New UWA exhibition brings the Kimberley to Crawley

Dr Vanessa Russ is the curator of Stockyards and Saddles, a new photographic exhibition exploring the lives of people living and working at the remote Gibb River Station from the early 1900s to 1990s. Picture: Andrew Ritchie
Dr Vanessa Russ is the curator of Stockyards and Saddles, a new photographic exhibition exploring the lives of people living and working at the remote Gibb River Station from the early 1900s to 1990s. Picture: Andrew Ritchie

FROM the Kimberley to Crawley, Ngarinyin and Gija woman Vanessa Russ is telling the story of her family and a story of Australia.

Stockyards and Saddles: A Story of Gibb River Station explores the lives of people on the remote cattle station from the early 1900s to 1990s, with many of the 180 photographs in the exhibition from the curator’s uncle.

The Russ family has lived in the Kimberley since the 1890s; Dr Russ’ grandmother was an Aboriginal woman from Beagle Bay, and met her grandfather, from New South Wales and the son of English settlers, in Broome.

“My grandfather was sort of an old cowboy, a pioneer in some ways; he was obsessed with getting over the King Leopold Ranges, it was some kind of feat at the time,” the Berndt Museum associate director said.

Fred Russ eventually purchased Gibb, with indigenous Australians his head stockmen.

“There were no shops, there were no roads; this station survived when you had people walking off Wave Hill, during Noonkanbah, the station was just doing its thing,” Dr Russ said.

“When you talk to anthropologists like Ian Crawford, he used to say there was a whole language out at Gibb, a physical language that was different to anywhere else. Maybe it was something in the water.”

Dr Russ was born in Derby and has childhood memories of fishing, mustering and stock camps at Gibb.

“I’m trying to capture that period between [my grandfather] and the kids that came after, and the different types of Aboriginality that exist,” she said.

“The only reason I really got [the exhibition] going is because I showed my staff my uncle’s photographs, and I said ‘look it’s really personal, it could look really bad’. They said ‘you’ve got to tell that story’.”

The station was sold to the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 1987.

Dr Russ said the road out to Gibb was better than it used to be, but services were limited and having a small group of around 40 in the community made it difficult to make the government stop and listen.

“All those things we take for granted – so many things are done by the internet, but if you don’t have the internet, you don’t have services,” Dr Russ said.

“These stories are worth telling and improve our understanding of Australia; it’s not all cities and beaches.”

Stockyards and Saddles: A Story of Gibb River Station opens tonight at UWA’s Lawrence Wilson Gallery and runs until December 8.