Sophie Mackenzie: Where does your personal connection with the Yaegl landscape and people come from?
Frances Belle Parker: My father was was non-Indigenous but my mother, she’s Yaegl — so, I’m Yaegl. My mother’s mother is Yaegl. We’ve got a very strong maternal lineage back to many, many years ago. If you meet Aboriginal people they follow their mother’s lineage. Growing up on Yaegl country means being Yaegl is being something that has been embedded in us from a very young age. It’s just my way of life.
SM: Do you feel a duty to pass on Yaegl stories to the next generation?
FBP: That’s one of my greatest motivators. Just telling people what was taken from them, stripped from them when they were moved onto Ulgundahi Island early 1900s — that was when the early Scottish settlers came and burned down their huts. There were around twelve or thirteen families living on the island, they built a missionary and a church, and they weren’t allowed to speak their language or do ceremonies. Being placed there was a way of confining them.
SM: How has that history influenced your art?
FBP: When I create work now, I do it for myself and my children, to pass on that knowledge, but I’m also doing it for the wider community because this is their story. For me, being a visual storyteller, art is how I document the Yaegl story and make people recognise what happened on Ulgundahi Island.
SM: So Ulgundahi Island is an important feature in your work?
FBP: Yes, definitely. It’s a reoccurring motif. Ulgundahi Island is the heart of our people and I see the river as the veins and the blood flow that support that heart in surviving. The name Ulgundahi means shape of an ear, but you can see the shape of a boomerang as well. The idea of a boomerang is that it comes back. By drawing this Island again and again, I reclaim it and bring it back into our day-to-day lives.
SM: To depict Ulgundahi Island you often map it using topographical lines. What’s the significance of this style?
FBP: Originally, my paintings depicted a map of the Island the way the elders described it, and how that image formed in my mind. The elders had never flown over the Island, but when I flew over the Clarence River, I looked down and it was exactly how the elders described. When I mentioned how Ulgundahi means ‘shape of the ear’, you think they would have been the best navigators for the landscape to know it so intimately. Before anyone could fly over it they knew it was exactly the shape of an ear— just by walking that land — treating that land and knowing it so well. The whole mapping process in my works is about the stories passed down to me. It speaks of our strong connection to country.
SM: Why do you tend to embed your messages in these subtle ways?
FBP: I want to engage the audience. I choose to have strong messages, whether regarding the referendum, Stolen Generations or its underlying history. But if it appears softer to the viewer, they look at it for longer. Then they find out more. Mapping Ulgundahi explains a brutal time but it's also a softly spoken floor installation you don’t understand until you get closer and look deeper at each of the pegs.
SM: Is it as if the Sydney Opera House is now your canvas?
FBP: Now you put it that way - yeah! Badu Gili is like a gigantic installation! I’m just so thrilled and humbled at the opportunity to be a part of this project.
SM: And layering your work on top of the Opera House sails, a symbol of modern Australia, acts as a strong metaphor towards reconciliation?
FBP: I’ve never thought of it that way, but now you mention it, definitely. That’s a very strong message.
SM: What message did you try to communicate in your Badu Gili works?
FBP: Most have a connection with the Clarence River. The Clarence River — or ‘Biirrinba’ as we call it in Yaegl — is such a strong part of the Yaegl people’s lives. The messages within that speak about our sovereignty.
SM: Sovereignty from?
FBP: When you come to Maclean you are punched in the face with Scottish tartan poles, and we have so many Scottish events throughout the year. My artwork acknowledges that this is Yaegl country. It always has been, always will be, no matter what you see on the façade of it all.
SM: How do you think you’ll feel when you see your artwork projected onto the Opera House’s sails?
FBP: I have no idea. I’ll probably cry. I guess it will be overwhelming and I’ll have some good friends with me. My little girl is finishing her last week of term, so my husband and two kids will be at home, which will be a challenge because I wanted to share it with them. But at the same time I want to enjoy it as an artist, on my own.
SM: How important do you think it is to use modern art forms like graphic design and light installations to reach a wider audience?
FBP: That’s very important I reckon. It’s something that is happening today. Just looking at the draft animation I was blown away to know that that technology exists! To do that with paintings and be able to see the brush marks on the works is incredible! There’s a piece in Badu Gili that is a bend in the Clarence River which was a view from my mum’s house. It’s overlaid with linear mapping. How that was animated blew me away! I just thought, wow, that’s phenomenal.
SM: What do you want Badu Gili to show people?
FBP: It’s a lot about recognising what happened on Ulugundahi Island and reviving the Yaegl story. But I also hope people begin to understand that deep-rooted connection to country that all Aboriginal people have. It goes deeper than just the surface.