Intro: In this post, based on Lorina Barker’s presentation, current Oral History MA student Lizzie Li discusses the diversity of oral history in real practice.
As the use of oral history has become more widespread, it has been recombined with the tools of various disciplines, both academic and creative, to inspire a range of outward-facing research products. When Indigenous Australian scholar Lorina Barker visited OHMA last month, she introduced us to serval new examples of this formal diversity.
As an oral historian, filmmaker, storyteller and poet, as well as an Indigenous scholar, Lorina Barker has long aimed to record the history, stories and experiences of her family and community. Then in 2017, sparked from a yarning with her grandmother, Lorina Barker initiated her project Looking Through Windows – an incredible touring exhibition about removal, dispossession and ‘protection’ of Aboriginal people. Within this project, Lorina Barker combined film, photography, songs, poetry, artworks, and sculptures together with oral histories, which showed us how diversified oral history can be in such a multimedia exhibition. Here, we may need to take a few steps back to thoroughly understand the whole idea of this project.
Lorina’s experimentation with different forms of oral history started from her transformation of doing transcripts. With her reservations about the verbatim transcript, Lorina finally decided that free verse poetry is the best way for her to transcribe interviews. As Lorina stated, free verse poetry is the way through which “the voice of a family member can be captured in written form and allow people to read and hear the way their family members speak”.
With the idea of free verse poetry, Lorina transformed her conversation with her grandmother into the poem, An Ode to My Grandmother, which was later embedded in her short film, My Grandmother’s Country. These kinds of artworks then became important parts of her multimedia exhibition, Looking Through Windows.
It’s fair to say that oral history played an important role within these artworks, as they were inspired by the “data” collected through oral histories. The idea of transforming transcripts into a poem is really impressive, as it made transcripts much more readable. The expressive force of the poem is much stronger than verbatim transcripts. Free verse poetry provides a more flexible way of writing oral history.
Lorina Barker has used many other elements to tell oral history-based stories in her exhibitions, but what impresses me most are the songs. Working together with Simon Mellor, Lorina Barker and her team created an album which consists of songs that were inspired by people, place, stories and poetry. Elders and community members shared their stories and poems with Simon Mellor, who then transformed those stories into songs or added music to their poetry. Sometimes Simon would sing the song to those narrators, and then the narrators would share more memories and details to Simon, through which he could write more verses.
This interactive process, can also be treated as a form of oral history – people tell stories and we record them, then represent them, in various ways. While oral historians make efforts to record histories, stories and experiences precisely, it’s also important for us to make both the process and result creative.
Thanks to Lorina Barker and Fabri Blacklock, and all those creative oral historians’ works, we are reminded that oral history can be not only serious, but also creative. It’s meaningful for us to be open to different options, to think outside the box and to bravely try different new methods. Lorina Barker’s work has shown us how important the aliveness of oral history is, and how oral historians could capture that vitality through different creative forms.
For more information, please see the documentary directed by Lorina Barker.
Lizzie Li is a current OHMA student from China. With her background in Anthropology, Lizzie Li hopes to apply the knowledge and skills she’s learned from oral history in anthropological research. This semester she is focusing on air pollution in China and its impact on people’s lives.