13 May 2024

From activism to artistry: Machteld Hali's journey from 1965 Freedom Ride to supporting First Nations art education

| Kellie O'Brien
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Charles Perkins Freedom Ride

Members of the Student Action For Aborigines group who took part in the 1965 Freedom Ride. Photo: State Library of NSW.

Kiama artist, printmaker and activist Machteld Hali remembers being an 18-year-old student with egg dripping down her face after having eggs and tomatoes thrown at her during the 15-day bus journey through regional NSW as part of Charles Perkins’ Freedom Ride in 1965.

Now, 59 years on, she’s still creating change for First Nations people.

Machteld is hosting the Eggs and Tomatoes Freedom Ride Scholarship Fundraiser at The Tempest Gallery in Kiama on 17 May to help raise the remaining $4000 for her $20,000 contribution to the education of a First Nations student at the University of New England.

She said it was already a success story, having helped the student fund her art degree, which has since also seen her teaching her own tribe after gaining a job in Orange in a school with 16 students, most of whom were Indigenous.

The title for the fundraiser is inspired by being one of the University of Sydney students who formed the group Student Action For Aborigines (SAFA) before embarking on The Freedom Ride of February 1965, led by footballer and the first known Aboriginal man to gain a degree, Charles Perkins.

It was intended to spread awareness of the appalling living conditions of Indigenous Australians and became a defining moment in Australian activism.

While she laughs that those two weeks on the Freedom Ride gave her lifelong fame, she acknowledges it was a “watershed” moment.

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“I was 18, and what I saw was unbelievable, and it changed me too,” she said.

“The Aboriginal people weren’t allowed in the RSL, yet they fought in both wars. They didn’t have the vote and they weren’t on the Census.

“The sort of treatment we got with the demonstrations showed that hatred. Then, of course, in Moree, it actually culminated in us being pelted with all these eggs and tomatoes.

“I had the egg running down my face.

“And we were run off the road, which could have been incredibly dangerous if it hadn’t been for such a good bus driver.

“When you felt that sort of hatred … that hatred was palpable and terrifying.”

She got to see what first-hand marginalisation in regional areas was like for Aboriginal people.

“They wouldn’t allow the Aboriginal children to swim in the local pool, and do you know why? They were afraid they would give STDs to their local population,” she said.

“They were afraid they would make the girls pregnant.”

She said on the 50th anniversary, they had a reenactment of the Freedom Ride, going to the same places but witnessing the difference.

As they approached Moree, this time, the road was lined with smiling, healthy schoolchildren in red SAFA t-shirts.

“That was really fantastic to see the children looking healthy,” she said.

“We had the most fantastic welcome. I had women throwing their arms around my neck saying, ‘You told us’.

“This is the thing, we told them they mattered, we gave them identity, we said ‘you exist’ because if you don’t have the vote or you’re not on the Census, you actually don’t exist.

“They said, ‘You told us you cared, and you told us we mattered’.

“So they were very aware of the changes that the Freedom Ride got going.”

However, she admitted that even today, there was still a long way to go, having seen how it took two years to find the recipient of her art scholarship, proving that more work needed to be done.

Machteld’s strong desire to help stems from some of her own experiences of hatred and discrimination as an immigrant. She was born in Holland and raised in Indonesia before coming to Australia.

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“I’m a twice migrant, so I understand being an outsider in a society,” she said.

“I come from a place of understanding what it’s like to be discriminated against, so I think that’s probably been my motivation.”

On 8 May, Member for Kiama Gareth Ward presented a Community Recognition Statement in NSW Parliament to recognise Machteld for her tireless efforts in supporting her community and advocating for the rights and empowerment of First Nations people.

That included the work with her art fundraiser.

“My thing with raising the money was not just to do it selling hamburgers or coffees but to do it through art because art is the whole point of the exercise,” she said.

“I feel so strongly about the indigenous people’s artwork – it’s the one thing they have got so much off that we should be celebrating.”

The art fundraiser will feature a diverse selection of framed artworks donated by Machteld herself, her students who have participated in many free workshops she has run and local artists. Notable contributions include pieces from acclaimed artists such as Pro Hart, Auguste Blackman, Robyn Sharp, Becky Guggisverg and Kerrina Swords.

She said it was “phenomenal” the volume of people who had volunteered their time, provided services or donated their art.

The Eggs and Tomatoes Freedom Ride Scholarship Fundraiser will be held at The Tempest Gallery (21 Holden Avenue, Kiama) on 17 May at 6 pm.

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