Painting home: Proud and poignant messages from Bagot

November 15, 2015

Darwin's Bagot community launched its Painting Home Project on November 7. It was the culmination of a seven-week collaboration between Aboriginal artists, Bagot residents, street artists from as far away as Melbourne, and other arts and cultural workers.

The project, led by creative producer Kieran Sanderson, sought to tell the many stories and histories of the people of Bagot — one of Darwin's oldest town communities. The stories are told through huge murals, some on public buildings in the community and some on the houses of people to whom the story belongs.

The murals tell stories of grief and sadness, but also pride, survival and belonging. At Bagot's entrance, the face of Jordan, a child from Bagot, looks out from a fence. It is called Karu — the Gurinji word for “child”.

This mural is a reminder of the Retta Dixon Home, which housed mainly Aboriginal children — including from the Stolen Generations — from 1946 to 1980. The home stood in the middle of the community, but its young residents were separated from the rest of the community by a fence.

Leading an “art walk” as part of the launch on November 7, Sanderson told visitors that residents were adamant that in the mural, the fence not cover Jordan's face: “Grandmothers used to come up and touch children through the fence, tell them their skin names. The break in the fence represents the fact that the children could still remember their stories.”

A mural on the clinic wall, which is also where the council meets, has the hand prints of people from Bagot, representing the 22 clan groups that make up the community today.

A huge hand, inlaid with residents' handprints and an Aboriginal flag in the palm, sprawls across the road at the entrance. This celebrates the Aboriginal land on which Bagot sits. It also commemorates the sit-down demonstrations in the 1970s, as part of the national land rights struggle.

Another mural (Muk Muk Sunrise) celebrates the community's passion for Australian Rules football and its local team — the men's Wanderers, and the women's side, the Muk Muks.

Freshwater meets Saltwater depicts a crocodile — important symbol for many Aboriginal groups in northern Australia — with half painted in traditional style by senior Roper Region artist Les Huddleston, and half in contemporary style by Melbourne street artist Andrew Bourke.

The artists spoke to the crowd about their collaboration, before Huddleston played the didgeridoo as the visitors gathered under trees, enjoying the art works out of the hot build-up sun.

Old Man Rossco depicts Rossi Fejo, a beloved long-term resident of Bagot. Rossi stood beside his mural and spoke of how he lived in Retta Dixon House until the Fejo family, a well-loved Larrakia family with a long history in Bagot, adopted him.

Dotty Fejo, who painted the mural with Bourke, said: “We wanted to put the bush food in this mural, too, to remind all the kids about their traditional food. So if they run out of food they know what they can go and eat.”

On the side of her house, Valemina “Mino” White has painted My Children Are At The Heart Of Your Future. Greeting visitors, she explained that she has brought up more than 35 children, only two of whom are her own. She wanted her mural to be about joy and the future, and indeed joy bounces of the faces of the woman and baby beaming down off the wall.

Some of the stories were sad, but the launch was a happy and proud day for the community. More than 150 people came out, despite the heat, to appreciate the art and the artists' stories.

Bagot has been in the news for sad reasons over the past few years. Local Country Liberal Party member Dave Tollner announced plans to “normalise” the community in 2012. Recently, the company that operates the community had been put into administration because of unpaid debts.

But while it may be used as a political football by some, for the people who live there it is home, always has been and — if they can do anything about it — always will be. The final mural on the art walk was done by the children of Bagot, its future leaders and elders, assisted by Darwin veteran of street art and youth mentor David Collins.

Painting Home's simple message sums up the feelings of its artist and, no doubt, the many visitors who were happy to celebrate the launch with the community: I ♥ BAGOT.

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