• 'Our Mutable Histories' is now on display at the Museum of Brisbane, in City Hall. (NITV)Source: NITV
Artist Robert Andrew set out to find the truth about his Aboriginal ancestry, but what he uncovered was a dark chapter of Australia's past.
Ella Archibald-Binge

3 May 2017 - 5:46 PM  UPDATED 3 May 2017 - 5:47 PM

At age 13, Robert Andrew discovered something that would shake his sense of identity to the core: he was Aboriginal. 

"I was told about Aboriginal people at school, and the history that I was given showed Aboriginal people as living in humpies out in the desert, standing on one leg, holding a spear," he says. 

"It was a really strange thing to try to grasp as a child, because you could see your family and they weren't what they were showing."

Growing up in Perth with his "white, middle class" family, his mother's Indigenous ancestry was never discussed.

But one day, while looking at photos with his grandmother, Robert discovered he was a descendant of the Yawuru people from the Kimberley.

As a teenager trying to define his identity, he struggled to process the information. 

"I was sort of proud about it, but sort of quiet in a sense, because I thought 'wow we're from this land'," he says. 

"For a long time, I didn't explore that any further than just knowing - and not even wanting to know about a lot of that history - because I was told about history. I was told how we were discovered and then colonised and it was all pretty happy."

Finding the truth

Decades later, inspired by his sisters' research, he would begin to uncover the truth about Australia's hidden past, and how it affected his family. 

He joined the Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art Unit at Griffith University, which gives students a place to explore their family history and channel it into artwork. 

Through extensive research, he found government documents that painted a crude picture of the way his grandmother and great-grandmother were treated.

"There is even more reason to exercise control, as the girl mixes with other half-caste girls of whom are several in Broome, and her mother, an Aboriginal, has recently been before the court for receiving liquor," reads one document signed by the Chief Protector of Aborigines, referring to Robert's grandmother.  

His grandmother, like many Aboriginal children, was taken from her mother and sent to a convent. She later applied for Australian citizenship, which was denied several times because she refused to renounce her Aboriginality.

Robert's mother went to boarding school at a young age, and rarely spoke openly about her heritage. 

It wasn't long before these discoveries began to influence Robert's artwork, which was a "powerful tool" in explaining his research.

Now, three of those pieces are on display at the Museum of Brisbane, as part of an exhibition called 'Our Mutable Histories'.  

Carefully assembled over six months, the works are rife with symbolism, designed to highlight the hidden struggles that Indigenous peoples faced, and continue to face, since colonisation. 

WATCH: Robert Andrew assembles his latest exhibition, 'Our Mutable Histories'

One artwork etches words from historical government documents into pine boards from Robert's 1860s worker's cottage (using trees that were here pre-colonisation). Robert burnt the boards (he says fire has been used to dispose of "unwanted things" such as the evidence from massacres for a long time), doused them with ochres and layered them with chalk, before etching the Chief Protector of Aborigines' words into the wood. 

"I wanted to disempower those words that actually controlled my family I suppose, my grandmother and great-grandmother," Robert says. 

The artist hopes the display will give people something to think about. 

"There's a lot more depth to be taught to actually understand, and with that understanding then comes a greater understanding about Indigenous culture and the struggle that Indigenous people had over the time," he says.

"Because that idea of it's 2017, get over it, move on... there's still a lot to be reconciled. There's still a lot to be brought forward." 

As for his own identity, he now proudly recognises his Yawuru heritage, but acknowledges he still has plenty to learn.

"I recognise myself as an Indigenous man and also a non-Indigenous man, so there's this duality that I think still causes me conflict.

"I think it's the knowledge that goes behind it that makes the person, and I'm at kindergarten I think."

Our Mutable Histories is on display at the Museum of Brisbane in City Hall, until 16 July, 2017