As a nation we have not been taught about our own black heroes, we learn about great civil rights leaders from around the world. Dr Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks are familiar within our vernacular however the black freedom fighters of our own country are left out of the history books.  From first contact through to today we have Aboriginal leaders like William Cooper that have shifted the course of history, that have resisted the colonial order of the nation and have led us in the ongoing goal to de-colonise our space, for equality, for better living condition, for health and legal care, for land rights.  These are the legacies that are left to be continued by the next generation of Aboriginal women and men.

The ‘tide of history’ has not washed away our connections to country or culture, it is our sovereign right and it is our obligation to our old people to maintain these.


“We must continue seeking for our rights”
William Cooper 1934

“We must realise that there is a greater purpose for us than to exist for ones’ own life”
Uncle Alf ‘Boydie’ Turner 2009


William Cooper
Source: Museum Victoria

Yorta Yorta man Mr William Cooper had a vision for his people to live a better life, to be treated as equal citizens in a land that as he stated, by ‘divine right’ was theirs.  His story is remarkable and of great courage and strength, he fought for not only  his people but for others around the world being persecuted.  William was a humanitarian on a mission to create change.

Born on the banks of the Dungala (Murray River) in 1861 William lived his youth witnessing the frontier of change.  He saw the destruction of his homelands and the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people across the country but his strength as a proud Yorta Yorta man could not be taken and he dedicated his life to fighting for better rights of his people.

William had many hardships in his life, losing two children including Daniel Cooper who lost his life fighting in the First World War and also two wives, in this time raising his family in regional Victoria and NSW travelling to where he could work.  As an elderly man he moved from Cummeragunja mission to Melbourne to be able to receive the old age pension.  This was a time where many Aboriginal people were fleeing missions across the state, walking off in the hope for better living conditions and making their way to Melbourne.  The West, Fitzroy and Northcote were community hubs of Aboriginal people congregating, building a life in the city.

In this time he formed the Australian Aborigines League (AAL) and they would meet at his house in Footscray.  The AAL demanded that Aboriginal people should enjoy the same rights as all Australians. William became secretary and began writing many letters and petitionings to government on behalf of the AAL calling for civil rights and changes in government policy.  In this time he led many significant protests including a petition to King George V calling for Aboriginal representation in parliament.  He and the AAL also supported the Cummerangunja walk off in protest of the appalling living conditions and brutality inflicted on the community.  In 1938 William led a deputation from Footscray, walking into the city where thy presented the German Consulate with a letter demanding the Nazi government stop the ‘cruel persecution of the Jewish people’, this is the only known protest of its kind recorded in the world at that time.  Both his petition to the King and the deputation’s letter to the German government were refused.  William in his life time wrote over eighty letters petitioning for Aboriginal rights, equality and human rights and he never gave up the fight and his vision for a better future for his people.

This legacy has been carried on by his descendants including his grandson Uncle Alf ‘Boydie’ Turner who in recent years has accomplished his grandfathers work getting a new petition to Queen Elizabeth.  With his great nephew Kevin Russell and other family and supporters, he re-enacted the deputation to the city, marching to the German Consulate and handing over the letter that his Grandfather had tried to do many years before.

Four Koorie artists in this exhibition respond to notions of legacy and current political realities for our community.

Kiah Atkinson is an emerging artist and a relative of Mr William Cooper, Kiah’s sound piece tracks William’s journey from Yorta Yorta country to Footscray, creating an audio journey.

Paola Balla is an artist, writer and activist whose work ‘the homes that we had known’ is a personal story of connection to William through her Great Grandmother Mariah or ‘Puppa’ as she was known, who travelled 1500km on her own to attend the Day of Mourning in 1938.  Paola’s installation includes a bed frame with earth, leaves and flowers from her country; a poetic reflection to the hardship of mission life that her grandmother Rosie describes in a poem.  Paola commemorates the struggle of our ancestors whilst highlighting the strong Aboriginal women who were protesting and raising families in some of the most challenging conditions.

Tim Kanoa is a photographer who has been capturing the recent rallies against the forced closure of Aboriginal communities in WA.  Tens of thousands of people gathered to protest in 2015 and Tim’s work Ignite looks at how the legacy of protest and standing up continues to burn strong.

Arika Waulu’s work legacyliveson is a powerful meditation on sovereignty and the next generation of activists.  Arika’s projection of the 2015 rallies led by the Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance along with an illustrated portrait of William is projected onto a wall of paper bark visas which are representations of sovereign nations.

Kimberley Moulton
Yorta Yorta

The ‘tide of history’ has not washed away our connections to country or culture, it is our sovereign right and it is our obligation to our old people to maintain these.

Reflection questions:

What does  the term ‘legacy’ evoke?

What is the significance of the actions of Uncle Alf ‘Boydie’ Turner and Kevin Russell?
What do you think Uncle Turner means when he refers to a ‘greater purpose’?

What ways do you/do you not feel connected to country and culture?

What vision do you have for a whole or healed world?
What could/are you doing to participate in building that vision to be a reality?

Do you think Aboriginal people have the same rights as other people in Australia now?