Above: From left, Jennifer Noble with niece Chloe, Phyllis Gorey with grandson Jaleb, Marie Elena Ellis, Vicki Crowley, Roseanne Ellis, and Margaret Palmer.
REVIEW by KIERAN FINNANE
It’s not easy to create the feeling of a desert community within the walls of a gallery: the collaborative show by Margaret Palmer and Vicki Crowley succeeds.
As soon as you enter the gallery at Watch This Space, you are transported: it’s a sunny day full of the cries of players and supporters, team action on the field, and community in action on the sidelines, a community of women.
They were there in life last Friday night (see at top): members of the formidable Amengkwerne / Amoonguna softball team that entered the town B-grade competition in 1982 and blitzed it, undefeated for the next nine seasons.
Right: The Blue Pants team of 1983, Vicki recognisable for her pink skin, Margaret in the yellow bandana.
Missing from the launch lineup was “Mum June Noble”, as Marie Elena Ellis fondly called her. June is recovering in hospital from surgery (doing well) and was represented at the opening by her daughter, Jennifer, and granddaughter Chloe – “my sister”, “my niece”, Marie said.
Members of the Ryan and Crowley families, who had flown in from Melbourne and Adelaide, were welcomed – “they are my uncles and aunt”, said Marie. (Their significance will become clear.)
This is a story in part about lasting inter-cultural friendships, forged in the 1960s when June Noble was the first pre-school teacher at Amoonguna (she went on to teach generations of pre-schoolers in the Centre) and also started the first softball team for older girls.
Jennifer recalled the family photo albums showing “the wonderful time back then when Mum and Dad lived at Amoonguna”; she spoke of the warm welcome she had been given last Friday by her “sisters” – the Aboriginal women standing alongside her.
Left: June Noble and the 1960s Amoonguna softball team she started.
After a few years Amoonguna softball waned in practice but the memories lived on. In the 1980s when Vicki Crowley arrived on the scene as school teacher, her colleagues in the school – its Aboriginal teachers, including Margaret Palmer – approached her to start a team, for the older girls and young women. She would be picking up June’s baton, or should I say bat, and they would be picking up their mothers’.
And so began what was obviously an exciting time in all their lives, as vividly evidenced in the show and recalled on Friday night – how playing started with uncertainty and ended in confidence (Roseanne Ellis), how the game “scared” her at first before she “fell in love” with it (Marie), how the team became “like a family group” (Phyllis Gorey), and the “enormous privilege” of being part of the team for its first three years “even though I threw like a white woman, I was told” (Vicki).
“The town teams really liked playing with us,” Margaret told me – no doubt they enjoyed the challenge.
One thing that gave the Amoonguna players an edge was the way they communicated with one another. Calling out between players is standard in softball, but they confounded the opposition with their use of hand signing, a mixture of Arrernte and Warlpiri and their own adaptations.
Behind this is a poignant story of some language loss. Margaret, for instance, is only now trying to regain her mother’s language, Anmatyerr, for she and her baby sister were stolen from her family and taken first to the Bungalow and later to St Mary’s.
This makes the title of the show, Apmere werne apetye-arlpaye, all the more meaningful. It is something that players would call out to one another, translated as “Bring everyone home”, but it’s not hard to see the resonance of it for life stories like Margaret’s as well as for all those former residents of Amoonguna.
Fast forward to 2012. Vicki was visiting Amoonguna, more than three decades after she had arrived there as a teacher and got the softball team going. Marie and Lynette Ellis asked her if she would write the softball story. “No,” she said, “but maybe”. When her circumstances changed (she took early retirement), she gave it further thought but decided a book would be just “another whitefella story”. How else could it be told?
The women did some radio interviews in 2014 – these can be heard in the gallery – and then in 2016 Margaret said yes to working with Vicki. In that 1980s classroom they had made a papier maché pirate ship, as something to inspire the children’s imaginations. Why not a papier maché softball team?
And so they began the lovingly crafted re-creation of the team’s history, from its first iteration as the Black Pants team, so-called because of the black fabric from which they sewed themselves their uniform pants, through to the next season, when they became the Blue Pants team, adopting the colours of Souths footy team.
There are stories behind every element of the work. The clothesline – fashioned by Vicki, along with the caravan- come-tuckshop and the car – is such a recognisable feature of the unsung side of playing a sport. It is also the object that helped Vicki and Margaret decide that papier maché would be the medium for the show (they’d canvassed various options, including claymation.)
The car – transporting the team, Vicki in the driver’s seat – was borrowed from Fiona Ryan, an all-round sportswoman, runner-up in the 1978 NT Sportsman of the Year (won that year for the first time by a woman, darts champion, Ivy Hampton), and Vicki’s partner. She was instrumental in getting the team into the town comp, knowing her way around the admin side, and was regularly involved in umpiring. She’s the unmistakeable redhead at the edge of the diamond in the Black Pants team scene.
The character-filled scenes gain their strength from the individuality of each of the figures and moments, recalled with warmth and humour and the fine detail from their lived experiences. Margaret’s yellow bandana, for instance, was not a fashion statement, but tied on because she had a headache on that match day. Each figure is a portrait, each can be named, including the women on the sidelines, their loved and loyal supporters.
Not surprisingly, there were lots of laughs as they worked, and tears, especially as they remembered those who had passed away, “who matter to us hugely”, as Vicki said on Friday. These include the two women who were teaching with her and Margaret back in the ‘80s and were with Margaret when they asked Vicki to start up softball again.
Right: Margaret Palmer and Vicki Crowley, in the gallery for last Friday’s opening.
Vicki and Margaret worked together on the armatures but Margaret did all the painting and sewed all the clothes.
“I’m not an artist,” she told me modestly, but the show begs to differ.
June Noble, through her daughter, called for the work to become a “permanent treasure”, as a record taking this delightful history into the future. First though, it would be wonderful for it to tour – getting this story of collaboration at so many levels out to a wider audience. When have we needed to understand the value of working together more?
Meanwhile, the show can be seen at Watch This Space on Gap Road, the first of their 2020 season, until 21 March.
Correction, 11 March 2020, 10.13 am: An earlier version of this article suggested that Fiona Ryan was the first woman to win NT Sportsman of the Year. She was in fact runner-up in 1978, the year, that the award was first won by a woman, darts champion Ivy Hampton, as now reported in the article.