I called and the ocean heard—

Rebecca Ray

Rebecca Ray is a mainland Torres Strait Islander woman, connected to Mer and Mabuiag Island and is the First Nations Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (History and Sociology) from Griffith University, Queensland. Rebecca has a research background in cultural heritage, identity politics and intersectionality as well as a strong understanding of the current trends of contemporary and traditional art making happening across Australia.

Rebecca is passionate about Indigenisation and the reclamation of autonomous and sovereign spaces with an interest in global First Nations relationality and solidarity that inform curatorial and research methodologies.

Growing up, I didn’t know I was from the Torres Strait, and as an Islander who has only ever lived on the mainland, belonging has always felt different for me. This is usually due to the homogenous view of Islander identity that assumes an island lifestyle. In reality, I actually grew up understanding myself as Koorie because I was surrounded by and accepted within these larger networks of South East Aboriginal families and communities.  Yet, while I had these extended aunts, uncles and cousins that grew me up, I still felt different. This feeling of difference only became stronger the older I got. The older I became, the deeper personal pain I experienced. I didn’t know my mob, my language, my Country – I only knew I was Indigenous, just like Mum. 

My family moved from the islands onto the Australian mainland and subsequently to Western Australia in the mid-1960s, working to lay the tracks, building the railways that run throughout the Pilbara. My mother was born over on the west coast, but she didn’t have the privilege of staying with her biological and cultural family. She was separated at birth, rehomed into a white pastoral family, and sent across to the other side of the country within the New England region of New South Wales. Her sense of belonging, for the larger part of her life, was disjointed, fractured and something I inherited.  

Life was quite transitory while I was growing up, but I was born on Anaiwan Country – Armidale, New South Wales, where Mum grew up. It’s a place, like many small regional rural towns throughout Australia, that is shrouded in a violent colonial history and where racism was alive and well. While I know many of these stories already, I sit with Mum and listen while she reflects on her life, relaying her experiences living there in her youth. She tells me about how the town was suspended in such a dichotomy of worlds, existing at the same time and place but reflecting two very different sides of the moon. One moon was wealth, agriculture and whiteness, and the other was the East Armidale Aboriginal Reserve. Back then, it was coined Dark Town and was a fringe dwelling of dispossessed mob who were forced off of their ancestral homelands, off Country. The incline of the architectural landscape of Armidale only emphasised this degree of difference, otherness, and the glaring binarism of colonisation. Upper and lower. Rich and poor. White and black. Being placed into a wealthy pastoral family meant Mum was on the upper side. It also meant she was black on the white side. 

As she reflects, she tells me about how traumatising school was – she was black, everyone else white. She recounts the rawness and sting of her skin after she would scrub at it with bleach and brillo. The isolation. How she didn’t belong. How she had never seen anyone that looked like her until she met an Aboriginal boy from the miss. She was fourteen when she met him. Fourteen years is a long time to never feel connected, to not be seen or heard. I look at photographs of her with thick curly hair, with dark brown eyes, and I all I see is how beautiful she is. She describes how ugly she thought she was as little girl, as a teenager. Every time I think about her as a baby, as a teenager, as a young woman existing in this non-belonging, my heart breaks and her pain flows throughout my own being. 

I was first properly introduced to racism when I was four. I watched a white man spit on Mum because he was infuriated his child was subjected to Indigeneity within the classroom. I never went back to that school again. We kept moving around across the East Coast until finally relocating onto Yuin Country. We lived by the ocean, and this was the first time I’d experienced saltwater. But by the time I was in high school, the pain had manifested into a deep darkness where I couldn’t see a way out. I was existing in a place of unknowing, of non-belonging. My mental health deteriorated, I isolated myself, and I became so unwell from a lack of cultural identity coupled with intergenerational trauma, that several times I almost became another suicide statistic. 

I spent more and more time by the sea, holding a longing to be swept up by saltwater and tumbled around in the waves. The surf would wash over my brownness, the salt curling my hair and then drying hard on my skin. It was a place of healing and acceptance, of great power and peace. The waves would call my name, urging me to stay longer. 

It felt like it took a long time to find my way back home and I inherited that journey with the scars of trauma marked across my skin. I wholeheartedly believe that mental health problems are an extension of the colonial enterprise that continue the ongoing violence to our health and wellbeing. These violent legacies of colonialism, of cultural separation, of assimilation and isolation, continue to impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Our lives are dependent on our connections to land, water, sky and each other, with the intricacies of these interconnecting realms dictating our sense of belonging and cultural identities. Without them we are lost, sick and in pain.  

My cultural health and reconnection were forged not only through the strength of my mother, but through the strength of Aboriginal women. It was through their care that I became whole again. Community saved me by tracing the ancestral lines, guiding me home, finding my family and piecing me being back together again. The saltwater had always been calling me home, just as it was for her. Around my neck hangs a thick string of silver-grey baroque pearls, dotted with sorrow beads. Pearls from the Torres Strait, sorrow beads from Papua.  My mother made this for me and every time I wear it, I think of her, the islands, and Saltwater Country. These pearls, these beads, are an important reminder of my belonging and how everything I am, exists because of her. Mum says that sadness and grief shape us. Like oysters creating pearls, it is the gentle process of healing that makes something beautiful, but we must go through pain. The beads, that reference part of mourning processes in Papua, remind us of our journey and growth. Belonging for me is community. It is family. It is saltwater. It is the matriarchy. It is Mum. 

Looking at the artworks in this exhibition, Ngaratya, we see this circular and interlinked way of thinking again. Barkandji art is always ‘round’, ‘circular’, or ‘wavy’. No straight lines, no sharp corners, no end, no finality. Everything is interconnected, the past and the present and the future, it’s all ngaratya. The art created by the exhibition’s artists is ngaratya, it shows togetherness and interconnectedness. Whether it’s a traditional wood carving, or caste metal, a linocut print, or moulded glass, the transitions are seamless. Whether it’s a hand-coloured vision of country or a bark canoe, it’s all the same story, just using different mediums and translations. All telling that story of country, and connection to country, and connection to each other. Stories about history, and about those things that are old and young at the same time. 

This exhibition will encourage visitors to take part in their own journey of ngaratya, togetherness. It showcases the beauty and complexity of our Barkandji country and culture, for everyone to enjoy and learn about. It asks you to come in and join the circle, whether you are relations, kin, Barkandji, other First Nations groups who may be neighbours or have similar issues and aspirations, or those who are not related or connected but would like to experience the artist’s connection to country and culture, anyone who wants to be friends or colleagues and learn about Barkandji art and ways of doing and being. 

We must educate people to remember the old ways. Divisions diminish our ability to think and they diminish our power to have a say and make a difference. Divisions are a trap made by government to weaken us. The old saying conquer and divide, or more properly conquer by dividing, is the trick played on colonised people all the time. We have to keep our heads above this and practice ngaratya. Ngayi, kirra kirr-inana – welcome to our country!

Originally commissioned for ngaratya (together, us group, all in it together). 
Explore the full exhibition at ngaratya.com.au