Esther Kirby

Esther Kirby, 2013
Esther Kirby, 2013
Image: James Henry
Source: Museum Victoria
The best way to describe it is one of those patchwork quilts. Everybody's got a different story and them patches all join together.

My mob covers a very big area. Through my father's mother, it's Wuradjuri and through great-grandfather, the Yitta Yitta and Narre mob. Yorta Yorta is my mother's people and the Barrapparra Barrapparra and Wemba is my mother's father's area.

I was born in Balranald and raised on the mission to the age of about 14, 15. Growing up on the mission is probably one of the best experiences in my life. We lived in one of them tin corrugated iron huts that dad built. Some of the families had regular housing and a lot of the other families had tin huts scattered through the mallee there just down a little bit from where the mission houses were. Mostly our people were all workers and that's one of the things I'm proud of.

I'm number ten out of 13 kids. Nine boys and four girls. We pretty much had a free rein except that we had to do our chores before and after school. We walked to school, which is probably about five kilometres every morning and five back. Summertime it was good because we'd walk along the river track and then we'd accidentally get fallen into the water or pushed in. That was the story that Mum got when we got home. If we fell in the water, we'd swim down with our clothes then we'd get out and walk. Then we'd rub dust on our legs and arms, make it look like we's all hot and bothered. I think Mum and Dad knew - you can't get anything over on your parents. In the wintertime we weren't allowed to catch the bus because it was a whitefella's bus only.

We'd go to Sunday school every Sunday. Mother was a Sunday school teacher. This other old lady, God bless her, Miss Aileen her name was, she used to come down on this little bike with a little basket on it. She used to bring down cordial and bag full of broken biscuits. She'd give us these broken biscuits and cordial for behaving in class.

We didn't know about Christmas. I think the first time was when that old Sunday school teacher and the policemen, they come along and the men built a bower shed near the church. Mum made a big Christmas cake and then the policemen took the boys out to the mallee and cut down this tree, the best-shaped like a Christmas tree. And I tell you, that's stretching it. Anyway, they put it up and we had to decorate it. We had crepe streamers hanging on there, we'd make little bells out of foil lids and then some of them we'd roll like balls and tie them onto the tree with different coloured cottons. And Santa Claus used to come down in the sergeant’s old VW bus, jump out, and us kids had it worked out. Ho ho ho, we'd be there, laughing, but we'd play the game.

My aunties and uncles, God love them, I reckon they're all gone now, they were all valuable. In the Aboriginal community everybody's valued and cared for, I'm happy to be a part of a community like that. The sad stories like our cousins that were taken away, that was very emotional, very traumatising and then you see uncle and aunty just fretting for their kids and they can't do nothing cause of welfare. They thought it was their right to go and break up families because they thought they knew better. I'm sure a lot of those people now would say what the hell was we thinking when we did that.

My auntie, God love her, she had her children taken off her and I don't know whether it was before or after this event. All the boys were at my auntie's house up this end of the mission and they had a horse there. They're all riding it and showing off what they could do with the horse. My aunty walked out, she grabbed her dress, tucked into her bloomers, got on that horse and she stood in the stirrups. She had one hand with the reins and other little bit of rein she's hitting the horse. She rode around there, brought it back. Then she took it to a standstill, slid to a halt and while it was still sliding she jumped off and said, see if you can top that. All the men they looked so dumb. She shamed them right up! Aunties used to shoot sometimes better than the blokes. Work hard, chop wood, good staunch women. Sometimes I just laugh at how good them women were. But that aunty there I could not believe my eyes.

I truly thank God for my mum. She was strong, staunch woman. I don't remember going hungry. There was times when it got pretty close but she always had a vegie garden, always had chooks. Dad and some of the men used to go out and kill wild food and bring ‘em back so wasn't really missing out on anything. I'd back up my mission life against any kid's life now and I know which one I'd take. All our Old People seemed to be happy and used to laugh and had a lot of resilience and never allowed the negative stuff to hold them down or hold them back. I would not swap my life for quids, even the hard bits, because if you don't have the hard bits, how can you appreciate the good bits?

My sister was first girl after seven boys. We've done some funny stuff together, like we've worked down here in Melbourne. What we used to do to find our way around Melbourne is we'd jump on the different trams and trains and say, we'll go to the end and come back, then we'll go there and come back. We had a good time, I tell ya. We all worked. Everybody used to be over here at Fitzroy. And then we both worked out at Swinburne and then we come to town, blokes whistling at us, sometimes we'd whistle at the blokes on the tram. Born stirrers, I tell you.

The emu egg was my father's trade that he learned off his uncle. They'd carve with a pocket knife and a little three-quarter file. Sometimes when they didn't have a pocket knife they'd carve with glass or sharpen a jam tin. His uncle Joe Walsh, he was a beautiful carver. Both of them two old fellas, as far as I'm concerned they're the top artists.

When I started carving is when my father passed away. None of the boys took it up so I took it up. So I carved a couple of eggs, because dad had some eggs that people had paid for and he didn't deliver the eggs so I finished the eggs.  I was basically doing it for my father's sake, keep my father's name going in the art world. And then it changed over to doing it for myself and my children. My carving knife is like a scalpel. I use two different files, an eight inch file and a six inch file. There's about 13 to 15 different shades in the egg from the outer layer down to the white. The white one is about the thickness of two cigarette papers. When you've finished, you wrap it up and put it away and don't touch it til you sell it.

I had an exhibition and they said what are you going to name your exhibition? I said, call it ‘Mission Breed’. I've since designed this jacket and it's got Mission Breed written on the back of it. Everyone try to make you feel shame that you were mission breed. The whitefellas used to say it to us. I'm not going to let this happen. I'm proud of that and I'm proud for the fact that most of our Old People all worked hard, I'm proud for the fact that all our top workers in Melbourne and Sydney and Adelaide have got good jobs.

Things happen for a reason and I feel very privileged that I was asked to be a part of Yulendj. I get a lot of pleasure out of it because of our history, and it's just great to meet everybody else that's around that comes as well. I feel like you're walking in to another family. The best way to describe it is one of those patchwork quilts. Everybody's got a different story and them patches all join together so that you've got that overall story. I really appreciate the time that I have when I come down here. I've really enjoyed meeting all the museum staff as well. Cause then you're starting to build up new relationships, new friendships and it just adds to the storyline further down the track. Each person, everyone's got a story, everybody, not just Aboriginal people.

Image Gallery

Panel in First Peoples exhibition

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