As An Aboriginal Woman, The Aussie Rite Of Passage Of Living In London Feels Different

·10-min read

Every morning I wake up and have a glass of water, which in London tastes like recycled plane air. I never appreciated how good I had it back home in Melbourne. It’s been two months since I moved to London to continue my art practice, it’s something I have always wanted to do even as a little kid growing up in regional New South Wales. I was kinda hoping to feel somewhat connected to a land so far away, because like everyone back home kept reassuring me, London is like a big Melbourne. 

Being an expat isn’t the most common experience for young mob. It’s expensive. You have to save up for it. It requires months of bureaucratic checks. It requires good health and a lot of patience. It’s a huge privilege to be able to travel and live seamlessly in another culture. However, the seams did show themselves quickly for me. I’ve found that most other young Aussie expats have familial links to Britain. They have a place to stay. They have a sense of home here. They have an automatic ‘in’. An English uncle or aunt, a cousin once or twice removed, or sometimes even a dual passport (After 230 years of colonisation surely I could ask for dual passport as well?), and are likely to have the comfort of a sofa to sleep on in that first week or two. I didn’t have those same links as other white Australian expats that would have made the process that little bit easier.

Living overseas isn’t a small decision to make, but I wanted to show my little cousins that this is something that is possible and that there is adventure outside of our communities as well. It’s important in our increasingly globalised society to connect with other Indigenous peoples internationally. We will always be connected to Country and our sacred spaces, but we are also citizens of the world.

Once I got here, it did feel oddly familiar. I am living in East London in a suburb called Dalston, which reminds me of Footscray, Melbourne. It also reminds me of Redfern in Sydney. The area is loud, colourful, queer, and multicultural, with a huge Caribbean community at its heart, it’s also a little rough around its edges which I like and makes me feel at home. Recently I have noticed I have slightly “turned up” my Australian accent more and have kept catching myself saying things I probably wouldn’t say at home. Now it’s “G’day mate,” I say as I enter shops and cafes because the novelty of being an Aussie in London still hasn’t worn off on the locals. I also keep being mistaken for mixed Caribbean or Jamaican because no one can guess my Gumbaygarri roots. But also I have the overwhelming feeling that most people here can’t even compute who my mob are. As welcoming as the many multicultural and queer communities in Dalston’s heart have been to me, I’ve also felt incredibly isolated and lonely at times. This, I was expecting as a young expat in a new country, but I can’t help but consider my position as a Blak Australian in all of this.

I am certainly not the first Aboriginal person to live in London and I also won’t be the last. There is Indigenous excellence everywhere you go. I think of the Aboriginal cricket team that toured England in 1868, which became the first organised group of Australian sportspeople to travel overseas. I think about the legendary actor David Gulpilil, who in 1971 spent time in London before flying to the Cannes film festival to promote his film ‘Walkabout’. He was infamously seen partying with the likes of John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Marlon Brando and the Queen. I also think about (while not entirely in London) the iconic London band The Clash having legendary Indigenous rock band No Fixed Address open for them at a gig and also having Indigenous activist Gary Foley (who is also Gumbaygagirri and my uncle — flex) speak at many of their shows promoting Indigenous rights and sovereignty on an international platform. In the modern-day I think of my sissy Thelma Plum who spent some time over here as well, being a musical powerhouse. And Ash Barty and Evonne Goolagong Cawley, winning Wimbledon here in London, inspiring countless other young Indigenous athletes watching back at home. Knowing these stories makes me proud, and less homesick in a way. It’s more than just knowing them, I hold them really close even.

I recently learned and have become obsessed with the story of Yemmerrawanne.

Yemmerrawanne was an Indigenous fulla of the Wangal people part of the Eora nation in the Port Jackson area at the time of the first British settlement in Australia in 1788. He travelled back to England with Governor Arthur Phillip to England in 1792 in the early days of the colony with Bennelong as well. However, Yemmerrawane would never return. While in London he was paraded around and shown off to royalty after being provided with British clothing suitable for English society. Tutors were hired in London to teach both of the Wangal men how to read, write and the English language. Interestingly while living in Mayfair, Yemmerrawanne and Bennelong did a performance of one of their traditional songs accompanied by clapsticks. Someone in that audience that night wrote down and published the words and music and that would become the oldest known published music from Australia. It’s an incredible story, and criminally under-represented. He was an Aboriginal man who passed away in cold bleak Kent, 30 mins away from where I am now. I often think about what he was thinking in his final days, being so far from Country, what he missed and what he liked about it here (if he did at all). I wonder if he missed the east coast beaches back home, or the warmth of the sun and all the delicious seafood caught in Wangal waterways. Knowing his story makes me feel connected to him and less lost.

On multiple occasions, English folks (mostly white) have remarked in my face “Wow you’re an aborigine, I’ve never met one before” which each time, without fail, makes me feel awkward and freakish. If anything it shows that English society hasn’t changed at all. In moments like this, even for a split second, I can almost empathise with how Yemmerrawane may have felt, feeling flaunted and gawked at by English society all those years ago. If I thought white Australians didn’t know anything about Aboriginal history and culture, I was certainly in for a shock in London. But then again, I keep reminding myself by 1913 the British Empire had colonised over 412 million people, which was 23% of the world population at the time. Given our history, I expected white British people to feel some sort of obligatory connection, however fragile, to learn about Indigenous Australians and our stories. I didn’t feel as though this was an outrageous or ambitious thing to expect, but I was astonishingly let down anyway.

I recently had a particularly painful encounter with a barista at my local cafe. She heard my unmistakable Australian accent, asked where I was from, and once I responded with my usual speel, she said “Oh your aborigine!”, and I — who hadn’t yet had my morning latte and therefore was in no mood to educate and explain why this slur was incredibly offensive on so many different levels, just begrudgingly responded “Yes”, to which she said, “Oh, that’s good that you haven’t all died out! Good to keep the gene pool alive” as she curled her fist into a ball to make a limp fist in support. I of course, physically cringed and turned and left as quickly as I could,  and she went on to continue her bubbly chat with her friend over her croissant. Of all the microaggressions and passive, clumsy racism I experience on a daily basis regardless of which continent I’m on, this one stands out and still hasn’t left me two months later.

Maybe it was because here I was, a young Aboriginal person, in central London talking to a British woman who obviously has no idea of the severity of the differences in our journeys, to land at this same overpriced gentrified cafe in central London. Or maybe because I’m so tired of genetics and more specifically, eugenics being a flippant conversation starter, I don’t want to talk about my blood quantum at 9am on a Sunday morning, Linda! Maybe it was because I’m angry that British people have no idea of what atrocities and massacres have been committed in the name of colonisation and British imperialism and still get to willingly misunderstand, while I, a young Aboriginal person, must carry the reminders of colonisation through each hour of each day of my life. I risk this intellectual violence in every coffee shop here, in every introduction, every day — it’s so enveloping​​. Sometimes I don’t even mention I’m Indigenous and just say I’m simply “Australian”, which is a prefix I wouldn’t normally give myself (I am a proud Gumbaynggirr saltwater woman firstmost), but I do it just to avoid what could potentially come after this, from others. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t. I acknowledge the privilege in this, not all mob would be able to do so.

I’m at a standstill here where I’m both playing up stereotypes and trying to also dismantle and crush them. As an artist, there’s not this expectation of me to paint in a particular way, because no one really knows what ‘Aboriginal art’ is, or looks like, unless you’re really into it, as it’s a pretty niche thing here. And I feel I have a lot of freedom now, especially in the sense that Australia is so small, and in the arts community everyone knows each other. Here there’s more anonymity. So in that sense, I feel incredibly free.

Yesterday I was at an event in Hackney when I noticed a black British man in an Aboriginal flag shirt. This was shocking to me and also incredibly sweet, I had to stop him and ask him about it. He explained he had just visited Melbourne and I told him about myself. It was heartwarming. I think it proves that within other anti-colonial Black and Brown circles in London, the Indigenous history of Australia is in fact, circulated and reflected upon. And that maybe I had been looking to be understood by the wrong people. I still have my own learning to do as well. I had no idea that Jamaica gained independence from the United Kingdom on August 6, 1962, or about the young Caribbean and West African anti-colonial activists making waves here. Those communities were so far away from what I knew as an Aussie. But together we are all a diaspora of young brown people,  trying to decolonise ourselves here in London as young people from former British colonies. I am not alone in my colonial isolation.

My experiences overall have been affected by the fact that I am now in undoubtedly British territory. Growing up in Australia as a young Aboriginal person meant that I was made to feel like an alien within my own Gumbaynggirr country.  The notion of who “owned” and possessed land was blurred or at least whitewashed. What should have been my territory, my space and my physical environment was taken over historically, by force because of British settlement. So now living in London, it’s only reaffirmed to me that no space is ours. This I think powers a lot of the work that I do. In making large scale public artwork, to decolonise public spaces and gain back my sovereignty through painting and I’m excited to see what the future holds.

Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting