Rural Utopias

Table of Contents

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.

Pink Lake as seen during day time. A black and white, striped, 'No Through Road' sign is in the foreground followed by the lake, and the landscape beyond. The sky is clear closer to the foreground and cloudy towards the horizon
Pink Lake, 2021, Photo by Jo Darbyshire.

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.

  • A sculpture resembling both a humanoid form and charred wood leaning against a burnt tree trunk in the bush
    Andrea Williams, Mummarie, 2023, wire, metal. Photo courtesy the artist.
  • An abstact painting by Jo Darbyshire titled 'Lake Grace', featuring broad gestural strokes of red, black, brown, olive, and blues.
    Jo Darbyshire, Lake Grace, 2022, oil on canvas.

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.

  • Detail from Norman B. Tindale’s map ‘Tribal Boundaries in Aboriginal Australia’.
  • John Penny, grandfather of Mary Penny, with other family members, picking Mallee roots, Wheatbelt c.1930s.

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.

  • Rural Utopias, installation view featuring works by Jo Darbyshire, Nathan Gray, Wendy Hubert and Andrea Williams. The Art Gallery of Western Australia, 2023. Photo by Dan McCabe (@artdoc_au).
  • Andrea Williams, Mummaries 1-5, 2023, wire and mixed media. The Art Gallery of Western Australia, 2023. Photo by Dan McCabe (@artdoc_au).

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.

Artist: Jo Darbyshire

Jo Darbyshire (b.1961) is a fifth generation West Australian living and working in Walyalup/Fremantle. Darbyshire’s abstract paintings often reference the social and environ­mental history of place and aim to suggest a poetic, sensory connection. She also has an interest in creat­ing exhibitions that incorporate strategies from the visual arts and social history museums. In 2002 she worked with Nyoongar artist Andrea Williams on the Proclamation Day Arch at the WA Museum. In 2003 she created the ground-breaking exhibition The Gay Museum, at the WA Museum. In 2019 she was invited to join the TILT programme at Heath­cote Gallery and created the exhibition Tales of the Surreal, Stories from the Oral History Collection, Heath­cote Hospital. Darbyshire exhibits regularly with Art Collective WA and her artwork is held in all major public institutions in WA, and in private collections, nationally and internationally.

Collaborator: Andrea Williams

Andrea Williams (b.1971) is a Nyoongar artist born on Whadjuk country, with family connections to Goreng, Menang, Wilman, Balladong, Mir­ning and Wudjari groups and English, Scottish and Dutch heritage. Andrea also has a background in documentary filmmaking and sound recording with the Film & Television Institute of WA. From 1994 to 2000 Andrea worked as a Production Assistant, Director of Photography and Sound Recordist on many films and videos including Artists Up Front for Gary Lee in Darwin, Buffalo Legends, a documentary about the Buffalo Football Club in Darwin, Ngango Battas Moorditcher (Sunshine, Living, Strength) a video about Claisebrook Cove, Archie Roach’s tour of Northam and York (1997), Sally Morgan’s Play King Hit for Yirra Yarkin Aboriginal Theatre Company (1997), Wadumbah Aboriginal Dance Company’s promotional video, WA Museum’s Katta Djinoong — The first peoples of WA exhibition, and Taking the Children (WA’s Stolen Generations) for UWA and Murdoch University’s history departments, and with SBS Independent, Sydney.

Community Host Partner: Lake Grace Regional Artspace

Lake Grace Regional Artspace is a thriving multi-use arts venue located in the Southeastern Wheatbelt program­ming a range of arts activities including exhibitions, work­shops, creative experiences and community arts projects. The Lake Grace Regional Artspace is run as a non-profit organisation and is supported by the community of Lake Grace and surrounding area. It works closely with the Lake Grace Artists’ Group and Lake Grace Creative Events to provide a place where cultural groups, artists, art supporters, arts workers, and like-minded people can come together in a creative environment.