and organisations, including Kaiela Arts, uphold.’