Heartbreak and tea – InDaily

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Nathalie Harkin, Apron-Sadness / Sovereign-Tea (presented by Vitalstatistix and Tarnanthi)
Waterfront, Port Adelaide

Archival poetic installation by Dr Natalie Harkin Apron-Sadness / Sovereign-Tea is an accumulation of years of research and conversation, with a touch of archival fever. Developed in collaboration with Unbound Collective, Indigenous artists, academics and storytellers, it enables Indigenous women to converse with their ancestors and successors.

Harkin, a poet, artist and scholar from Narungga, has searched state archives, reflected on her family’s stories, and engaged with the community to respectfully describe the domestic work histories of Aboriginal women in South Australia. The members of the Unbound Collective – Ali Gumillya Baker, Simone Ulalka Tur, Faye Ross Blanch and Natalie Harkin – work and create together.

This facility is housed in Waterside, now the home of Vitalstatistix, which was originally a workers hall built by the Waterside Workers’ Federation in 1926. This place was also once a base for the first Aboriginal activists in Australia- Southern. Many of the indigenous women honored in the exhibit were once domestic workers deprived of their labor rights. The choice of location is ironic and appropriate.

Apron-Sadness / Sovereign-Tea is made up of several parts. A set table and four chairs take place in the center of the room, enclosed in a circle of light. A lead triptych of indigenous women at work hangs above the stage. This work, See her shine in the sun, was created by artist Narungga Sharene Vandenbroek to order.

Sovereign Tea: Natalie Harkin with Unbound Collective, APRON-PAIN / SOVEREIGN-TEA, 2021, Vitalstatistix, TARNANTHI. Video detail by Jessica Wallace

A set of four short films – created in collaboration with Unbound Collective – projected onto white sheets hung from three clotheslines. Perfect blue sky backgrounds, dazzling sunrises and sunsets. And the native women sweeping, sweeping. The viewer is lulled by the images and sounds of rhythmic movement.

For all our women of the sun pays homage to the 1981 drama series Women of the sun. The title ironically Days of our lives imagine the life of a servant from morning to night: washing, scrubbing, sweeping, dusting and sewing.

Sovereign tea was inspired by a song by Lou Bennett and reimagined by Katie Inawantji Morrison on violin and Simone Ulalka Tur on vocals. Native women in long white aprons are seated at a table; resting her feet briefly, sharing laughter and sorrow, before returning to household requirements.

In Domestic waltz, four women rub, sweep and mop. In between, they dance in colonial hoop skirts made from copied archival documents. Words written in the sand, such as Stolen and Sovereign, appear and disappear as they clear the floor. The soundtrack is the song My Tjamu, sung by Simone Ulalka Tur and Lou Bennett. Simone’s mother, Mona Ngitji-Ngitju Tur, wrote the original poem this song is based on, and the poem hangs on a clothesline next to white linen underwear.

Items hanging from the other clothesline require more than just a glance. Stories of memory consists of 12 stories printed on white tea towels hung alongside sepia or black and white photographs. The women who generously shared their stories are Pauline O’Brien, Sharon Gollan, Joan Cullen / Chester, Joyleen Thomas, Sharon Meagher, Margaret Brodie, Yhonnie Scarce, Debra Moyle, Simone Ulalka Tur, Ali Gumillya Baker, Angela Flynn with Aunty Dorothy Fox, and Colleen Strangways.

There are many objects and images that evoke a sense of nostalgia in Apron-Sadness / Sovereign-Tea. Crisp white linens, crisp white aprons, and sturdy white underwear hanging from clotheslines. A table loaded with white porcelain, perfectly plump scones, jewel-hued jams and crème fraîche. Out of nostalgia, questions arise.

Who were the women who washed and laundered the laundry? Working on big brass instruments of boiling water. What happened to women with back pain as they dragged laundry and swept the floor? Sweat for a household they’ve never really been a part of. The answers can be found in the Stories of memory. And the reasoning of combining Apron with Sorrow becomes clearer.

The other duo in the title, Sovereign and Tea, is also found in various elements of the installation. The kettle has been boiled and grandmothers, mothers, aunts and sisters are ready to share laughs, heartaches, good news or gossip. Tea is also familiar for juicy gossip or real talk: someone has the tea and they’re ready to spill it.

Apron-Sadness / Sovereign-Tea spill the tea to show without flinching the truth behind the state-orchestrated bondage. There’s more to this story than the rhythmic sweeping and the well-boiled wash. Sweat and tears were wiped off these aprons by native women who worked for the white master and mistress of the house. However, in the sharing and pouring of tea, there is also sovereignty. The native matriarchs were, are and always will be resolutely sovereign.

Apron-Sadness / Sovereign-Tea is presented by Tarnanthi and Vitalstatistix at Waterside, 11 Nile Street, Port Adelaide. It operates until October 31 and is open Thursday through Sunday. On Saturday October 30, Natalie Harkin will be in conversation with Jackie Huggins. One tea, titled Sovereign Tea: Stirring With Intent, was created by Brewed by Belinda and is available for purchase from Vitalstatistix and Art Gallery of SA, with proceeds going to an Indigenous Women’s Shelter.

A sister exhibition, Sovereign sisters: domestic work by Ali Gumillya Baker, can be seen at the Flinders University Museum of Art.

Karen Wyld is an author living on the South Adelaide Coast. His second novel, Where the fruits fall, won the 2020 Dorothy Hewitt Prize for Unpublished Manuscript. His children’s book, Heroes, rebels and innovators, was released in July 2021.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.


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