# 43006

HIGHFOLD, Melvina (1927-1966)

Wooden box with painted decoration. Koonibba Mission, South Australia, early 1940s.

$1,200.00 AUD

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Handmade wooden box, 155 x 155 x 70 mm, the hinged lid with a painted scene of an Australian pastoral property under moonlight, within a simple red and black border; the words Souvenir / Koonibba are painted in gold in the bottom right corner of the image; on the base, an inscription in pencil, though faded, is still legible: it reads Melvina; aside from an expected amount of rubbing and a few inconsequential surface marks, the box has been extremely well preserved.

This humble wooden box, with its slightly cockeyed construction and naively decorated lid, is a physical embodiment of acculturation. Were it not for the word Koonibba painted in gold in small lettering at one corner of the lid, there would be nothing to associate it with an Aboriginal maker or indeed, an Indigenous context. For, unlike the wooden handicrafts typical of the Yalata Aboriginal community further to the west, this object is completely devoid of traditional motifs or any other reference to Aboriginal culture.

Its maker, Melvina Highfold, was born at Koonibba Mission in 1927, the oldest of five children of Clarence Maurice Highfold and Mabel Richards. She grew up in the children’s home at Koonibba under the supervision of the German Lutherans. As a young adult she went to Streaky Bay to work as a domestic. She later married Richard “Dick” Ware – a man twenty years her senior. Dick was a stockman who had worked in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and on the Eyre Peninsula, but he settled down with Melvina at Koonibba towards the end of the 1940s. Dick drove the Koonibba truck and bus, and was regarded as a tireless and resourceful worker around the mission. The couple had eight children, all born at Koonibba. Melvina died in 1966 in Port Augusta, at the age of just 39.

We believe this souvenir box was made by Melvina prior to her leaving Koonibba to work at Streaky Bay – so probably around the early 1940s, when she was sixteen or seventeen years of age. The Lutherans at Koonibba had for a long time run a training programme for the children in basic handicrafts. The following report, for example, appeared in The Register (Adelaide), 18 September 1926:

The Koonibba Mission, which was founded by the South Australian district of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Australia, near Denial Bay, west coast, will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary on Sunday, when it is expected that about 50 visitors from different parts of the State will be present. The cause, which is run in the interests of the aborigines, has a fine record of service. The first superintendent was the Rev. C. A. Wiebusch, who is at present pastor of the congregation at Gawler. He laboured there for about 16 years, and was succeeded by the Rev. E. Appelt, who was in charge for several years. The present superintendent, Rev. C. Hoff, has had the oversight for five or six years. A large number of native children are being educated at the commodious home, and also being trained in handicrafts, and there is a chapel for the spiritual needs of the adults.’

It is perhaps worthy of comment that from a stylistic point of view, Melvina’s little painting is strongly reminiscent of works made by young artists of the Carrolup School (Western Australia) in this period (1940s). Maybe this is pure coincidence; but it is tantalising to speculate that there may have been at least some influence from the Carrolup artists in evidence at Koonibba – even if such a cross-fertilisation did not ultimately flower into a distinctive Koonibba style.