Badu Gili’s Frances Belle Parker
Meet the Yaegl woman who’s putting Ulgundahi Island on the map, via the Opera House Sails
Ten thousand pegs washed in plaster form the shape of an island across a gallery floor. On each peg, the words ‘Ulgundahi Island’ are handwritten then hidden. As time goes on, the plaster is designed to flake off and reveal the name of the island the artwork takes its form from.
This work, Mapping Ulgundahi, was first conceived by artist Frances Belle Parker in 2005. It was an installation of mass proportions – conceptually and spatially – that represented the ‘whitewashing’ of Aboriginal culture, history and religion by the Scottish settlers who governed Yaegl land, her home.
"The underlying history of Ulgundahi Island is what strongly informs my work," she says over the phone. She's humble in nature, but there is a fire behind Frances' voice. It commands your attention, and so does her art.
In 2000, Frances’ career as an artist was dramatically launched. At just 18 she became the youngest winner of the prestigious Blake Prize. As a Yaegl woman of northern New South Wales, she also made history as the only Indigenous person to receive the prize in its 57-year history. The artwork that won this award, The Journey, depicted an intersection of two cultures; it showed the Rainbow Serpent spiralling up to Jesus Christ on the Cross.
Now, Frances is one of five eminent First Nations artists whose art will be displayed in light for Badu Gili – meaning 'water light' in Gadigal language, the traditional custodians of Bennelong Point.
We talked to Frances about her work, her motivation and how she's used the Opera House’s sails as a gigantic installation piece.
Art is how I document the Yaegl story.
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.
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.
This is Yaegl country. Always has been, always will be.
Badu Gili projects significant and ancient stories onto a modern masterpiece that belongs to all Australians. Curated by Rhoda Roberts AO, the Opera House’s Head of First Nations Programming, Badu Gili weaves together the work of five eminent First Nations artists from across Australia and the Torres Strait Islands: Frances Belle Parker, Jenuarrie (Judith Warrie), Alick Tipoti and the late Lin Onus and Minnie Pwerle. In a spectacular seven-minute animation accompanied by a contemporary soundscape, these artists represent the diversity of First Nations peoples and their stories. “We hope to create a gateway to First Nations Australia for the 8.2 million people who visit the Opera House each year,” says Rhoda Roberts. "[It] enables all to witness and feel a connection to our shared history and culture.”
For those who witness it, it acts as a move towards reconciliation, a recognition of the past and a vibrant celebration of First Nations culture.
And for Frances, Badu Gili scrapes away at the plaster... and ‘Ulgundahi Island’ is finally revealed.
Badu Gili is a daily, year-round experience at sundown and 7.00pm. Badu Gili has been enabled by the Opera House, its Idealist donors, and the Australia Council for the Arts.
History of Ulgundahi Island
Yaegl people are the traditional custodians of the northern rivers country of New South Wales, about 650km north of Sydney. Yaegl landscape runs 75km from black rock in the north to red rock in the south and inland to Ullamurra. Yaegl people’s land was fertile, and focussed on resources provided by the Clarence River.
After the British settlement of the 18th century Yaegl country was ‘given’ to Scottish immigrants to settle and farm. During the 19th and 20th century, the government rounded up about 150 Yaegl people from 12 or 13 families and placed them on Ulugundahi Island to live under white management and abide by the rules of the Island's missionary and church. From 1904 Ulgundahi came under the jurisdiction of the Aboriginal Protection Board. The Aboriginal Protection Board was operational between 1883 to 1940, and was formed within the Department of Police. Between 1909 to 1935 the Board restricted the capacity of Aboriginal people to choose where they lived, who they married, what education they received and what employment contracts they entered.
Ulgundahi Island lays adjacent to the town of Maclean, named after Alexander Grant McLean, the New South Wales Surveyor-General from 1861-1862. For 114 years the town has held the Maclean Highland Gathering, and therefore earned the reputation of Australia’s Scottish Town.
Today, Ulgundahi Island is protected on the State Heritage Register. It is currently controlled by the Yaegl Aboriginal Land Council, but remains uninhabited.