Bush Babies is a community art project that tells the stories of Noongar Elders from across WA who were born in the bush and the midwives who delivered them.
These stories are from a time when Aboriginal people were not permitted to live in towns or cities, and definitely not permitted to give birth in a hospital. Instead, Bush Babies were born in reserves, missions and on the outskirts of town in tents, makeshift shelters and under the stars.
The project uses a range of arts including photography, textile craft, oral history recordings, short film and portrait painting to encourage participants from Quairading, Kellerberrin, Narrogin, Katanning, Bunbury and Moora to tell their stories.
The project has achieved many outcomes for the communities involved, including skills development across art forms, the capturing of Elders’ stories, the bringing together of feuding families, strengthened family connections and the development of strength and resilience across communities.
In 2014 a high profile portrait exhibition, Bush Babies: Honouring Our Elders, was held at the WA Museum in Perth and over 72,000 people visited the exhibition.
This project originated with Elder Winnie McHenry who was previously involved with CAN’s Noongar Voices of the Wheatbelt project and had wanted to honour Bush Babies and Noongar Midwives for some time.
CAN facilitated research visits to the State Library, as well as scrapbooking and photo workshops that explored the history of the Bush Babies and their descendants. A big community reunion was held at the Badjaling Noongar Reserve in 2010 where photographs, stories and memories were shared and through this, Bush Babies was born.
Read more about how the Bush Babies project evolved by following each town’s stories:
In 2010, a group of local Quairading community members came together for a reunion at the Badjaling Noongar Reserve in the Central Wheatbelt, a meeting that was the beginning of Bush Babies.
At the reunion the Elders who were born at Badjaling and the Noongar midwives who delivered them shared photographs, stories and memories of the Reserve. Working alongside oral historian Mary Anne Jebb, a film crew from Film and Television Institute’s Indigenous Community Stories recorded the day and photographer Brad Rimmer ran photographic workshops and took portraits of the Elders.
Many of the documents and photographs shared on the day had been sourced by women with connections to the Reserve, from the State’s Battye Library and the Department of Indigenous Affairs.
With this collection of images and archives, artist Raelee Cook ran photo album workshops in Kellerberrin and Quairading after the reunion to give local community members the opportunity to artistically collate their photographs and keep exchanging images and stories.
In Kellerberrin the Bush Babies project started in 2012 and involved more than 80 community members in a series of photographic workshops, photo documentation, digital recordings, research trips and community storytelling events.
The project involved the State Library, photographers Jarred Seng, Tash Nannup and Richard Watson, and scrapbooking expert Raelee Cook.
The project culminated in a photographic exhibition that captured and celebrated the strength and resilience of Noongar families in the Eastern Wheatbelt.
The exhibition documented current cultural and family knowledge and also included archival photographs that shared stories from the community’s past.
CAN also produced a community calendar that showcased the photos.
When Bush Babies went to Narrogin in 2013 the project took another direction.
CAN had planned to run a series of digital media, storytelling, oral history and craft workshops to assist Noongar families in Narrogin and Katanning to tell their own Bush Babies stories. The project was launched in Narrogin with an exhibition of the imagery collected in Kellerberrin and Quairading.
One of the features of the exhibition was an image of Hazel Winmar (Nana Purple), who was at the time the oldest Ballardong woman. Nana Purple very sadly passed away in her home town of Kellerberrin surrounded by family and friends in 2014, at 100 years old.
When local Narrogin artist Graham Smith saw the portrait of Nana Purple in the exhibition, he was so taken aback he wanted to paint her portrait.
This inspired other artists, including Noongar artists, to honour the Elders in the exhibition by painting them and from that small seed, the Bush Babies: Honouring Our Elders Portrait Exhibition grew.
The exhibition opened NAIDOC Week in 2014 at the WA Museum and State Library of WA with the Elders, artists and their families travelling from all over Noongar country to attend the launch.
The exhibition was a huge success and attracted more than 72,000 visitors who shared in these Bush Babies’ stories.
In Bunbury CAN worked with the descendents of the Hill, Bennell and Collard families to honour their relatives’ journey from the farming town of Pingelly to their traditional home country around Burekup and Bunbury.
This was an intergenerational arts and storytelling workshop program that celebrated the journey of the family, and involved the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Charles and Rachel Hill (deceased).
CAN ran eco-dyeing, blanket-making, textile and photo-sharing workshops with the families, which resulted in handmade baby blankets decorated with fabric photo prints featuring members of their family past and present – beautiful keepsakes that tell their stories.
To capture the overarching family story, the participants identified 12 significant locations that held many personal memories and a lot of meaning. These locations tell the story of their families’ journey away from racism, oppression and government polices related to the Stolen Generation.
The families and CAN then embarked on a two-day family reunion to visit each location with a professional photographer who documented the journey.
On this reunion, the family spoke of children who were taken from their families and placed in missions and reserves near Pingelly, their travels to find a better life in Burekup, and the final journey to Bunbury where they established a home.
CAN is producing a publication that compiles the stories of this journey alongside the stunning collection of images of the descendants of Charles and Rachel Hill at each of the 12 significant locations.
Dawn Alone, descendent of Charles and Rachel Hill said “I call it a journey on the Hill side of Charlie and Rachel Hill. It’s their journey from an old cow paddock, teaching their kids about the land, and surviving. Our kids now know where we grew up and where we lived and I hope they will pass it on to their kids when they get married.”
Bush Babies has played a vital role in Moora, where the sharing of stories has brought together feuding families who were divided and suffering grief after many deaths in the community.
The Moora community was inspired by CAN’s previous project Yarns of the Heart: Noongar Dolls, and focused on creating textile ‘babies from the bush’ using a variety of natural materials and ancestral techniques including eco-dyeing and weaving.
With local Noongar artist Gloria Egan, CAN delivered a series of workshops in New Norcia and Moora in 2014, and participants created their own ‘bush baby’ and shared their family story alongside it.
Each Bush Baby doll has a story connected to it, including local Noongar woman Margaret Drayton’s piece, which featured two baby dolls connected to a tree – a tribute to her daughter who buried the placentas from her pregnancies under a tree on land connected to their family.
As part of the project, Moora Elders also visited birthing sites around the area with CAN photographer Christophe Canato who photographed the Elders honouring their Bush Baby stories and ancestors.
The Moora project reunited the Moora Aboriginal community, recreated social links and celebrated Noongar culture.
Bush Babies in Goolmalling has taken the form of an intergenerational project called Goomalling Yarns which combines hip hop, oral histories, photography and printmaking.
Senior community members shared historic photos and stories of when people were living in the bush, on reserves, in missions and on the outskirts of town. More than 350 historic photos where identified in this process and uploaded to the WA State Library’s Storylines archive. The photographs, including the significant Mavis Walley Collection, document generations of Noongar families living in and around Goomalling since as early as 1925.
The senior’s stories were recorded by oral historians Bill Bunbury and Jemma King and used to create a radio documentary. Young people were then invited to reinterpret the senior’s stories and images using photography and hip hop with photographers Nat Brunovs and Mary Parker and hip hop MC Scott Griffiths. The senior community members used their photos and stories to create mix-media artworks with artists Poppy van Oorde-Grainger and Iris Guilmartin which are included in the oral history/ hip hop CD package.
Goomalling Yarns: Stories from Koomal boodja
The Busselton phase of the of Bush Babies program focused on sharing personal stories, Noongar language and seaside living through art.
In 2016, a series of painting workshops were held with community members who painted self-portraits, family portraits, personal journeys, childhood and life in remote communities.
Collage and Noongar language workshops were also held with local families and students from Busselton Primary School to create the Andalap Djedi (2016) community collage depicting creatures found under the iconic Busselton Jetty.
The images, with their Noongar names, were then translated to a poster to be used as an educational resource in the community
These paintings and the poster were launched at the Keyen Koondarm online on CAN’s newly launched STORYSCAPE page.
You can hear their recordings here: http://www.canstoryscapeswa.com/
Caption: Jennifer Hill being interviewed by Bill Bunbury
Bush Babies on the River involved oral history recordings, painting workshops, photography, family history research and cultural mapping.
These community art gatherings brought people together to record and preserve the stories of Aboriginal families connected to Midland.
One of the participants, traditional owner and Swan River custodian, Albert Corunna, spoke of ancestral ties reaching as far back as legendary Noongar freedom fighter Yagan.
Other participants were born in communities across Noongar country, however, they all felt deeply connected to Midland and call it home.
The stories and artworks produced during Midland Bush Babies were compiled on a CD and booklet.
Hundreds of copies of the CD were handed back to community at the launch of the BORN ON COUNTRY exhibition at the Midland Junction Art Centre during NAIDOC Week 2016.