Juno Gemes: The Movement for Civil Rights in Australia, 1971 to 2010

As featured artist for Rochford Street Review Issue 30, Gemes continues her discussion of some of her powerful political photographs.

About Juno Gemes / Notebook Revelations: Juno Gemes’ portrait of James Baldwin / Canticle for the Bicentennial Dead by Robert Adamson

‘The Whole World is Watching’ in Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland at The National Lands Rights Action before The Commonwealth Games, Brisbane, 1982

Oodgeroo Noonuccal and family, Illegal March, Brisbane, 1982. Juno Gemes©

Those of us who in childhood experience ourselves as outsiders discover a fascinating upside to this experience in discovering the freedom that position confirms: of seeing things differently.

I found that I simply had no History here to defend, or regard with shame, as my childhood friend Martin Sharp expressed it to me in one of our last conversations in 2013.

As Hungarian emigres fleeing war-torn Europe in 1949, my parents Alex and Lucy Gemes coming from an old culture, were delighted to find themselves in the mist of Australia’s great freedom and the vast, diverse beauty of the land itself as we saw it sailing from Fremantle to Sydney. I can never forget my Dad saying to me as we sailed into Sydney Harbour, ‘Look at this beautiful young country, this ground is not covered with bloodshed here’. Lines that have stayed with me all my life.

 I realised then at the age of five, we had landed in a place we knew absolutely nothing about: ‘Australian culture — what was it really about?’ As a child of people who still spoke an ancient language, and whose complex cultural values had survived, we carried old world stories. So I grew up examining Australian culture as an anthropologist might, as Robert Duncan says like ‘An anthropologist from Venus’. I was continually asking myself ‘how does this culture work, what does it really mean to be an Australian?’ All the ‘assumed certainties’ you may have grown up with were not available to me.

Always of a curious mind, now a teenager at SCEGGS Moss Vale, I found myself asking ‘Why are we being taught a nursery view of this country’s history? Doesn’t every country on earth have a conflict history? What really happened here?’ Asking questions like that got me thrown out of History classes at boarding school. I had detentions booked up a term in advance! My classmates were sympathetic, I was seen as a rebellious young woman who asked interesting questions to which no one knew the answers.

By 1971 I was a member of the Yellow House in Sydney, no longer doing the multi-media performance work I was known for. Rather, the public room I shared there with Michael Glasheen became a research and preparation room for the journey ahead. We stretched maps of Central Australia across the wall and we had rare books by T.G.H Strehlow, Songs of Central Australia and WE Stanner,  On Aboriginal Religion ,who spoke about ‘the great Australian silence’ and Charles Mountford who documented the ancient stories embedded in the forms of Uluru, the central sacred site in the heart-centre of the country. During this research, it became clear to me, that we could not make this film about these stories without gaining the permission and participation of the Traditional Owners, the custodians of these stories. Explaining this to Martin and Mick, I packed a small basket of things and flew into Alice Springs to find the custodians. In fact, they found me. When I  arrived at their camp site after hitchhiking to Ebenezer Downs, I was sitting with the elder women around the fire  when Mary said to me ‘you arrived in Alice springs three days ago, I know who you are looking for, he’ll be here by and by.’

Camping and learning from them, I entered into another way of seeing and found that the traditional owners were holding vast bodies of knowledge and they were being silenced. They were not permitted to speak their own languages or practice their Culture on the reserves, as a result they preferred to live in fringe camps such as this one on Ebenezer Downs.  I realised that they were also ‘completely invisible’ to mainstream Australia. Having realised this, I had to act. I started to see in terms of still images. It was for this reason that I took up the still camera.

After six long, eventful months in Central Australia working on the film Uluru, camping in the desert with fellow film maker Mick and informed daily by the Traditional Owners of the Land, my way of seeing had transformed utterly. I was discovering that Aboriginal people, their culture, and their struggles for civil rights, were invisible to mainstream Australia. I felt a great respect for, and affinity with, our disenfranchised hosts, a feeling captured in James Baldwin’s statement: ‘Now, though, I was a stranger, I was home.’

After that, I became a photographer invited by, and serving the story of, the Movement for Aboriginal civil rights in Australia during a tumultuous and often innovative period which continued the resistance that had started in 1788 and become manifest in 1972. My aim was to bridge that chasm of invisibility that might lend weight to the Movement for Aboriginal Rights, recognition and empowerment which continues today.

Lionel Fogerty 1982 Juno Gemes©

I’d heard from leaders including revered Redfern-based elder Mum Shirl that the Children’s Breakfast Program at The Black Theatre had been copied from The Civil Rights Movement’s community actions in the USA. Professor John Maynard would later write about these connections in his publication Fight for Liberty and Freedom published by ASP in 2007.

Gamilaroi historian, Frances Peters-Little has written of my work,

Movements are expressed in many different ways, through art and song, in political advocacy, in marches and demonstration, in poetry and film, through ceremony and through the passing on of knowledge. Recording these actions on film provides us with so much more than words. It provides us with a face, an impression and a humanity that underpins the rhetoric of the time (Proof, 2003)

Having photographed the historic Handback of Uluru to it’s Traditional Owners on 26th October 1985 for The Central Land Council , I was invited back – in 2010 , 25 years later – to bring an exhibition ” Sacred Ground ” of the photographs from the original Uluru Handback for permanent exhibition at The Uluru Kata – Tjuta Culture Centre in what is now called Uluru / Kata Tjuta National Park and to photograph the 25th Anniversary Celebrations there . I continue to photograph on request and to celebrate rituals of empowerment and recognition which are contributing to a changing view of Australian Identity.

— Juno Gemes, Photographer

About Juno Gemes / Notebook Revelations: Juno Gemes’ portrait of James Baldwin / Canticle for the Bicentennial Dead by Robert Adamson




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