Clive Freeman

A fresh voice for silenced histories

Coordinator Aboriginal Interpretation Programs (former)

Like his family’s totem, the wonga pigeon, famed for its distinctive call, Clive Freeman knows how to make his message heard.

Like a southerly buster bringing relief after a stiflingly oppressive summer’s day, artist, revolutionary, storyteller and SLM’s Coordinator Aboriginal Interpretation Programs, Clive Freeman, clears away longstanding attitudes with messages of replenishment and renewal.

A traditional owner of Wreck Bay, just south of Jervis Bay on the NSW South Coast, Clive is deeply connected to Yuin country, but also Eora and Wiradjuri through his family heritage: ‘We spent lots of time out on country – walking, camping, talking around campfires and listening to stories from our Elders. Every story has strong cultural meaning and messages – about the landscape but also how to live, how to behave, how to nurture and respect the land, and each other’.

A political upbringing

Although a designated Aboriginal reserve from 1916, Wreck Bay was officially granted to the community in 1986, after tough negotiation for traditional land rights, and joint management was achieved in 1995. Clive was raised in this intensely political environment: ‘As kids we were in the conference rooms in Parliament House [Canberra] playing games, poking and prodding [Mum and Dad from under tables], hearing outroars from the Elders, the backwards and forwards of negotiations, not realising what it was, but growing up with that was very powerful. Land rights was part of our family language the whole time’.

It was only as a young adult that Clive learnt how the rest of the world understood ‘Aboriginal’: ‘The concept of “being Aboriginal” [in the collective sense] wasn’t introduced to us as kids – we were brought up to know we were Yuin nation. This idea of 670 nations being classified as one people was new to me’. During Clive’s environmental science degree he took up Aboriginal studies to find out ‘what the authorities classified as Aboriginal and what that meant for us’.

The new guard

At 33, Clive is part of the ‘new guard’ of Indigenous Australians who, thanks to earlier generations’ long-fought political agitation, have found their voice and are not shy to use it. Clive speaks openly and passionately about the hurt, pain, crimes and injustices that Indigenous Australians have suffered since European settlement in 1788: ‘It’s hard to be here in Macquarie Street, working in some of the most colonial buildings in all of Sydney – they represent the very seat of government power that stole all we had away ... and the voice had been taken away for Aboriginal stories for a long time. Our parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles were silenced, but I’m the first free generation that’s had the opportunity to voice that. It’s our generation’s role to make sure that that voice is heard, now’.

While politically vocal, Clive and his family also choose to speak through art, exhibiting locally and internationally, including at the Venice Biennale in 2015: ‘There’s only one universal language, and that’s the arts … it can carry the message. It connects people’. For Clive, when bitterness, resentment and anger could dominate, a message of resilience and survival rings through: ‘We are paying respect to those who have suffered by looking past that victimisation state. We’ve survived all this and our cultural values have a place in society’.

‘That’s deadly, that is’

Clive’s ultimate goal at SLM is to enable Aboriginal people to actively connect with SLM’s properties, and recognise their own histories that are enmeshed in the land where those places are built: ‘That’s what we’re doing through the SLM cultural calendar: developing a deeper understanding of the country that these properties are built from and on – replenishing those histories – for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. When Aboriginal stories of connection can be shared, everyone owns that reconnection – that’s deadly, that is’.

Bearded man smiling into camera, with arms folded over black tshirt.

Clive Freeman at Vaucluse House. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums