Australians may know of the Stolen Generations, but some survivors feel that the gravity of removal and its effects are not fully understood by this term alone. To help empathise with what many First Nations peoples experienced, we need to listen to the stories told directly by Stolen Generations survivors themselves. This may be through spoken and written words, but can also be evocatively expressed in art-making.
When he was a young boy, Wailwan Elder and artist, Uncle Kevin “Sooty” Welsh was removed from his family and taken far away from his Country to an institution. Some years later, he returned to his birthplace, Coonamble, in north-western NSW, where he reconnected with his family and culture. Uncle Sooty became involved in painting, woodwork, photography and ceramics.
The marks etched into the stoneware clay of his ceramic works such as this Ancestral Vase was inspired by his Wailwan Ancestors’ practice of carving designs onto trees. One distinctive style of the south-east region of Australia is carving, and by acquiring cultural objects from regional NSW, the Australian Museum is ensuring it represents the vibrant diversity of cultural expressions across First Nations.
The suffering inflicted by child removal policies and institutional abuse has intergenerational impacts, and the trauma experienced during childhood can feel like fresh and raw wounds for Stolen Generations survivors well into their adult years. Uncle Sooty’s arts practice is inspired not only by the carved trees of his Wailwan heritage, but the marks he makes on clay also represent the scars left upon him and others from their experiences of being stolen from family and home.
By Dr Mariko Smith, First Nations Curator
Scarred was acquired for the First Nations Cultural Collections at the Australian Museum and will be on display in Unsettled from May 2021.
This article first appeared in Explore magazine, Winter 2021. View the whole issue here.