Battling a postcolonial present, rewriting a brutal past, and derided by a conservative minority, Oxford university’s seven-strong group of Aboriginal students are reshaping history.
Aside from the pressures of academic rigour and the symbolism of being “firsts”, the group are having to navigate Oxford’s otherworldly centuries-old traditions – the Latin prayers, the dinner gowns, the crystal wine decanters – as they etch their own mark on the oldest university in the English-speaking world.
Rebecca Richards, 26, an Adnyamathanha and Barngarla woman from the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, the first on her father’s side of the family to graduate from high school, is Australia’s first Aboriginal Rhodes scholar. She has a measured way with words. “Being the first of our mob to come to Oxford is not so much a class thing, it’s about a way of looking at the history of Australia.” She thinks before she continues. “From a young age our history didn’t quite mesh with the way that we were taught in school. Most Aboriginal people will have some kind of critical edge, but it’s only through opportunities like this that we get to voice them.”
We stand among the jumble of anthropological artefacts in Oxford’s Pitt Rivers ethnographic museum, where Richards undertakes part of her research. A North American totem pole soars to the rafters, a boomerang sits framed inside a polished glass cabinet – and she poses patiently for photographs.
For Richards, the hundred-year-old scholarship, broadly accepted as the world’s most prestigious award for young academics, presented a dilemma: how to weigh the association with its eponym, Cecil Rhodes, – who proclaimed the British as “the first race in the world” and who imbibed the sort of imperial racism that was used to justify brutality against Aboriginal people in 19th-century Australia – against the academic opportunity on offer. Richards decided to speak to Rhodes scholars from South Africa and Zimbabwe, where Rhodes had presided as prime minister of the Cape Colony.
“They said: ‘Yes it’s horrible what he did, but we have to work with what we have today.’ I don’t think I’m proud of the scholarship because of who Rhodes is, I’m just proud of the people that I’m with.”
She recounts in vivid detail the arduous interview process: cocktails with the governor-general at Australia House, dinner in wood-panelled rooms, and then a day of interviews. The pomp associated with the Rhodes prepared many of Australia’s most noted politicians for life in Canberra. Bob Hawke, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull are all past recipients.
An anthropologist by training, Richards is immersed in rigorous postgraduate research – using the watercolour paintings of British artist John Skinner Prout from the mid-19th century, to re-interpret depictions of Aboriginal people in Tasmania. The research is preparation for an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia in 2015.
“They had very difficult lives,” she says, understated again. “So the opportunity to show the artworks in Australia will mean getting to know these people as individuals and not just as stereotypical symbols of Aboriginals, for Tasmanian Aboriginal people to really assert their identity.” Previously, those in the collection, created after the black war in Tasmania, were interpreted by historians as ethnographic portraiture and placed in two categories, those who were freedom fighters and those who were passive. “In fact,” says Richards, “they were both, and they were more than that too.”
And so it is that Oxford’s first Aboriginal Rhodes scholar is engaged in a critical revision of some of Australia’s oldest colonial artworks.
Since 2010 the university has seen a relative influx of Aboriginal students, a welcome contrast to recent press reports that labelled the university as “institutionally biased” after statistics revealed that white undergraduate applicants were up to twice as likely to get a place on the most competitive courses. All of Oxford’s Aboriginal students are in some way involved in a project of redefinition, designed to help communities back home.
At Trinity College I visit 34-year-old Christian Thompson, who along with Paul Gray, 28, is studying under the Charlie Perkins scholarship (named after the first indigenous person to graduate from university in Australia, just 48 years ago), and were the first Aboriginal students to go to Oxford in its nine centuries of existence.
We sit in the dining hall. On any other day the art on the walls would seep into the background. But, for the first time in the hall’s near 400-year history, ageing oil portraits of past college grandees are gone, replaced with Thompson’s own portrait photography. It’s a broad collection of his work that deals with identity, race and history. The rehanging may have been a moment in Oxford’s parochial history, but Thompson, who is nearing the end of his art theory PhD, remains aware of the sad truth.
“I think it’s quite a sobering fact that we live in a generation where there can still be ‘firsts’,” says Thompson, a Bidjara man. “It’s difficult. There’s a lot vested in Paul and me. We’re symbolic. And there is a palpable expectation to perform at the highest academic level.”
The pressure was no doubt exacerbated when, around the time of Thompson and Gray’s first semester, the rightwing Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt wrote: “I’m not sure these are the Aboriginal faces you’d expect to be in most need of special race-based help,” directly referencing Thompson’s mixed heritage.
But whether he chooses to acknowledge it or not, Thompson is flying. Like Richards, he spends much of his time at the Pitt Rivers Museum and is working on a set of ethnographic photographic portraits dating from the late 19th century. In a research room inside the museum, Christian flicks through the archive, a foundational set of ethnographic photographs collected by the British anthropologist Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer. He reveals monochrome prints, a mixture of bizarre, playful set-ups, and more sinister headshots of Aboriginal convicts, bedraggled, squinting into the camera, awaiting execution.
“I’ve deliberately decided not to carry them on my person. It’s really morbid to carry images of deceased ancestors,” says Thompson. “They were collected originally as ethnographic objects of a culture that was meant to die out. The irony is that these collections that are now held all over the world are making us part of a global research movement.”
The university is repatriating copies of the archives to the Aboriginal communities[WARNING: contains photograph] they came from, but Thompson’s role is more abstract. Drawing direct inspiration from images in the collection, he created a new volume of photographic work that turned into a show, We Bury Our Own. It has already toured the world. In the collection, Thompson poses in similarly sepia-tinged photographs, staring straight to camera, his eyes often concealed. “I was looking at the idea of spiritual repatriation,” he says. “To make these collections part of the contemporary. They’re not just ethnographic tokens of an imperial culture, they’re very much connected to a lived reality. They’re part of our lives.”
Work like this would not be possible but for the proximity to source material that Oxford offers. Another of Oxford’s Aboriginal students, 51-year-old Greg Lehman from north-east Tasmania, a Roberta Sykes scholar completing a master of studies in art history, is using this newfound access to some of Britain’s most famous collections to reinterpret a pivotal piece of Australian art.
The Conciliation, painted in 1840 by British artist Benjamin Duterrau, is regarded as Australia’s first painting of history. Depicting the moment of treaty between a group of Tasmanian Aboriginal people and the district “protector of Aborigines”, Lehman argues that the painting has been interpreted in a “very literal” manner – seen as the first steps towards recognition of Tasmanian Aboriginal people – when there are more brutal subtleties to be uncovered. By referencing William Hogarth’s illustrations for Paradise Lost and Raphael’s cartoons of the gospels – both of which influenced Dutterau – Lehman claims that the positioning and poise of the Aboriginal people in The Conciliation show acknowledgements of violence and a sense of foreboding.
At Oxford, the pioneering students meet nearly every week. As Thompson, Gray and Richards sit together on the lush lawns of Trinity college, it’s clear they’ve formed a close bond. Christian pokes fun at Rebecca’s college, Magdalen, notorious for its archaic traditions. “Bec is the first person of colour there for a long time,” he chuckles.
“It’s quite hard to fit in, I guess,” she replies. “Just getting used to things like fish knives, those wine decanters. But you do get used to it, to all the funny dinners and the funny sayings. It’s actually a very nice, very sweet tradition.”
There is no doubt about who heads the group. Kerrie Doyle, sits in her living room at Wolfson college, a blow-up Kangaroo propped against the wall. “Wherever you put a blackfella, they’ll go and look for the other blackfella,” she says. “It’s just how we roll.”
Doyle (or Auntie Kerrie as she’s known), is 55 and studying for an MSc in mental health with a focus on adoption and depression. She didn’t speak English until she was eight. Born on a mission in Alice Springs, she fled with her family to New South Wales. Doyle was the first Aboriginal nurse in her state, the first in her university to graduate as a psychologist, and is now an assistant professor at the University of Canberra. She is forthright in criticising Australia’s record on access to higher education.
“I had to really fight to come here,” she says. “First of all my university said, ‘Why do you want to go? You’re just an Abo, you’re not going to do any good.’ Then they said, ‘You won’t get in’ … My university has never supported me to go and research an Aboriginal [area]. Because it’s just an Aboriginal thing.”
Doyle’s experience underlines a sobering reality. Indigenous students make up just 1.09% of Australia’s university population (representation in postgraduate courses and in academic staffing is even lower); Indigenous people constitute 2.5% of the national population. Workplace discrimination is common: a report recently published by the National Tertiary Education Union concluded that 71% of Indigenous people employed by Australia’s universities have experienced racial discrimination at work.
Twenty-six year-old Krystal Lockwood, a Gumbangerrii and Dhungutti woman from Queensland and another Perkins scholar, is also studying for an MSc in mental health, and is preparing methodology to evaluate the effectiveness of Queensland’s new youth boot camps – recent statistics showed (pdf) that Aboriginal children were 34 times more likely to have gone through correctional services than non-Aboriginals in the state. Lockwood looks up in awe as Doyle speaks.
“Everything that Auntie Kerrie says is true,” she says. “She’s my hero.”
Doyle smiles, taking the praise in her stride. Despite the hardship she’s endured, there’s a solace in the future. Oxford has already funded research trips that Doyle says would be unthinkable in Australia due to the university’s superior funding and investment in a broader portfolio of academic research. “I think the next generation, especially when the Krystals and the Christians go back, will be a lot different,” she says. “When we say we’ve been to Oxford, we will not go back the same.”
Back at Trinity, and a clock chimes two somewhere in the distance. Christian, Paul and Rebecca, glance at each other and politely remind me they have lectures to attend. They stroll out beneath the college’s bricked gateway, along immaculately kept gravel paths, and file off, each on a different path across the city.