Mandy Nicholson Has A Yarn On The Djirri Djirri Group Winning The Melbourne Awards 2022


Mandy Nicholson, born in Healesville in 1975 identify as Wurundjeri-wilam (Wurundjeri-baluk patriline) but also have Dja Dja wurrung, Ngurai illum wurrung, German and Irish heritage. I have 2 daughters who I have raised as a single mother. I have been a practising visual artist for over 30 years, specialising in acrylic works. In the past I have also worked in ceramics, printmaking, children’s clothing, public art and collaborative works. This year Djirri Djirri took out the Ganbu Guljin Award at this years Melbourne Awards.

Ganbu Guljin means ‘one mob’ in the Woi Wurrung language. The name is intended to better recognise the important work of Aboriginal communities.

Djirri Djirri is the only Wurundjeri female dance group and are Traditional Custodians of Narrm (Melbourne) and surrounds. Djirri Djirri means Willy Wagtail in Woiwurrung, the Mother Tongue. The Willy Wagtail is the Spirit's Messenger and giver of dance.

The Djirri Djirri dancers are all connected by blood through one woman, Borate, Berak's (William Barak's) sister. They are cousins, nieces, aunties, mothers and daughters, all dancing together to honour Liwik (Ancestors), Kerr-up-non (Family), Biik (Country) and animals.

City of Melbourne Lord Mayor, Sally Capp, said this year’s Melbourne Awards marked 20 years of celebrating locals shaping the city for the better.

“The Melbourne Awards are our city’s highest accolade, recognising the talented Melburnians who make extraordinary contributions to our community,” Mayor Capp said. “Over the past two decades, we’ve been shining a light on the incredible work of so many Victorians who have gone above and beyond to drive innovation, create inclusive communities, ignite our creative sector and share ideas about the future of our city. “Our people make our city the great place that it is, and we want to showcase their efforts. If you know an inspirational Melburnian, nominate their work for a Melbourne Award.” Previous Melbourne Award winners include the creators of compostable cling wrap, the developers of an app to support health care workers, and a program supporting Aboriginal art in prison.

My mother is the woman that inspires me the most. She was from Germany, but she was blacker than some Aboriginal women I know. She was staunch and proud of her 6 children’s Aboriginality and supported it as much as she could. I also was in awe of my grandmother’s sister Aunty Winnie Quagliotti (Narrandjerri) as she was also a staunch woman, with such a presence that no one dare disrespect her. I remember being intimidated by her, but when she spoke to me she was kind and funny trying to make me laugh. Wurundjeri women and Aboriginal women in general of the 60s, 70s and 80s is what I aspire to be like. They were alive when there was great cultural change and recognition, things were done, changes were made due to the hard work these women did for Wurundjeri, and others. Aunty Winnie for example, helped start up the Wurundjeri Council, housing and health organisations for Aboriginal people and young ones. I see our young women with this same passion and drive.

My daughters Dharna Nicholson-Bux and Ky-ya Nicholson-Ward are also one of my main inspirations, they proudly share their culture through song, dance, ceremony and cross-cultural activities. They have no barriers to prevent them from shining as I did. They both have that fire in their belly to raise awareness of the richness of Wurundjeri culture and they act as mentors to the younger girls, it’s an amazing, emotional thing to observe, I am very proud of them.

I visualise all of these women, young, old and no longer physically with us as strong pillars supporting their Wurundjeri family. They all have the spirit within them from women before them. I have always had strong women around me growing up, and that is what I am doing for my daughters and nieces today, so they can say the same thing when they are adults, that they had strong women surrounding them throughout their lives.

My family is large and the majority of them are female. I have 3 sisters, 2 daughters and so many aunties that I cannot number. They have all inspired me to work and support young girls as I don’t want any of them to not have the opportunity to learn culture. I don’t want any them to say they don’t know their culture, history, language, ceremony, song or dance.

Throughout my years of research, I came a across a ceremony for young Wurundjeri girls called ‘Murrum Turrukurruk’, meaning Murrum/Murrum =body; Turru/Turruk/Toorak=reeds; and kurruk/grook=suffix meaning female. It is a whole of community ceremony where young girls are put through to welcome them as women, while the young men of the community promise to protect them like brothers throughout their lives. This ceremony has been sleeping for over 180 years, we woke it up 5 years ago by putting through 20 young Wurundjeri girls and a some from other areas that don’t have access to this kind of ceremony. They were taught how to collect ochre to paint their bodies, and reeds for their necklaces. They were also presented with a possum skin belt to be worn when they dance or at ceremonies. They were taught how to be respectful, staunch young black women. If they chose to do something against what they have been taught, their belts are taken from them and they have to earn them back. It’s all about teaching them to respect themselves and culture as the same thing, if they disrespect themselves, they disrespect culture. Two of my Elders, Aunty Diane Kerr and Aunty Irene Morris also put me through the ceremony as I had no opportunity when I was a teenager.

I don’t only work with my community, I assist young girls in need of culture who are in care. One way that I do is getting them to dance in our dance group. Djirri Djirri dance group formed in 2013, after many of dancers started dancing around 2 years of age. If older girls want to dance in our dance group, they have to have gone through the Murrum Turrukurruk ceremony, and if they have gone down the wrong path they can no longer dance with us until they prove that they have changed. This is so important for our young women as it teaches them they there are consequences for bad behaviour, but that bad behaviour is not part of culture and doesn’t represent them as staunch, powerful, cultural women.

The Djirri Djirri dance group has also enabled some of the young women to have a renewed sense of pride in their Aboriginal identity. They now have the cultural confidence to answer those ‘Aboriginal’ questions at their schools that they can be confronted with, like ‘You don’t look Aboriginal’, or ‘There’s no Aboriginal people here anymore’ etc etc. see a bright future for our young woman as they are not sitting down and taking whatever negativity comes their way as I did, they are embracing it and turning it around into something positive. I tell the girls, when they get racially attacked then fight back with intelligence, don’t stoop to their unintelligent level, you will always end up on top as you have firm cultural foundations that no one can fracture, unless you let them….so don’t let them!

Many young ones that I work with have told me that there was always something missing in their lives, they always knew who they were, but…this sounds very familiar, so I am making sure that I stop the effects of transgenerational trauma in our young women, as I am proud to say that they are learning their language, culture, ceremony and dance…..because of her we can, because of me they can! It is very hard for me to say ‘because of me’ as I live by principles that don’t allow me to want glory, as culture is not about putting someone on a pedestal, it is a whole of community movement, with a couple of community leaders driving it, sometimes only one person, but one person can make a difference.