A story of immense achievement


Don and Koopah


Jim at sacred fish hole of Thutirla Pula story

This short ABC news report – Twin celebrations for Wangkangurru Yarluyandi people, features Elders talking of their Native Title Claim success. I take my hat off to them for this success story; the years of hard work and the suffering that has gone into achieving this moment. Don Rowlands and Jim Crombie, who feature in the report, both helped develop the Grounded exhibition and I am so delighted to see them here relating the good news. Having had the honour of spending time with them, I know how much heart and soul has gone into getting to this point.

For those new to the blog, the Grounded exhibition, a commission by Glasgow Life for Festival 2014 XX Commonwealth Games, is now open at An Lanntair Art Gallery in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, from 13 September to 11 October, a partner event at Hebtember Festival.

The Grounded residency diary entries and photographs begin here in Scotland and then in Australia here. The book that accompanied the exhibition can be found at Exhibition explanatory book

You can also link to information about the exhibition at these links: Introductory panel in English and Introductory panel in Gaelic.

Three audiovisuals that were part of Grounded, and the promotional audiovisual, can be watched here

Educational workshops run at An Lanntair Gallery in conjunction with Grounded can be viewed here and here.

Joe’s educational video of me talking about the exhibition can be viewed here.

The introductory page for the blog can be found here. Feedback on the Glasgow Festival 2014, XX Commonwealth Games exhibition can be linked to here. Photos of the Glasgow opening event are here. Glasgow workshops, talks and exhibition details are here. And the Digital Resources pages of the blog for further information are here and here.

An interview about my work with journalist Jim Gilchrist is on the Struileag website which can be linked to here. And a response to the Alice Springs jail post by Professor Smith can be found here. A BBC Radio Scotland interview can be found here. A review by Dr Kate Robinson can be found here. And you can listen to a cut down recording of “In Conversation: Connecting through Culture” at this Vimeo link. (16 mins.) (One of our afternoon events at Glasgow Festival 2014 showing). Or listen to some music from one of our Glasgow afternoon events here.

My artist biography can be linked to here and here and my personal website is here

Some other sites that link to Grounded can be found here

Funder acknowledgements can be viewed here



Heading to Glasgow; exhibition, workshops and artist talks details


Lewis on Isle of Lewis; seaweed harvest


Jim at sacred fish hole of Thutirla Pula story

Tomorrow we are heading to Glasgow to start setting up the exhibition, (and then to enjoy the festival), and so I will be absent from posting for a couple of weeks.

But before we go, I’d like to let you know that I am also running some workshops at the Airc Gaelic Cultural Space and giving two talks at Strathclyde University.

At the Airc Gaelic Cultural Space, 121/127 Saltmarket, (Sat 2 and Sunday 3 August at 9.30am) I am facilitating a photography workshop, and will be “In Conversation” with poet Babs MacGregor. The promo blurbs are here:

In Conversation: Connecting through Culture
Babs MacGregor, Gaelic Poet and Judith Parrott, artist for the Grounded exhibition, discuss what the impact of a strong cultural identity might be on personal and environmental well-being. In the discussion reference is made to Scottish Gaelic and Australian Aboriginal cultures; loss of land and suppression of language, and the deep connections to land that has kept these cultures alive. Chaired by Gaelic Arts Producer Rona MacDonald.

Photography workshop

Judy Parrott, artist from the Grounded Exhibition, invites you to bring your cameras along to the exhibition to discuss photographic composition and design in the context of the show. Then head out into the festival together to take a few exciting festival shots using some of your new-found skills. Suitable for age 15 years and over.

At Strathclyde University as part of their Summer Programme ( Phone 0141 548 2116/4287 or booking information is on page 55, here) on Monday 28 July

The promo blurbs:

Grounded (1.30-2.30pm)

In association with the exhibition Grounded, showing at Merchant City Festival during the Commonwealth Games 2014, this presentation includes images from Australian Aboriginal communities in the Central Desert regions, and from Gaelic speaking communities in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Two places with nothing and everything in common. The presentation invites discussion on ways in which people connect through the land and find spirituality through land. It also addresses the consequences for environmental and personal well-being when people become disconnected from the land.

Antarctica (12-1pm)

This class follows the life of the scientific and trades-people community during four months with the Australian Antarctic Division at Casey, Mawson and Davis Stations, on the ship south, and out on the field. Seen through the eyes of Artist in Residence, Judith Parrott, the presentation includes images and sounds of Antarctica and tells a story of life in one of the world’s remotest locations. How do people manage in an isolated environment with the same small group of people for months or even years at a time, with none of the conveniences of city life? Come along to find out and join in a discussion with the artist about the importance of community and of connection to our environment. (Some information on the Antarctica residencies can be found on my website here)

Grounded Exhibition

And finally, Grounded is on at 121/127 Saltmarket, at the Airc Gaelic Cultural Space, 11am to 6pm, 23 July to 3 August. Details can be found in the Merchant City Festival programme.

The Gaelic Cultural Space will also feature an acoustic programme of Gaelic inspired performances most days at 3pm, morning workshops at 9.30-10.30am and Galgael whose cafe was such a tasty success at last year’s Merchant City Festival.

There is a HD version of the short promotional video for Grounded here and a lower res version here.

Culture and Festival 2014 guides can be found here

Returning to the beginning


Sand drift



I have reached the point in the Grounded blog where I said in my first Australia post “I begin this story at the end”. That is, it was the evening of the 21st September, ie the evening of yesterday’s posting, and the evening when I was arrested for doing no more than inquiring after the welfare of a friend; my first blog posting in this leg of the residencies. If you are new to this blog and haven’t read that post and the ensuing day in court, you can link to the story here or to the ensuing day in court here, and to the response by Professor of Criminology, Philip Smith, here. These stories are a window into a strange and disturbing world that is a routine problem for Indigenous people.

But now my post that follows the night in prison and the day in court:

24 September 2014

It’s Tuesday and I have been struggling to stay motivated for the last few days. I am gathering my strength to remain positive and arrange some meetings for tomorrow, so for some light relief I book myself onto the backpacker shuttle bus for a trip to the Alice Springs Desert Park. Its 38 degrees and I will have five hours of walking around in no shade through the middle of the day – but I’m going.

I immediately feel depressed by the light and happy nature of the backpacker shuttle. Their world seems a million miles from mine, like they are floating somewhere between here and the sky.

The Desert Park is well laid out, informative and easy to navigate around. I record the birds and read all the signs.

There is a talk about survival in the desert, which I decide to attend. I sink a little when I see it is taken by a non-Aboriginal person. Admittedly this is not usually the case.

The talk is clear and informative and interesting. She knows a lot. But I am left with an impression that all the Aboriginal people of Australia are happily living connected lives; seamlessly negotiating both the Aboriginal and non Aboriginal worlds in which they find themselves; the consequences of their displacement brushed to obscurity. She tells me that Aboriginal culture is evolving when I ask.

The speaker explains how the land is sacred, that the sanctity runs below the ground too. It is all through the ground. When the park was created, she tells us, the Elders were there to sing to the land and heal it as the bulldozers came through to lay the sewerage pipes and the amenities. My heart sinks some more.

It feels like the King’s New Clothes. This woman talks with a smile; with knowledge and authority. Perhaps it is me who has it wrong; a visitor who knows very little, who’s barely scraped the surface of the complexities of life here.

But this place is the physical heart of Australia; the spiritual cog around which the wheel is turning. From here energy must travel the spokes of the wheel and reach that distant coast, with its back turned and eyes gazing out to sea.

I watch the tourists leave; smiling, interested and satisfied.

(A Guardian article titled, “Indigenous incarceration rates are a national shame” can be read here, and I have many other links on the Australia Digital Resources Page of this blog which can be linked to here. I have also just added to that page an interesting article on Aboriginal languages that can also be linked to here. And a link to the Alice Springs Desert Park site.

Don’t forget too, where we started in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland – the first posting of which can be found here with digital resources here.)


Day 40, Sorry Business


17 September 2013

They say nothing goes in a straight line in the Northern Territory. Rather, time zigzags a path, usually dropping you somewhere other than where you anticipate, or even imagine possible.

Today is another one of those days and I retrace my steps homewards through the dazzling heat of the day.

There are many reasons why an appointment might fail in town. Most sadly, for Arrarnta and Arrernte people, the reason is often because of “Sorry Business”. Sorry Business occurs after the death of a family member. In Alice Springs the average life span of an Aboriginal man is just under 45 years, worse even than the Australia-wide average for an Aboriginal man of 59 years.

I am only in Alice Springs for 2 weeks, yet in that short time, and with the very small pool of people I have met, I encounter Sorry Business no less than three times.

One such encounter is when we are sitting in the garden having dinner, lingering around a pleasant fire with the gentle night noises. Suddenly the night is split open by a roar of heavy metal. A band, meant to be playing at Santa Teresa, has set up in the car park down the road. Sorry Business has shifted them here.

Not much sleep tonight. The dogs are also joining in, and the talking galah next door.

(A link to an ABC radio programme about the life expectancy of Australian Aboriginal people is now up at the Australia Digital Resources page of the blog)

Day 30, More tales of resilience and courage


23 August 2013

I am driving to Winton today; the long road, taught as stretched elastic ready to fire backwards in my face. I follow the high oblong box of a road train shimmering on the horizon ahead; in my side vision, the dull blue-grey of the grasslands sweeping outwards.

Winton is the first town I arrive at, two hours down the road, and I check into my hotel, climbing the stairs to a narrow corridor with closed doors disappearing to the distance down either side, and my room number stuck to the front of one. Each room has doors leading onto a communal concrete verandah which overlooks the car park, the sounds of the TV and the bar drifting up from below. The room has that same pink smell of all these country motels; mixed with the cigarette ash of the ashtrays outside.

I am here to run some photography workshops but have also been put in touch with Pearl, by my friends in Barcaldine.

When I arrive at Pearl’s home, her paintings are turned to the wall. Aboriginal paintings are based on stories and images centered on the Dreaming and as such are deeply significant and spiritual. I respect that she has let me into her home despite obviously being unsure of who I am and what I am about. We talk for a short while before she turns the paintings around to show me, and I am grateful for this action.

Pearl prefers that I do not record our conversation. I listen instead to her stories, and hear once more the tales of injustice, the hurt and the damage that have been done. After a couple of hours she says, “I wish you had recorded. It is the first time I have had the opportunity to tell a white person”.

Pearl then decides to invite Jocelyn, her mother, down to talk to me. Jocelyn’s mother and father were married before they were even born. They were selected to be married, because their bloodline relates them to the Kings and Queens of their country. Jocelyn’s mother, Alice Wilson, was involved with the big Land Rights marches in the 1960’s, and she received the Order of Australia medal for her work on behalf of Aboriginal people.

Jocylen tells me her language groups are Murrawarri, Kurawarri and Pitapita. But Jocelyn was never allowed to speak her language nor ever taught it. To teach language and culture to children resulted in having them forcibly removed from the family and sent to live at a mission. “Growing up was tough”, she says, “because of the racism”. “We weren’t allowed to dance”. She was taught to survive ‘by being the white way’.

Jocelyn bought a taxi and became a taxi driver to support her children She also completed an Aboriginal cultural course in Geelong and spent much time researching the stories and ways of life that should have been passed onto her. Jocelyn and Pearl share aspects of these for the sound recordings I gather.

With the sinking of the sun, I finally head on my way. I am full of respect for the strength and courage of Pearl and Jocelyn, and so many others I have met like them on this journey; And with sadness for what they have endured.

I hope with each sharing of the sadness, the weight can somehow, in some small way, be reduced; the apparent cloak of invisibility surrounding this sadness when one lives a day-to-day life on the affluent east coat of Australia, removed; and respect for Australian Aboriginal people and their rich culture increased.

(A link to information about Aboriginal Art has been added to the Australia Digital Resources page of the blog)

Day 27, Consequences of a massacre; And a rodeo

rodeo stockman horses australia

16 August 2013

I am perched on the patchwork quilt that covers my little bed, the Calico curtains tied up in a knot to calm their mad flapping in the breeze. The wooden veranda doors are pinned back and I look past my verandah to the latticework and a dusty street beyond. My portable air conditioner hums, cooling the room that sweats under its tin roof despite the hot breeze flowing through. Everything has the feeling of being coated in a layer of dust; even the air has a certain gritty quality. Something in the environment does seem to leave a vague gloss of chaos over how events evolve here, but most of it does seem to happen in its own way, and after various incarnations of how an outcome might be reached. I follow these threads to wherever they might lead. Right now, I am preparing for some photography workshops I am running here as part of the residency, which has been achieved by bringing together many organisations to help fund it.

In the afternoon I meet with Tony Weldon, custodian of the Longreach area. Tony was brought up on a sheep and cattle station west of Longreach. He left home at 14 to work on stations, doing fencing, ringing and droving before leaving the bush to work for Telstra.

Tony tells me of how a map was once drawn, marking Longreach as Iningai territory, but no Iningai people have been found in and around the town. He talks of the massacre in the area that wiped out the Iningai population, and subsequent removal of the bones to a museum in England. At least the bones have at last been returned to their keeping place in Longreach.

As Custodian of Iningai country, Tony is involved with Aboriginal health and housing, and helping the young people into the workforce. Aboriginal people can be shy and find it hard to communicate, he says. If there is any disturbance and police are involved, the police might get angry at these young people for not talking, and want to lock them up. Tony intervenes to help the young people communicate. But there isn’t much trouble, he says.

He tells me he was brought up in a white man’s world. “I’m lucky”, he says. “It is easier for me to fit in. For others who have come from smaller communities to the town it is much harder for them to adapt. But they are talented and strong”.

I am saddened that the adaptation seems to only be one way; that these young Aboriginal people must adapt to the dominant culture; this just seems to be taken for granted, like a rosy woolen blanket obscuring other possibilities. I can’t help but feel that the dominant culture has much to learn from the Aboriginal communities. But such an idea seems lost in the heat and the history and the marching forwards of every-day life.

Like Tony, many Aboriginal men worked as drovers and stockmen in their adaptation to colonisation, riding the horses with the cattle. And tonight is my opportunity to see these skills in action as the rodeo is in town.

The oval in Longreach is small but that is good as we can get up close. Around the oval are stalls of salty popcorn; dazzling red and green, iced slushies; hot dogs and burgers. A bar area is sectioned off from the ring. Along one side of the oval is a raised terrace of wooden benches. Many bring their own fold up chairs and sit pressed up against the oval fence – a solid wooden base supporting wires, widely spread for visibility, but strong and thick. Country music is jangling loudly through big black speakers. And the air… dust settles on everything.

Beside the stalls where the horses and bulls are kept, cowboys in dusty jeans and battered hats lean against the fence of the floodlit oval, or swing their legs over to perch on the wires, intently cupping their face in their hands for a better view, spurs hooked along in the wire. Under a shimmer of dust their faces are swarthy and strong, fixed with a determined set or breaking into a sudden grin. They stand straight and lithe, these men of the horses.

I never really expected to enjoy the rodeo but I do. The music matches the fierce energy of the horse and rider as they burst through the metal gate and into the ring; bucking horses and bucking bulls, men thrown and rolling away from reared hind legs, the clowns who rush to the ring to divert a bull away from a fallen rider, dust flying, and Lockie, the compère, calling the women in the crowds to fever pitch over the masculinity of these rugged young men.

I move around the fence for different vantage points and settle after a while opposite the gates from which the riders burst forth. A sudden pull of a rope from inside of the ring releases the riders, and is quickly followed by a leap back over the fence by the puller of the rope.

I am positioned next to an elderly couple with their fold up chairs pressed tight against the fence, when an almighty horse comes hurtling through the gate and gallops like the wind in a dead straight line towards us. Looking through a telephoto lens it is not long before I am running up the bank in the opposite direction, and I am alarmed to see this old couple do not even flinch as the horse crashes its sweating bulk into the fence in front of them, the rider thrown from its back. He grabs the fence to gracefully somersault and twist his body, avoiding the laps of the elderly couple, who are still sitting smiling in their seats. A great pile of dust comes over the fence with him and covers my camera bag, abandoned at the scene, in deep red.

I stay until midnight.

(For more reference links visit the Australia Digital Resources page of the blog)

Professor Philip Smith responds to policing postings

paddy wagon

Thanks for this interesting if sadly familiar narrative Judy. As an academic criminologist I was struck by how consistent your story was with the literature on policing. In fact your text could be used as a teaching resource for this reason.

First up it touches upon the issue of ‘over-policing’. This has been well documented in Australia by scholars like Gillian Cowlishaw and Paul Wilson and is known to Aboriginal activists as a problem. The basic point is that ratios of police to citizens vary widely according to who is being policed. Simply having more police in an area with more presumed ‘troublemakers’ leads to more trivial acts being detected and people being swept up into the criminal justice system. The Redfern area of Sydney is a well known locus of contention over this. The argument is also made that over-policing (in anticipation of trouble) generates a hostile atmosphere and hence a self-fulfilling prophecy. The policy conjures the crime as it were.

Next up we have the ‘dramaturgic’ aspects of policing. This is well established in policing ethnographies by people like Jerome Skolnick or Max van Maanen. Here the theme is that the police see themselves as outnumbered (ironically enough this is especially the case in over-policing contexts). They need to establish authority in direct interpersonal interactions and head off interactional complications with the public/those they feel they should be controlling. Their aim is to define the situation as one in which they are in control, where negotiation or discussion is not possible, and to make this quickly visible to onlookers. The last thing they want is a debate on whether or not the law has been broken or who exactly is at fault, even if we citizens feel this sort of thing should be central to conflict resolution or avoidance. The priority is to control the situation right now and then to let the court sort out the finer details later. The negative experiences you report at the police station (eg. their failure to smile or, apparently, to provide basic information on your rights) could be interpreted as manifestations of this urge to establish boundaries and show who has power. So also was their surly behavior at the music event. Once they had started out on a line of action, such as telling you that you were under arrest, they could not start to undo it without looking indecisive and open to hence negotiation. Once that flip-flop happens the situation starts to look indeterminate and, they believe, chaos will follow.

Lastly we have the issue of ‘order maintenance’ versus ‘law enforcement’. Ethnographies show that beat police give priority to maintaining orderly public spaces over any rigid to-the-letter enforcement of all possible laws. They feel they can be held responsible for visible public disorder, subject to criticism etc. if disorder can been seen and reported (to their boss, to the media, to politicians etc). Thus in many cases people are ‘swept up’ who have not done anything wrong but who are perceived to be either risky due to personality, as belonging to the presumed categories of the potentially disorderly (youth, minorities, people with tattoos, the mentally ill etc) or simply as behaving in non-conventional ways. It seems as if ‘order-maintenance’ was the focal concern for the officers at the music event. They wanted to keep a lid on things.

One thing that did puzzle me was that the police did not let you go sooner. According to ethnographic research you should have been defined by the police as a ‘do-gooder’, ‘disarmer’ or ‘challenger’ (see Robert Reiner’s book “The Politics of the Police” for these terms – please note these are not objective categories of person but rather types of person identified by police culture, talked about in the canteen etc.). The police generally fear such educated people as bringing complaints, shame or political interference as well as general hassle and bad publicity. The fact that your story made it to your blog and we have been reading this is a case in point. Moreover the police generally divide people into the ‘rough’ and the ‘respectable’, with the latter often given the benefit of the doubt – especially if this reduces workload and legal escalation is deemed pointless. Your referring to the fact that you had a husband and were an artist should have started alarm bells ringing that they had made a category error in their folk-classification system. Next would come the realization that their own best interest would be served by getting you out of the police station as quickly as possible. eg. with some kind of lame apology, or perhaps a Caution so you would go away humbled and not make trouble. One of the police officers seems to have realized the mistake. However it would have been difficult for him to do much about the situation without seeming to contradict or implicitly criticize his colleagues who had made the arrest. Within the peer police solidarity is very important, especially as one day you might need your buddy to risk his life to save yours.

Lastly we need to reflect a little on the difficulty of the policing role. To criticize policing does not necessarily involve blaming the individual. Much of the responsibility lies in what is called by academics ‘police culture’. On joining the police new recruits are socialized into a worldview and a set of cognitive and behavioral shortcuts that often make sensitive policing difficult. To a certain extent the leadership in Australia’s various Police services are aware of this problem, although their efforts to deal with it seem to have limited impact on the ground (see Janet Chan “Changing Police Culture”). We should also remember that in the context of Aboriginal issues the police are often damned if they do and damned if they don’t. In Australia weren’t the authorities blamed for failure to intervene and turning a blind eye to issues like domestic violence and incest in Aboriginal communities? Didn’t critics say “Where were the police?” And who would have been blamed had there been a violent incident at the music event and a policy of having a minimal police presence was in place? There seems to be no easy way to find a Goldilocks zone for policing and it is not surprising that the police often feel they are singled out for unfair criticism based on contingent outcomes. Finally we should remember that the police are the people who scrape body parts off the road after accidents, tell people that their child was found dead in the river, wash vomit from the back seat of the police car, and face down the occasional armed and violent person. Any volunteers? They deal with negative situations all the time and only some of these are of their own making. None of this excuses rude, insensitive, bullying or incompetent policing when it takes place but it is worth contemplating how the job itself might create a certain kind of thick skin and cynicism that helps the officer get through the day.

The court process following arrest

Charge sheet

Bail sheet

22 September 2013

It is Sunday and I awaken to reality. I rarely meet forensic psychologists but I have met one in my two weeks here and he lives just across the park from where I am staying. He is my first port of call in search of assistance – a silver thread across the park. Breakfast is immediately on and support is underway: letters to contacts in legal aid, and to journalist friends, and the drafting of a statement on my behalf.

What would I do without him? – No one here to support me, no knowledge of the system, and only a few minutes before my court appearance to talk to whatever stranger happens to be at legal aid before my hearing.

But this is also good – I am getting some first-hand experience of how it is for the Australian Aboriginal people of Alice Springs – the majority of whom, I am told, have been through the prison system – very clearly through no fault of their own. According to one ABC report titled “Indigenous Prison Rates are a National Shame” in 20 years, the rate of one in seven people incarcerated being Aboriginal has increased to one in four. And, as an artist, I have the opportunity to share this with you in the glowing clarity of my own story.

Monday morning.

I enter the wide high hall of the courts, somehow designed to make us feel smaller. My bags and I are scanned, and I am in a foyer, with a TV screen listing the names of the people to be called for the court. My name is there.

I must find the legal aid solicitor before I am called. I am lucky. My statement has been written, my biography and my website copied, and a reference written for me. Geoffrey, back in Brisbane, has also given advice on what and how to present. I arrive prepared and supported by a group of well-informed people. I feel it is a very different situation for the Aboriginal people around me who mill out of place in the foreign confines of a structure designed far, far away.

The duty solicitor is behind a desk piled high with people’s needs and he advises me to wait. We hover outside his door. Time ticks by with monotonous haste to the moment of being called. I feel vulnerable and dangerously invisible despite my heaven-sent support.

When we are at last called into his office the solicitor tells us the police papers are not ready. He doesn’t know the charges. A defence cannot be made until he knows. I thrust out my paperwork for him to read before the veil of overburden is pulled down again between us, and he disappears to discuss the matter with the prosecution.

The solicitor returns to say it appears the prosecution think there is no case. He decides he wants to get the bail condition removed and the charges of “Hindering a Policeman” dropped.

We sit in the sharp, clean silence of the court, shuffling loosely along to let others join us at our bench, as if at some church pew. Indeed – we are here to be judged. And we appear crumpled in all the smartness. Names are called. Formalities followed. The smell in here is of polished pine and blue cloth but the air is uneasy. There are two sides to the fence; those who sit limply waiting to be called, and those who march through procedure.

My name is called. It must only be a matter of seconds and I am dismissed, forgotten, eyes turned to the next. The police do not have their paperwork and I am discharged from bail. I am expected to gratefully depart. An invisible cloak falls over the seven hours already spent in gaol.

It remains that I may be summonsed at any time over the next 6 months. I am also advised by the solicitor that if the police decide to increase the charge, I might be summonsed at any time, even after the 6 months period. I am told there is only a one-month period, however, in which I can lodge a complaint.

I leave the court feeling dazed. My support team guide me across the road and we sit over coffee together. Have the police effectively made complaint impossible? I am certainly advised against it by everyone around me. The journalist agrees it would not be in my interest to write up the story. I am to lie low.

I am in Australia. I have been locked up for seven hours for asking after the welfare of my friend. Even the police, when I asked them at the gaol, did not manage to say they would not do the same in my situation.

I have not complained. I am however doing as I said I would do. The Northern Territory Police are included internationally in the Grounded exhibition, and on my blog. I thank them once again for this opportunity. They have provided material to raise a debate on whether perhaps the Aboriginal people of Alice Springs are being locked up without justification, and on how appropriate the systems are.

I have started these posts from Australia with the last days of the Grounded artist residency. Tomorrow I’ll return to the beginning of the story and introduce you to the beautiful Australian Aboriginal people I met along the way, and the stories they are very willing to share.

(You can visit more web articles from the Australia Digital Resources page of this blog)


Australia Grounded Artist Residency; I begin this story at the end

Illustration by artist Megan Forward

Illustration by artist Megan Forward

21 September 2013

“That’s me sitting on the bench in the cell to the left”. How I came to be sitting in an Alice Springs prison cell, and the broader implications of this in relation to the local population, is explained here. I believe my jail story is a window into a strange and disturbing world that is a routine problem for Indigenous people.

This evening is the Bush Bands Bash, down by the dry Todd riverbed that runs through town, flanked by eucalypts awaiting the rains. The Bash is preceded by three days of professional development and rehearsals for the bands. It is the peak Central Australian Indigenous music showcase event.

I head down in the late afternoon with a couple of friends I have met here. The music has already started at Snow Kenna Park, and groups of people are sitting together on the grass watching the stage as we move into the park to join them.

The air is warm and relaxed; and keen with the enthusiasm of the young musicians. Smiles are radiant in the space.

As the sun starts to set, we decide to take a break and go for an amble up Anzac Hill. Outside the gate there is a remarkably strong police presence, which rather surprises me given the good-natured festival feel to the event.

As we leave the event my companions and I stop to look in the direction of a distressed call that splits through the otherwise happy sounds. Some Aboriginal women are being taken into custody by a group of policemen.

“Protective custody” is a police power in the Northern Territory, which enables police to apprehend an Aboriginal person who is intoxicated and incarcerate them until they are sober;a controversial law. There is an overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the prison system, which is hurting families and communities.

The women we can hear are in their middle years and posing no evident threat to themselves or anyone else. They have had a few drinks. My companion, who works locally in a supporting role with the Aboriginal communities, moves forward to question what is happening as the women are directed into the back of the police van. The police do not want to engage in this conversation, and after my companion – a quietly spoken, respectful young woman – tries a few times to have her questions answered, the police ban her from returning to the Bush Band event.

We leave to continue on our walk. About an hour later we return to the event. We both re-enter the gate.

We have gone no further than a few steps inside when two large policemen suddenly appear from behind, grab my companion by the shoulders and pull her backwards. “You are under arrest”. I turn in shock and follow them back towards the van. I stand back a little watching the scene before approaching my companion and asking if she would like me to accompany her. Then I turn to the policemen and say in quiet disbelief, ‘You can’t do this!”

I am immediately surrounded by policemen. Two large men grab me, one on either arm with enough force to make me stumble. That same phrase, “You are under arrest”, and I am pushed towards the back of the van.

One Aboriginal man is spread out on the floor of the van. I don’t see him at first in the dark enclosed interior. It is my foot touching something soft that makes me look down. Another man is sitting hunched beside us on the little side bench. We look through the grill to the world outside as we are driven along the streets of Alice Springs to the jail. I phone my husband, back in Brisbane, to alert him to the course of events, and tell him I will call again when I know what is happening.

At the jail we are taken out of the van one person at a time and led to the front desk. I am first and the others are kept inside the back of the van.

At the front desk I try to engage with the policemen there, explaining that I am in Alice Springs to do an art exhibition as part of the Commonwealth Games Festival events, telling them I am a visitor to town, suggesting amicably, when they don’t respond, that they might even feature in the show. But there is no way past the wall that now stands between us – the arrested and the enforcers of the law.

There is one officer who seems less certain of the procedures. He says in a moment when no one else is around, “I don’t know what you are doing here. You seem like a nice person”. Though this is meant, I am sure, as a gesture of support, I am a bit disturbed by the implications of how others in the jail are being perceived. I imagine, after all, that most people in this jail are in fact nice people.

I am frisked, and all my possessions are taken away. My shoes are removed and I am left vulnerably barefoot. I am given a green towelling blanket, a heavy-duty sheet and a foam mattress. I am walked down the corridor to the cell.

Walking down the corridor, I ask for a phone to call my husband. “Later”, I am told. “I thought it was my right to have a phone call”, I say. “No”, comes the reply. “But they have that right on the telly”, I say with an attempt at a friendly smile. Silence.

I ask how long I can be locked up for without a charge. “There is no ruling”, comes the reply. “It just depends on the circumstances and how busy we are”. “But there’s a limit on the telly?”, I suggest, pushing my luck at humour again. Silence.

I say I would like to make a complaint to someone. Silence.

I put my foam mattress on the moulded concrete bench that runs down one side of the cell and carefully place my folded sheet and blanket on top. I sit on the cool bare concrete beside my mattress as the key is turned in the lock. I look up at the averted eyes of the person who is turning the key.

It is about half an hour before I am joined in the cell by my companion. We can hear the distressed calls of the Aboriginal women through the wall. There are just two of us in our cell. Next door there must be about fifteen.

Inside the cell, grey concrete benches are moulded into the floor and walls. A large black number 6 is painted on the wall above one bench. At the end of the other, a narrow, waist-height stainless steel partition marginally conceals the stainless steel toilet, and above the toilet, a water fountain on the wall, which from my visual memory could only be reached by leaning across the toilet. I can’t bring myself to use the toilet and sit uncomfortably on the bench.

I ask my companion if she would like to learn some Scottish songs. She smiles and we sing together for a good few hours – Will ye Go Lassie Go, Mo Ghile Mear, Banks of Loch Lomond – I can only remember the really well-trodden songs. My brain is numb to anything that hasn’t been with me a long while and I can’t seem to retrieve the words of other songs. My companion then teaches me an Arrarnta song.

Every now and then a policeman looks in. My companion and I pull out Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind and, by this time, it is with some defiance that we sing.

Our voices sail out into the space, mixing with the calls and cries from along the corridor, briefly glancing off the ears of the occasional officer that passes by our way.

I feel homesick. These words leave my mouth so thin that they evaporate as soon as they touch the air. But inside of me they are 3-dimensional, full of bulk and weight and taking a form that presses outwards on my rib cage, squeezing against my throat.

We are brought some food and water that we pick at and leave. I ask again if it is not the law that I should be allowed a call. “Not until you are charged”, they say.

It is now 5 hours since I phoned my husband in Brisbane from the back of the van. I think of him, sitting there in the night, wondering what is happening. Finally the policeman who showed some humanity earlier in the evening arrives with a phone for me, and a message, “Be quick. I’m not supposed to do this”.

It must be about midnight, the first time I am called out of the cell. It is not explained why I am being called. I am sat beside an officer with a notepad and pencil. He asks me what happened. I don’t know if this is my statement or a complaint, or what really, but I tell him what happened and he writes it down. At the end he asks if I will sign it. I don’t know the implications of signing it or what difference it might make and say it concerns me to sign it. “Why am I signing?” I ask. He says I don’t have to sign. I say I won’t bother. I feel vulnerable, uninformed, tired and unsure. I am sent back to my cell. Is that my complaint dismissed? I don’t know.

It is 1.51am before I am taken to be charged – about seven hours after our arrest. I am hungry and tired. My companion left the cell an hour ago and I have been here on my own, not knowing what is happening.

At the front desk again, I am taken to a booth and photographed from all angles, all my fingerprints are taken and the palms prints of my hands, over and over again as the machine doesn’t seem to be doing its job properly, until I feel exasperated. I feel I am already a criminal. “Why do you need my fingerprints?” I ask. “I haven’t done anything!”

I am taken to the desk to give my statement and I launch into an account of the evening. But I am immediately stopped. “Just three lines I am told”. I pause and stare into some middle distance. “I was only trying to check that my friends were OK”

I am issued with a bail statement. $500 if I don’t turn up in court on Monday morning at 9am. I look at these men in silent wonder. Are we from completely different planets!? If I hadn’t been so tired I think I could be almost fascinated by them and the workings of their brains.

It is 2.30am when I am released into the dark and empty streets of Alice Springs, the crime capital of Australia where one is told not to walk alone at night. My companions appear from the shadows across the street as I exit the hot, bright lights of the station through the sliding glass door. It is just as well. I do not know where I am and could not find my way home.

The policeman who showed a little humanity during the evening had said they would drive us home except they are not allowed to. At least the thought did cross his mind.

As we walk home I am too tired to feel much but my mind wanders with the Aboriginal people of Alice Springs against whom there is clearly an underlying prejudice; who might have no support on the outside; who do not understand the system; many of whom do not speak English as their first language; and whose starting point as they face the jail is one of dispossession and displacement and generations of disempowerment and fear that has led them to this place where the oppression is repeated. More of their stories will follow in this blog.

I believe my jail story illustrates an overzealous approach to arrest and detention by the Northern Territory police, when it comes to matters relating to the Aboriginal population.

It is for this reason that The Northern Territory Police are included internationally in the Grounded exhibition, and on my blog and Facebook page. I thank them for this opportunity. They have provided material to raise a debate on whether perhaps the Aboriginal people of Alice Springs are being locked up without justification. I am putting this out there now in the hope this story is picked up and carried.

Next I will post the story of events in court. In the meantime, please do take the time to look at some articles I have linked to below.

(Articles relating to the wonderful music event and a chance to listen to some Australian Aboriginal singers are also added as links on the Digital Resources, Australia page of the blog).

Australia is Still Fighting a Land War and it is the Country’s Great Divide Article by Ali Cobby Eckermann, Artist in Residence at University of Sydney in The Conversation

Ten dark secrets Australia doesn’t want you to know Buzzfeed article

Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service report

Megan Forward is the talented artist who did the prison illustration. Check out her web site here.