Dr Jen Saunders stands in front of a greenery background with her hands on her hips. Photo: Michael Gray

Art exhibition unearths treasures from UOW Archives

Art exhibition unearths treasures from UOW Archives

Local artists Dr Jen Saunders and Myangah Pirate bring to life complex histories from the South Coast

A new art exhibition that draws on the University of Wollongong’s (UOW) extensive archival collection will explore the complex, interconnected local histories and narratives of Yuin Country on the South Coast.

Artworks by Dr Jen Saunders, from UOW’s School of The Arts, English and Media, and Myangah Pirate, Yuin artist and knowledge-holder from Budawang mob, feature in ‘Stories From Right Here’, which launched this week (Monday 19 February) in the foyer of Building 25 at UOW's Wollongong campus.

The concept for the exhibition grew from Dr Saunders’s archival research as part of the Liz Hilton Memorial Fellowship. In 2022, Dr Saunders was named the inaugural recipient of the Liz Hilton Memorial Fellowship, which supports students or staff of UOW

Australia to undertake a sustained period of research or study using UOW’s archival collections.

Dr Jen Saunders and the artist Myangah Pirate stand next to each other

A researcher, artist and PhD graduate, Dr Saunders said the inspiration for ‘Stories From Right Here’ came from her the deep and, at times thorny, narratives she uncovered while studying the histories of the South Coast. The exhibition showcases the outcome of ‘Cross-reading South Coast histories’, extending understanding of the interconnectedness of local histories by researching two UOW Archives collections, D217 Archibald Campbell and D92 Frank McCaffrey, through networks across landscape and time periods.

Dr Saunders’ fellowship research outputs and bibliography will add to the richness of collections held in the UOW Archives.

“I've been intrigued and at times frustrated with how local histories are told for several decades. Before I returned to postgrad studies in 2017, I had been making visual art and soundscapes as ways to re-tell Shoalhaven and Illawarra history narratives,” she said. “My interactions with South Coast Aboriginal people, along with what I was reading in archives, told me that rather than being a simple linear narrative, local histories are complex and rich.”

A piece from Dr Jen Saunders' art exhibition. Photo: Michael Gray

After receiving the Liz Hilton Memorial Fellowship, Dr Saunders decided to explore the UOW archival collections of Campbell and McCaffrey,

“I'd looked at the Campbell and McCaffrey collections during my 2017 Honours project on small museums and then again during my PhD research. Both these men were interested in the histories - both Aboriginal and settler colonial - of the South Coast: they questioned the brutality of colonial convict origins, and they were curious about Aboriginal knowledges of this region. I knew there was more to glean from their collections and was thrilled to be able to spend some time focusing on them.”

Bringing together her research with the artworks of Myangah Pirate, Dr Saunders said the exhibition will challenge and provoke questions in the audience about the interconnectedness of local histories and the way they intersect with landscape and time.

Myangah Pirate points to his artwork, featured in the exhibition. Photo: Michael Gray

“Myangah Pirate is a fantastic Yuin artist, who I've known for a long time through the South Coast arts world,” Dr Saunders said. “His work in this exhibition is telling some of his and his community's stories of 'right here' -  Yuin Country / the South Coast -  using burnt-work and mapping, while mine is telling stories that emanate from the archives but which also draw on Yuin Country as represented by contour lines and waterways. We are both using maps of Country and narratives to tell stories from right here.”

The Liz Hilton Memorial Fellowship was established in 2022 following the generous bequest of Liz Hilton, a committed UOW staff member for 27 years, passionate advocate, honorary Fellow, dedicated volunteer and donor. By providing financial support to researchers, the fellowship continues Liz’s legacy and will uncover the treasures hidden in UOW’s vast archival collection.

Dr Saunders was delighted to have the opportunity to dive into the archives as the inaugural Liz Hilton Memorial Fellow. Her work had already involved extensive archival investigations in the National Archives, the UOW archives, and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Dr Jen Saunders points to a map as part of her art exhibition. She is with a lady who is using a walker. Photo: Michael Gray

“I'm drawn to archival research because I feel there's so much there that can be viewed critically, particularly in light of settler colonial studies, which asks scholars to re-view the normalisation of non-Indigenous people on Indigenous lands,” Dr Saunders said.

“Most local histories present a simple, even simplistic, view of events. I am interested in the cross currents and relationships that are so complicated and important to those involved.

“There are threads that don’t make it into the local history. There are all these relationships that show in places, roads, names of tracks. A lot of what's in the archives is more nuanced than it’s given credit for. And there's some great gossip and tall tales in there too! It can be very entertaining.”