The history found in books is usually written by the victors, but objects and images can tell another story. Objects and images such as the 11,000 pictures and 7,500 artefacts collected from Aboriginal communities living in the top end of Australia and now held in the city of Melbourne’s main museum. In March this year, Sunlight Bassini – a Lamalama elder from the Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland – made a 4,000-kilometre journey from the northern tip of Australia to Museum Victoria in the south. His purpose – to dust off pictures and artefacts lying on shelves and drawers in back rooms and, with his enormous archive of cultural knowledge, turn them into living objects once more. In the rooms behind the museum’s bustling public areas, Sunlight and his niece, Elaine, searched through images and artefacts collected between 1928 and 1965 by anthropology professor, Donald Thomson. A root that can replace clothes washing detergent and can double up as a poison to stun fish so that they can be easily caught. Pretty red giddi beads that decorated necklaces but could also induce abortion. Spinning tops made from seedpods. Fire sticks to light the ground oven where the turtle and dugong were cooked. Bark containers for collecting and making food. Medicinal grasses that can draw out blind boils.
A photographer snapped away at each artefact uncovered. In months to come, a website of these images will be built, so that stories of the objects and artefacts can form part of the formal education structure at the primary school where students from Sunlight’s community are taught.
Out in the public parts of the museum, visitors can read a short history of Sunlight’s people. One of the displays tells how the Lamalama people lived in their country at Port Stewart until 1961, when the Queensland Government forcibly relocated them. Their attempts to return were thwarted by police. But Sunlight and his wife, Florry, successfully returned in the early 1970s. They have been living off the land there ever since, joined by a slow but steady stream of family and friends whose faces now look out from the pictures dotted around the display. There’s Sunlight’s father-in-law holding a fishing spear – naked in the scorching Cape York sun. And his stepmother’s mother carrying a loose-weaved basket on her head with lily-flower pond fruits. We stop at a picture of Sunlight himself, digging up mud and grass at Port Stewart in 1989.
‘A woman will be saying “My little fella is one now, and should be walking”. This here grass – you just warm it in the fire and put it round the little fella’s legs and he’ll be walking in a day or two’. Like so many other objects in the museum the real significance of this picture is only revealed once Sunlight explains.
‘Hi there – it’s me again.’ Back in the areas locked away from public view, the video camera clicks on each time Sunlight starts to speak so that his descriptions can be preserved for present and future generations. This time, alternatives to processed foods which have contributed to the high rates of diabetes and heart disease within Aboriginal communities. ‘This here is very delicious.’ He holds up a picture of a foodstuff picked off mangrove trees which, when cooked, becomes a cheese-like accompaniment good with fish. ‘My grandmother used to make it for me when I was a child.’
As he talks into the cameras, Sunlight is leading a quiet revolution. ‘Look at this rope,’ said Sunlight, pointing to a long, strong-looking, gold-brown rope-coil. ‘Young people don’t know that we used to make rope. They think that if you want rope, you have to pay $100 for it in a shop. People living with the land don’t have to buy anything.’ It is a theme to which Sunlight repeatedly returns. The sub-text for his audience is that Aboriginal people can make their own food, goods, tools and utensils. They have been self-reliant. They can still be self-reliant.
Sunlight Bassini talked with Chris Richards