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Joyce Johnson

A creative crusader for Aboriginal community and identity.


Joyce Johnson used her considerable talents in many ways to strengthen and nurture the health and identity of her community. A passionate advocate for Aboriginal arts, she also worked in practical ways to help improve life opportunities for her people.

Joyce was a proud Kerrup Jmara woman of the Gunditjmara people of south-west Victoria. The child of Jessie (King) and Robert Taylor, Joyce and her sister, Agnes, grew up at Lake Condah near the Lake Condah Mission which closed in 1919. Joyce’s mother and maternal grandmother, Elizabeth, had grown up on the Lake Condah Mission. Her father was one of several Lake Condah men who served in the Australian Army during World War I. Joyce left school at 14 and found work milking cows for a farmer. Joyce maintained a strong connection to her country throughout her life.

Like many Gunditjmara families, the Taylors moved to Melbourne for better employment opportunities during World War II. They settled in Fitzroy, where there was a growing Aboriginal community. Joyce worked in factories supporting the war effort. Like her mother, Joyce was a talented musician, with a fine singing voice. She played guitar, ukulele and piano. During the war she entertained troops in coffee shops and camp concerts. In the early 1950s Joyce met her husband Henry Johnson while in Sydney.

They settled in Melbourne where their six children, Lloyd, Janice, Ian, Peter, Ronald and Roslyn were born. While concentrating on raising her children, Joyce continued to be active in the Aboriginal community of Melbourne as a member of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League (AAL). She participated in campaigns for land rights at Lake Tyers and changes to the Australian Constitution by referendum. With her friend Aboriginal leader, Margaret Tucker, Joyce joined the international moral rearmament movement which aimed to overcome bitterness and hatred to achieve peace and reconciliation.

Promoting Aboriginal culture and identity

Joyce used her talents to promote Aboriginal culture and identity. In 1951 she participated in the ground-breaking production Out of the Dark- An Aboriginal Moomba. The production was the idea of Pastor Doug Nicholls and Bill Onus, of the Australian Aborigines League. They wanted to offer an Aboriginal contribution to the public celebrations of Victoria’s centenary and the 50th anniversary of Australia’s Federation. The first all-Aboriginal show ever held in Melbourne, Out of the Dark showcased both past Aboriginal culture and contemporary Aboriginal performers. Playing over five nights to a packed Princess Theatre in Melbourne, it was a resounding success and received great acclaim as a window into Aboriginal culture.

Joyce contributed her talents as a cabaret artist at regular Aboriginal community dances at the Manchester Unity Hall in Collingwood, helping to raise money for causes such as Aunty Edna Brown’s funeral fund for members of the Aboriginal community. Joyce often teamed up with well-known Aboriginal performer, Harry Williams. For a while she toured with Harry and his band, The Country Outcasts. Joyce’s home in Tyler Street, Preston was well-known as a place for regular community get-togethers, complete with plenty of music and endless cups of tea.

Activism for Aboriginal rights

Joyce’s activism for Aboriginal rights gained deeper purpose when welfare authorities removed her six children in the early 1960s. Although she regained custody of the children, the systemic racism they suffered at primary and secondary schools inspired her to further action. She was a founding member and secretary of the United Council of Aboriginal Women (UCAW) established in 1965. The council gave Aboriginal women an avenue for tackling issues of need for Aboriginal families and youth, particularly in health, education and housing.

UCAW members were involved in establishing the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service in Fitzroy in 1973. Joyce served as a director of the health service and as secretary/treasurer for a number of years. She also used her flair for arts and crafts to help out at the health service’s Nindeebiya Workshop which gave local homeless Aboriginal people or ‘parkies’ a place to meet and get a meal during the day.

Joyce was involved with the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, established in 1973 to inform Aboriginal people of their legal rights and represent them in court. Through her association with the legal service Joyce advocated for the rights of Aboriginal prisoners. She was the first co-ordinator of the Aboriginal Prison Project funded by the Victorian Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Through the project Aboriginal presenters delivered basic education and craft workshops to Aboriginal prisoners, aiming to develop their sense of self-determination, independence and identity. Joyce regarded the ‘warmth and care’ offered by Aboriginal people to their people as an essential component of the project.

Joyce also used warmth and care in her role as co-ordinator of the Aborigines Advancement League’s women’s refuge (later Elizabeth Morgan House) which was established in the 1970s for Aboriginal women and children escaping family violence.

Founding Australia’s first Aboriginal Theatre Company, Nindethana

Joyce regarded Aboriginal theatre and performance as essential to reviving and perpetuating Aboriginal culture. She was a founder, along with Jack Charles and Bob Maza, of Australia’s first Aboriginal Theatre Company, Nindethana, in 1971. The pioneering company aimed to promote and perform Aboriginal artistic and cultural activities. Joyce performed in the first public production of Brumby Innes by Katharine Susannah Pritchard in 1972. In 1973 she was assistant director when Nindethana mounted the first public performance of Kevin Gilbert’s The Cherry-Pickers, the first play by an Aboriginal playwright depicting Aboriginal life. Three of Joyce’s children were in the cast.

Determined to nurture Aboriginal identity, Joyce willingly shared her talents and expertise with many others. As a member of the AAL Women’s Auxiliary, she helped to train contestants for Miss NAIDOC Week at the annual NAIDOC balls. She encouraged younger performers, including the four young women who became The Sapphires, and nurtured the talents of her own children, some of whom went on to have musical careers. Although Joyce endured tough times as she raised her children, she readily welcomed family and community into her home and maintained a positive outlook throughout her life.