This page includes images of Aboriginal people who have since passed away.
Like many young, white people from Perth in 1958, my parents viewed the Wheatbelt as a sort of Utopia, a place to build a life together. My father Tony came to work as a mechanic in a Shell service station agency in Lake Grace and my mother Josephine came as a newly graduated primary school teacher.
As a child growing up in Lake Grace in the 1960s I was told, “no Aboriginal people had ever lived in the area.” Fifty years later, in 2021, when I returned to work in Lake Grace as an artist with SPACED, I found this story was still current: Aboriginal people had only passed through, and the town was considered warra — a place of bad spirits.
I wanted to explore this idea and find out why. I invited the town to participate in a group exhibition exploring this question and shared photos of Aboriginal artefacts and tools found in Lake Grace, now held in the WA Museum collection.
Local farmers consequently told how they had found grinding tools around freshwater soaks, native yams in paddocks and how some breakaway sites on their farms contained ochres and gnamma holes. These were all evidence of long-time human habitation in the area.
According to Tindale’s map of 1940, five different tribal groups — Njaki-Njaki, Wilman, Goreng, Wudjari and Ballardong — all met, moved through and camped around the Lake Grace/Lake Chinocup lake system.
If we expand the understanding of ‘lived in’ to include ‘moving and camping around the area’ we open up a far richer story, one which includes the impact of contemporary history. From 1911, when European farming began in the Lake Grace area, these sites became impossible for Aboriginal people to access.
Whadjuk Noongar artist Andrea Williams explains how her grandparents Mary Penny and Mervyn Williams came from the Njaki-Njaki and Goreng tribes. In the late 1950s and early 1960s they moved around, following seasonal work on farms and lived in Nyabing, Borden, Ongerup and finally Gnowangerup. Mervyn Williams worked for the Badger family at Lake Chinocup (at the southern end of the Lake Grace chain of salt lakes) for many years and a bond grew between the two families. Mary’s grandfather John Penny, who had been photographed by Tindale, travelled up as far as Lake Grace — this was known as the Penny Run.
1958 was a very hard year; there were six deaths due to car accidents, and Mary and Mervyn, feeling the area had bad vibes, left for Gnowangerup.
Andrea explains that one of the reasons Aboriginal people hesitate to pass through Lake Grace is because of the reputation that the town is warra, and not to be passed through at night. There is a fear that a person might be assaulted by Woodarchies or Mummeries, evil little black creatures with red eyes.
Grant Riley, a proud Wilman man from Dumbleyung who gave a Welcome to Country at the exhiition in Lake Grace, told another story of why Lake Grace is warra. He explained that Mulka, a monstrous man with crossed eyes, who ate children, was chased by local tribes, from Katter Kich/Wave Rock, where he lived in a cave, down through Lake Grace to Dumbleyung, where he was killed. He explained that Lake Grace needs a smoking ceremony to cleanse bad spirits.
Presented alongside two works by Andrea’s uncle Ronald ‘Womber’ Williams which capture the landscape of the area as well as a sense of conflict and foreboding, our installation engages with this history and mythology of Lake Grace, challenging the erasure of Aboriginal people’s presence in the area and exploring why the area might be considered warra.