Snapping Black: revisiting the first Indigenous photography exhibition

In 1986, the first Indigenous photography exhibition was held at the Aboriginal Artists Gallery in Kent Street, Sydney. In 2021, the National Film and Sound Archive is hosting a major exhibition of works by a photographer considered to be the ‘father’ of First Nations photography in Australia.

Reconciliation News notes the generous contribution of Brenda L Croft, Associate Professor, Indigenous Art History and Curatorship, ANU, to this story.

The September 1986 NAIDOC Week Aboriginal and Islander Photographers¹ was a landmark exhibition. Showing the work of First Nations artists—established and emerging—it included a number whose careers later soared, nationally and internationally, and others for whom it was one of the few times their work was publicly exhibited.

The gallery no longer exists but the work of those photographers continues to frame the space of First Nations photography in Australia today.

Michael Riley, Brenda L. Croft, Tracey Moffatt, Mervyn Bishop, along with Darren Kemp, Tony Davis, Chris Robinson and Ros Sultan were the photographers featured in that 1986 exhibition.

Their work is recognised in the canon of Australian photography beside that of Frank Hurley, Olive Cotton, Max Dupain and Rennie Ellis.

From the early 1980s onwards, individual First Nations photographers, including Brook Andrew, Richard Bell, Gordon Bennett, Destiny Deacon, Fiona Foley, Dianne Jones, Ricky Maynard, Tracey Moffatt, Michael Riley, Christian Thompson and many others gained increasing recognition for their work.

These and other photographers worked to overcome memories of generations and centuries of indelible mistreatment, and the mistrust and hatred held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and people of colour, towards that most abusive of colonial weapons: a camera—being both object and subject of interpretation by non-Indigenous outsiders.

The above is an excerpt of an article from the May 2021 edition of Reconciliation News. Read the whole story.

Learn more about Barbara McGrady, Elaine Syron and other photographers working around Redfern, or read about Mavis Phillips nee Walley, who was one of Australia’s earliest known Indigenous photographers.

1. At the time NAIDOC was a bit of a movable feast, sometimes held in July, on other occasions in September.

Paul House with gum leaves and smoke
Paul Girrawah House

Paul Girrawah House has multiple First Nation ancestries from the South-East Canberra region, including the Ngambri-Ngurmal (Walgalu), Pajong (Gundungurra), Wallabollooa (Ngunnawal) and Erambie/Brungle (Wiradyuri) family groups.

Paul acknowledges his diverse First Nation history, he particularly identifies as a descendant of Onyong aka Jindoomang from Weereewaa (Lake George) and Henry ‘Black Harry’ Williams from Namadgi who were both multilingual, essentially Walgalu-Ngunnawal-Wiradjuri speaking warriors and Ngunnawal–Wallaballooa man William Lane aka ‘Billy the Bull’ - Murrjinille.

Paul was born at the old Canberra hospital in the centre of his ancestral country and strongly acknowledges his First Nation matriarch ancestors, in particular his mother Dr Aunty Matilda House-Williams and grandmother, Ms Pearl Simpson-Wedge.

Paul completed a Bachelor of Community Management from Macquarie University, and Graduate Certificate in Wiradjuri Language, Culture and Heritage and Management from CSU.

Paul provided the Welcome to Country for the 47th Opening of Federal Parliament in 2022. Paul is Board Director, Ngambri Local Aboriginal Land Council, Member Indigenous Reference Group, National Museum of Australia and Australian Government Voice Referendum Engagement Group.  

Paul works on country with the ANU, First Nations Portfolio as a Senior Community Engagement Officer

Acknowledgement of Country

Reconciliation Australia acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing  connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this website contains images or names of people who have passed away.

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