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A transformative friendship between a Filipina migrant and Aboriginal Australian

Jelina Haines' connection to the Ngarrindjeri (Indigenous community in South Australia) (L-R) Aunty Ellen and Jelina Haines. Source: Credit: Jelina Haines, 2019 SA Australian of the Year Awards nominee

A Filipina artist and designer has found friendship and connection with Aboriginal elders and their art.

Jelina Haines migrated to Australia during the late 90’s barely having anything at all.

She was an adopted child who took on the role of a parent to her younger siblings at a rural community in the Visayas region in the Philippines. 

The young Ms Haines would attune to their needs and create crafts from indigenous materials to sell in the marketplace to feed her family.

Jelina Haines' artwork
"Moving and adapting to new culture was not an easy transition but going back to school and learning new stuff particularly in arts was a healing process" -J.H.
Supplied by Jelina Haines

When she migrated from the Philippines, her struggles persisted - only it came in a different form.

Ms Haines admitted to being a target of racist attacks and was stereotyped based on her colour and country of origin.

This brought the timid and naïve Filipina to lose her connection to others which led to her isolation. The thought of being unaccepted in a new society was a Goliath she believed then she could not surmount. 

Ms Jelina Haines
"My father–in–law Alan Haines, myself and my mother-in-law Christine Haines (who passed away 3 years ago), a part of my journey since I moved to Australia."-JH
Supplied by Jelina Haines

Despite everything she went through, the passion to create crafts remained burning within her. She continued her art until fate brought her one day to the basket weaving workshop of Ellen Trevorrow (or whom she calls as Aunty Ellen), a Ngarrindjeri elder.

"Moving and adapting to a new culture was not an easy transition but going back to school and learning new stuff particularly in arts was a healing process."

In the art of weaving this ancient craft of the Ngarrindjeri community, Ms Haines discovered a new purpose in life and found a connection through her friendship with Aunty Ellen.

Home also exists in a foreign land 

Weaving became a symbolic mark of their friendship. Ms Haines discovered there were similarities not only between the Filipino and Ngarrindjeri basket weaving but also in their culture, beliefs and traditions.

After she immersed herself in Aunty Ellen’s community, she realised home is not only the familiar land where she raised her siblings, home also exists here with Aunty Ellen and the Ngarrindjeri elders.

Jelina Haines and her art
"Being an artist allows me to communicate without hesitation. It builds my confidence. Winning awards has also been helpful." -J.H.
Supplied by Jelina Haines

Since then, the collaboration between Ms Haines and Aunty Ellen continued and it opened doors to many opportunities. They started projects to work with children, implement programs, and mount exhibits overseas.

“When you respect each other, you build that trust and if you build that trust and respect together, you kind of collaborate and you help each other,” shared Ms Haines. 

Camp Coorong's demise 

One of the highlights of their friendship is working hand in hand in Camp Coorong, a cultural education centre and museum that used to preserve Ngarrindjeri heritage through its arts. 

They conducted workshops in Camp Coorong, teaching non-Aboriginals the Ngarrindjeri techniques in basket-weaving. "It's how the elders pass their knowledge to other communities," she added. 

The camp, however, shut down last year. The two women took initial steps to re-open it but had to put it on hold because of Aunty Ellen's condition.

"[Aunty Ellen] is unwell and she's losing hope," the Filipina-Australian artist said.

Ms Haines, who treats Aunty Ellen as her mum and adviser, would like to continue the fight for Camp Coorong but she is aware of certain boundaries and could only go so far.

Jelina Haines and Aunty Ellen
Jelina Haines and Aunty Ellen’s trip to Vancouver. They presented a research paper related to her PhD study.
Supplied by Jelina Haines

But in the midst of this tribulation, the two women are finding ways to keep the Ngarrindjeri weaving alive. Ms Haines would facilitate workshops in schools and organise programs for Aunty Ellen to provide her a source of income during these hard times.

They are also collaborating on huge collections such as the weaved life-size whale they created which is soon to be exhibited in the Louvre Museum in France.

Healed through meaningful relationships

What came after the first simple conversation between Ms Haines and Aunty Ellen was powerful. They began to recognize and identify oneself in ‘the other’ despite their difference in race, language, and historical inheritance.

Ms Haines’ relationship with Aunty Ellen brought out the best in her. She transformed into a courageous artist worthy to be a recipient of prestigious awards in the art community.

She also pursued education to feel empowered and advocate for many causes such as child education and women’s rights. Ms Haines believes education turned her bolder to express her voice with dignity.

Jelina Haines as an academic, mum and volunteer
Ms Haines is currently doing her PhD research at University of South Australia. She also has an ongoing project called, ‘Literacy Backpack Project Philippines'.
Supplied by Ms Jelina

This year, Ms Haines has been nominated at the South Australia’s division of the Australia of the Year awards in the ‘Local Hero’ category. She was recognised for her community work and her university study focusing on the culture of the Indigenous Australians.

At the height of her success, she is far different from her old vulnerable self. That side of her appears to be long gone and would not exist anymore.

She had mourned enough for her painful past that could not be undone. In moving on, she thinks she was healed by the relationships she made, rooted in respect and trust, in her adopted land. 

Ms Haines’ meaningful connection with Aunty Ellen and the many other people she helped from diverse ethnical background, became a way for her to move forward and approach the future with hope.


Listen to the full interview.


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