Exhibition review: Barbara McGrady, Australia Has a Black History, University of Sydney

A photography exhibition that highlights 30 years of Indigenous history on Gadigal country.
Australia has a black history. Image is a photograph of a group of black clad protesters in the streets of Sydney. A young woman with braided hair, a Black Lives Matter t shirt and a placard is in the centre.

Australia Has a Black History celebrates the photographic work of Barbara McGrady, a Gomeroi/ Gamilaraay Murri woman born in Mungindi and living on Gadigal country.   

McGrady’s interest in photography began when, as a teenager, she was gifted a camera by her mother. For more than 30 years she has been capturing political and social events that have been influential in the lives of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Redfern, Waterloo and Surry Hills.  

The diverse range of images in the retrospective include photographs taken from McGrady’s extensive archives, documenting Aboriginal sports stars, activists and cultural events. McGrady provides commentaries on each of the images and hence gives a unique insider’s perspective on events that have both defined and influenced Aboriginal communities within the city of Sydney.

Many of the images capture protests in the Sydney suburb of Redfern, including photographs of activists from the 2014 Tent Embassy in the suburb, which became a meeting place for campaigners, activists and supporters fighting for Aboriginal rights and recognition. McGrady has also captured images of the protests in Martin Place from the same year, held in solidarity with US Black Lives Matters movement and Grandmothers Against Removals, protesting the removal of Aboriginal children.

Perhaps one of the most poignant of these protest images is of Gail Hickey at a rally in Redfern Park in 2014. The event commemorated Hickey’s son, TJ,  whose death a decade earlier sparked the Redfern riots.

McGrady is perhaps most famous for her work as a sports photographer. The exhibition includes an image of Ash Barty accepting a Dreamtime Award for Best International Indigenous Sportswoman in 2017 and three players from the victorious Redfern All Blacks women’s team leaving the field after a win. A series of striking images also capture the 2014 BWO super welterweight title fight in Newcastle between Ghanaian, Joshua Clottey, and Anthony Mundine.  

Aboriginal contributions to the arts and culture including celebrations at Sydney’s Mardi Gras, with images of Senator Linda Burney joining the parade on Oxford Street. First Nation divas and artists at the premier of The Sapphires movie are also represented in McGrady’s diverse collection.  

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The university gallery is also exhibiting two other photographic exhibitions at present: How photography captures performance offers a fascinating exploration of how the medium has been used to capture performers, performance spaces and audiences over an 80-year period. The Staged Photograph offers an intriguing insight in to pop culture history from the mid 19th to early 20th century in Australia, the UK and the US. The photographs are drawn from some of the 60,000 images held in the university’s social history photograph collection. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visitors are advised that the Australia Has a Black History exhibition includes images of deceased persons.  

Barbara McGrady: Australia Has a Black History
Chau Chak Wing Museum, University of Sydney

Australia Has a Black History will be exhibited until 10 June 2024.

Virginia Balfour is a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She has extensive experience working in the UK film and television industry as a producer and director, as well as an NGO film-maker in the USA. She is a published author and journalist and lives with her family in Sydney.