Words and art by Caroline Oakley
My name is Caroline Oakley; I am a descendant of Gamilaroi (Gomeroi) people of the Liverpool plains, North West of NSW. I come from a complex heritage of Anglo-Celtic, European and Asian culture.
I did not grow up on country, nor did my Gamilaroi family practise their culture, as they signed an exemption ticket. However, they had to apply for exemption to travel around regional New South Wales and Queensland for work as domestic servants for station hands. My Great Grandmother and her sister finally settled in Sydney working as domestic servants for wealthy people along the upper North Shore of Sydney. I found out about my Aboriginal ancestry 25 years ago. I felt there was something missing in my life that was not tangible, so it was no surprise when my father finally told me. I have since spent over ten years walking on country and exploring my heritage, with the help of Elders that are my kin family.
I am currently studying a Masters of Aboriginal studies, third year thesis and Honours in Contemporary Art and Design. My topic of interest for my Masters thesis is mental illness and other psychological disorders and how Aboriginal people have had to shapeshift within two worlds. My Honours, relates to storytelling from the perspectives of Gamilaroi women’s business. As Aboriginal women have been invalidated, oppressed and segregated due to the systems of patriotism. This story relates to my family and the documented history written by Major Thomas Mitchell who wrote in his diaries about my ancestors from Mungindi, Gil Gil creek, New South Wales.
My Great, Great Grandmother was the first Aboriginal woman outside of the Liverpool Plains to have her name on Crown Lands, because of her Scottish father. Caroline Richards nee Carr also wrote to the NSW Department of Lands to petition ‘Bengerang’ and the division that Crown Lands had imposed, as this land had significant cultural history to many tribes that came to perform their corrobborees and initiations on Bengerang water hole. Caroline lost her case, presumably because she was a woman and Aboriginal. ‘Bengerang’, today is a famous property, largely taken over by the cotton industry.
The Afflictions of Colonisation 2012, highlights a story of theft, brutality, rape and pillaging of a 65, 000 year old culture. My three times Great grandmother succumbed to the brutalities of frontier violence, (Waterloo and Mosquito creek ) and how Gomeroi women were used as leverage for womba wanda (white man’s privilege and dispossession).
“Embracing the past and the present of Aboriginal culture enables me to tell a story for future preservation. Art can be the catalyst for an idea to crystallise and record into a creative vision of history that has been challenging for Australia’s first people. Evoking thoughts of women’s business and how Aboriginal people took care of the land has and still is vital for health and wellbeing. Elements of colour form, light and texture give me many options towards the way I create. To encapsulate a time line of oral stories, place and purpose of footprints that are forever embedded into Aboriginal history.”
—Caroline Oakley 2015
As an artist, I mostly work at the dining table at home. Otherwise, I have a studio space at Liverpool Street, Adelaide. This studio is used for arts students that are connected to the Dorrit Building at University of South Australia studying Creative Arts and Design.
Once I’m finished both degrees, I’m hoping to go on and study a Ph.D. in relation to Aboriginal children living within the imagined consciousness of Australia and how they are battling ongoing demons of being incarcerated. I remain hopeful to have the capacity to have my own home where I can set up a studio to purchase a press. As a printmaker, this is my therapy, without the ability to print; I feel a sense of loss, just like being lost within the foundations of growing up being lost in a country that continually invalidates Aboriginal people. I would also like to work with other Aboriginal people who have been lost, as well as teaching non- Indigenous people that Aboriginal people su er border line personality due to having to shape-shift and navigate between black and white man’s world.