Lisa Bellear Obituary
Early on Thursday July 6th, Lisa Bellear, who was an integral part of the new face of radicalised black Australian arts, said goodnight and went to bed at her home in Brunswick. Later, that morning, the widely admired, 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 a state of shock. She was barely 45, and the coroner reported that she had an unusually enlarged heart.
Bellear was a celebrated poet, Aboriginal activist and spokeswoman, dramatist, comedian and broadcaster on 3CR, where she helped found Not Another Koori Show over 20 years ago. She was also a ‘relentless’ photographer whose shots of Australia were exhibited at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
She documented a quarter century of mostly black communities, especially in the fields of politics and the arts. Bellear's passion for social change saw her assist myriad groups – the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games protesters; the academics and students she taught and studied with at universities, including LaTrobe and Melbourne; Sorry Day, National Aborigines and Islanders day Observance Committee; feminists; poets; lesbians; the National Day of Healing; the Stolen Generations of Australia and Victoria; Brunswick Power football team and the Labour Party. Small wonder her funeral last week at the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League in Thornbury drew a crowd pushing 1,000 as it spilled out of the building and into the grounds below.
“If you're a blackfella in this town, you go to a lot of funerals,” commented activist and long-term friend Gary Foley, “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... .” He recalls an embarrassing yet touching stream of Bellear's photographs arriving, inscribed “Foley, you're my hero.”
Pallbearers included painter Richard Bell, who recalled how she 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 past record of stiff, long-suffering, staged shots of Aborigines contrast with Bellear's casual snaps of moments of solidarity, levity and self-discovery, gifted back to her community.
Former Victorian premier, Joan Kirner, recalled how Bellear would always call her ‘Premier’, even when others called her “the guilty party.” Fellow Labor polititian, Jean McLean, recalled shrugging off Labor Party faction fighting in party meetings as a Pacific Black Duck might flick off rain. Mick Edwards, captain of the Fitzroy Stars football team, spoke of how Bellear and playwright John Harding had sponsored him when he came out of an institution. “Lisa calmed me. She was like a general; determined, disciplined.”
Lisa's Uncle, Bob Bellear, given a State Funeral in Sydney last year, was Australia's first Aboriginal judge. He and his brother, Sol Bellear, helped found the Aboriginal Housing Corporation in Redfern in 1972. Earlier, in 1961, their beloved sister, Joycelyn ‘Binks’ Bellear, had sadly died in Lismore Hospital when her baby Lisa was just weeks old. Lisa was adopted by a rural family in Victoria, a situation that eventually became traumatic, although she remained close to adopted brother John Stewart.
Bellear escaped by boarding at Ballarat's Sacred Heart College before starting a Bachelor of Social Work at the University of Melbourne, where she topped her graduating class. She was “one of the only two black faces on campus,” according to the other one, John Harding. He melted under the outsize beam of Bellear, introducing her to the Harding mob, including his influential mother Eleanor and sisters, arts administrator Janina and artist Destiny Deacon. “She was always on the go”, Harding said. “'Ah-ah-ah – I've gotta go!' Frenetic energy. You'd watch her and you'd want to take valium.”
“We all claimed her,” said Janina, wiping her eyes as the wake starts to go full throttle. “She didn't want to find her family initially. Destiny held her hand and encouraged her.” By the time Bellear contacted the authorities, her family had left a letter for her. When they finally met, Bellear's grandmother Sadie fainted on the train platform as she recognised her long-lost kin. For Lisa, important healing could begin.
Bellear was the author of Dreaming In Urban Areas (UQP 1996), a book of poetry, and a founding member of Melbourne-based Ilbijerri Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Theatre Co-op, the longest-running black theatre troupe in Australia. Its recent street theatre masterpiece The Dirty Mile was based on Bellear's idea and developed by Foley, Harding and director Kylie Belling, winding through the black past and present of the streets of Carlton and Fitzroy.
And now the self-professed “warrior woman” has “gone back to the dreaming,” as the funeral program put it. Her body has been buried at Mullumbimby Cemetery, close to her mother, as she requested, and also to her maternal great-grandfather Jack Corowa, a Vanuatu man black-birded and brought to Australia for cutting cane.
“Lit a fire in the King's Domain,” said mourner Gavin Moore at the open mike, bringing some ashes. And, symbolically, that's what Lisa Bellear did too. It wasn't the kind of fire that burns things down. It was the kind that lights the way.
Jen Jewel Brown is a Melbourne writer and friend of Lisa Bellear. Printed with her consent and that of The Age, where a slightly shorter version of this obituary was published on 20/7/2006.