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Unfinished Business: Stories of disadvantage and empowerment on loan at Melbourne Museum

Jarred Cross -

A decade on from first seeing it exhibited, Uncle John Baxter and Belinda Mason are still taken by Unfinished Business, as portrait subject and social documentarian respectively.

The collection of black-and-what portraits, produced with support from the First Peoples Disability Network, was first launched at the UN offices in Geneva, before featuring at the 2014 World Conference of Indigenous Peoples and acquisition by the Australian Museum.

Within the exhibition, with accompanying videography by Dieter Knierim and floral installations by Alchemy Orange, are the stories of 30 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living with disabilities.

Its four-month loan to the Melbourne Museum opened Tuesday.

Born with spinal-bifida-paraplegia in 1960, Uncle John was taken away from his home in Robinvale, north-west Victoria, to the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne at just a few weeks old and later fostered-out to a non-Aboriginal family.

A proud Narungga man, Uncle John reconnected with his siblings and father in his teens.

In his adult life, he's risen as a community leader and advocate working with Reconciliation Victoria, Aboriginal Disability Network Victoria and First Peoples Disability Network Australia.

He hopes the exhibition both resonates and is a cause for reflection.

(left to right) Belinda Mason and Uncle John Baxter at Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Melbourne Museum exhibiting Unfinished Business until April 21. (image, supplied. Melbourne Museum/Eugene Hyland)

"We're looking at challenge within these individuals live. And you realize some of these folks are not from modern cities. They're from outback and rural areas where service provision and equipment either take forever to get there, or in very short supply, or they just simply don't exist," he told National Indigenous Times.

"It really impacts on their health and well being and, but it certainly does not give you the opportunity to set meaningful goals and be self determinate.

"I think Unfinished Business is not only for the participants, but we're hoping many of our First Nations peoples with disability who get to view this, as well as the broader community, can say I can identify with one or two of the people...through their story, hopefully (it can) give them the strength they need to be able to continue on on their own journey."

Uncle John said within the portraits and stories of isolation, inequality and obstacles to self determination, there are also stories of empowerment.

"We do not, sadly, in a lot of areas have a supportive government, supportive organisations - whether they're by community or mainstream. and even going down to family as well. People who either don't understand or are unfamiliar with disability, or culture for that matter," he said.

Speaking not just for himself, Uncle John said "by sharing a little bit of your own story and inquiring about other people's stories, you can hope to be a bit of an inspiration".

It's still emotional for Uncle John and Ms Mason to see it in full.

Unfinished Business lays bare the ongoing impacts of colonisation, disadvantage, generational trauma, barriers for remote and regional communities, and historic holes in the health system across individual life stories.

Ms Mason similarly held firm on the strength captured alongside struggle.

She said the silence of photography demands a viewer to face what they see.

Despite it being her work, she insists the exhibition is not about her.

"It's critical to have a full-rounded narrative of the people who are in it, the types of disability they have, the disadvantage that they've experienced, and how they have contributed to their communities in incredible ways," she told National Indigenous Times.

"What I really want people to take away from the exhibition is the social and political impact our policies have had on First Nations peoples."

Unfinished Business is exhibited in Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum until April 21.

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