Indigenous rights activist Eugenia Flynn explains how her Aboriginal heritage strengthens her faith and her first curated arts exhibition.
I grew up in Adelaide, though my family is from Darwin. It was very slow but I didn’t mind. Adelaide does have some great things about it. There was a lot of families and people were very polite and had good manners. Despite that I grew up with people asking me a lot of questions. They couldn’t get the fact that I was Aboriginal and Chinese. It confused them and some even asked me “how does that work?” Well, a man meets a woman and they get married. That’s how it works.
I grew up in a very political household. We were one of the first Aboriginal families to leave Darwin in search of a better life. My father was also the first Aboriginal student to graduate from the University of Adelaide. He also worked for the Aboriginal Task Force, an ogranisation set up to help Aboriginal people get into universities. The early seventies and eighties a lot of the civil rights stuff that happened in America carried over to here. Universities were a hotbed for that. Growing up I remember lots of people come and go from our house. My father was involved in so many political and academic activities; that’s where I got both of these interests from. I grew up in universities and around books. I learned to type from a young age because there were so many computers around in university that I couldn’t help but get on them and muck around.
My mum is Chinese, she migrated from Penang where her parents chose to settle. She met my dad in Malaysia, he was in the army reserves. Dad’s sergeant was marrying one of my mum’s friends so my dad went to drop off some stuff to the family and there he met my mum. He didn’t think of it at first. Then, years later, when my mum went to Australia to help that friend who was giving birth to their second child she met my father again. It went on from there and they got married. This is not strange. There is a really rich history of mixing between Chinese and Aboriginal families, particularly in the north in Darwin. My dad’s best friend from childhood was Chinese and this friend’s mother had one of the first Chinese restaurants in Australia. This was all common for me and we were raised with a normal childhood.
In the Aboriginal community, culture and knowledge spanning thousands of years have been passed on through performance and visual arts. I am talking about songs, dance, oral traditions and visual art. If you wanted to demonstrate to someone how to go somewhere you can draw it in (what are now) paintings and they would know exactly where to go and get water. So growing up in such an atmosphere you get involved in everything. My sister was in a dance group, my other sister worked in a gallery and at younger age we as a family performed on stage. Culture was ingrained in everything that we did. When I was 15, I met a woman who got me involved in radio. I did a radio course and started producing the very first Aboriginal radio show in Adelaide called the Aboriginal Message. The station is now called Radio Adelaide. It was a lot of fun.
I grew up in a very strong Catholic home. We went to Bible studies and the concept of God was something I began really thinking about when I was 15. I began rejecting the idea that God could be human and that was such a central part of Christianity. My best friend in high school was a Muslim and I learned a lot through her. Generally, I had a lot of questions: If God was so great why would he be also a human? If God was so great why do we only worship him on Sundays? I couldn’t understand and the more I learned about Islam the more it made sense to me. It was the little things that got me. I would go to my friend’s house and I would see how worship was all encompassing. When they eat they would say Bismillah and when they finish it was then Alhmadulilah. There was also a subconscious element as well. I remember sleeping and dreaming that I was in hijab but I didn’t link it to Islam. This happened throughout high school.
I would speak to my friend all the time about Islam. On a trip to Hong Kong I sent her this long email about the Muslims and the mosque that I saw there. I remember when I came back to Adelaide and I was speaking about Islam and she just said “look, do you want to become Muslim?” That was the first time I was confronted with that. I was nineteen and it was very scary for me. I assumed my family would disown me. I remember praying to God, asking Him to make it all okay. I converted eleven years ago but I didn’t tell my family immediately. I should have as I think it would have worked out better. Allah is the best of planners.
The reaction was mixed. My dad was surprisingly okay, he was glad that one of his kids was God conscious. My mum, on the other hand, grew up in Malaysia during turbulent times where Malays were killing a lot of Chinese. She was very against it and I took things very slowly at first. I didn’t wear hijab and worshipped in secret. Eventually, two years later I decided that I was going to be an adult. I discussed with my family that I wanted to practice openly. My mum said if I was going to do that then I should leave the house. I said it was my intention to keep my relationship with God and my family. However if I had to choose between both, it would be God. That was really hard for me to say and the family to hear. My mum said “fine, you can pray here.” Another two years later after that I told my family I wanted to wear hijab. Alhmadulilah that was easier as they got used to me praying at home.
My regular job is working at the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development and that is based a the Victorian College of the Arts and the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, which is part of the University of Melbourne. I do academic work in the University as well, help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and artists wanting to undertake training there or enter the arts sector.
I am curating an exhibition called Immersion at the Black Dot Gallery in Melbourne. It’s the first time that I am doing something like this. It is by a world renowned photographer called Wayne Quilliam. People say they want to see Aboriginal Australia and they think stereotypical images of the desert and National Geographic style pictures of little kids. Quilliam has travelled the world and there are some amazing images of people from South America, The Pacific Islands, Europe and other places. He has taken pictures of other Indigenous people from around the world and is sharing their stories and narratives through his photographs which are beautiful.
I am from the Larrakia People, they are across the Darwin area. I am also from the Tiwi People which come from Tiwi Islands, which is off the coast of Darwin. I live in Melbourne now so I am far removed from those places, hence I always have a yearning for them. When I am back there I feel much happier, the air feels better and the land feels different under my feet. I always know I belong there when I return. Being Aboriginal and Muslim never felt like a clash for me. It was the opposite. It strengthened my faith and my culture. We are connected to the land and when I place my head down on that earth to pray five times a day I am connected to God. This is God’s land. All of it.
Immersion runs until June 9 at the Black Dot Gallery. 413 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, Melbourne. For more information go to www.blakdot.com.au.
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