“We Aren’t Objects” — Daniel King Talks Jan 26, Reclamation, and His Latest Documentary

Her Name is Nanny Nellie

January 26 is a day with a plethora of meanings for First Nations people. For artists like Daniel King, an Indigenous descendant of the Yuin and Awabakal nations, it’s a time to shine the spotlight on under-discussed narratives.

On January 21, King collaborated with NITV to release his latest documentary, Her Name is Nanny Nellie. In this documentary, King unpacks how the Australian Museum has exploited First Nations people, why the truth matters, and what reclamation looks like.

Daniel King
Daniel King | Mark Rogers

Speaking to The Latch, King spoke about the experience of making Her Name Is Nanny Nellie and having the film lead NITV’s January 26 programming.

“It’s a real honour that they decided to make us their flagship for that week,” King said.

“It’s also a great time to release this film. It’s a time when the nation turns its head towards Indigenous people, regardless of whether they want to or not.”

Her Name Is Nanny Nellie is one of the most vital documentaries to be released in recent years. Here’s what King had to say about its story, development, and themes.

The Story of Nanny Nellie

In 1925, the Australian Census declared that First Nations people were part of a “dying race”, which prompted the Australian Museum to commission the statues of three “full blood” Aboriginal people. They commissioned a statue of a child, a man, and a woman, all to be exhibited as nameless objects. Of course, these people weren’t nameless — one was named Nelly Walker. 

Daniel King first learnt of Walker’s story from his family, as Walker is his great-great-grandmother. However, the magnitude of Walker’s experience really hit King when he saw her statue in the flesh.

“My uncle took me to see the statue when I was about 20,” King said. “It was quite an amazing experience to have my great-great-grandmother standing in front of me. The statue was made so well, by Rayner Hoff, it was literally like seeing my relative standing in front of me. It was quite a unique experience.”

Nanny Nellie statue
The statue of Nelly Walker | NITV and SBS

From then, King knew he wanted to tell Walker’s story one day, but he honed his craft for around 23 years before taking on the project.

“I’m glad that I made it now,” King reflected. “I’m a much better and more experienced filmmaker than I was back then. I’ve now given the story justice.”

King’s bedrock of experience is demonstrated throughout the documentary, as he unpacks the history of Walker and the other First Nations statues in the museum, weaving elements of his own family history into the narrative with ease.

The Story of Irene Ridgeway

Daniel King isn’t the protagonist of Her Name Is Nanny Nellie. Rather, the person pushing the narrative forward is Irene Ridgeway, King’s mother. According to King, it was imperative that this film centred on Irene’s research and discoveries, and not just because “she’s fantastic”.

“My mother’s been researching the history of Nellie for about 20 years. So I felt as though it was always going to be Mum’s journey,” King explained. “There were also iterations of the script where I was in the film to a certain degree. But when I was behind the camera, we felt it was more of Mum’s story.”

Irene Ridgeway
Irene Ridgeway | Mark Rogers

“She’s got a great personality,” King added. “So that was another major reason.”

What’s more, Ridgeway wanted to use the film’s resources to track down the descendants of the man and the boy depicted in the museum’s other two statues. 

“It was difficult, we only had names to go on, two names in the museum’s records,” King said. “The man was Jimmy Clements, and the boy was Harold Marsh.

“There was actually a lot of information about Jimmy Clements. He was a government figure in an Aboriginal historical context. He went and protested the opening of Parliament House in 1927. We were then able to use this information to look for his families.”

However, finding Harold Marsh’s family was far more complex, because he was just a young boy when the statue of him was created.

“There wasn’t much information about him,” King said. “So we employed researchers to go into different communities, ones where we had leads. So that process was a lot more difficult.

“The process of finding these families, we were still doing it while we were shooting, we were still doing it while we were editing. It pretty much took the length of the production to be able to find the right people.”

The Australian Museum’s Involvement

In a lesser film, the Australian Museum would be Daniel King’s two-dimensional villains, unhelpful and incapable of change. However, King’s documentary provides the Australian Museum an opportunity to engage with its past and bring the stories of Nelly Walker, Jimmy Clements and Harold Marsh to life.

“Laura McBride and Mariko Smith, who were our contacts at the museum, were extremely supportive of the project,” King said. “The project was actually aligned with their vision for the Australian Museum: A place where Indigenous people are reclaiming their narratives and museum artefacts.”

“Once we approached them, they were on board, and they’ve just been an overwhelming amazing support. We’ve also gained some really good friends.”

Irene Ridgeway with statue of Nelly Walker
Irene Ridgeway with the statue of Nelly Walker | NITV and SBS

Her Name is Nanny Nellie demonstrates that Indigenous reclamation is possible. When the right people are in charge, it’s possible for the truth to be told.

“The film really is essentially about reclaiming narratives,” King said. “Back when my grandmother’s statue was made, she was made to be an ethnographical statue. She was made for scientific reasons. She was displayed naked with no name. And so were the other two statues. My Mum’s journey was about giving her back her name. It was about reclaiming who she was.”

“Understanding how we look at Indigenous people through our museums and institutions, might seem like a little thing, but it’s a big thing. It’s a big thing just getting the narrative right. We aren’t objects to study. We are actual human beings.”

Her Name is Nanny Nellie currently streaming on SBS On Demand.

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