A snapshot feeling led to the bigger picture for Aboriginal anthropologist

17 December 2021

When Michael Aird reflects on his circuitous career path, he recalls a sliding door moment in 1984 when he was hanging out with one of his cousins who was delivering a letter to the Anthropology Museum at the University of Queensland.

“I saw the Great Court and thought ‘wow’ I really want to go to this Uni,” he remarked.

“I did not have a clue how I would achieve this but it was almost like my feet did not touch the ground.”

At the time, Michael was a sheet metal worker - making air-conditioning ducts that were not designed to be seen - but there was something about that initial campus experience that galvanised him into a more public trajectory.

He credits former Director of UQ's Anthropology Museum, Dr Peter Lauer, for his start in the academic world.

It was Dr Lauer who offered him a short-term contract documenting archaeological sites on the Gold Coast, armed with a clipboard and camera.

Even when paid work dried up, Michael continued to turn up for work for the next 18 months, while he ran a side business making surfboards.

It was not too long before he made friends with pioneers of UQ’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit and he was accepted as a mature-age student, at the age of 23.

As someone with fairly average school grades, Michael struggled at first but he made the most of student tuition services and was starting to achieve reasonable grades by the time he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Anthropology) in 1990.

The next big break was an opportunity to compile historical Aboriginal photos for the Royal Pines Resort, being constructed on the Gold Coast in 1990.

This led to recognition at the Queensland Museum and he curated a travelling exhibition and companion Portraits of our Elders book in 1993, followed by further exhibitions, the opportunity to organise the Aboriginal photographic collection, and later a full-time role as a curator at the Queensland Museum.

Michael then branched out into publishing with his own Keeaira Press and began to produce books about Aboriginal history and photography – with up to three titles a year, including his own Brisbane Blacks and The Art of Politics by Fiona Foley, Re-Imagining Australia by Deborah Ruiz Wall and Tomitaro Fujii: Pearl Diver of the Torres Strait by Linda Miley.

“Across 10 years I juggled between research projects, publishing books and contract exhibition work,” Michael said.

“My opportunity to return to UQ came with a request to research a group of late-1800s Aboriginal performers known as Meston’s Wild Australia Show, which led to an exhibition at the Anthropology Museum and associated book.

“I then became involved in a major ARC Fellowship project looking at how historical Aboriginal photos could be used in the Native Title Process.

“I had been back working on the ARC research and exhibitions at the Anthropology Museum for around a year when a vacancy came up to become Director, which gave me an office with a window for the first time.”

Michael is now transitioning into a related ARC Fellowship project about the politics of Aboriginal family photos and how they can be used as tools and tactics of survival.

“It is interesting how Aboriginal families have used photos to document their successes, when they have owned boats, oyster leases, fishing operations and cattle,” he said.

“They made sure they were dressed well, showing they were as good as everyone else, so it was a political decision to spend money on those clothes and the photos.”

Michael said he was originally driven to complete his UQ degree out of a fear that he would end up back at the sheet metal factory.

He has since curated over 30 exhibitions, been involved in dozens of books and become one of the most highly regarded Indigenous curators in Australia.

Michael was also honoured as one of UQ’s distinguished alumni of 2015, receiving the Indigenous Community Impact Award.

“Photography has been central to my career, both as a researcher of Aboriginal photographs and as a photographer. My work is held in numerous collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, the Queensland State Library, the Queensland Museum and the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art.

“I have met all these wonderful people, worked on these great projects and loved every bit of it.”