‘In the mix’
“Are you related to Bruce Lee/David Suzuki”? is something I’ve heard dozens of times. I just smile and sometimes say “yes, in a way”. I’m a Larrakia man from Darwin who’s been taken for many nationalities – Palauan, Polynesian, Hawaiian, Maori, Balinese, Indonesian, Malaysian, Singaporean, Thai, Nepalese, Tibetan, Bengali, Chinese, Japanese and Filipino. My Aboriginality has been formed by my ancestral lineage, and its inculcation into my sense of identity as a Larrakia, the traditional owners and original inhabitants of the Darwin and Cox Peninsula regions of the Top End of the Northern Territory.
Being taken for so many nationalities never fazes me such is the strength of my Larrakia identity imbued as I was growing up in Darwin in the early 1960s. White people were in the minority with Aboriginal and Asian comprising the highest proportion of the population. The ‘coloured’ people, usually a mix of the three, made up at least half of the latter group and many of these families have the longest links to Darwin through Larrakia ancestors. These eleven Larrakia clans are Darwin’s oldest families.
Being the second eldest (and eldest son) with ten brothers and sisters, I grew up with a very strong sense of my Larrakia connection to land, to Darwin, which I thought of as ‘my country’ from a young age. We take our Larrakia identity from our mother, and her nine brothers and sisters – uncles and aunts, from whom we learned about Larrakia laws and responsibilities for country. My father had no problem with this and encouraged us to learn as much as we could. The majority of other Aboriginal families in Darwin all had Asian genes in their make-up and any number of us could be mistaken as being from another country.
While I was raised to understand my Larrakia identity I was also grown-up fully aware and proud of the other ancestries that my parents had bestowed on me. I was taught to be proud of my Aboriginality and of my ‘other’ ancestors, made all the easier by the high reliance on family oral history. At the age of around seven or eight I came to know and love the stories of my ancestors as told by my parents and came to know them by heart. I knew the maternal and paternal stories from four generations previously and was able to tell anyone who asked.
My mother gave me my primary Larrakia identity also Filipino, Chinese and Scottish. My maternal Scottish (free settler) great, great grandfather George McKeddie, and my Larrakia great, great alap (grandmother) Minnie Duwun had two children, Lily (Magdeleine) and Jack McKeddie in Darwin. In 1910 Lily, my great, great grandmother married Antonio Cubillo, a Filipino diver from Calape, Bohol. They had ten children, four girls and six boys, the 5th child and second son being my grandfather, John (Juan) Cubillo. He married Louisa Lee, daughter of Widji Nelson, a Wadaman woman from Brock’s Creek and a Chinese man Ah Lee. John was killed on the wharf during the bombing of Darwin and left Louisa with eight young children, five boys and three girls, the second being my mother Mary Cubillo.
My father gave me Yawuru, Japanese, Chinese and German. My Chinese great, great grandfather, Su Lee, originally from Guangzhou province in Southern China, had a baby in Darwin with my great, great grandmother, Su-e Arase from Nakarno prefecture, Kumamoto, Kyushu, Japan. They had a boy, their only child, my grandfather James Lee. He married Mary Zumpfeldt, daughter of a Herr Zumpfeldt a German policeman living in Broome, and a local Yawuru woman whose name is unknown. They had two children, Mary and Tom. Mary Zumpfeldt married Jimmy Lee in Broome and they had a girl and two boys there, one my father Herbert and two more boys after their move back to Darwin. In 1949 Herb Lee married Mary Cubillo in Darwin and they had four girls and seven boys including me.
So that’s me – in the mix. Which is why over the past 15 or so years of my art practice I’ve been interested in photographing the human face and body. As an artist I was first drawn to taking portraits in India, a country with which I have a long association. It was the first country I visited where people looked like me and I looked like them. Most of these men could be off the streets of Darwin I thought so I started making portraits of males who I thought looked Aboriginal. They seemed to be everywhere so I took their portraits wherever the opportunity arose, particularly on the streets. Over the years I focused on addressing the dearth of positive images of Indian males and recently I started photographing Aboriginal men. After years of making portraits in India I want to document the diversity of Aboriginal men in the original hybrid melting pot of my hometown, Darwin.
The hybridisation of peoples and cultures has been occurring since time immemorial which is not necessarily a bad or negative thing. The beauty of this phenomenon for me, particularly as a photographer lies in the mixtures of blood lines that come from humans crossing racial barriers. I see it in my family and in people in my everyday life. I am Larrakia yet I look like many races. My Aboriginality is not formed by any degree of melanin in my skin. We are made up of many ancestries, histories and social and cultural experiences which each form who and what we are. We are all hybrid people in a sense, black, white or brindle, with our own identities and diversity to contribute and as I see it, there can never be enough of that. As the Blue Mink song goes;
What we need is a great big melting pot
Big enough to take the world and all it’s got
And keep it stirring for a hundred years or more
To turn out multi-coloured people by the score