In conversation with Ali Gumillya Baker
by Eugenia Flynn
Ali Gumillya Baker, is a Mirning woman from the Nullarbor on the West Coast of South Australia. She is a visual artist, performer, filmmaker, lecturer at Yunggorendi First Nations Centre at Flinders University, and member of the Unbound Collective, four Aboriginal artists, activists and academics. Her areas of research interest include, colonial archives, memory and intergenerational transmission of knowledge.
Eugenia Flynn sat down with Ali Gumillya Baker to talk about being an artist and an academic. The result is a conversation that covers the intersections of history, culture, art, performance, Indigenous knowledges and western academia.
Eugenia Flynn: I’ve been reading a lot lately on creative practice and the imagination, that as creative people our work is always impacted by the context we bring to it. As a way of sharing who you are, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and what context, what histories and politics you bring to your work?
Ali Gumillya Baker: Well even before I studied at university, I was raised in a family of politically active people, around Aboriginal people who are very political on Kaurna Land, Adelaide. My family are from the West Coast of South Australia and I haven't spent a lot of time where my grandmother was born (which is Fowlers Bay and my great grandmother was born at Eucla which is over the border), but I have spent time with them there, a lot of time with my Nana and in particular my Aunties, thinking about storytelling and stories. Trying to understand the big silences, weights and atmospheres that sometimes surrounded the women in my family, mainly Aboriginal women, and thinking about what wasn't spoken about, but [what was] very present. The kind of trauma that people circled but didn't talk about directly.
I've always participated - the same with your family Eugenia - we went on marches when we were young, and we were taught to know that who we are as Aboriginal people is a political thing. To not be afraid of the politics of that and to be proud and honest about who you are, [not] pretending to be something that you’re not. I have always been embraced and understood by the people in my community who know me and know my family. So I've always felt grounded in that truth of our lives together.
I still have a sense of collective responsibility. That I have a voice that I should use, that I have had an education, that I should speak. It's been about the philosophy for me. I am reading a lot of what I see as important philosophical leaders in Aboriginal Australia. I have to look at my family through the lens of that philosophy, thinking about how I personally connect to it. That's been my approach with my practice as well. That I have to personally connect in order to tell the story.
EF: That's a great non-academic way of explaining Indigenous ways of being, that relationality we all grow up with in terms of relation to Country, relation to family and relation to community. That's what I see you bring to your practice, which is so important when so much of Western knowledge, Western art making and society is about the individual…
AGB: …Yeah, I've just been reading the work of Denise Ferreira Da Silva and she has been talking about this idea that determinacy, separability and sequentiality constitutes a triad sustaining modern thought. So she's basically saying that all of Western thought is racialised and going back to that sense of identity politics when you hear a lot about people choosing or experimenting with identity, but in terms of [Indigenous] relationality and relationships to place, it is inherited. So while other aspects of our identities might be chosen, we inherit that relationship to place.
I feel like that's the crux of a lot of the issues that non-Indigenous Australia has with Aboriginal people. It is about that long-standing relationship to place that is threatening to other identities trying to form in this place. I mean, with this collective work [Unbound Collective] we've been doing, it's a kind of unfolding work that is a series of Acts. We're really thinking about certain questions. Just thinking about what does colonisation mean and what does sovereignty mean for us. It's a pretty deeply philosophical place to live and most Aboriginal people have an amazing understanding of these philosophical things that they might call poststructuralist. But they are Indigenous ways of being and Indigenous ways of thinking about time – past, present and future – of thinking about relationships, spirit, place and our responsibilities to each other.
EF: You bring up past present and future and that understanding of relationality in regard to time. I know that with the Unbound Collective you engage with the past as a way of uncovering the meaning of the present. What sort of things have you uncovered?
AGB: I think for us it was kind of about honouring our Grandmothers in particular. Going into the colonial archives and the call of our Ancestors being very present, but also kind of silent within it. You see a lot of hate written about your family in there and you say to yourself, well what's useful about me looking at this because it is so painful. Then you go, how do we not let this define us, but take away the incredible weight that our families carry collectively.
It was about what we wanted to say and about our emotional response. We had this history and there were many levels that you could connect into that work, it wasn't necessarily expecting you to be of a particular [level of] education. For us it was also about looking at the surveillance we had been under, that our families have been under, and turning the surveillance to representation. Like [Unbound Collective co-member] Simone said, she didn't want to become the object of herself in the process of this idea of auto-ethnography. We wanted to get beyond colonising views, the hierarchy of disciplines of universities. We wanted to think about the knowledge and the philosophies of our families and not be intimidated or limited by that idea of academia.
The indeterminate, the ephemeral, became really important. Thinking about the way that, when you're on Country, it's about the light in the sky and the moment of the telling. But, you know there are some things that carry through some of those old stories and it’s about that moment that you can't capture through other mediums. So we were thinking about performance in that way.
EF: You’ve just talked about being a multidisciplinary artist and an academic. I guess I find that my life has taken a similar trajectory and, I guess, we come from families that are quite similar in that they have that academic leaning, but community connection as well. Do you find that those things interact together?
AGB: Yeah, I think it's very intimidating when you first go into particular areas of knowledge production. That's what was so good about reading our own histories. Colonial processes have taken away our specific knowledges, languages and ways of understanding. They have made a physical anthropology and measured Aboriginal people's heads as the lowest rung of some weird hierarchy that they constructed. There’s no grand narrative there and there's a lot of incredible racism. To pull away that veil of intimidation just meant that we could use whatever tools we wanted. All of a sudden, it was like, we give ourselves permission, which is why it was so important to work collectively because we all validated each other. We gave ourselves permission to not be intimidated by these genres.
I remember coming across Vernon Ah Kee’s work or Kara Walker's work and other work by incredible artists. It wasn't just honouring of our families, but also these incredible artists, who are playing a huge role in terms of shining a really important light, an unflinching light, on the reckoning that still needs to occur everywhere. I think that when you have something really important to say, when you have a voice, you have to think about, well, what am I going to do with that voice that will help? Say your grandchildren go to a colonial archive where they have all this really revolting stuff on record about our families, and there's real hate there, but you can reinsert yourself into that archive. When other people go looking for it, they will find your voice. They will find that hate, but they will also find our voices, our collective voices.