All the fuss—real and concocted—over the citizenship status of members of federal parliament, brought to mind an episode from 21 years ago—trying to prove the nationality of an Aboriginal artist applying for a passport.
Brian Nyinawanga was a singular artist as a painter and sculptor, and came from the “stone country” of central Arnhem Land. There’s no whitefella record of his birth—1937 or 1935 according to various accounts—but it was out bush. Although his family had affinities with relations at the Milingimbi mission and the government post of Maningrida, his birth was never formally registered at either place. Indeed his name never appeared on the Register of Wards— notoriously nick-named the “stud book”—the Native Welfare department’s record of Aboriginal people until the 1970s.
Certainly as a child, and for the last 40 years of his life, Nyinawanga’s primary identification—to himself and others—was as a member of a branch of the Balngara clan, of the Rembarrnga language group. His focus, in terms of country or homeland, was not “central Arnhem Land” as such, but the outstation south of Ramingining his family and others occupied: Malyarnganak.
From the early 1980s—largely through Maningrida Arts—Nyinawanga started producing a series of extraordinary sculptures and paintings. Although often on canvas or paper rather than bark; using ochres, clay and charcoal; and incorporating hatching and rarrk cross hatching; they were “story paintings” of his life and times. His period working in the cattle industry in the Katherine region to his south. On the use of two way radios between the outstations and communities of his countrymen and women. Of the blight of kava use across the Arnhem Land coast. Of his trip to an art exhibition in Sydney in the early 1990s, later reproduced as a screen print.
It was that 1993 print, Visions of the city, (above) that came to the attention of Madge Fletcher from Circus Oz in 1996. They were off to a season in Hong Kong and asked if Nyinawanga might to like to come along as an artist in residence and maybe do a painting or two. It was whacky enough to do, so the crew at Green Ant Research Arts and Publishing in Darwin hustled a few bob from the NT government for airfares and accommodation and it was on for young and old.
But. Nyinawanga needed a passport. And for this Australian born artist, that was a problem.
We got the passport photos done, and filled out and witnessed all the forms, but there being no records of birth was the killer. The guy at Immigration was pretty firm about it. “What about mission records?” he asked. There was no mission, the reply. “What about the stud book?” He isn’t in there, the response, along with “Just look at the photo, he’s obviously Australian!”
That point was reluctantly conceded, but time was running out. They wanted him to come into Darwin to provide—presumably—proof of life. There was neither time nor money for that. The Northern Land Council and the NT government intervened, and Immigration grimly agreed to issue a “temporary” passport, good only for six months.
I’d never asked Nyinawanga whether he “felt like an Aussie”, and I suspect the shenanigans surrounding wheedling a passport out of the Australian government completely passed him by. He went to Hong Kong, enjoyed Circus Oz, and finished one painting—which I assume is still at their head office.
So those politicians who are in the throes of proving to the High Court their undying sovereign and sole allegiance to the crown, should take a moment to reflect on how hard it was for Nyinawanga and others—whose ancestors were not born in Italy or Britain or Cyprus or Canada or New Zealand—to prove their ancestry and rights to country.
And how problematic Woodley and Newton’s lyrics to We are Australian can be for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.