Bitter Fruit

Bitter Fruit
Images From Australia's Past

Bitter Fruit
Australian Photographs to 1963

by Michael Graham-Stewart
Francis McWhannell and Jonathan Dickson

This is a brand new title from Michael Graham-Stewart, showcasing a beautiful and extensive collection of early photographs, many of them never seen before, focusing on Aboriginal Australians. Presented in a very attractive hardcover with dust jacket, it is a breathtaking document of Australiaís past.

Each photograph tells a story and we can find evidence of much wrongdoing and suffering. A few of them will make one almost feel ashamed to be an Australian. For those of us who see these pictures for the first time it is hard to believe that these things really happened. Many of the pictures also show evidence of resistance, adaptation and continuity.

The images included are inevitably skewed in viewpoint, most having been taken by non-Aboriginal men. But they have a value to the extent that they show actual people in actual situations. The photographs shown come from all over Australia. There are many from South Australia including shots from Oodnadatta, Marree, Mannum, Murray Bridge, Koonibba, Ooldea, Coober Pedy and many other towns.

With the opening of the Trans-Australian Railway, Ooldea became the most important stop on the line as it provided permanent and fresh water. It also provided a source of income for Aboriginal people and many images were taken by train passengers. In 1919 Daisy Bates set up camp nearby and remained for 16 years.

Several interesting points emerge if one takes a good look at the pictures and text supplied. Within one or two generations Aborigines had found such jobs as painters, stockmen, trackers, troopers, fishermen, prospectors or guides. Women found jobs as nurses, housemaids or working in the mines, yendying. The next generation produced boxers, a picture of Elliot Bennett who won the Australian bantamweight title in 1948 is included, athletes and even missionaries.

Mervyn Bishop, who became the first Aboriginal press photographer published a picture taken by him in Sydney on National Aborigines Day. This had started in 1938 as a protest against Australia Day being held on the anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet. Almost 80 years later we are still faced with this controversial issue without a solution.

A striking picture is that of Albert Namatjira. Born in Hermannsburg in 1902, he became the central figure of the Hermannsburg School. He started painting in the 1930s and was awarded a Coronation Medal in 1953. In 1957 he was granted full citizenship rights. Queen Elizabeth II met several Aboriginal artists of the Hermannsburg School in 1963, including three brothers of Albert Namatjira. Royal tours of Australia often involved meetings with Aborigines. The first visiting royal, Prince Albert, Duke of Edinburg travelled to Point McLeay in 1867 where he was received by some 500 Ngarrindjeri people.

There are also pictures by Theodor George Henry Strehlow, better known as Ted. Born in 1908 at Hermannsburg where his parents were missionaries he soon spoke the local language as well as English and German. After finishing his university studies he returned to Central Australia where he began his decades-long project of studying and recording the language and culture of the regionís people.

Last but not least there are pictures from Paul Heinrich Matthias Foelsche. Born in Hamburg in 1831 he became the head of police in the Top End for 35 years. His beautiful picture of Aboriginal girl Nelly is included as are some by Samuel White Sweet of Point McLeay and some by Francis Edwin Birtles who took them while cycling around Australia.

This publication does not aim to fix interpretations, but relies on the power of the images themselves to convey emotions and to tell stories. It gives a good insight in the life of Aboriginal people. Its captivating record is a start rather than an end point.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are advised that the book contains images of people who are deceased.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Bitter Fruit, HB 280 pp,
with references and index is available at $110.00 from
Wakefield Press
Telephone 08 8352 4455

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