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Unfinished Business by Uncle John Baxter

Uncle John Baxter is a proud Latja Latja/Narungga man, Board member of Reconcilliation Victoria and Board member First Peoples Disability Network. Uncle John Baxter throughout his life has sought to gain a deeper understanding of his culture and what it means to be Aboriginal. Furthermore, he actively helps others in the community, bringing awareness, encouragement and reconciliation to so many around him.

Uncle John Baxter was born in 1960 in the tidy town of Robinvale, in Victoria’s northwest. Being born with the disability spina bifida – paraplegia – he was brought down to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne.

However, being born Aboriginal, John was not returned to his birth family, but was fostered out to a non-Aboriginal family in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. It was not until his late teens that John finally got to meet his brothers and sisters, and his father. Through his teens John had had a growing awareness of his Aboriginality and had sought to reconnect with his mob.

That first meeting with his Aboriginal family, and his growing independence and freedom of mobility, changed the focus of his life. One of the things that concerns John is the complex question of how best to empower the First Peoples of Australia and their communities towards genuine self-determination.

History records that external policies, which have often been enforced with a heavy hand, have had a profound and devastating effect. The past has sadly left the First Peoples generationally disadvantaged, struggling under government control with income management and welfare dependency as well as all the disadvantages of limited life skills, education and employment opportunities.

The over-representation of the First Peoples in the justice system and child protective services and the despair reflected in the youth suicide crisis are reflections of how much pain remains to be healed.

Will proposed changes to the Constitution via a referendum help address these issues, and remove the stain of discrimination and racism? Or will a treaty guaranteeing sovereignty and self-determination be a more effective path to a more prosperous future for people so long oppressed? The First Peoples have the right to decide.

Being an Aboriginal, I think it gives a great deal of pride and sense of purpose as well. So a lot of the work I do is going out into the community and talking with people, whether it be school groups or senior citizens. Making those connections in the first place and saying, well yes, there are a lot of good strong Aboriginal people around, they have got their head in the right place and they can not only have a good in-depth understanding of the past, but also look forward to the future as well as signal that there are brighter tomorrows, and as a collective group, that we can change the attitude of people to our kids and grandchildren and nephews and nieces to give them better opportunities at life than we had, I suppose ... that’s important.

Unfinished Business in an exhibition of photographic portraits revealing the stories of 30 First Nations people with lived experience of disability from across Australia.

Each participant’s story is complex and intertwined with Australia’s political and social history, which has resulted in today’s high rates of disability in Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities.

Through their involvement in the project, each participant’s self-narratives which accompany their portraits contextualise and draw much-needed attention to critical issues that impact on their lives.

This exhibition highlights works from award-winning human rights social documentarian Belinda Mason Knierim OAM, videography from Dieter Knierim, and cultural collaboration by proud Latja Latja/Narungga man Uncle John Baxter, created to coincide with the 24th Session of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and was first shown in September 2013 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. The exhibition was also presented in New York as part of the 2014 United Nations World Conference on Indigenous Persons and has been travelling around Australia before stopping at Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre this summer.

As part of the curation of the exhibition in the Birrarung gallery, the images of Unfinished Business are complemented by mobility aids loaned from the Brotherhood of St Laurence and floral art installations by Alchemy Orange, a botanical design studio based in Naarm (Melbourne). This First Nations owned and operated business focuses on challenging the preconceived notions of what constitutes floral art by re-contextualising mundane and unconventional materials.

Parts of this story was supplied by Dr Jeff McMullen AM, Journalist, Filmmaker and Writer.


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