Close reading the colonial archive

It’s described as haunting. And I know it well.

Led by our relatives, our ancestors, we do feverish work, memory work, detective work. But the compulsion is not just to fill in gaps. Doesn’t just stop at the finding.


Narungga artist, academic and poet-activist Natalie Harkin has been tracing her family story through records held by South Australian state institutions. Aboriginal people are very familiar with archives: we’ve been kept within them since European people came to this continent. Records of who was taken, where they were placed, blood lines, mission documents – it goes on. Families who were torn apart by policies of removal or assimilation may delve, start a process of detection. I have spent time within them myself. Picking up the trace.

There’s something specific to an arts practice that allows a reactivity to materials found in institutions. A softness in processing findings and care when producing outcomes. Immersion in these family records can be a difficult process not just for the investigator but for the wider family. It’s tough material, but it’s actually not just material.


this is a restorative way of knowing and honouring that carries us lovingly back and forward and back again; this is memory in the blood, and it does not always flow easily.

3 | Blood Memory


This is real, it is of people and times that shaped who we are today.


Derrida’s Archive Fever frames this investigation. Is it possible to return to ‘the most archaic place of absolute commencement’? Perhaps if we find where records began or at least where this story[1] did, we might find an explanation of how we got to where we are now.

The fever is stirred deeply.


The wax seal is hot. I am pressed between the disintegrating folds, about to be locked up. Filed away. GRG51. GRG52. You can find me here. 

Stuck in the archive-box for too many years.     This story can never

be complete.

– ‘Archive Box Transformation


For Harkin ‘all this remembering compels me to write’, and compulsion contains momentum, urgency. In the five movements of the closing poem in Colonial Archive, ‘Archive Box Transformation’, the fever of compulsion haunts. It’s the task, the work; it’s what is turned into art. Beginning as tight prose and spiralling out into fragments, the poem’s structure symbolically sets up for the following books ‘Haunting’ and ‘Blood-Memory’.


The books reluctantly shake out of their cardboard sleeve.


Like gathering, mark-making is connected deeply to everything Aboriginal women do. Wiradjuri poet and academic Jeanine Leane calls gathering a ‘creative political act’. Subverting traditional modes of expression, ‘collapsing or challenge conventional genre constraints’ collecting material and claiming space for the voices who could not speak ‘allows us to confront generations of silencing and racial sexual oppression’[2].


This little girl, whom we have baptised Charlotte Owen, is a smart, intelligent and very loveable child, and will make a very useful woman if she lives; and she is just the character that would have been very troublesome, if she had not been taught, and led to act right.

Annie Camfield, Annesfield Native Institution Albany 1868


Camfield’s careless addition ‘if she lives’ lands flippantly, yet is illustrative of the disposability of Aboriginal children to the state, and indicates the casual regularity of such a remark.

Throughout ‘Haunting’, Harkin both exposes the methods of and gives voice to women whose domestication was applauded by the state. These methods become spectres, as she contrasts newspaper records and correspondence with her own poetic interventions. Like the institution-sanctioned processes of Othering they loom uneasy shadows.

But power is reasserted for the children of the Native Institution, as Charlotte, Edith and Grace are given voice in the trio Blood Sonnet Chronicles.


she grows into a woman hard to trace

Mission-trails etched deep do shape her face

and frame beloved-damp horizons in her eyes



Blood-memory literally: blood that was spilled on country during times of disruption, separation. Literally: caste systems that classified and created hierarchies. Literally: lineages of trauma that run deeply within.


this is a blood-memory fusion response to collective loss. missing ancestors and a prevailing colonial discourse of the state: to find a beginning place, trace blood from there: to follow paper and blood-trails toward that moment when it can all seep down deep into the land, to something new, where our future can finally rest

– ‘Memory Lesson 10’ | Memory in the Blood


Along with records, can joy can be rescued from the archives? Our old people remember those times as the hard times. The task is to create value from the fever.


Unbound Collective’s March 2019 performance at the National in Sydney projected poetry onto the walls of the colonial collection of Art Gallery of NSW. Romaine Moreton wrote in the exhibition catalogue ‘living flesh and the archive are caught in a dance … augmenting a repatriation that is simultaneously an act of love’.[3]

Along with her collaborators, Ali Gumilya Baker, Faye Rosas Blanch and Simone Ulaka Tur, Harkin disrupted that physical space that holds colonial representations of Country and of people. The performance was a poetic, physical intervention into a fraught space. The fever-energy-compulsion turned into light and movement, as words created a disruption.


The poetic outcome of the fever is a collection with urgency. Archival material has a loud voice but the juxtaposing poems speak even louder back towards them, creating a cacophony of voices. They’re still shouting, unsettling.

And I mean unsettling in two ways. The archival documents found; I abhor what was recorded. It’s also deliberately un-Settling as a poetic work, asserting itself more as political document than as a ‘book of poems’. As Leane noted, we are ‘driven to find a space where our critical Aboriginal women’s voices could be heard and where our memory politics could be enacted in dialogue with the present’[4].

In that vein, this is a crucial re-telling, re-presenting and honouring. As tactile objects, this collection is a concrete response to those spaces that created stories about us.

Yet contrasted to The Unbound Collective’s Sovereign Acts IV: Object that brought poems to life through performance, it seems something else rose from that place of disruption. Projecting text and claiming physical space within an institution was more resonant than words on the page (sacrilege for a poet) – perhaps that was a more active, present disruption? I’m at odds with myself and wonder why the permeability of this document doesn’t carry that same weight for me.

The underlying question regarding Archival Poetics: what comes next? Does it matter, as long as the healing work has begun.


Placing these books back into the cardboard sleeve isn’t easy. They catch on the sides, they don’t want to go.


The final poems in Blood Memory turn toward love.

Gently simmering through all the books is the importance of lineage, from Harkin’s own grandmother, to all ‘our Grandmothers to come’. These are words for people who we couldn’t embrace, or who needed that embrace but did not receive it. This is work that ‘guide[s] us toward paths past-travelled and directions unknown’.

This is weaving back, poems that leave traces for the ones who come after to follow.



[1] The beginning of both personal and political story: Harkin’s Nanna, but also where the stories of removal and assimilation began for Aboriginal people across the country.

[2] Leane, Jeanine. ‘Gathering: The Politics Of Memory and Contemporary Aboriginal Women’s Writing’. Antipodes Journal, Dec 2017.

[3] Moreton, Romaine. 2019. ‘Sovereign Acts IV: Object’ artist text, The National website.

[4] Leane, 2017. Ibid


Image: Marten Bjork / Unsplash



Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Susie Anderson uses words to reconnect with culture. A Wergaia woman from Western Victoria, her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in The Lifted Brow, Rabbit Poetry, un magazine, Artlink Australia and she was part of the anthology Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. Recently, Susie was a writer-in-residence at Overland.

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