Bringing Barbara McGrady’s photography to life

Images:  Retired boxer (the late) Wally Carr shows support, Redfern Aboriginal T
Images:  Retired boxer (the late) Wally Carr shows support, Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy, The Block, Redfern 2014 and  Gamilaraay/Gomeroi countryman, Paul Spearim, Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy 2014 by Barbara McGrady
The Chau Chak Wing Museum is currently showing work from Gomeroi/Gamilaraay photographer Barbara McGrady’s extensive collection. Learn more about her love of photography and award-winning work.

Cultural advice: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visitors are advised that this display and article contains images and references to deceased persons.

It’s hard to miss the picture of Barbara McGrady when entering the Mezzanine at the Chau Chak Wing Museum. The photograph, taken by Barbara herself, captures her reflection in a mirror at the cherished Glebe landmark, the Badde Manors cafe.

At times, the themes in the exhibit interplay. Like in an image where retired boxer, the late Wally Carr, showed support for the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Redfern, a meeting place for activists and protesters. "The late Wally Carr was an old friend as well as a local Redfern identity, so it was good to see him at the Redfern Tent Embassy at The Block," Barbara said. "It was an incredible two years of bearing witness and photographing the protest for better outcomes for Indigenous people."

Barbara’s presence extended to pivotal moments in history, including her coverage of the Closing the Gap rallies in Redfern, the Black Lives Matter protests in Martin Place, and the Grandmothers Against Removalists group fearlessly staging outside Parliament House.

"I’m an old activist from a long time ago," Barbara explained. "Actually, I stood up for everyone, not just all’Aboriginal people, but for the underdogs all the time. So I suppose it stemmed from there."

Lily Thomas-McKnight, the exhibition curator and current University of Sydney student, explored the relationships in Barbara’s archive when she began bringing the exhibition to life. "When we had the photos, we thought it would be best to categorise them, even if they all still kind of overlap," she said. "Yeah, all’of it pretty much relates to community and the importance of empowering First Nations people."

Lily also highlighted the emotional depth of Barbara’s photographs. "Aunty Barbara knows most of the subjects and the photos personally. So it just brings it to another level."

This exhibition acknowledges how powerful and successful Aboriginal people are as well. It’s also a celebration.

In other images, Barbara captured the cultural vibrancy of First Nations communities, as well as their success in film, music, and arts. For Wiradjuri and Gomeroi women like Lily, celebrating success is an important part of the narratives told in museum spaces. 

"The history of museums and galleries is quite ethnographic.... It isn’t always positive, usually, when this kind of thing is in a museum," Lily said. "But Barbara’s photos are not only creating positive representation, they are also acknowledging the past without taking away that things still need to change. 

"This exhibition acknowledges how powerful and successful Aboriginal people are as well. It’s also a celebration."

Barbara anticipates that her photographs will resonate with visitors, hoping to inspire First Nations people to persevere. "And I know for a fact that some of the young Aboriginal people will walk past and say ’that’s my uncle. There. That’s my real uncle’," she said. "And because our truth has been erased from history, they can see my images and think, ’well I can do that too’."

But the Australia Has a Black History exhibit has something for all, Barbara said. "My photos are not just Indigenous photos of Indigenous people; they are images for all’of Australia’s historical peoples and events throughout history. As a longtime photojournalist I see my images as stories of time and place, of culture and community in the public domain."

’Barbara McGrady: Australia Has a Black History’ is open  until 10 June 2024 on level 4 of the Chau Chak Wing Museum.

Address: Level 4 Mezzanine, Chau Chak Wing Museum, University Place, University of Sydney, Camperdown

Opening hours:  10am-5pm, Monday to Friday (until 9pm on Thursday); 12-4pm weekends; closed on public holidays.

Cost: Free

Hero image: Remember TJ Hickey - Gail Hickey (mother of TJ) & family protest for justice for her son, Redfern Park 2014 by Barbara McGrady

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