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Evoking empathy for Aboriginal history

Rachael Knowles -

Celebrated Gunditjmara artist Hayley Millar Baker's first solo exhibition is currently on show at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Gallery telling stories of Aboriginal history and truth.

Opening on Tuesday, Baker's exhibition, There we were all in one place, will show until June 14 and hosts 35 works within five photographic series created between 2016 and 2019.

Baker, who is based in Naarm/Melbourne, was only able to eye the exhibition for the first time this week.

"I'm so happy with it. I didn't know that my work could fill an entire space," she said.

"When I arrived on Friday and walked it, I was blown away. I felt like I'd never really seen my own work before. The work has never been brought together before; this is the first time.

"It was like everything that I'd be doing for the last five years in one space."

Untitled 10 (I'm the Captain Now), inkjet print on paper, 20 x 20 cm, 2016. By Hayley Millar Baker. Photo supplied.

Being presented for the first time, the photographs are exclusively black and white and play with the concepts of Aboriginality, identity, memory and truth.

"The main idea behind it is the idea of memory as a construct and how people remember specific memories and stories and experiences ... where those stories go after memory is made," she said.

"In each one of these works there is a solid truth, but where does that truth go to after multiple people tell the story and other people put their input into it?"

Some of Baker's work touches on the Frontier Wars and stories passed down to her from her family.

"I know the stories that were passed down to me but I researched the old colonial journals to see how they wrote about it and how they wanted things to be remembered. They had a totally different goal, for them it wasn't survival â€" it was an entirely different mission," she said.

"[It's] looking at how different people want different stories and occurrences to be remembered to shape that story and legacy."

Baker plays on the concept of evolving stories in her works.

"In a lot of my work, there isn't one generation I focus on, I always incorporate others. Whatever I know is because of my parents, and whatever they know is because of their parents â€" the cup is never empty," she said.

"In one of my works I talk about my nan's mum, but then her story is because of her mum."Â

Untitled (When the mother leaves snatch the eggs) Part 2

Cook Book, 2017-2019

diptych 55 x 55 cm (each)

inkjet on cotton rag.

Courtesy: Hayley Millar Baker.

With photography as her main medium, Baker is creating contemporary digital Aboriginal art â€" something that speaks to her cultural identity and her contemporary identity.

"I am who I am, I know what I know. I'm never going to tell stories I don't know and that don't belong to me," she said.

"Because I grew up in Australia, my cultural identity is strong around my Aboriginality. Whereas my dad, his dad moved here from India and his mum moved here from Brazil â€" I wasn't born or raised in those countries.

"Even though those stories are part of me and belong to me, I didn't live that, I wasn't raised that way or raised there.

"As much as I try to create these stories to be universal and so anyone can relate, they are all based on personal stories from my family because that is what I know."

Baker hopes those seeing the exhibition will connect with these experiences and empathise.

"All of these stories are human experiences, so many people will walk into a space with Aboriginal art, or Aboriginal artists and will not be willing to connect," she said.

"Australia has done a very good job at 'othering' Aboriginal people, and anything Aboriginal people do."

"I think I've been successful in the making of these to make them be human experiences. Yes â€" all of these stories happened to Aboriginal people and have a lot to do with Aboriginal history ... but we are all human and these are human experiences.

"At some point people can relate to things in these stories and take that away, feeling a sense of empathy and connection."

There we were all in one place will host essays by exhibition curator Stella Rosa McDonald, curators Hetti Perkins and Talia Smith, and a commissioned poem by Gunditjmara poet and artist Vicki Cousins.

The exhibition will also tour to Deakin University Art Gallery and Flinders University Museum of Art in 2022, with more tour venues to be announced.

By Rachael Knowles


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