Hayley Millar-Baker: Story-Telling and the Truth

Hayley Millar-Baker: Story-Telling and the Truth

  • 27 April 2020
  • Hayley Millar-Baker won the Darebin Art Prize (2019), and has been selected for; Primavera (2018), Melbourne Art Trams as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival (2018), and showcased within the Ramsay Art Prize (2019), the John Fries Award (2019), The Josephine Ulrick and Win Shubert Photography Award (2018) and 65th Blake Prize (2018). Her work has been exhibited nationally including the PHOTO2020 International Photography Festival (2020), Sydney Festival (2018), TARNANTHI: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art (2019, 2017), HoBiennale (2017), Ballarat International Foto Biennale (2017), and Yirramboi Festival (2019, 2017).

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Utilising a variety of approaches to photography, Hayley Millar-Baker’s black and white photo assemblages critically explore story-telling culture through investigating notions of connection to identity, place, and time, all in relation to her own lived experiences.


My name is Hayley Millar-Baker, I'm going to be giving a presentation about my art practice and what I'm focusing on today is storytelling and the truth.

A little background information about me. I was born in 1990 in Victoria, Australia. My background is Gunditjmara, so I’m a First Nations artist. My dad is Anglo-Indian and Brazilian so he's first generation Australian, and then we do have the English descent which comes into the Gunditjmara line back in settlement, and then also in much, much later on. So my art practice it's… for me it began when I was in primary school, that's what I think. I always wanted to be an artist so I followed that through, all the way through primary school, through high school and then I went to university. I graduated from a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting at RMIT University and painting is what I had done all the way through. I wanted to be a painter, but the funny thing about art school, I guess, is it just opens up everything and makes you think a lot more wider. So after I finished that degree I actually went off and got a teaching degree and taught for a couple of years, but it just… it was… it was not really… it wasn't doing it for me. So I went back and I did a Master of Fine Arts, at RMIT University again, and that's where, halfway through the first year, where I sort of… my practice evolved quite heavily; and I guess that's where and when my career sort of took off, my arts practice took off.

So my art practice uses a variety of approaches to photography, and I look at recovering and recounting personal narratives, particularly that are inherited stories or my own personal experiences, and histories, and memories. I employ digital technologies, so I use Photoshop to make my work and while I'm… before I make my work I use this bad boy. So this is what I shoot everything with, when I'm out and about, so everything is on film and then I take it back, scan it and use digital technologies… Photoshop, to cut all of my images up. Layer, reposition and basically make a story that is what I think is an appropriate visual representation, of the narrative that I'm trying to tell. So my photo assemblages critically explore storytelling culture, and that is through confronting and constructing past, present future narratives. So I investigate coexistence of times, of culture, of transformation. I'm constantly looking at many different things, from many periods of time or… you know, clashes of culture, and how that all comes together and… you know, what is the result of that and what does that look like.

So today I'm going to be talking about four different ways of storytelling. I guess narratives that I've looked at in my past works, so it's four bodies of works that I'm going to be looking at. The first one is this one here, I'm The Captain Now, which was the very first body of photographic works that I made. So I was in my first year of the Masters of Fine Art and I just… I guess my advisor at and time, Michael Graves, he was talking to me and planting seeds in my brain; and I was doing a lot of monochromatic, abstract, expressionist, textural paintings and… you know, he had this conversation of “what are you really trying to say”. So this body of work came from a few weeks after that conversation, when Nan called me up and said “I've got your grandfather's photographs, all negatives, because they hadn't been scanned. Do you want them, you can probably do something with them, they're just sitting here in a box”. So I said yes because he passed in 2001, and… you know, I'll take anything that he had, especially these photographs. I've always been obsessed with history, so yes. So I took them and I started to create these alternative narratives, so in these images the characters in them, my mum and her two sisters and her mum.

So they’re only his photographs that I've used and they were very limited to begin with. I think I had about… maybe 20 at the most. So what I started to do was to chop and change the characters from one scene into another scene, and had little bits and pieces, to give an alternative narrative basically. So back then this was in the mid 60s… I think mid 60s or… yeah definitely mid 60s. They're all in like suburban sort of… you know, country suburbs. I think a couple of them were shot in sale, which is Eastern Victoria. So what I tried to do was, the characters, my mum and her sisters, my nan they're all dressed in their Sunday best which I thought that was a little bit odd because that's not the way that I know my family. So I took them and I gave them dilly bags and I made their shadows into Bunjils, or I took out Christ from the church and put the concrete Bunjil, which is in the city; and I've just blanked on the artists who made those… I’ve blanked on it but he's so… his name is so familiar. Anyway so I used this… you know, different tokenisms and real classic ways to pick up hints of culture, and of history, and of, I guess ethnicity. So those, you can see a couple of spirits in there and dark shadows and they’re the ancestors, and they are walking with the emus, and the girl on the bike riding with the eels, and the eels are going down to the lake area. So basically I've given these photographs brand new context, brand new narratives and it's… for me making them, it was… it was like… well what if Aboriginal culture was embraced in… you know, suburbia in the 60s, and we got to walk around with our dilly bags, and we got to play with our totems, and… you know, it wasn't such a… I guess a weird, suppressing time. So here's an image here from the series as well, very simple, I just wanted to show this up close and on a big screen, so you can see that when I first started the digital manipulation that I was talking about, with the colouring, cutting, layering, repositioning things. In this picture you can see all that's been added is the characters and the eel trap at the bottom. So the series started off very, very simple but I guess in terms of the concepts and what I was actually talking about, is quite complex.

So moving on from alternative narratives, is combining narratives. This work here [Toongkateeyt (Tomorrow)] came in my second year of the Masters of Fine Arts, so I'm still really experimenting with this new way of making, when I guess this new art practice that I've adopted and style. So these works here, for me, we're really about combining the ideas of time, of cultural landscape changes, of colonial changes, I guess just the progression of time and the experience that each of my family members before me experienced this particular landscape. So basically the way that I was making this was like a country combination. So in here we've got landscapes taken from my country, so Gunditjmara country, which is Portland, Condah, under the Grampians and then back towards out of my country and then it follows me into my generation, my experience of growing up on Wathaurong country. So basically follows myself, as the photographer, what I'm doing is, I'm inserting my experiences being the photographer, taking the photos, as the landscape is today and then combining that with the way that my Nan would have experienced, and the way that her mum would have experienced it, the way her mum would have experienced it on the mission. So in this first image, you can see my mum right up the top there, on top of one of the rocks up at the Grampians, and she's out pointing as a little girl, looking at Bunjil, and then below her there's a lot of little animal put in there as well and there to signify the different Clans within Gunditjmara, and the different landscapes to which they live in; and then you can see the Nissen huts, that are ruins now, but that my great-great-great grandmother lived in, and great-great grandmother. So basically, I'm combining all of these narratives of experiences into one big clash of landscape, to tell stories and unlike the last lot of… last body of work that I just showed you, the characters in these ones are the animals. So these are quite big, they're about a metre and a half in length, then when you are up close with them and you can see… spot the animals a lot easier, but the more you look at it, the more you can pick out and see what's being put where and why it's been put there. So here's two more from that series and the final one on the right is more about my experiences. That landscape in the background is where I grew up, but it also talks about… like this vortex of rocks that follow around. So they start from Wathaurong country and they walk into the rocks and lava overflow of Gunditjmara country, and I guess that multi-generational inheritance of culture and understanding of the earth and landscape, and how that all lives inside of me, and then I'll pass that on to my children and so on and so forth. So this was… this body of work was not really about telling a specific story, but more of showing the experiences and I guess… really chaotic experiences as you can see in the works, of multi-generational experiences of time through change. So that’s the second way of… second type of narrative that I've used in my work.

So this third one here, this is reclaiming narratives. So I would dare say that this body of work is my most well-known body of work. This was created in 2018 and it's called A Series of Unwarranted Events. This body of work came about because I was working with a really good friend of mine, James Tyler, who is another photographic artist as well, and we were working on this project together and basically I got the opportunity to tell stories from my family's experience of colonization. So he was looking more particularly at… I guess the white side of my country, Gunditjmara country, and I was going to tell stories from the Aboriginal perspective, and I thought that because of this opportunity arose I was… you know, thinking of different ways that I could… what sort of narrative did I want to tell and in the end I chose to reclaim these narratives. So these works here, there's four of them in a series, and they're basically frontier violence stories. So massacres, frontier wars, frontier violence and they're pretty heavy, but I've tried… I guess because they're super heavy in history and content, and it's a lot… I chose to reclaim these narratives through not introducing any human figures. The most you get out of it, is you can see a boomerang in the sky, you can see a spear thrower in the beach, and then in the next one is their shields laying down. So reclaiming narratives in this one was… I was doing a lot of research about… I guess about the strength of the Gunditjmara people and I was reading a lot of stories about the massacres, and I chose these four stories because they're more likely to be known. Not that they… I guess that they're not really known outside of community, because schools don't teach this type of thing for various reasons, and I guess I'll just leave that to the Australian government. But the Convincing Ground Massacre, which is the whale on the bottom, that I would say is probably the most well-known Massacre for Gunditjmara Mob and I'd say Victoria wide. The Eumeralla Wars, which is that one there, with the sheep and the old shacks. The one next up with the church, that's not so much of a frontier war or Massacre, that's more I guess… it's still frontier violence, where there was stolen children, there were actually deaths of a lot of kids that the parents were trying to hide, and a lot of terrible stories about that. A lot of people that lived on the mission didn't live for too long, because they were catching onto Western diseases which their bodies just couldn't cope with. It broke a lot of souls, it destroyed a lot of families, and so I consider that to be part of this series. So in reclaiming these narratives, even though these stories are already told, they're already in print, you know people talk about them, all Gunditjmara people know these stories, but when they are written and when they are published it's always by a white voice. You know… there are Aunties out there that talk about this, and they talk about them hearing their mothers or their Aunties talk, whispering on the mission about this and that, and catching on to facts and stuff, but I wanted to put these stories into a visual object, a tangible object that can go out into the world and that this can be fact. Because people you know… if something is published or printed or shown somewhere, people are more likely to believe the authenticity of it. So here I am reclaiming the narratives as an Aboriginal woman, as a Gunditjmara woman, taking back these stories and saying yes it's true, we all know about it, here's the stories saying that they're real, from our voice. This one here is probably one of the most traumatic ones of the lot, so there you can see the shields sitting up on the rock, left alone and the bags of flour which signify colonial interruption or involvement, and the crow there which also acts as a totem, it acts as one of our creators and it also acts as… you know, a marker of death. So reclaiming these stories, they're true, they happened, it's not a myth, here it is from a Gunditjmara woman, way down the line from these ladies and men that experience this… you know, 200, well… not even 200 years ago, 150 years ago, my Nan's grandmother and her mother. Reclaiming the narrative.

Here is the fourth and final way of storytelling, that I have looked at so far in my practice. This is reimagining narratives. So this body of work is currently being made, it's not made yet. I started it November last year, going out on location, shooting and then the second stage was the green screen which you can see here. Then just after that happened Covid came along so everything's been slowed down. But this one here… I'm not so much as looking at history from a historical, factual, important point of view, this one here I’m reimagining the narratives. So I Will Survive, which is the title of the body of the work, this is the first body of work where I'm looking at my own experiences as a person, as a First Nations person, as a second-generation on my father's side… looking at those experience of what it was like to grow up being so connected to the land that I grew up and live on, and knowing it inside out and how it feels and the healing of it all. But then also it’s going to these places with my father who… you know, is a visitor because he's first-generation Australian. He's trying to make these places special to him and places of healing to him, and as a young child, with like an over overactive imagination… I was with my sister who is 18 months younger than me… you know, we'd always been making up like crazy things in our head and playing while… you know, whatever's going on. So I'm looking at survival from a way of surviving in a brand new place, like my dad, surviving for thousands and thousands of years like my mum's family and then surviving as a kid when… you know, whatever, you're in the bush and you think you hear something crackled from the other side of the trees, and you think oh no, like I'm dead for sure, like there's a lion out here or something, or I'm gonna get got, or there's a ghost out here and I'm about to be stolen and whipped away and eaten alive… you know things like that. So what survival was for everyone before me, what it was like as a kid and playing with that idea of survival is things… it’s different for everybody and there is there's no… there's no right or wrong. So I'm really putting I guess… a lot of fiction into this one. It's all based on fact, but I'm twisting it, I'm amping it up I’m… you know, I'm really trying to exaggerate it and make it more than it is. So I'm reimagining the narrative, but once again it is all the truth. At the bottom of all of my work there is thick, thick layers of truth based on research, based on experience, and what I'm doing is… I'm amping up the storytelling to be able to create a connection between the viewer and what I'm showing, what I'm putting forward to them. So here’s another outtake from the green screen shoot that I did for this series. So I'm hoping that reimagining this narrative… you know, it's heavily based on fact, but reimagining it as an adult like mine, an innocence out of it, and looking at it from an adult point of view, like… you know, how did I really think that, or believe that, or feel that back then, but making it into a legitimate story and having the viewer look at that and be like, that is… it's too wild, it's crazy talk.

So they are the four bodies of work where I looked at four different types of narratives and storytelling all based on the truth, and I think that those ingredients, storytelling and the truth, are… you know I don't think that they'll ever leave my practice because at the base of everything that I do, is a true story, or is research based on the truth, or is research based on a lie and I’m correcting it to become the truth. I'm not correcting it… but giving another side. So here's all the list of works that you just saw if anybody and wants to go back and look at them, they're all here, all the series names and on each slide.

If you've got any questions or you want to get in touch, you want to ask me about my work, you want to ask me about anything about my practice, whatever you want to do, there's my Instagram, my website, my email address. I'm pretty good with getting back to people, especially now that Covid’s around because there’s not anything else to do… but yeah, thank you for having me and I hope that this little insight into the way that I use storytelling and the truth can help you in your practice and what you do, and the way that you think, and the way that you receive your information.