The Sum of My Parts
by Bindi Cole Chocka
A little while ago, I turned forty. Apparently, it’s a big deal. I couldn’t face a party, so I took the family on a holiday instead. Perhaps it was a divine idea because I came back with a strong sense that my life is only just beginning. It’s taken a while but I’ve finally come to a place where I love who I am and that’s a great position to launch off into the next fourty years from. It has required much effort to become a person who is somewhat happy and whole but after spending so many years hating myself and believing I was unlovable, I am now comfortable in my mixed up, muddled up identity. I am no longer a victim to my past. Those first twenty years left me wounded, traumatised and without any sense of self. I had no idea who I was.
I was an only child, reared by my mother, Vicki Reynolds who was Jewish, English and Irish. We lived in St. Kilda close to Luna Park. Three generations of my mum’s side of the family had all grown up in St. Kilda. My grandmother lived in the flat upstairs and my aunty a few streets away who still live there today. We are mad St. Kilda supporters. Dancing, theatre, writing and the arts are a huge part of that side. My father’s side is large and Aboriginal. He has seven siblings. We were not close but I saw him and his family on and off throughout my childhood, even living with him for a year when I was around 8 years old. It wasn’t much really but it was the beginnings of a foundation on which to build upon. Not knowing who I was and where I’d come from had affected my sense of being and belonging. There’s a strength that comes from knowing whose shoulders you are standing upon.
My mum is the person who has had the greatest personal and creative influence on me. Being a single mother with an only child lends itself to an extremely close relationship. Living in St. Kilda, using heroin and working as a stripper and prostitute meant that she struggled to raise me. My early memories are littered with refuse from this seedy and destructive way of life. At eight years of age I was taken from her as she was unfit to care for me. She didn’t even say goodbye and I remember thinking about how insignificant I was. There was a deep realisation that I alone was not enough and that my love for her didn’t have the power needed to keep her with me.
Mum’s Diary Entry, 29 March 1987
The planet is a better place for having Andrew in it. Not so, I'm afraid, is it better for having had me on it. I am a disgusting junkie who is always hanging out, manipulative, preferring to sell my body for a hit than to be a decent clean human being. I have been very lucky to have had Andrew for these last 12 months. I will always love him even to my grave and beyond. I must see Bindi before I go and tell her, even though I failed her, I love her with all my heart and soul. I'm so sorry I couldn't give them both what they wanted from me. As I said I'm a weak hopeless failure. But I won't fail this time, I feel so calm, I know I will be successful for the first time in my life, the end of my life. It's a shame Andrew has been so sick and tired today as it is the last we will probably spend together. Tomorrow he works and Tuesday I'll be gone. I love you very much Andrew, thank you for loving me.
She didn’t do it but it was only a matter of a few years before she would die from cancer. I had returned to live with her at thirteen as she had kicked her heroin habit and was successfully using Methadone. Her death left me a shredded, young and extremely vulnerable sixteen-year-old girl with no emotional or financial support. I left school and my early interest in photography, theatre and writing was curtailed by a descent into depression and drugs. For many years, I battled the sense of not being enough coupled with a deep grief and in the process developed a well-rehearsed script of self-hatred that drove me. Even as that tiny girl, I believed I was not good enough, insufficient, unwanted, powerless and alone. I wasn’t anyone’s priority. So it became that I would never prioritise myself. Even now I struggle with self-care, it doesn’t come naturally. I just didn’t care about myself for so long as a result of not being cared for properly. I’ve had to work hard to change the way I think about myself, figure out who I am, stop being a victim to my past and find a sense of belonging.
My Dad is Aboriginal. I’ve always known it. I didn’t begin identifying as Aboriginal during my adult life. I have always done so. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the floor playing with toys, hearing my Mum telling her friends that I was Aboriginal. It was the only part of my racial heritage that was ever actively acknowledged and celebrated. I grew up being told I was Aboriginal and my father’s family have always identified as such. It’s in my DNA, whether I look like it or not. I’m proud of my Western Victorian Wadawurrung heritage. It’s an important and cherished part of who I am.
My mum and dad separated when I was a baby. When mum died, even though they had not been together for over fifteen years, they still had not divorced. Once, when I asked dad about this, he said that he had always had some hope that maybe one day they would get back together. I thought that was so cheesy at the time but I believe him. Our relationship has been a tumultuous one. It’s taken many years for it to get to a place where there is peace. That’s not entirely his fault. I was such a broken and hurt person that for a long time I could only ever see him, and the world, through that filter. As I changed, I began to treat him differently and gradually we have been reconciled to each other. I love him. He’s a feisty, flirty and hilarious man who has a heart for the Victorian Aboriginal community and has devoted much of his life to serving within it. He is also very charming. Everyone that has ever worked with him has always pulled me aside to tell me how much he or she loves him and how great he is. They always let me know how proud he is of me too; that he’s always talking about me. Funny, cause whenever I’m around him, he’s mostly taking the mickey out of me. Still, that’s pretty much how he shows affection.
Perhaps he got that from his mum, my nanna, a devoted church going Christian woman. I spent years living with her as a young girl while my mum sorted her life out. Initially we lived in Tongala, a small country town in Victoria that had a chocolate factory on one side and an abattoir on the other. Whichever way the wind blew determined what we would smell for the day. Eventually we moved into Park Towers, the large thirty storey public housing flats in South Melbourne. Every week, she took me to Sunday school at St Luke's on Dorcas Street, had me baptised and supported me through my Confirmation. She was the one who researched our genealogical history to discover exactly where our Victorian Aboriginal ancestors originated. During those years, I had the privilege of watching her do this research. Needing to know who she was and where she came from drove her and finding answers ultimately allowed the pieces of her heart to mend. She was so proud of a heritage that had once been denied out of fear and shame. I can’t count on how many occasions she told me that I was Aboriginal and to always be proud of that part of me. Her faith, conviction and strength continue to influence me today and I only wish she knew that I have followed in her footsteps by becoming a radical Jesus loving Christian. She passed away not long after my mum.
Then there is me, carrying in my heart and mind the experience of all three of these significant people. Not forgetting the many others who have played a role in shaping who I am today. I’m made up of many parts including my lived experience, faith, culture, genealogical heritage and predisposition of my DNA, all of them equally important and deserving of attention.
As an artist, I’ve had the great fortune of using my practice as a way to explore and understand how all of this fits together. From the beginning, I made art that uses process to overcome trauma, reconcile uncomfortable parts of identity, release pain and bring light into dark places. On the surface, I’ve unpacked identity and disconnection but underneath I’ve been driven by a need to reclaim power and a passion for self-determination. In earlier work this manifested as an assertion of identity, a statement of my rights and a communities rights, and how wrongs have impacted. This work was often angry and unwittingly presented myself as the victim. Eventually, I came to the realisation that this work, while reflecting a societal truth, only compounded the thing it was expressing, such as anger, resentment or victimisation. As I’ve grown, particularly in recent years as a Christian woman, I’ve become interested in art that helps, heals and invites people to move forward in their lives rather than focus on what is wrong. This grew out of a revelation that the way to personal empowerment is through understanding our own impact on others and a resulting softening towards others impact on us. The more I realised I needed grace, the less I took offence and the more I was able to show grace. For me, this was done through the biblical notion of forgiveness. True freedom from a victim mentality can be achieved through the underserved mercy and forgiveness of the one who disempowered you.
So at various times in my life, on this journey of reconnecting my very fragmented and traumatised self, I’ve focused in on different parts. My artworks, when looked at them individually, may make me seem very one-dimensional. It’s like viewing one minute of a movie and thinking you have the whole narrative. Yet when viewed as a collection, they tell the very different story of a woman with a healed traumatic past through a revelation of grace and a powerful drive to reconcile each part of her identity until it made a whole. I needed to know where I’ve come from to know where I’m going. Having lost two of these three most significant people in my life early on, I realise that I may as well be who I am. The easy bits, the messy bits, the hidden bits and the shiny bits. The multi-dimensional, ever changing, beautifully imperfect me that can never be fully known by another and certainly not in a brief summing up. Time is short and what a great waste it would be to live your life according to others beliefs about you, after all, we are greater than the sum of our parts.