Local artist Gabi Briggs will open an exhibition of photographic portraits for the UNE-hosted Grounding Story Conference. 

The feet of strong Aboriginal women have walked the land for tens of thousands of years; their words and actions have shaped families and societies. Yet their faces remain largely enigmatic, says local artist Gabi Briggs.

Gabi, an Anaiwan and Gumbangier woman, who will soon begin a research masters program at UNE, is setting out to change this with a new photographic portrait exhibition, Surviving New England: Our Koori Matriarchs, Part One.

She says Australia takes great pride in its political and cultural leaders and influencers – you only have to visit the National Portrait Gallery or Archibald Prize exhibitions – yet the faces of the Aboriginal matriarchs are strangely absent from these celebrated pictorial records.

“Many Indigenous communities come from a matrilineal society, and our matriarchs are often the unsung heroes of families,” Gabi says.

Behind the project is a gratitude for her own matrilineal upbringing, and sense of pride and respect for the women who have always nurtured families like hers.

“Nan Pat was the first matriarch I photographed,” she says. “Her story of survival is incredibly important to tell and her journey has informed a lot of my work, and definitely influenced my art practice.”

Gabi says she is constantly surprised and touched by the resilience of matriarchs like her grandmothers, Nan Pat and Nan Sue.

“These women are the nurturers; the reason we’re here is because of them. But they don’t see the significance of their role, it’s just what they do; they nurture us.

“Many of the women have really hard stories. But they have been surprised and honoured when I’ve approached them to be part of this project. It’s very humbling,” she says.

Gabi’s new portrait series – the first of a few – will showcase around 12 of today’s local matriarchs, who will stand tall and proud in the Aboriginal Community Garden, Armidale, as part of the  Grounding Story Conference, hosted at UNE.

She hopes the photographic series will begin to change the role of imagery for Aboriginal people – whereas it was once used for the purpose of surveillance and government records, here it is something owned, something overt, positive and considered. Something to be celebrated.

She says holding the exhibition at the Aboriginal community garden is an important way of reclaiming history.

“The majority of the matriarchs have a connection to the land that the community garden is on, when it was repurposed from a dump to an Aboriginal reserve. There are a lot of stories attached to that place.

“I want this exhibition to be something everyone can see, experience and celebrate,” she says.

“I am incredibly honoured to be able to do this.”


Surviving New England: Our Koori Matriarchs, Part One will open on Wednesday, 13 February, 6:30pm, at the Aboriginal Community Garden, next to Doody Oval, East Armidale. This event is free to attend. All welcome.

Grounding Story Conference runs from 13–15 February at UNE. Find out more at une.edu.au/groundingstory