Bringing Barbara McGrady's photography to life

28 February 2024
Legacy captured through a lens
The Chau Chak Wing Museum is currently showing work from Gomeroi/Gamilaraay photographer Barbara McGrady's extensive collection. Learn more about her love of photography and award-winning work.

Cultural advice: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visitors are advised that this display and article contains images and references to deceased persons.

It’s hard to miss the picture of Barbara McGrady when entering the Mezzanine at the Chau Chak Wing Museum. The photograph, taken by Barbara herself, captures her reflection in a mirror at the cherished Glebe landmark, the Badde Manors cafe.

‘Portrait of Barbara McGrady’, image courtesy: Barbara McGrady.

Beyond her self-portrait begins a journey through Barbara’s most memorable moments in time— from her humble start with a chemist camera to her award-winning collection brimming with famous names, places, and events.

"I hope that when people look at my images, they see what deadly people we are and always have been,” Barbara said. “And I'm a great believer in showing that.”

Barbara’s love for photography led her to pursue photojournalism, where she spent 30 years documenting elite sports, activism, events, and other "odd jobs”. In 2009, she chased another passion for anthropology and started studying at the University of Sydney, but photography was never far away. 

“I was always interested in photography, and of course I was the family photographer and things like that. Whenever I could get a hold of the camera or a little chemist camera,” Barbara said. “It’s not really a career, it’s just something I've always done. And if people paid me for it, well, I must be doing it right.”

Some of her renowned works on display in the Australia has a Black History exhibit commemorate her connections with First Nations sports legends like Anthony Mundine and Ash Barty. But it’s not all sport, the exhibit also captures the many times First Nations people were forced to make a stand.

“Lots of Rugby Leage and AFL, of course. I have always been into rugby league. My father played rugby league in the 1920s,” Barbara said. “But also lots of big, big rallies and big protests, lots of big conferences.”

Images: Retired boxer (the late) Wally Carr shows support, Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy, The Block, Redfern 2014 and Gamilaraay/Gomeroi countryman, Paul Spearim, Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy 2014 by Barbara McGrady

At times, the themes in the exhibit interplay. Like in an image where retired boxer, the late Wally Carr, showed support for the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Redfern, a meeting place for activists and protesters. “The late Wally Carr was an old friend as well as a local Redfern identity, so it was good to see him at the Redfern Tent Embassy at The Block,” Barbara said. “It was an incredible two years of bearing witness and photographing the protest for better outcomes for Indigenous people."

Barbara's presence extended to pivotal moments in history, including her coverage of the Closing the Gap rallies in Redfern, the Black Lives Matter protests in Martin Place, and the Grandmothers Against Removalists group fearlessly staging outside Parliament House.

"I'm an old activist from a long time ago,” Barbara explained. “Actually, I stood up for everyone, not just all Aboriginal people, but for the underdogs all the time. So I suppose it stemmed from there.”

Lily Thomas-McKnight, the exhibition curator and current University of Sydney student, explored the relationships in Barbara’s archive when she began bringing the exhibition to life. “When we had the photos, we thought it would be best to categorise them, even if they all still kind of overlap,” she said. “Yeah, all of it pretty much relates to community and the importance of empowering First Nations people."

Lily also highlighted the emotional depth of Barbara's photographs. “Aunty Barbara knows most of the subjects and the photos personally. So it just brings it to another level.”

This exhibition acknowledges how powerful and successful Aboriginal people are as well. It’s also a celebration.
Lily Thomas-McKnight

In other images, Barbara captured the cultural vibrancy of First Nations communities, as well as their success in film, music, and arts. For Wiradjuri and Gomeroi women like Lily, celebrating success is an important part of the narratives told in museum spaces. 

“The history of museums and galleries is quite ethnographic…. It isn't always positive, usually, when this kind of thing is in a museum,” Lily said. “But Barbara’s photos are not only creating positive representation, they are also acknowledging the past without taking away that things still need to change. 

“This exhibition acknowledges how powerful and successful Aboriginal people are as well. It’s also a celebration.”

Barbara anticipates that her photographs will resonate with visitors, hoping to inspire First Nations people to persevere. “And I know for a fact that some of the young Aboriginal people will walk past and say ‘that's my uncle. There. That's my real uncle’,” she said. “And because our truth has been erased from history, they can see my images and think, ‘well I can do that too’.”

But the Australia Has a Black History exhibit has something for all, Barbara said. “My photos are not just Indigenous photos of Indigenous people; they are images for all of Australia's historical peoples and events throughout history. As a longtime photojournalist I see my images as stories of time and place, of culture and community in the public domain.”

'Barbara McGrady: Australia Has a Black History' is open until 4 August 2024 on level 4 of the Chau Chak Wing Museum.

Address: Level 4 Mezzanine, Chau Chak Wing Museum, University Place, University of Sydney, Camperdown

Opening hours: 10am-5pm, Monday to Friday (until 9pm on Thursday); 12-4pm weekends; closed on public holidays.

Cost: Free


Hero image: Remember TJ Hickey – Gail Hickey (mother of TJ) & family protest for justice for her son, Redfern Park 2014 by Barbara McGrady

Related articles