Features/Visual Art

Framing life from a Noongar perspective

25 May 2021

An exhibition of photographs by one of Australia’s earliest known First Nations photographers, Mavis Phillips (nee Walley), provides a rare Noongar perspective on mid-century life in the Wheatbelt, reports Ara Jansen.

It would be easy to think you were looking at just another family photo album – there’s a gaggle of young kids standing together in the wildflowers (and someone always pulling a face), a couple teens leaning on a car, a kid climbing around a tractor and an older couple posing in the yard with their dogs.

Yet the woman who took them is one of Australia’s earliest known First Nations photographers. Through her box brownie camera Mavis Phillips (nee Walley) captured the everyday moments of her community in Goomalling, Western Australia from the 1930s through to the 1970s.

These photographs are a rarity in that they show daily life from a Noongar perspective. Mavis Phillips’s photographs capture the joy, spontaneity, pride and hope from the Wheatbelt Aboriginal community.

A group of five children stand in a field of daisies. The oldest, who looks about 8, holds the youngest, a baby. At the front a toddler is looking at a flower in her hand. They look happy.
This was taken in approximately 1962. Lois is holding me (Dallas) in her arms. In the middle is Norma blowing her cheeks up. Georgie is folding her arms and looking mischievous. Lesley is in front of the daisies holding a dandelion. It was taken on the ‘ole farm’ Goomal Boodja Goomalling.

“It is extremely rare to have an Aboriginal woman photograph her view of her family, community and life on a farm,” confirms Battye Historian Kate Gregory. “This collection is unique and incredibly powerful because it’s an insider’s view. For someone who was an amateur photographer, she had a great eye.”

Stored away in a chocolate tin, the photographs came to light when Mavis Phillips’ daughter Dallas Phillips brought a collection of old negatives to a photo sharing session run by Community Arts Network in 2015.

Phillips was unaware of their historical and cultural value until they were viewed by State Library staff.

From some 1000 negatives, more than 360 of these images have now been digitised and stored on the State Library’s Storylines database.

Now, thanks to a partnership between the Perth Centre for Photography, Community Arts Network and the State Library of Western Australia, Mavis Phillips’s photos have gone on show for the first time.

“Mum brought eleven children into the world and provided us all with shelter, food, comfort, practical wisdom and love,” says Dallas Phillips. “Somehow, she also managed to become an enthusiastic amateur photographer – this, at a time when it was almost unheard of for an Aboriginal person to own a still camera, let alone use it to record the everyday family and community life.

“My mum never learned to read or write. Her technique was to walk around with her Box Brownie camera and take pictures. She didn’t look through the eyepiece; she just clicked away.

“Despite Mum’s lack of technical expertise, it’s clear that she had a natural flair for composition. Her images tell stories of great human interest and many hint at her wicked sense of humour.”

An older woman, a young woman and a child stand around a photograph of a young woman with a pram that looks like it was taken in the 1930s.
Dallas Phillips with her grand daughter and daughter, standing with a photograph of Mavis Phillips at the exhibition’s opening. Photo: Wayne Eades

Kate Gregory says what’s also exciting about the collection is that the photographs throw up questions and a bit of a mystery about how Mavis came to own a camera and how she afforded the film.

“We think Mavis’s husband, Huey, was the conduit for obtaining the camera,” says Gregory. “There are also photographs of Mavis taken, we assume, by him. It’s fascinating, and they might be the mysteries we never get to the bottom of.”

Also of interest to the historian are the poses in so many of the photos which mimic Victorian-era styles or what might have been found in a fashion magazine. Had Mavis seen these somewhere? Or did she just have such a natural instinct for posing her subjects?

“While this is a glimpse into the life of an Aboriginal family in the Wheatbelt, it was also a time of dispossession,” Gregory continues. “There was great poverty yet the children were dressed immaculately. There’s great pride in the photos; making do with that you had and creating a home within that environment. That’s just a really unique look into their lives.”

In 1968, the Native Welfare Department moved Mavis Phillips’s family onto the Goomalling Native Reserve. Noongar and other First Nations children, including Dallas, were sent to New Norcia to be educated. The 2017 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that the Benedictine Community of New Norcia had one of the highest rates of alleged abuse amongst Catholic Church institutions in Australia between 1950 and 2010. Dallas Phillips gave evidence of her own experiences in New Norcia to the commission.

An elderly First Nations man sits on a chair, in front of a chicken wire fence. Next to him stands an elderly First Nations woman. They are on a farm - in the background you can see a paddock and the corner of what could be a farmhouse. Two dogs are at their feet and behind them is some corrugated iron, leaning against the fence.
‘This is my Nan and Pop, Julia and Martin Walley with the dogs. That was everyday life. They’re so relaxed and happy. Life was simple back then when we lived on the farm. My mum took thousands of photos like this between 1950s
and 1970s, of which only 325 negatives survived.’ – Dallas Phillips

“Yet with the photographs taken by Mavis Phillips this story also enters the territory of hope, beauty, and strength, reminding us that Noongar people like the Phillips family not only survived but found ways to thrive even under the gravest existential threats,” writes Dr Lucy Van in the exhibition’s catalogue essay.

“The Mavis Phillips (nee Walley) Collection enters the historical record bearing radical evidence of joyful and connected lives. At the same time, the collection evidences the specific joy that Mavis found in photography.

“Remembered for constantly ‘clicking away’, she seems to have found in photography a joy for visual composition and experiment, a modern pleasure in gazing, and a love for looking at beloved subjects – family, nature, and home – as they were to her: just gold.”

Dallas Phillips says she hopes viewers find her mum’s photos illuminating of the times in which they were taken and that they express the innate dignity and resilience of the people in them.

“Above all, I hope [visitors to the exhibition] gain an appreciation of my mother’s rare and special ability to use photography – a technology unknown to her ancestors and to almost all of her Indigenous contemporaries – as a medium for revealing the truth and beauty of our people.”

The Mavis Phillips (nee Walley) Collection is on display until July 31 at the Perth Centre for Photography (King Street Arts Centre, Perth) and a smaller collection can be seen at The Nook at the State Library of Western Australia until 25 July.

Pictured top is a view into the Mavis Phillips nee Walley Collection at the Perth Centre of Photography, taken at the opening of the exhibition. Of the photo featured, Dallas Phillips says: ‘This is Julia Walley. My mum’s mum. My Nana. She’s all dressed up, so she must have been going somewhere, maybe into town? She’s standing in front of the seeding machines. She could be pretty tough, but she had to be, because them days were hard and she had to look after a lot of kids.’ Photo: Wayne Eades

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Author —
Ara Jansen

Ara Jansen is a freelance journalist. Words, bright colour, books, music, art, fountain pens, good conversation, interesting people and languages make her deeply happy. A longtime music journalist and critic, she’s the former music editor of The West Australian. Being in the pool next to the playground is one of her favourite places, ever.

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