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27 November 2008

Julie Tucker

JULIE TUCKER HUGHES: I started painting after I'd been to an Aboriginal community called Point Pearce on Yorke Peninsula in SA. I went there specifically to find some connections to my family, and I took a photo of my mum. And I met one of the elders, Aunty Dodo. And when I showed her the picture, she looked very deep into the picture and she said, "Oh, that face." She knew that there was a connection there. And she said, "Oh, but you won't find them here. "You'll find them up at Wallaroo."

So that's when I started looking through records for a connection to Wallaroo. When I got home from that trip, I decided that there was something that I needed to do and I just had to sit down and start painting just to find that connection with family and my connection to culture.

Like many people from stolen generations, Mum was taken because she was lighter-skinned. She was taken at the age of five weeks old. She lost all her family. She lost the connections to any culture that she might have been able to have with her family. She was put in a lot of different placements. But rather than dwelling on the sadness of those early years for Mum, I like to think that Mum has such a strong spirit, she survived all of that.

The first photo I have of Mum is when she's six years old. And I'd never seen a photo of my mum right up until just a few years ago. I'd always wondered why my mum didn't have family. My dad had heaps of family. With Mum, there was never anybody.

I think the first person that I really felt connected to was a young Aboriginal girl from Colebrook Home, which was a mission home nearby where I went to school, and I just played with her whenever I could. I loved being with her. But the thing that I loved the most about her was the way we used to laugh together. And when she laughed, she just lit up. Her whole soul just lit up. It was absolutely beautiful. And I remember saying to somebody, "This is my special friend," and, "Isn't she beautiful?" And the person said to me, "Oh, well, she's black." And that was the first time in my life I ever had any concept of, that there was something about somebody that... It sounded negative. There was a put-down about it.

I didn't realise that I was Aboriginal, that I had Aboriginal heritage. It was really through my connection with other Aboriginal people that I began in later life to sense that there was a truth there for me. For a while, I did some volunteer work in the prison system.

We were fortunate enough to come into association with an old fella from the west coast, who had come down from the country specifically to talk about his early days. We were sitting in the canteen and we were feeling incredibly close. And the old fella leant across to me and he said, "Can you feel that magic?" And I said, "Yeah," because I couldn't deny it. It was just so palpable and tangible. And he said, "You're one of us. "You're one of my mob." He made me promise that I would look into my family background. And as he said it, "You're gonna find us there."

This is my first exhibition. It's called 'Ngami Galwi' and that is Ngadjuri words for 'many rivers'. 'Many Rivers' is really about my life's journey. Taking different directions. Sometimes life's smooth, sometimes life's rough, and it's really like a river flowing. And I think that's why I chose that title. And it reflects, too, in the painting many rivers that I've done.

There are snakes taking their journey along the edge of the river course, and snakes to me really depict the rising sense of wellbeing and renewal, and that is definitely part of the journey. There's also a part of the painting that really reflects life's cycle, and that is connected to the land, spreading out to the rivers. I think rivers are emotional, and I think the connection between the land, which is really where we come from, and the rivers is really important, and that's why I've used that in the painting.

When you have been separated from family and culture, and you're finding your way home again to that, the most important thing in owning your culture is to express it. And for me, the most important thing I can do in that is to show it in my art, because I feel that art breaks down a lot of barriers and preconceived ideas about who Aboriginal people are.

So the other thing that I wanted to do was to tell my mother's story and my story through my art. I'm proud of who I am. I'm proud of my heritage. And even though I'm light-skinned, I am proud of who I am because if I denied who I am, I would be denying the strength of my people in surviving all the atrocities that happened through invasion and settlement, colonisation, assimilation and the stolen generations.

So I honour my mother and I honour the old fella and I honour all of my ancestors in owning who I am as an Aboriginal person.