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Brungle Wooden Chain, Spinner and Hook c 1900
Brungle Wooden Chain, Spinner and Hook c 1900 Made by Ancestor, Brungle Mission, NSW Willow wood. Australian Museum Collection This wooden chain, hand-carved with a pen knife entirely from a single solid piece of wood, was collected by the Brungle mission manager John Hubbard. Less is known about the Aboriginal maker, who was recorded simply as “a full-blooded Aboriginal”. Chains of this style, typically made of heavy metal, would have been a familiar sight to the maker; neck chains and other restraints were a common form of punishment and control for Aboriginal people. They were often chained when made to work on roads, railway lines and when clearing land for colonisers. Chains were not phased out until the 1940s but were still recorded in use until the 1960s. Photographed for the Unsettled exhibition March 2021 Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

Sigmund Freud called it the "Uncanny": that space between worlds. That time out of joint. It is where the familiar becomes strange. Where home is un-home.

That is Australia. Uncanny Australia. Unsettled Australia.

Funny isn’t it to think of that name Australia. In a word we invent a nation. We create beings. We are now “Australians”. Really?

A border, a flag, an anthem, a constitution. Is this what we are now? There is no permanence in those things.

Nations rise and fall. They can disappear as surely as they are invented. I have seen this in my own lifetime.

But there is something more enduring; something more profound. It is story. It is those things we write on our souls.

Stories are not contained in books or carved on cave walls; stories live in us. Story is the essence of what it is to be human.

My story is written here in this place; this land that is the only place I could ever call home. For me it is the lands of the Wiradjuri, the Kamilaroi and the Dharrawal. It is the story of people who witnessed the end of certainty and the beginning of beginning.

It is a story of being and becoming. It is the same river that cannot be crossed twice. We are in a state of flux. We are the never ending present.

The anthropologist, William Stanner, coined the neologism “the everywhen” to capture the timelessness of Indigenous being. Time bends in on itself: then, now, next all existing at once.

What happens when the everywhen collides with progress? The familiar becomes strange. We are plunged into the Uncanny.

Forget about Australia. Forget about names and flags and anthems. Story. Story unfolding and unending. That is where we find ourselves, or not. It is all the same. We don’t have to be complete. We don’t have to resurrect or rescue what was lost.

We just have to live in that story.

For me it is an Irish convict and an Aboriginal woman and a bloodline that pulses through me still. It is not one; it is not the other. It is all of it.

Hegel would have us believe that the world unfolds in these contradictions. That in rupture or even despair we are driven forward. Each age unfolds on a human journey to freedom.

It is a Western vision of history. It is the belief that has put people in ships with guns to invade and kill. To bring so-called “civilisation”.

But after all of that, what is there? A gun can remove or destroy but it cannot replace. Australians – if that’s what we must be called – dwell in that space reserved for the hungry ghosts: those undead who exist but cannot rest.

Unsettled. Un-home. A people who have come but cannot belong. And a people who belong and can never be settled; who will not be settled.

Unsettled. Un-home. A people who have come but cannot belong. And a people who belong and can never be settled; who will not be settled.

In these pages, this exhibition you will enter that world that will not be touched or tamed. A world of everywhen. A world of story then, now and next.

In photographs and artefacts; in language and protest and defiance you will stare into the truth; not truth to heal; not truth to reconcile; not truth to be put behind us but truth for itself. That’s all. Truth.

I defy you to look into this unsettled and then turn away from justice; from what is right.

Our place here is beyond politics; beyond flags or beyond doubt. It is beyond Australia.

I know there is a place for me in the world. It is a place I was born into and a place I will return to live with my ancestors. There is no one that can take that.

Carl Jung said land assimilates the conqueror. You cannot erase the land. You cannot erase a people.

But you can see it. Finally you can see it.

This article appeared in Explore magazine, Winter 2021. View the whole issue here.