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Lisa Bellear (1961–2006)

by Kim Kruger

This article was published:

Lisa Bellear, Robbie Thorpe (background), Gilla McGuinness, Beryl Booth, at Camp Sovereignty, King’s Domain, Melbourne, 2006

Lisa Bellear, Robbie Thorpe (background), Gilla McGuinness, Beryl Booth, at Camp Sovereignty, King’s Domain, Melbourne, 2006

Lisa Bellear collection, Koorie Heritage Trust, Courtesy of the Koorie Heritage Trust'

Lisa Marie Bellear (1961–2006), Indigenous activist, photographer, and radio broadcaster, was born on 2 May 1961 in Narrm (Melbourne), Victoria, only child of Jocelyn ‘Binks’ Bellear and Stanko Kvesic, a Croatian heavyweight boxer. Jocelyn was one of nine children: among her younger siblings were Robert (Bob) Bellear (1944–2005), who would become the first Indigenous judge, and Solomon Bellear (1950–2017), who would become a housing, health, and legal services activist. Her paternal grandparents were of Goernpil (Noonuccal/Moondjan), Minjingbul (Minyangbal), and Solomon Islander descent, and her maternal grandparents were of Ni-Vanuatu and Indian (or possibly West African) descent.

The Bellear family lived on the north coast of New South Wales. When Jocelyn became ill shortly after Lisa was born, she returned home, and Stanko moved to Queensland in search of work. Lisa was placed in the care of the Berry Street Foundling Hospital, East Melbourne. Jocelyn intended to return to collect her daughter, but she died, and despite the Bellear family’s efforts to claim Lisa, she was declared a ward of the state and adopted by a non-Indigenous family in rural Victoria.

Lisa attended Sacred Heart College, Ballarat East, as a boarder. According to her adoptive mother, she was sent there to get a good education; however, she herself wrote that ‘the real reason’ (Bellear 1992, 59) was because her adoptive father was sexually abusing her. She completed high school at Mercy Regional College, Camperdown, before enrolling at the University of Melbourne.

While at university, Lisa met Meriam/Gu-Gu Yulangi (Guugu Yimithirr) man John Harding, future playwright, director, and actor, who introduced her to his family and to the Melbourne, wider Victorian, and national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Harding’s sister, artist Destiny Deacon, encouraged Lisa to obtain her adoption records and to find her birth family. In 1980 her grandmother, Sadie Bellear, had told her son Bob that she would like to find her first grandchild. Through his wife Kaye’s family in Victoria, Bob was able to contact the relevant community services staff and leave a letter for his niece in her file. Upon finding the letter, Lisa got in touch with Bob, and he and Sadie took her to northern New South Wales to meet her family. John Harding’s mother, community advocate Eleanor Harding, on learning that Lisa’s mother had died, claimed her as one of her own; Lisa spent the rest of her life bonding with her Bellear family and as a sibling to Eleanor’s children. She also remained close to her adoptive brother, John Stewart.

Lisa was politicised by her reflections on her experience of being removed from her family. She chose to study social work at university so that she could support others going through similar experiences. After graduating in 1986, she applied her bachelor of social work degree both professionally and in volunteer capacities. As Aboriginal liaison officer at the University of Melbourne (1987–95), she stewarded increasing numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students through university, many of whom were first in their field. (Between 1986 and 1996, the number of Indigenous people attending university across Australia rose by 160 per cent.) Lisa’s belief in Aboriginal community control and self-determination, learned from her heroes, the Elders of the Victorian Aboriginal community, inspired her to make the university a welcoming environment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. She encouraged regular visits from Elders and other community-minded people to campus as a way of nurturing student success, and urged non-Aboriginal people ‘to realise that Kooris at university aren’t a threat’ (Bellear quoted in Zakharov 1988, 19). During this period, she contributed to Aboriginal education policy and advocacy as an executive member of the Black Women’s Action in Education Foundation, a member of the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Inc.’s higher education sub-committee, and vice-president of Melbourne Aboriginal Education Association Inc, all of which sought to improve educational opportunities for Aboriginal people.

In the late 1980s Lisa was president of the Aboriginal Affairs Policy Committee of the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party. Like her contemporary, future Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, then president of the Carlton branch of the ALP, she too aspired to enter politics. Senator Susan Ryan, the first ALP woman to serve in cabinet, and Joan Kirner, Victoria’s first female premier, were her role models. Lisa’s ambition was realised with her election to the Collingwood City Council in 1988, making her possibly the first Aboriginal person elected to local government in Victoria; she resigned for personal reasons the following year, but maintained an active interest in politics. As well as labour issues, her politics incorporated matters of importance to Aboriginal people: Aboriginal community control, Aboriginal sovereignty, and reconciliation. The last provoked her exasperation; in 2002, a major exhibition of her photographs at Bunjilaka, Melbourne Museum, was titled, ‘Reconciliation - (dash): Bar-Humbug!’

Like her heroine Eleanor Harding, Lisa was firmly committed to Aboriginal women’s rights and education. She identified as a ‘blak’ feminist; a term coined by her friend Destiny Deacon to reclaim and move beyond racialised, sterotypical, and historical associations of blackness. Long before intersectionality was recognised as a lens for understanding complex discrimination and privilege, Lisa’s blak feminism ‘was radically intersectional’ (Liddle 2016, 50). She attended the first International Indigenous Women’s Conference, held in Adelaide, in 1989; was a member of numerous wide-ranging women’s groups, including Emily’s List, a Labor women’s network; and volunteered at Aboriginal women’s refuges. In 1992 she contributed an essay entitled ‘Keep Fighting, Keep Speaking Out’ to Jocelynne Scutt’s Breaking Through: Women, Work and Careers. Her open statement to the Network of Women Students Australia executive following a racist incident at their conference in 1999 would serve as a blueprint for solidarity protocols between non-Indigenous and Indigenous groups for years to come. She taught in the Bachelor of Education (Nyerna Studies) program at Victoria University from 1999.

Lisa fronted Not Another Koori Show! on radio 3CR from 1986 to 2006. Her co-hosts in the early years were Janina Harding and Destiny Deacon. Covering community events, campaigns, and current affairs, the show’s guests came from all walks of life—from grass roots organisations to the halls of power—providing an open platform for everyone, including the voiceless. Between 2003 and 2006 Lisa conducted broadcasts with Aboriginal women incarcerated at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, a maximum-security women’s prison. The focus was on poetry, another of Lisa passions: ‘What I tried to do was get them writing and reading poetry for the broadcast’ (Age 2004). She saw ‘jail poetry’ as a ‘powerful and valid form of expression’ (Age 2004). Her own poetry was published in two anthologies, Dreaming in Urban Areas (1996) and Aboriginal Country (2018), and in journals and newspapers. Audiences at her live poetry readings were enthralled and entertained, with poems such as ‘Women’s Liberation’ and ‘Artist Unknown’ becoming touchstones for the next generation of blak feminists, writers, and artists.

Photography was also important to Lisa, both as part of her activist tool kit and as a form of creative expression. Her photography provided entrée into conversations that could lead to radio interviews, art projects, or to connections enabling her to advance political positions. She made a point of printing copies of her photographs to give to the people in them, a practice cherished by Aboriginal communities without the means to generate social records. Her interest in the photographic representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and in countering past practices that objectified unnamed people, often under coercion, as well as her practice of returning images to the people in them, informed her doctoral research, commenced at La Trobe University in the early 2000s. A collection of her photographs of Indigenous people in Melbourne was exhibited at the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004.

An infectious sense of fun infused Lisa’s public and private engagements. Her airport-printed business card announced: ‘I like to party.’ Humour enabled her to balance the heavy load of seeking justice for Aboriginal people with clarity and determination. A Stolen Generations survivor, she was an active member of the Victorian Sorry Day Committee and Stolen Generations Task Force, which responded to the Bringing Them Home report (1997) and established the Victorian Stolen Generations Organisation in 2005, of which Lisa was inaugural chair. In March 2006 The Dirty Mile: A History of Indigenous Fitzroy, a play she conceived and helped to write with Gary Foley, John Harding, and Kylie Belling, was produced by Ilbijerri Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre Co-operative, of which Lisa had been a founding member. It won a Deadly award that year. Less than four months later, on 5 July 2006, Lisa died of natural causes, suddenly and unexpectedly, at her home in Brunswick; the coroner found she had an enlarged heart. She was buried on her ancestral country in Mullumbimby cemetery, New South Wales.

In 2007 Bellear Gardens, a street in Franklin, the Australian Capital Territory, was named for Lisa, part of a series of streets named for Australian writers. The following year she was inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women. In 2015 Victoria University established the Lisa Bellear Indigenous Research Scholarship. La Trobe University awarded her an honorary doctorate of letters in 2016 in recognition of her contribution to justice for Aboriginal people and her unfinished thesis, ‘Contemporary Indigenous Issues through Radio and Photographic Texts.’ In 2018 the City of Melbourne named Warrior Woman Lane in Carlton after a line in one of her poems. The University of Melbourne named a student accommodation building in Parkville Lisa Bellear House in 2020. This wide-ranging public acknowledgement of Lisa’s contribution to the fight for justice and free expression for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is mirrored in the hearts and minds of the women, students, activists, artists, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people she championed and inspired.

Kim Kruger is Murroona/South Sea Islander and is a cousin of Lisa Bellear. She consulted with the Bellear family in writing this article.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne). ‘Till Many Voices Shake Us.’ 7 July 2004. https://www.theage.com.au/national/till-many-voices-shake-us-20040707-gdy6og.html. Copy held on ADB file
  • Bellear, Lisa. ‘Keep Fighting, Keep Speaking Out.’ In Breaking Through: Women, Work and Careers, edited by Jocelynne A. Scutt, 57–63. Melbourne: Artemis Publishing, 1992
  • Brown, Jen Jewel. ‘An Inspiring, Dynamic Warrior Woman.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 24 July 2006
  • Liddle, Celeste. ‘Grassroots Politics Not Respectability Politics.’ In Close to You: The Lisa Bellear Picture Show, edited by Virginia Fraser, Kim Kruger, and Destiny Deacon, 50–52. Melbourne: Koorie Heritage Trust, 2016
  • Zakharov, Jeanne. ‘Academe Is Opening Windows.’ Canberra Times, 30 July 1988, 19

Additional Resources

Citation details

Kim Kruger, 'Bellear, Lisa (1961–2006)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bellear-lisa-32123/text39693, published online 2023, accessed online 30 May 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Lisa Bellear, Robbie Thorpe (background), Gilla McGuinness, Beryl Booth, at Camp Sovereignty, King’s Domain, Melbourne, 2006

Lisa Bellear, Robbie Thorpe (background), Gilla McGuinness, Beryl Booth, at Camp Sovereignty, King’s Domain, Melbourne, 2006

Lisa Bellear collection, Koorie Heritage Trust, Courtesy of the Koorie Heritage Trust'