We are most alive in our complicated relationships when we are facing death.

Gunditjmara/Djabwurrung artist Hayley Millar Baker began imagining her In Life, In Death series of self-portraits relating to an anticipatory grief brought on by a familial experience of heart complications.  It is probably not a generalisation to state that every Aboriginal child has a parent or grandparent with a chronic health condition living with a sense of borrowed time.  In 2O15–2O17, life expectancy at birth was 71.6 years for Indigenous males (8.6 years less than non-Indigenous males) and 75.6 years for Indigenous females (7.8 years less than non-Indigenous females).  The target to close the life expectancy gap by 2O31 is definitively not on track.i.  The Closing the Gap reports read like confusing numbers and statistics to me until they began to clip my father’s wings.  At age sixty, his twin cancer diagnoses redefined my sense of these numbers, and they burned into me like an angel’s halo in a bad dream.  He continues to defy the death expected of him, but at great cost, and it’s within this shadow of grace I come to this work.

In this intergenerational trauma from late-stage settler colonialism, our parents are shedding and being reborn.  But how long do we have left?  Will they survive to the next appointment?  Art is not created in a vacuum, and neither is witness: as I think about Millar Baker’s self-portraits, the body and text and image and audience, I can’t help but think of the genocidal violence in Gaza, the staggering images and statistics of violence –over 4O,OOO killed, 7O,OOO seriously wounded, more than 15,OOO children dead in the rubble – numbers which grow every day.  How can anyone make sense of such colossal loss?

Though the time scale is different, this is what First Nations artists and thinkers have been responding to since invasion.  As Dr Lilly Brown noted, ‘The frontier violence happening in Palestine in 2O23–2O24 happened in this country, too.  In Australia First Nations people, including women and children, were massacred.  They were killed by men on horses with muskets, while the people of Palestine are being massacred with bombs and white phosphorous.’ii.

During the documentation of In Life, In Death, Hayley Millar Baker’s mother was on set, and I feel it in the presence and sorrow of her expression.  It isn’t an imagined death, it’s in the room and living.  Across the seven portraits we witness this personal turmoil as we attempt to relate to the words offered by her: a simple but instructive poem is split, one line for each portrait, welling down the face of the artist.  The words are like tears that this world demands we self-censor, begging us to find our own ways to appease the spirits.

This poetic intervention into how we read the work recalls for me Apókryphos 2O18–2O19 by Cherine Fahd. The archival prints from Fahd’s family documents the usually private and distressing moments of grief during the funeral and burial of the artist’s grandfather.  We bear witness to this story of an Australian Lebanese family in mourning in the 197Os.  Fahd interjects the moments of loss with text, and two possibilities are presented as footnotes: firstly, the matter-of-fact alt-text descriptions of objects or figures, and secondly, a poetic, reflexive and emotional description serves as a speculative legend for reading the archives.  But mapping all potential forms of grief in Hayley Millar Baker’s self-portraits cannot be contained to the familial.


Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman presented in the Seven Stages of Grieving (1996) an abstract poem wreck/con/silly/nation (scene 2O).  The con of colonisation is an appropriate formula to revisit in the aftermath of the referendum on the Voice ,14 October 2O23.  Here, I lose words – I can’t seem to articulate the rejection.  I vomit that every single state and territory voted no, and the speed with which we knew the No (no, I hate you, no can’t we do better than constitutional recognition, no, I don’t see how it will make a difference, no f*ck you, no isn’t it racist towards white people, no you already have a free holden, no I don’t understand why we need a referendum, NO!).  In the last few weeks before the referendum, I held onto an optimistic notion of a partial No, thinking at least maybe NSW or VIC would vote majority Yes, right?  I came into and out of this colonial rejection as a parent with an unanticipated sense of hopelessness for the future of my child: how do I tell you these people, today, denied your Blak voice?  What future are you growing into?

In Life, In Death 2O24 is a marker of collective sorrow at our failure as a nation.  Hayley Millar Baker is deeply aware of the future archive her work is creating.  In earlier works, Millar Baker used her grandfather’s black-and-white photographic archives.  Her previous use of archives intervening in the past lends itself to this new sub-world.  Wiradjuri writer Jeanine Leane talks about a sense of timelessness and how our work ‘collapses time and space to honour Aboriginal past, present, memory, future and the sense of collectively experienced time.’ii

For this series of self-portraits, Millar Baker creates an intimate and tender parallel now that reflects our collective experiences as bodies tuned to structural and literal violences.

I am reminded of spending time in the archives of Mervyn Bishop, the prolific documentary and press photographer from Brewarrina.  I trawled through Bishop’s legacy to select one image, and I had that glow feeling when I landed on the work titled Girl pours tea, Burnt Bridge.  It was taken in 1988 while Bishop was documenting the living conditions of Aboriginal people for the Department of Housing.  When I saw Girl pours tea, I was reminded of a fringe camp called Goonoowigal.  I grew up on Kamilaroi Country, and we were taken out to Goonoowigal by local elders from time to time to remind us that it was just one generation back that Aboriginal people lived in the fringe camps because they weren’t allowed to live in town.  On one of these trips, I was deep in my own thoughts and became separated from the group. Uncle Jimmy sang out: ‘Someone get Hannah, what are youse doing, do you want the spirits to get her.’

I ran to catch up.


Hayley Millar Baker wants these self-portraits to carry the weight of her soul.

Decolonial approaches to psychotherapy acknowledge the soul wounds of colonial violence, spiritual sickness, and the related “soul loss” of colonisers.  In her book on decolonising therapy, Dr Jennifer Mullan states, ‘Everything comes back to the colonial root, not just to our parents’ parents’ methods of coping and surviving – but to the core colonial disconnect.’iv  I think of the urban legends of Aboriginal people engaging with the lens, of being afraid of souls getting trapped in the remnant physical material photographs and refusing to be captured; who could blame our ancestors for feeling wary of being rendered flat by the colonial eye?  Talk about instinctive wisdom.  I relate this aversion to the psychotherapy of soul loss where a dehumanising ideology, aka settler colonialism/white supremacy, has intervened and severed the soul from its bodily mooring.  Through personal portraiture, Millar Baker reclaims herself, showing us how she can be seen in this moment in time.

What does it mean to experience soul loss through colonial violence?  A reduction in self-hood, in heart density.  I look at the images coming out of Gaza, the unfiltered horror, and all the colonisers rushing to defend and celebrate the brutality, and in this, I see soul loss made manifest.  I see it in the politicians trying and failing to use words with meaning, the extreme cognitive dissonance all around us, we are witnessing it at hyper speed doom scrolling through a genocide feed.  I sometimes use a less generous phrase than “soul loss”, I say if you’ve experienced this, you’re a witchety grub, unthinking larvae yet to grow wings, boring holes into the tree life that sustains us, corroding the roots.  These are the stakes for our art, this is the impossible task of the artist in a time of genocides, past and present and future.

The reality is that the personal is political if your body has ever belonged to a lineage of dehumanised peoples oppressed by colonisers.  Dr Eugenia Flynn, a Larrakia, Tiwi, Chinese Malaysian, and Muslim writer, uses the term for what is happening here in Australia as late-stage settler colonialism, describing it as ‘akin but separate to the ideas that the term ‘late capitalism’ infers about modern global societies.  What is happening in Gaza now is the brutality of the early or mid-stages of settler colonialism, and what we are witness to in Australia is the same thread of colonial genocide that evolved over 236 years to become sly in nature, codified in oblique language and unfeeling structures, invisibilised to those outside the bounds of this violence.’v

Here In Life, In Death the deeply felt self-portraits are a balm to this deranged emptiness I sense in others.  Here I can sit with rage, I can bleed the images of rubble, I can be whipped by bearing witness, I can feel the pressure of love, of holding myself accountable, I can hold the cries of the mothers, I can insist on my morality.  I mean mortality.  I mean!  I am made of meaning; I have been returned to meaning.

The trolls ask of me constantly, but what has that got to do with Australia?  Our bodies are vessels for our ancestors, for our souls.  And they are screaming at you: everything.



i    The Closing the Gap Report, 2O2O. Viewed 5 April 2O24: https://ctgreport.niaa.gov.au/life-expectancy.

ii    Dr Lilly Brown, 2O23, ‘I voted Yes […],’ Instagram, 26 December 2O23.

iii    Jeanine Leane, 2O15, ‘Historyless People,’ Long History: Deep Time, ANU Press.

iv    Dr Jennifer Mullen, 2O23, ‘Decolonizing Therapy,’ Norton Professional Books.

v    Dr Eugenia Flynn, 2O24, ‘Black Life Black Solidarity and Late Stage Settler Colonialism,’ IndigenousX. Viewed 5 April 2O24: https://indigenousx.com.au/black-life-black-solidarity-and-late-stage-settler-colonialism/.

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