I have a painting over my fireplace that shows a young mother holding the
hand of her small daughter and pointing at a star filled sky above them.
Circling them is a giant serpent with scales made of stylized faces. The
colors are bold and bright and the overall impression conveys child-like wonder with a
sense of mystery. Like a fairy tale. The piece is titled
"Birthright," and the artist is Sally Morgan.
I purchased the painting in the late eighties when the ship I was working on
stopped in Fremantle, Western Australia, after two months in the
Antarctic. The rest of the crew had gone off to a Pink Floyd concert, but
I had some computer work to do, so I got off late and was wandering around town,
just soaking up the ambiance. Fremantle is a very cool town. The
whole west coast of Australia reminds me of California when I was a kid,
before they completely ruined the place. Anyway, in my ambling, I stumbled
onto the Fremantle Arts Center1 and saw this print and was completely
dazzled. I mean I just stood there agog. After awhile, a gentle lady
wandered over and stood quietly next to me. "Beautiful, isn't
it?" she said. "Amazing," quoth I, "who's the
artist?" "My daughter," she said smiling, "Sally
That's how I first became acquainted with the "urban aboriginal"
artist Sally Morgan, her family and her work, and with her delightful mum,
Glad. I came back the next afternoon to look at "My" painting
again. I wasn't an art collector by any means. In fact, at the time,
most of the minor ducats I raked in working on research ships went into pubs and
quality herb and generally raising hell. The idea of spending serious
money on art was way outside my comfort zone, but the damned thing haunted my
dreams. Gladys explained some of the symbology in the
painting to me. The mother in the painting wasn't teaching the
constellations to her daughter as I had first thought, she was explaining to her
that their people, the Palku of Pilbara, were responsible for protecting the
universe and that everything they did needed to take that into account.
The snake wrapped around them represented all of history and life. The
faces on the snakes' scales were their ancestors who had done their bit and
were now watching us all.
I came back again the next day intending to purchase "Birthright,"
but Glad met me at the door and said that she had a present for me. She
presented me with a copy of Sally's book My Place, that she, Glad had
signed. I insisted on paying for the book, then she insisted that I sit
down and start reading it. "Right now." "This is our
story," she said, "and you should know it." So I sat down
and started reading. A few hours later, I gave Gladys a hug,
purchased "Birthright," and walked out with tears in my eyes.
My Place, and Wanamurraganya, The Story of Jack McPhee, are
both heart breaking stories of a very dark chapter in Australian history.
As an American, I'm the last one to cast any stones about the treatment of
aboriginal peoples. Wherever and whenever one social group achieves a huge
imbalance in power over another, bad things happen. In the case of the
Milroy family one of the bad things involved the government taking mixed race
children away from the aboriginal parents and placing them in orphanages to be
raised as white. Sally didn't even know that she had an aboriginal lineage
until she was 15. Sally's books, detailing the stories of her family
helped launch an era of social change and recognition for the "Stolen
Generation," as they became known.
From Sally Morgan's bio page at the Aboriginal Art Online website2:
Sally was born in Perth in 1951, the eldest of five children. As a
child she found school difficult because of questions from other students
about her appearance and family background. She understood from her mother
that she and her family were from India. However, when Sally was fifteen she
learnt that she and her sister were in fact of Aboriginal descent, from the
Palku people of the Pilbara.
This experience of her hidden origins, and subsequent quest for
identity, was the stimulus for her first book "My Place" published
in 1987. It tells the story of her self discovery through reconnection with
her Aboriginal culture and community. The book was an immediate success and
has since sold over half a million copies in Australia. It has also been
published in the United States, Europe and Asia.
Her second book "Wanamurraganya" was published in 1989. It
is the biography of her grandfather, Jack McPhee. She has also written five
books for children.
In the years since I was in Fremantle, Sally has racked up many achievements. In addition
to being a mother of three, she earned a degree in psychology from UWA as well
as several post-graduate diplomas. Sally and her sister Jill Milroy
received a grant from the Australian government to create and run the Centre
for Indigenous History and Arts at the University of Western Australia.
My Place has sold over half a million copies.
Glad must be very proud.