Recently I was invited to present a provocation at a Next Wave Collective special Breakfast Club meeting alongside Catherine Deveney and Ben Eltham. Next Wave Festival is a small organisation that produces massive awesomeness. I'm an alumni, having participated in the 2008 and 2010 festivals. When I was invited to speak, I jumped at the opportunity as I believe the festival deserves support. It's an amazing launching pad for emerging artists. My first exhibition with them was kind of controversial - my Not Really Aboriginal series.
Well, they supported me fully and as an artist taking risks, I truly appreciated it.
So I've posted my provocation for you all to enjoy.
An Aussie Fair Go: arts and the pursuit of opportunity in contemporary Australia. Does the rhetoric of our national identity match the reality when it comes to pay equity, reconciliation and refugees? What role can the arts play in empowering social mobility?
I just love being an Australian. Australians respect women, democracy, a wide range of diverse cultures such as English and American and our mates. We love to give each other a fair go. We’re a truly tolerant society and if you don’t get that, well, you can get back on the boat and go home! We will give you a fair go, unless we don’t like you, are afraid of you, it’s politically useful not to or it sensationalizes and sells newspapers.
So what is an Aussie Fair Go? It’s giving everyone an equal opportunity to a good life. It’s supporting the underdog, the one who’s not supposed to succeed because of their circumstances. And it’s seeing that good and honest hard work is rewarded.
I had a rough childhood. My mum was highly intelligent, beautiful and loving. She was also a heroin addict and prostitute. I don’t have to tell you what a little girl sees and goes through when she’s immersed in a life like that. By the time she died, when I was sixteen, I was well into drugs and crime, which was normal to me as that was what I had been around for most of my life. Fast-forward eight years and I was out of control, overdosing and on the brink of death.
It was then that I was sentenced to four years in prison for supplying drugs. I served two years and was released. This was a major turning point in my life. It was the opportunity I had needed for so long to clear my head of all the mess and dysfunction, to get access to emotional support, therapy and rehabilitation and work out what was important to me. I worked hard to become sane and free from addictions. I asked myself all the hard questions. I also developed a deep faith in God. I dreamt of a future for myself for the first time in many years. I had a clear head and a new hope that I could have some sort of successful life. Within a year of being released, I was studying at Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE doing a Diploma of Applied Photography and working part time. Soon after graduating, I began having small exhibitions of my photographs exploring personal identity issues. Next Wave was key to me moving forward as an artist through the opportunities they gave me. I was seeking a process of catharsis, trying to reconcile my own identity and hoping to create discourse around those issues. For the first time in my life, I had a voice. Art gave me a voice.
I thought I was having an Aussie Fair Go. Turns out that according to a certain Herald Sun columnist, that I was being opportunistic, calculating and manipulating. That I had constructed my identity to benefit me politically and career wise. That my fair go wasn’t actually a fair go, but stemming from a sense of my own entitlement. Having worked so hard to change my character, shift the circumstances of my life and lift myself out of a life of poverty and hardship, I was crushed.
So I joined together with others he attacked in the same way and we took him and his newspaper to the Federal Court. And after two long years of fighting, WE KICKED HIS BUTT. He lost and what was interesting to me about the case, was that in Federal Court, despite the life that I’d lived, my character was proven true while his was called into question.
Do we only accept someone striving to make a success of themselves when they do it within the parameters that we set for them? Maybe, once upon a time, we got behind people. But it seems that we are now more interested in tearing people down, finding anything at all to destroy their character so that we can determine that they are in fact, a bad and terrible person. What if we just celebrated people in all their glorious difference of opinion and understanding?
My Dad called while I was in the middle of writing the response to the topic, so I thought, I’ll read the question out to him and see what he says.
“All the ones that don’t pay equal pay, have no idea about reconciliation and don’t respect women for the work they do, well, if they keep doing it, they can get a slap over the head with a wet fish.”
Dad has got a great way of looking at things.
But enough of that. I kept making art and using it to have a voice and slowly, my life began to turn around. I never went back to the way I was before I went to prison. Faith in Jesus and art are the two main reasons. Art has been a form of therapy for me and a way up and out of the life I had known. Art was a platform from which I could launch off. It’s given me a whole new life. One where I am a person whose opinion is valid, heard, wanted and important. It channeled my energy in a healthy way and gave me confidence. Before I went to prison, I never looked anyone in the eye. My self worth was so low and I was completely filled with shame. Now, I stand before you, head held high with no shame, even though you know all about me.
So do the almost 30,000 men and women in prison across Australia deserve an Aussie fair go when they get out? I think they do. Even when someone has made a real mess of their lives, hurt people and stuffed things up, they still deserve it. Doesn’t that make them the underdog? The one who looks like there is no pathway to success. Art is a way and means out of dysfunction, low self worth, isolation and poverty. It’s an opportunity for everyone and anyone to have a voice, to be heard. Even someone like me: an ex-con, Jesus loving, clean and sober, white Aborigine.