One But Many – Interview with Wayne Quilliam


We live in a perplexing time. Perhaps there is none other who recognises that better than Associate Professor Wayne Quilliam, 2009/10 NAIDOC Artist of the Year. But that has only increased his motivation to broadcast the voices of the Aboriginal Nation. In an age of ‘mansplaining’ – or, the display of overconfident and (often) confused men dictating a Woman’s perspective to Women, Wayne has dared to do something radical. He has to great success acted as, in his words, “the conduit of information” and not a surging pylon of condescension. I had the pleasure of interviewing Wayne following his exhibition at the 29th Human Rights Council. He is Australia’s pre-eminent Aboriginal artist and arguably the most exhibited Australian artist in the world.

‘Her Image, Her Voice, Her Story’ was showcased from the 17th of June to the 3rd of July at the Palace of Nations in Geneva. No other words could have better captured the essence of Wayne’s exhibition. Don’t be mistaken – the exhibition was not about Wayne, nor would he ever believe it to be his unique spin on the experience of Women. It was not purposed to showcase his artistic license, although it is undeniably polished and spectacularly vivid. Nor was not an opportunity to broadcast his cutting edge scoop on gender politics. His role was only that of the humble storyteller, the people that own the narrative are the Aboriginal Women that speak on their own behalf and on their own terms.

What is most surprising about Wayne’s character is how down to earth he is. Upon viewing his exhibition and his catalogue of works, the mystery of this becomes clear. As an artist he has successfully melded together the rich and nebulous customs of the Aboriginal Nation. That can only be achieved by clarity and focus. The Aboriginal Nation is not simply a story of a people with a deep connection to an esoteric concept of land, it is a story of a diverse people deeply connected with one another and their surroundings. The connection is tangible, rooted in community and cooperation. As Wayne put it, “We are One People, but We are Many”. The exhibition is a declaration of this. What is often the case with such significant examples of advocacy is that they reveal a lot about the people that come into contact with it.

What perplexes Wayne the most is how we, as Australians, receive the Aboriginal Narrative. Over the 12 days that the interactive exhibition was showcased, over 300,000 people participated in the experience. It is a triumph that it received such a reception for both Women and Indigenous populations throughout the world. But domestically, Wayne struggled to receive a mention in the local newspaper. He commented, “I am just bewildered at how or why human society don’t want to engage with or be fulfilled by an ancient culture”. He is bewildered that we are more invested in things of little significance than anything deeply fulfilling.

However, what was most inspiring was his refusal to channel any disenchantment into hatred or anger. This is not an attitude fashioned in his own consciousness, but as he pointed out it is an attitude rooted in his people. The voices of the Women whose narratives made up the exhibition is not a reaction to abuse, but a declaration of their individual identity. Such declarations were made and still are made even where Women are denied a voice. It is because of abuse that their voices must be heard – “The barriers that were put in front of them (Aboriginal Women) did not stop them from striving for their family and communities”. It is the strength in those convictions that must be told. For Wayne, this is the essence of storytelling. For the Aboriginal Nation, this is the essence of self-determination and identity.

The exhibition is about sharing different information without pretence or a fear of contradiction. To the credit of the United Nations and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, they provided the opportunity for an unrestricted exploration of Aboriginal Women. The desired result was to promote tolerance and acceptance and to offer an engagement that could be heard, touched and felt within. But the remarkable thing is that this result was not demanded of it. Without question though it was accomplished. Yet for Wayne the purpose is to accomplish more, it is to “channel hate and anger and self-possession into sharing”. The strength of the message was not found in a political statement but in presenting the Aboriginal Narrative without pretence. For Wayne, the point is simple – “extraordinary Womens voices are not given the voice they need and what we need”. They are empowering solely because they are presented as what they are and not what society expects them to be.

It is no secret that the general Australian community fundamentally misunderstand the Aboriginal Nation. But what is the Aboriginal Nation? It is thousands of countries, thousands of languages – each with distinct customs that are profoundly important. But, the customs are not what define the people. Rather, the customs are the interpretation of a fluid story and its impact on a cohesive society.

Wayne explained in great detail the relationship between gender and storytelling for the Aboriginal Nation, to which I consider a privilege to have heard it. He explained that there is Women’s business and there is Men’s business and that he as an Aboriginal man is simply not allowed to speak on behalf of Women. Across many countries, or what is often referred to as tribes, there are sacred places that are exclusively for Women or exclusively for Men. In some countries, there are sacred practices that separate Women from Men. The purpose of this is not segregation, but a fundamental recognition of the uniqueness and strength of Women. That is why ‘Her Image, Her Voice, Her Story’ is unapologetically told the way it is. It is a narrative dedicated to Women and an incredible accomplishment for Aboriginal Women’s rights. In a perplexing time, that determination is a piercing light of hope.