Asher Milgate Survivors
Artist/curator Asher Milgate returns to the town he grew up in, Wellington, NSW, to document the life of members of Binjang clan of the Wiradjuri nation. Survivors records stories from Wellington’s Elders – about life at Nanima, the Common and on the outskirts of the township. In 1832 the first inland Aboriginal mission was established in Wellington, which became the Nanima “mission” (Reserve) in 1910. The “mission” became the longest continually operating Aboriginal reserve in Australia. The elders of Wellington shared with Asher some of their most intimate memories; tales of their families, of love, regrets and hardships. Survivors uses photography, audio and video to tell their stories.
The further away I travel, the more I crave her landscapes, her familiar smells, the people, the old haunts. I feel it in my bones; in my blood. Wellington, in the central west of NSW, isn’t just my home, it’s part of me. The older I get, the more deeply I connect with the people and the land. It’s joy with an element of pain; like the memories of a loved one. Wellington has left its mark on my soul – and there’s no turning back.
It occurred to me that if my home town, in thirty years, can make me, Asher Milgate, feel this way, what must it be like for the traditional owners, the First Australians who are connected through the generations? What must they feel? What must it be like for them? That’s what I set out to discover. Over the years, I’ve developed strong links to the town’s Aboriginal community. A common love of the land and a deep mutual respect place me in a unique position of great privilege; to hear first-hand the stories that helped define this small part of our country.
It is both a great honour and a solemn responsibility. I have embarked on a work of art that will immortalise the Wellington of times gone by; one which I believe will carry great overarching significance for the town. Moreover, it’s a work that I believe – by reflecting the town’s rich history – will engender a greater sense of self among its Aboriginal population. The Survivors project fuses artistic and didactic purpose into one cohesive whole. It is a multifaceted approach to storytelling that quite literally gives elders a ‘voice’ while personifying the intangibles of their experience; their joys and their struggles.
I’ll tell you how. In timeless Aboriginal tradition, I’ve devoted countless hours to ‘yarning’ with elders – about life at the Nanima Mission, the Common and the camps on the outskirts of town. They have shared with me some of their most intimate memories; tales of their families, their great loves, their regrets and hardships. The Survivors project pairs a recording of these stirring recollections with a photographic portrait of the recording’s protagonist.
While chilling, uplifting and evocative, in my opinion, the spoken word is encumbered by limitations. Through my portraiture, I seek to uncover the parts of the story left untold. The parts, for which, there are often no words. Each medium will breathe life into the other, lending texture, context and depth of field. When they hear the recording, the viewer can explain the twinkle in the subject’s eyes, the furrow in his or her brow, or the wonder in their smile.
Survivors will help retain Indigenous oral history, challenging misconceptions about Aboriginal people. My work seeks to preserve the beliefs of these great people, their legends and traditions. A catalyst for healing; a reminder of who we are; of who we were, so we can see more completely where we want to be.