Matriarchs are the backbone of Aboriginal communities, artist and Ambēyaŋ / Gumbaynggirr woman Gabi Briggs believes.
Her photo exhibition Surviving New England: Our Koori Matriarchs, Part One celebrates eleven remarkable local Indigenous women, including her grandmother.
“Matriarchs are unsung heroes,” Ms Briggs said. “I felt a responsibility to make them visible, and respect them.”
The exhibition opens on Wednesday at 6.30pm in the Armidale Aboriginal Community Garden, as part of the Grounding Story Conference at UNE this week.
All are welcome; there will be a free BBQ, tea and coffee, and speeches and performances.
The photos will be on display until Sunday, every day from 9 to 2pm.
“New England was built on the dispossession of the region’s Aboriginal people,” Ms Briggs said – “but matriarchs fought for the power to know who you are, whose country you’re on, and that some things happening in the world aren’t right.
“Some matriarchs had to make a lot of noise for our voices to be heard, whilst others were quiet, and fought the good fight by raising strong families in the face of adversity.”
The photo portraits include Dianne Roberts OAM, founder of Minimbah school; the late Ma Strong, the region’s longest-living matriarch, who died recently at 94; and Ms Briggs’ own grandmother, Pat Cohen.
“My nan was stolen, and she survived that,” Ms Briggs said. “Not only did she survive that, but she reclaimed her own history, our history, and has given that to us, the community.”
Mrs Cohen was nine when she discovered she was Aboriginal. She was taken from her mother in 1941, at the age of four. The traumatised child passed through foster homes and institutions, before she was sent to live with her grandparents at Inglebah, near Walcha.
Decades later, she wrote about her experiences, and the history of the region’s clans in Ingelba and the Five Black Matriarchs (1990).
Mrs Cohen said she was honoured to have her photo in her granddaughter’s exhibition.
"There’s a lot of history that both the Aboriginal and the wider community needs to understand,” Ms Briggs said – like the Community Garden itself.
The garden is built on the site of the old East Armidale Aboriginal Reserve, later Narwan Village.
It has, Ms Briggs said, a history of trauma and racism.
More than 100 local Aboriginal people lived on top of the rubbish dump, without sewerage, water, or electricity, children dying of gastroenteritis.
The Aboriginal Welfare Board declared the site a reserve, and erected cramped, inadequate, “transitional” housing – because they considered the Aboriginals not ready to live in town. Indigenous historians call it a “paternalistic prison”, where the Board could remove children from their families.
Today, the garden is an activist platform for Aboriginal reclamation and cultural revival.
Surviving New England is the start of a continuing project; Ms Briggs hopes to continue photographing matriarchs of today and the past.
“It’s a project I want to be doing for ever,” she said. “I want there to be documentation of our women by us, in a respectful way.”