BRENDA L. CROFT: She’ll Be Right Mate



16 Oct - 15 Nov 2009


BRENDA CROFT  |  She'll be right mate: strangers in a strange land
Artist Statement, 2009

She'll be right, mate: strangers in a strange land relates to many things. Dislocation of Indigenous people within their own country, partially from the personal perspective of my father's travels across Indigenous and government boundaries to the broader context of decimated nations, both here and overseas. His personal story is retold/reimagined through the filter of my eyes, re-presenting a viewpoint of a specific time in his life.

Leaving university in early 1940s Brisbane to join the army at the end stages of World War II; working as a cane cutter and railway engineer in Queensland in the late 1940s through to the 1950s; and finally, his gradual relocation southwards to commence work on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme at the end of that decade and the beginning of the 1960s.

In the decade immediately after WWII thousands of migrants from Britain and many nations throughout Europe came to this country - at the invitation of the Australian Government - to build up the workforce. Labour was scarce and Australia was very much considered under-populated. Migrants came from Britain, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain, Germany, Yugoslavia, Latvia and many other countries, whose names, borders and boundaries have been erased, replaced and shifted many times in the half century since, depending on the whim of the authorities of the time.

One of the major projects of the 1950s was the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme and it was for this purpose that an enormous number of the New Australiansemigrated. The diversity of nationalities in this single location represented one of the best examples in Australia at the time, of that over-used catchphrase, 'global village'. This monumental scheme aimed to harness the might of the Snowy Mountains river system in a quest to create and generate electric power throughout a vast part of southeastern Australia. It was dangerous work and the saying was that for every mile built in the tunnels, a man's life was lost.

Carving into, blowing up, changing forever the face and shape of Indigenous land; ironically it was a time of great harmony for all those involved. A period of innocence underscored their existence, especially for those who had escaped the horrors of war and its aftermath, accompanied expectations of the whole package: new life, new car, new home-sweet-home, set on the quarter-acre block.

This freedom of choice was inconceivable for many, as only a few years before they had fled their devastated homelands in the northern hemisphere. The sad irony was that they worked on a project that devastated the homelands of many Indigenous nations, who had been driven from their country long before: the Ngunawal, Yuin, Kurnai, Brabiralung, Ngarigo, Jaimathang, Djilmatang, Krauatungalung, Walbanga: hunters of the Bogong moth, fishers of the river systems, now as devastated as the peoples who lived alongside them. The further irony was my father’s involvement in this project, who had more in common with his ‘new’ friends than was realised at the time, as he was effectively a displaced person in his own country, taken away from his homeland in the desert country of the Northern Territory, when only an infant. It would be a decade and a half from these original images before he found his family again, and then only being reunited with his mother for less than a month as she was terminally ill. My father’s enforced migration mirrored that of his friends and colleagues, working as equals on this scheme, now celebrating its 60thanniversary.

The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme became (again) a meeting place, high in the alpine country of the Antipodes. The end of the century was so far off that it was impossible to imagine, and few would have wasted time reflecting on something so intangible. This happened years before I was born, but the connections of who I have become began there and then, 60 years ago, before my mother and father met whilst working on the SMHES a decade later. It was another age when everyone and everything seemed to be bathed in golden light, cast in a slightly Renaissance glow. New beginnings, New Australians, new times.

I imagine there would have been a collective horror if those sweetly näive, inherently good people from all corners of the earth could have envisaged the less than warm welcome for migrants arriving in Australia in the past decade, or the rejection in many quarters of equal rights for Indigenous people within their own land(s).

Where once existed hopes and dreams, this has been countered by the rising, rancid tide of xenophobic paranoia, rimmed in redneck-ery, fed by fear, coupled with an embracing of ignorance, a rejection of humanity, a decrying of 'special treatment', a denial of (shared) histories. My mother’s own recollections of this time are profound and we returned to the now vanished, or shrunken townships, that held echoes of expectant laughter and anticipation of their future. The connections are many for those involved in projects such as the SMHES. Dislocated from all parts of the country and the globe, torn from their families, they created new families, a brother and sisterhood.

I look at photos of that time and see my father’s best friend, a sweet-faced Greek man named Gus, who became my godfather. My mother’s best friend, who became her bridesmaid, had fled Latvia with her family a short time before. Fresh, virile young men looking laidback and confident; wasp-waisted women wearing horn-rims and broad smiles of lush, red lipstick. 

Many of those who are represented in these images - whether meeting the camera full-face, or simply bystanders - are present only as images, as fragments of another time. Within the long since ruptured landscape and empty structures, redolent with the aura of another time, other places, other histories, echoes of injustice reverberate.

Ironically, as the continent experiences its worst drought in recorded, written history, the river systems are as shrunken, if not vanished as the towns that were built to reshape them. Ghosts line the dry, cracked riverbanks and the receding water gives up its dead – remnants of many lifetimes ago. These stories are ongoing: there is no beginning, middle or end. Wherever we travel in our future, our shadows cast our individual and collective past, and the shadows of those who came before us.