Since the colonisation of Indigenous Nations in so-called “Australia” Indigenous people have been homogenised into one large group. There are, however, over five hundred different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nations here, sometimes with varying languages, cultures, and beliefs, holding custodianship of different lands. These words are being written on the lands of the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri people in southeastern “Australia.” We acknowledge them as the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we live and work. We also pay our respects to the Traditional Custodians of the Bay Area, the Ohlone people, where SFMOMA is a guest.
When we use the term “mob,” we are talking about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Your mob is your community, your family; it could refer directly to your lineage and bloodlines, or to the broader Blak community. It references the way our peoples were labeled savages by colonisers the equivalent to animals, like a mob of kangaroos or emus. It is a term we have reclaimed and now use as a marker of belonging.
Some mob refer to ourselves as “Blakfullas” — the term Blak (as opposed to Black) was coined by the amazing artist Destiny Deacon in the ’90s in a largely urban context, and is now used widely by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to distinguish our experience of Blackness. There’s no one way to be Blak, no skin tone or physical feature that can determine it. It’s a term that speaks to the nuances that exist in our Australian context, and honors our Ancestors; though we may not look or act exactly like them, we are no less Aboriginal — it’s in our DNA. It’s a clapback to genocidal government policies that tried to eliminate us by “breeding out the black.”
This is a conversation between Maddee Clark, Natalie Ironfield, Alice Skye, and Kate ten Buuren, four Aboriginal people who are involved with the ever-evolving First Nations arts collective this mob. this mob was formed to connect emerging Blak artists, build strength between us, celebrate Blakness, and destroy imposed boundaries that try to inhibit creativity and culture. We do this by curating group exhibitions, hosting private workshops for mob to develop new skills and connect with various cultural practices, organise public events that showcase Blak talent and modes of resistance, and coordinating an annual two-night retreat on Taungurung Country. More generally, we try to make time and space to talk about things that matter to us.
Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh writer, curator and PHD candidate writing on Indigenous Futurism and race; Natalie Ironfield is a Dharug researcher, educator, and photographer; Alice Skye is a Wergaia/Wemba Wemba singer-songwriter; and Kate ten Buuren is a Taungurung artist, writer, curator, and founder of this mob. Together, we yarn about community, colonial borders, and the policing of Aboriginal bodies and expressions, while eating poke bowls made by Alice and dairy-free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
Kate ten Buuren: I wanna talk about the power of collectivising and mobilising young people from all different mobs, all different nations, as a way of creating strong bonds and allegiances that defy colonial borders. Our communities have been so displaced, forced from our countries and our cultures, families, and lands, that collectivising and knowing each other is revolutionary in itself. It’s a way of standing up and saying “we are still here.” No matter what kind of boundaries and obstacles are thrown our way by the government, we are strong because we are connected.
Alice Skye: There’s such a big mix of Blakfullas from all over the place who now live in Melbourne, myself included. Growing up in a country town I was really ostracised for being Aboriginal, so coming to Melbourne where there’s so many mob around, and lots of mob who are artists, is really inspiring. A big part of practising art here is acknowledging that I too am not from here, and that I should pay respect to the Traditional Owners. It’s a powerful act to create spaces that both respect the people whose lands we are on, and provide space for a variety of mob to come together and get to know one another. Especially when we have the opportunities to meet and work with Elders.
KtB: I feel really lucky to be able to live and work in Melbourne because there is so much going on, and there are so many incredible artists here. But the dream is to work on my own Country, which is luckily not far from here. Taungurung and Wurundjeri Countries share a border… I don’t usually consider it a “border,” actually; it’s more of an intersection.
Natalie Ironfield: When I think about borders in the context of “Australia,” well, obviously colonial borders come to mind, but even when you think about our borders, our different mobs and where they came from, that too is somewhat the result of colonialism.
AS: As in literally drawing a line on a map?
NI: Yeah, that was a result of Native Title.
Maddee Clark: Some nations aren’t even recognised on there.
NI: We have a whole different concept of things. Those exact borders didn’t exist prior to occupation.
MC: It’s interesting when the lines we’re talking about are state lines. When a state line runs through your country, then the Native Title is different on both sides. The policy and process is different because they’re different governments. My grandma talks a little bit about the way arbitrary lines are drawn around countries. People don’t understand that a lot of these places were shared before by Aboriginal people. Not all of those boundaries existed before and Aboriginal people shared things. It’s just lines, you know.
KtB: I think our ideas of borders are different. When I think about it and I listen to Elders talking about borders, it’s more about knowing that when you come to someone else’s Country, you respect their lore and their people and their language and their culture. It’s actually about knowing your neighbours, as opposed to blocking them and keeping them out. It’s not drawing a line and putting up a wall. It’s just knowing that when you come onto this land, you’ve got to know about the people and the culture there. It’s not, “Stay the fuck away. You’re not welcome.” It’s more like, “You’re welcome, if you do these things.”
MC: Everything that I have heard from the old people that I’ve talked to has just been like, “Oh, all the land is connected and all the people are connected and the stories travel from one end of the country to the other.” There’s no, “This is mine and this is not for anyone else to have.” Everybody’s connected — which is a really amazing way to think about community and Country. It just totally changes everything.
NI: Colonialism and whiteness call it contested land instead of shared land. It doesn’t have to be contested, it can be shared. Obviously, some places are significant to only one group, and it’s important that those mobs are acknowledged as the rightful Custodians of those lands. But I guess what I’m trying to say is there are places, really significant places — for example the Blue Mountains — which prior to colonialism would have been shared by multiple Nations. But then all of a sudden, the coloniser tries to get us to have definite and exact borders, which are defined by white law rather than our lore. How do you put a line on a map over a place that was utilised by many groups? The system is flawed.
KtB: The idea that it’s a contest is also wild.
NI: Yeah, that totally links to when we start applying colonial notions of land as property and something that can be owned and possessed, rather than…
AS: A life source.
NI: Yeah. A life source and something that you belong to.
MC: Also, the border doesn’t only exist along a line. It exists in all these different interpersonal interactions that are taking place in the country, as well. The border is being asserted wherever whiteness is being asserted, and onto the bodies of people of colour.
KtB: It’s just another way for us to be categorised by the coloniser, so we are easier to understand. If they can see it on a map it’s easier, not considering that the process isn’t as simple as just drawing a line for us. It’s our creation, our history, our family. These lines though become really crucial when negotiating with the government either in court with Native Title or in a Traditional Owner Settlement. The whole process needs to be flipped because it doesn’t operate on our terms. I think a lot about the idea that Aboriginal people immigrated here from Africa, and how that’s just another way of categorising and making sense of us. I was literally born of the earth, out of the mud, so how could I have migrated from Africa?
MC: Which is wild. The Māori have been in New Zealand for a much shorter period of time. They did migrate. They came from the sea and that’s acknowledged as part of their history but they’re also acknowledged as the original owners and as the custodians and it doesn’t actually delegitimise them as —
NI: Indigenous people.
MC: And as people with bargaining power and political power. Whereas in Australia it’s like, “You guys migrated here from somewhere else anyway.” That’s their way of taking away your sovereignty. It just doesn’t work that way in any other sovereign context. The country usually identifies as a country of migrants. People decided to be like, “Aboriginal people are the first settlers.” Like the “Original Australians” versus the “New Australians.” The “New Australians” are the white people and the “Original Australians” are the Aboriginals.
KtB: Yeah. Do you identify as Australian, Nat?
NI: Did you see that banner that I made?
[this mob hosted a banner painting session in the lead-up to Invasion Day to ready us for the protest that takes place each year. Invasion Day is January 26, the day that Governor Arthur Phillips and the First Fleet arrived in Sydney in 1788, marking the beginning of the invasion and the decimation of Aboriginal people across the continent. The year 1938 marked 150 years of occupation of Aboriginal lands. It was during this year as well that Uncle William Cooper and Uncle Jack Patten, with many other Aboriginal activists, protested the treatment of Aboriginal people under white law, demanding freedom, better living conditions, and equal citizenship; they also named it a Day of Mourning. It was not until after the Australian states federated in 1901 that a national celebration of Australia was discussed, and it was not until the 1990s that this was actualised. Aboriginal people have been protesting this day for generations. Now known by many names, including Day of Mourning, Survival Day, and Invasion Day, January 26 is used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to mourn and spread awareness of our survival while addressing our continued oppression under a colonial government. Today, Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance lead this protest in all major Australian cities, and have initiated campaigns like Abolish Australia Day to stop the ongoing attempted genocide and erasure of Aboriginal people and the ecocide of our lands.]
KtB: What did the banner say?
NI: It said, “Fuck Australia, burn it to the ground.” That is in reference to the Australian colony. No, I do not identify as Australian. What about you?
KtB: I guess, when I travel, it’s very hard to be like, “I’m Taungurung.” But then again when I was on Turtle Island on Lenape lands for First Nations Dialogues, I could proudly say that I was Taungurung first because I knew that it was going to be heard by a room full of Indigenous people.
AS: I had the same experience when I was in Taiwan for Yirramboi with the Indigenous Taiwanese people. It was the first time I’d met people who weren’t our mob that I didn’t have to explain it to. There was no confusion. They were just like, “cool,” and would repeat the word that I had just said, so that they would remember back. It was so nice. I also remember when I was in primary school, when you had to write bios or something, I would never write “Australian.” Then in other surveys, if you had to write religion, I used to write Aboriginal. I don’t know. I would just always find a way to write it on something.
NI: That’s so cute! Religion: Aboriginal.
MC: There’s also white people that support Aboriginal activism, who are like, “I don’t identify as Australian. That government doesn’t represent me,” or “that country doesn’t represent me.” And I’m like… you don’t get to not identify as Australian. You benefit from the idea of Australia. And I’m like, “Well, how are you going to disown that, exactly?” When I’m traveling, I have so much freedom to move across borders because of my passport. I feel like it’s wrong to not acknowledge that as a thing.
NI: I think what you were saying about context is definitely real. When we’re in so-called Australia, I don’t identify as Australian — but then I think that, when you leave this continent, as you were saying, our passports do give us so much privilege. We can go so many places in the world because we come from this land.
KtB: This lucky country.
MC: Yeah. A lucky country, and we are perceived to have come from a really white country. If you have a white Australian passport, you can go wherever you want in the world.
AS: Does anyone know if that little logo on the passport is an Aboriginal flag or…
NI: No. That’s on all passports. It does look like the flag though. Even though the banner never made it to the march, it still exists and someone did a banner drop with it on a bridge.
KtB: Do you know how long it lasted?
NI: I think twenty minutes, and then the cops were called. The person that did it dropped three other banners that day and they said, “I feel like the government must have this storage shed just full of political banners they’ve confiscated.”
AS: Did it get taken?
NI: Yeah. It got taken.
KtB: The police. Terrorism squad or something.
NI: Yeah, probably. During the march they took our microphones, they took our banners.
MC: That was really interesting. It was the idea that terrorism, which is actually just a regime used to police the border, was used on Aboriginal people that day. It was a moment of border policing and colonialism coming together, in that gesture.
NI: How can Blakfullas be terrorists in our own country?
MC: I think we are technically terrorists, according to the government. All of us are, because we are anti-Australia. The terrorism law implicates all of us because it’s actually meant to maintain whiteness and white power.
KtB: I thought terrorism was to incite fear and terror in the masses. We’re just speaking the truth and that scares people.
NI: I’m thinking of the banner, “Fuck Australia, burn it to the ground.” I made that to quote Dtarneen, a founding member of the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance. They said those exact words at last year’s rally. They were obviously being metaphorical, talking about destroying structural oppression, not literally setting fire to anything, but the media and online response when they said those words, and how it was received and manipulated…
MC: It was like they were a terrorist, like they were a threat to the state and the “Australian way of life.” Even when Native Title happened, some of the news coverage that I remember — clips from right around the late ’80s, early ’90s, when it started to become a thing — was like, “They’re going to take your homes, they’re going to take your stuff. They’re coming for your backyard.” The Aboriginal life is just fundamentally threatening to white Australia. Again, regarding the terrorism thing, fear is subjective. Whose fear is prioritised? And the idea of someone inflicting mass fear — well, according to whom? It’s literally just the state asserting its sovereignty over Aboriginal sovereignty.
KtB: Totally. And that’s why I think it’s so important for us to all be asserting our sovereignty in all the spaces we exist in; whether that’s at work, in the street, in the institutions, etc. No matter what, we’re always going to be seen as a threat, and it’s dangerous pretty much everywhere for us. So we need to stick together. I think grassroots collectives like Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance and this mob are really integral because we make space for important conversations to be had between Blak folk; collective action allows us the freedoms to be ourselves, and to make important change within our own community. Collectivising means you don’t have to go through anything alone. It’s a way of fighting the system that wants to isolate us and wear us down. Together we are really strong.
MC: Yes, let’s talk about how this mob is breaking down borders.
NI: Breaking down borders. Boom!
AS: I think togetherness is so important… to not be alone. Especially as artists and performers. It can be so isolating when you’re the only Blak person in the room, or when you’re continually getting booked to be the “token Aboriginal” so that the event doesn’t get called out for not being “diverse” enough. Having mob around you, to just be there and support you, completely changes everything.
KtB: It’s about being culturally safe. And it also means that we can do things on our terms. Being a part of a collective means you’ve got people to back you up; whether that’s demanding to be paid fairly, responding to racist comments at artist talks and panels, and owning our right to say “no” to things. It’s empowering.
AS: I think also the workshops this mob do are really empowering — sharing cultural practises, like the emu feather bundles. I’d never had the opportunity to learn that until I did a workshop. It’s really cool to be in a space where young mob are respectfully teaching and learning about culture, it’s very healing.
KtB: Yeah, there’s a lot that we’ve been deprived of as Indigenous people in terms of practising our culture, accessing our lands, speaking our languages and, in a lot of cases, knowing our family and where we come from. The more spaces we can create to heal those wounds, and allow us to talk about them, the stronger we’ll become. And the less likely the next generation is to inherit that trauma. Music, dance, and art have always been a part of our culture, and practising those methods has profound impacts on our wellbeing and our sense of identity. What I was trying to communicate before, I still don’t know how to communicate it. The name “this mob” means you’re included in this group of people, but it also means not expecting people to divorce themselves of their mob or mobs. It’s creating a moment that can only exist because of who’s there. This conversation can only exist because us four people are here. If there’s one other person, it would be a completely different conversation because they bring their own thing to it. It’s that kind of transient nature of whoever’s in the room, making up —
AS: Like making up this mob.
KtB: Yeah. Nat’s bringing Dharug, Alice is bringing Wergaia and Wemba Wemba, Maddee’s bringing Yugambeh. You bring your own… I don’t like to think of it as borders but you know, your own Country and your own stories to the group, to the collective, and that’s what makes it. It’s a hybrid of all these different things, and it’s not bound to anything. It’s not even bound to a certain place because we don’t have a space that we hang out in all the time. It’s always in different places.
AS: I love that though.
NI: I love that. It will be so nice if we had our own space though.
KtB: I know.
NI: Can you pass us the ice cream please?