Important People in the Political Struggle for Aboriginal Rights
1961 - 2006
1961 - 2006
Lisa Bellear was an integral and admired part of the new face of radicalised Aboriginal arts, a poet, photographer, activist, spokeswoman, dramatist, comedian and broadcaster.
One night earlier this month she said goodnight and went to bed at her home in Brunswick, Melbourne. The next morning the clean-living, apparently healthy Minjungbul woman was dead.
She was found in peaceful repose by morning light, leaving relatives and friends to comfort each other in their shock. Bellear was just 45, and the coroner reported that she had an unusually enlarged heart.
Lisa Marie Bellear documented a quarter-century of mostly Aboriginal community life, especially in the fields of politics and the arts.
Her passion for social change saw her contribute to myriad campaigns and groups - protests at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games; academics and students she taught and studied with at universities, including Melbourne and La Trobe; Sorry Day; the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee; poets; feminists; lesbians; the National Day of Healing; the stolen generations; Brunswick Power football team; and the Labor Party.
She broadcast on 3CR in Victoria, where she helped found Not Another Koori Show more than 20 years ago. And she was a "relentless" photographer whose shots represented Australia at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Nearly 1000 mourners attended her funeral at the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League in Thornbury, spilling out of the building.
"If you're a blackfella in this town, you go to a lot of funerals," her friend and fellow activist Gary Foley said, "but I've never seen that before, where people wait for the coffin and clap it when it goes by. It's the sign of an amazing person. She was dynamic … inspirational."
A painter, Richard Bell, who was a pallbearer, recalled how Bellear would get her photographic subjects to relax: "She had this strategy. She got them to take a photograph of her. There was an exchange there, between her subject and herself. People gave themselves freely."
Australia's record of stiff, long-suffering, staged shots of Aborigines was in contrast to Bellear's casual snaps of moments of solidarity, levity and self-discovery.
The former Victorian premier Joan Kirner recalled how Bellear always called her "Premier", even when others called her "the guilty party".
Mick Edwards, captain of the Fitzroy Stars football team, told how Bellear and a fellow poet and playwright, John Harding, had sponsored him when he came out of an institution: "Lisa calmed me. She was like a general - determined and disciplined."
A state funeral was held in Sydney last year for Lisa's uncle, Bob Bellear, Australia's first Aboriginal judge who, with his brother Sol, helped found the Aboriginal Housing Corporation in Redfern in 1972.
Their sister, Joycelyn "Binks" Bellear, from Mullumbimby, had died in Lismore Hospital in 1961, when her baby Lisa was just weeks old. The father walked away and the girl was adopted by a family in country Victoria, a situation that eventually became traumatic, although she remained close to her adoptive brother, John Stewart.
Bellear escaped by boarding at Ballarat's Sacred Heart College before starting a bachelor of social work at Melbourne University, where she topped her graduation class.
She and John Harding were the only two black faces on campus. Harding "melted" under Bellear's beaming smile, and introduced her to the Harding mob, including his influential mother, Eleanor, and sisters, the arts administrator Janina and the artist Destiny Deacon.
"She was always on the go," Harding said. "Frenetic energy: 'Ah-ah-ah - I've gotta go!' You'd watch her and you'd want to take Valium."
She did not want to find her family at first but Destiny Deacon encouraged her. When they finally met, her grandmother, Sadie, fainted on the railway platform. But, for Bellear, the healing could begin.
Bellear wrote Dreaming In Urban Areas (UQP, 1996), a book of poetry. She was a founding member of the Ilbijerri Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Theatre Co-op, the longest-running Aboriginal theatre troupe in Australia, whose recent production of street theatre, The Dirty Mile, was based on a Bellear idea and developed by Foley, Harding and the director, Kylie Belling.
The self-professed "warrior woman" has, in the words of the funeral service, "gone back to the Dreaming". Her life had lit a fire, not the kind that burns things down, but that lights the way.
Her body was buried at Mullumbimby cemetery, close to her mother, as she requested, and to her maternal great-grandfather, Jack Corowa, a Vanuatu man blackbirded to cut cane.
by Jen Jewel Brown