With a diverse career in the arts as a photographer, co-founder of Boomalli Aboriginal Arts Cooperative, a curator and an academic, Brenda L. Croft has been telling Indigenous stories for than three decades.
NITV: Where is country for you?
Brenda: My patrilineal [father’s side] traditional country is in the Victoria River region of the Northern Territory. My people are Gurindji/Malngin/Mudpurra and my father was born on Victoria River Downs, a pastoral station, around 1926.
My father was taken to Kahlin Compound, Darwin, with my grandmother Bessie Croft in 1927. He was then removed from his mother at Kahlin in 1931 and taken to Pine Creek Boys Home and then The Bungalow Half-Caste Children’s Home in Alice Springs where he remained until 1940.
He was then sent to All Souls Anglican College in Charters Towers Queensland and was not reunited with his mother until 1974 when my family travelled to Darwin to spend time with her at Retta Dixon Children’s Home where she lived, working as the laundress. She passed away in December 1974 and is buried in Darwin.
I have been returning to the NT regularly since 1987 and first travelled to Kalkaringi and Daguragu in 1991. When my father passed away in 1996 my brother Tim and I took his ashes home to be buried in Kalkaringi cemetery.
NITV: What memories does it hold?
Brenda: Memories are multi-faceted – in 1974 as a child of 10 I remember meeting my grandmother for the first time; stepping off the aeroplane at the old aerodrome into the heat of the dry season in Darwin; the scent of frangipanis outside the cottage where we stayed; the sound of geckoes barking in the night; the scent of my grandmother as she held my hand and took me with her for walks around Retta Dixon Children’s Home; the sound of her speaking to me in Aboriginal English or kriol.
My next visit to Darwin as a young adult in 1987 brought back those vivid memories. My first visit to Gurindji country at Kalkaringi and Daguragu had a profound effect on me – I clearly recall my first meeting with Uncle ‘Hoppy Mick’ Rangiari (now deceased), who called my father his brother. My father had first travelled to Kalkaringi in 1989 and recorded oral histories with many Elders in his family research about his life.
My next trip home was in 1996 with my brother when we took Dad’s ashes home to country for his memorial service and burial. This journey deeply impacted on my brother, aged 25 and is a treasured memory of a shared experience as adults.
Memories of country are also connected to where I was born in Perth, WA. Even though these are not my traditional homelands my earliest memories are of the white heat of Nyoongar land in 1960s high summer, the white and yellow sands of that place, learning to swim at City Beach, then travelling across the Nullarbor with my family in 1968.
NITV: How have your parents and family history inspired your work?
Brenda: My work has always drawn up personal and public archives and memories. My work is also inspired by the collective experiences of Indigenous peoples in Australia since 1788 – dislocation from traditional homelands, family, community, customs and language; reconnection to country, family, community; revival of cultural practices; creation of new work drawing upon all these events.
NITV: What legacy do you hope to leave for the future generations of your family?
Brenda: To be proud and strong about our Indigenous heritage – a combination of Gurindji/Malngin/Mudpurra, and Chinese, Irish, English, German and Australian. My brother’s children also have French heritage from their mother who has been a great partner to my brother.
My work is about giving a voice to the voiceless, making the invisible visible – listening, seeing, sharing.
'My work is about giving a voice to the voiceless, making the invisible visible – listening, seeing, sharing.'
To remember the sacrifices of those who went before us, creating pathways for people like me to not have to struggle against the same odds they faced, and to make the pathway better for those coming after my generation.
NITV: Why did you choose photography as your medium to create?
Brenda: I work across media and disciplines. I started in photo-media but from the outset included personal and public archives, oral histories, collage, text, multi-media and installation to present my work. Recent work has included sound, moving image and performance work. My work as a curator in artist-run-initiatives, state, federal and international levels has also informed my artistic practice.
NITV: How do you use photography as a vehicle for challenging the conceptions of other people?
Brenda: I think that is evident in the incredibly diverse range of people represented in my work over the past three decades – young, older, every skin colour, from cities, towns, rural and remote regions. We come from every background and experience, there is no single Indigenous way of being. Everywhere is Indigenous country.
NITV: Over your career you have worn many different hats, what is your current role and what do you love about it?
Brenda: Since 2012 I have been undertaking my PhD in practice-led research – combining creative practice with theoretical research. I love that I have been able to draw upon everything I have learnt over the past 3+ decades and that I am learning more all the time. The privilege of working closely with my family and community at Wave Hill and surrounds has been especially significant for my personal and professional development as an Indigenous woman. I will continue learning till the day I die and will always consider myself to be learning.
'I will continue learning till the day I die and will always consider myself to be learning.'
NITV: What is your next big project?
Brenda: My father would have been 90 this year and this is the 20th anniversary since he passed away. He never met his grandchildren, Luca (8), Sasha (6) and Maddie (2) and he would have loved them dearly. To keep his memory alive for them I am working on his life story and have been interviewing friends and colleagues from his school, university and early working life, prior to his meeting my mother in 1959. His story will be told through imagery and text. I am also fortunate to be working with my community on the significance of the 50th anniversary of the Gurindji Walk-off from Wave Hill Station, the events leading up to it from the first contact in the late 1800s, and the ongoing resonance and impact of this defining moment in Australian history on not only the Gurindji community, but wider Australian society.