28 September 2023

ANU professor to bring personal stories, purpose to prestigious Harvard posting

| Travis Radford
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Professor Brenda L Croft is the first Indigenous woman to take up the post of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU.

Leading Indigenous artist and Australian National University (ANU) professor Brenda L Croft will take more than just her near-four decades of experience to one of the US’s most renowned universities next year.

Come January, Professor Croft will travel from her home in the capital to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to take up the posting of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University for the 2024 academic year. The member of the Gurindji/Malngin/Mudburra peoples from the Victoria River region of the Northern Territory will also become the first Indigenous woman to take up the posting.

But the personal is more front of mind for Professor Croft than the historical gravity or prestige. Particularly her brother Lindsay, who studied at Harvard under a Harkness Fellowship for one year in the 1990s.

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Lindsay went on to teach at a bridging school for Native American students with aspirations to study at university, but during this time, he tragically died in a car accident.

“He had a whole lot of promise ahead of him, but that could never be realised,” Professor Croft explains. “I wanted to do that [Harvard posting] in tribute to his time there as a young man and because it’ll be 30 years since my brother was there.

“My brother was really dedicated to working with other Indigenous peoples and people of colour from around the world as a young man. I’d like to try and do that too, so that continues.”

Professor Croft’s one-year posting at Harvard officially involves teaching across both the Department of History of Art and Architecture and the Department of Art, Film and Visual Studies.

But she also wants to work with the university’s Native American Program and to develop a scholarship, in her brother’s memory, that benefits First Nations students from Australia and the US.

photo of woman and boy hugging

blood/memory: Brenda & Christopher I (Gurindji/Malngin/Mudburra; Mara/Nandi/Njarrindjerri/ Ritharrngu; Anglo-Australian/Chinese/German/Irish/Scot) 2021, 2022. Brenda L Croft, Prue Hazelgrove (Photographic Assistant). Photo: Supplied.

In a sense, she says she will also be honouring her father’s memory. Despite being dispossessed from his parents and Country as a member of the Stolen Generations, he won a government bursary to study civil engineering at the University of Queensland.

“This is right back in the 1940s, so very unusual,” Professor Croft says. “It was of such note at the time that it was reported in newspapers right around the country.”

She says it’s highly likely her father was even the first Aboriginal person to attend university in Australia, having completed his tertiary studies before several of his trailblazing Indigenous contemporaries, including Charles Perkins AO, Lloyd McDermott and Dr Margaret Valadian.

“Dad was there at least two decades before those people and so I think it warrants that kind of statement,” Professor Croft says.

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These relationships are also at the centre of Professor Croft’s art. Most recently, her self-portrait of her and her son won at the 2023 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.

“My stories are not just about me,” Professor Croft says. “They’re about my family, my large extended family and also the many descendants of Stolen Generations members right across this country.

“We read in the papers every day that those kinds of experiences continue to cause people pain and for me, I feel fortunate that I can use my art as a means of bringing that to the surface.

“It’s a way of airing those stories and it’s also about sharing Indigenous story work and using it as a teaching tool, which is what I do with where I work.”

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