Lighting the fire: Cultural renaissance in the south-east
Jonathan Jones on the revival of traditional activities and practices in communities
In recent times we have experienced a return to traditional practices in south-east Australia. Belonging to this region commonly recognised as ground zero within Aboriginal colonial history, Kooris are dogged with stale one-liners about the loss of culture. Culture was damaged but not destroyed. Our fires have not gone out, they are still burning – sometimes just embers mixed with memories but with the guidance of our elders and the enthusiasm of many, the fires are being stoked and the south-east is alight. For the first time in generations our communities are proudly wearing possum-skin cloaks, paddling canoes, making weapons and weaving baskets, often while speaking language, performing ceremonies and caring for Country. The groundswell from these projects and the serendipity with which they have occurred are testament to a south-east cultural renaissance.
This article is an attempt to provide a snapshot of this growing movement. The rapid emergence of these projects, often around kitchen tables, schoolrooms and campfires, away from galleries and museums, is by nature intimate and remains largely undocumented. Yet every community in the region has a cultural revival story to tell.
Underpinning this movement are cultural stalwarts who have kept practices alive, often in difficult circumstances. In the Sydney community of La Perouse, dynasties like the Simms and Timbery families spearheaded the movement by continuing to make carvings and shell work. These creative practices not only provide much-needed income but an ongoing connection to Country. But traditional rights to Country remain the biggest hurdle for many communities in continuing and reviving cultural practices. At La Perouse, families recall men being locked up at Long Bay Gaol for leaving the mission and collecting mangrove wood, while today, the main obstacle facing Aunty Esme Timbery in continuing her highly ornate work is the collection of shells.
Another key south-east leader was the late Murriwari statesman Uncle Roy Barker Senior. He recalled learning how to make elegant mulga and gidgee weapons from his uncles at the Brewarrina mission: “I was always grateful to my uncles for passing this knowledge to me”. And in turn Uncle Roy passed on this knowledge, running the Goondee Aboriginal Keeping Place, a self-funded museum in Lightning Ridge, with his late wife, Aunty June, for many years. There they nurtured and inspired the next generation of Kooris.
While these leaders have kept the fires burning, there have been others who, through remarkable acts of cultural faith and leadership, have looked back at our past and pulled something forward into our everyday lives, starting new fires of their own. Aunty Yvonne Koolmatrie, the renowned Ngarrindjeri weaver, trail-blazed this path. One fated moment in 1982 saw her take a single workshop to learn the basic Ngarrindjeri bundle-stich and she has remained committed to the responsibility of keeping knowledge alive and passing it on to the next generation.
Aunty Yvonne began researching early nineteenth-century Ngarrindjeri objects held in museum collections. By using historical forms as her grounding she became a student of her ancestors, analysing their stitches and following their hands. Aunty Yvonne's elegant eel traps have become her hallmark, and in 1997 she represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in a defining moment for the south-east. The act of mining the museum archive to create contemporary works was revolutionary, and since then we have witnessed recurring acts of institutional decolonisation with many artists breathing new life into the past by reclaiming and honouring their ancestors’ work.
This was seen in 1999 when Victorian artists Lee Darroch, Vicki Couzens, Treahna Hamm and Debra Couzens re-created two museum-held nineteenth-century possum-skin cloaks; they later created their own with enormous success, sparking intense interest in possum-skin cloak making across the region. The revival of possum-skin cloaks represents an enormous cultural shift for our communities. Perhaps it is the visceral quality of fur, or the act of wrapping yourself in culture. Vicki Couzens believes the cloaks are “symbolic of the warmth and safety of belonging and knowing who you are”. But access to our limited collections is integral and currently all major collecting museums in the south-east are not digitised or online; unless communities are aware of or know how to access these hidden collections many cultural practices will remain dormant.
Canoe-building is an example of how the cultural renaissance movement has occurred simultaneously and often in isolation, giving rise to multiple schools. Pioneers include Uncle Wally Cooper from Cummeragunja and Roy Barker Senior, who both made canoes from a single piece of river red gum bark, treated and cured over a fire, typical of the Murray–Darling region. Uncle Moogy (also known as Major Sumner), a Ngarrindjeri elder from the Coorong in South Australia, has recently made the same style of canoe. He is concerned with the interruption of traditions, and sees their continuation as this generation’s responsibility. Canoe-building is an allegory for Uncle Moogy’s bigger project, called 'Ringbalin’. In 2010, when the Murray–Darling river system was at its worst after years of drought, he and other performers danced and sung their way down the river, from Cunnamulla in Queensland to the Coorong in South Australia. This ceremony not only brought attention to the ill heath of the river system and took people back to Country, but at its end, as the final dances took place, the rains came and the rivers flowed.
On the coast, where canoes are typically made with bundled bark ends, there have been a number of projects, including one led by Stephen Russell of the Timbery clan of La Perouse. Canoes paddled by Russell’s ancestors once dominated Sydney Harbour and this was recalled when he launched his canoe on the harbour in 2012. Other south-east canoe-builders include Steve Brereton, a Gathang man from the North Coast of New South Wales, and Steaphan Paton, a Gunai artist who worked with his grandfather, Uncle Albert Mullet, in Gippsland, Victoria. Like others, Paton seeks to maintain knowledge and awaken the past: “I want to respect my ancestors by continuing the tradition of canoe-making and safeguard it for future generations”.
Taking their cue from Aunty Yvonne Koolmatrie and other senior weavers, such as the late Gunditjmara elder Connie Hart, weaving groups across the region are flourishing. The Hands On Weavers group in Wagga Wagga is made up of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal weavers, and many of the Aboriginal members have reinterpreted the region’s coil-bundle technique. These women work and exhibit collectively, sharing stories, cups of tea and plenty of laughs. In Wagga Wagga, as in other communities, there is a diversity of Aboriginal nations and weaving has established a common ground where elders come together, generating a stronger sense of social cohesion. In this way we are not only returning to traditional practices, but to traditional methods of working with our communities, to provide new solutions for new issues. Senior Wiradjuri artists within the group, such as Aunty Sandy Warren and Aunty Lorraine Tye, are also engaged in a growing Wiradjuri language revival program headed by Uncle Stan Grant.
One young artist who exemplifies the south-east cultural renaissance movement is Ngemba carver Andrew Snelgar who, since a young age, has developed his passion for traditional weapons under the instructions of his uncle. To Snelgar, objects and Country are inextricably linked: “a tree may sing out to me and say, hey, here is a burrigal (boomerang)”. Crafted from his backyard shed, Andrew’s boomerangs and weapons, with their highly carved and encrypted surfaces, recall the past, holding within them a sense of origins. “It’s important to continue making tools”, Andrew says, “because they have an important place here in our country, maybe a stronger place than other things, because they have been here since the beginning”.
Andrew’s practice has at its core the revival of culture. It reminds us that our culture is like a boomerang that has been crafted and thrown into the future by our ancestors, returning to us now from the past. In Wiradjuri the return flight of the boomerang is known as ‘darribal’, and this remarkable action is akin to the deep and indescribable connection you feel when you can speak your language and craft the objects of your ancestors, holding strong to their knowledge, asserting a voice that was once denied, taking pride in your culture, and, in doing so, taking it forward for the next generation, just as we have done for countless generations.
- ^ Roy Barker Senior quoted in Parliament of New South Wales Indigenous Art Prize 2007, exhibition catalogue, Parliament of New South Wales, Sydney, 2007, p. 13.
- ^ Vicki Couzens in C. Keeler and Vicki Couzens, Meerreeng-an: Here is my country, Melbourne: Koori Heritage Trust, 2010, p. 67.
- ^ Major ‘Moogy’ Sumner in Moogy’s Yuki (Directors Jennifer Lyons-Reid, Carl Kuddell and Johanis Lyons-Reid), DVD, Adelaide: Change Media, 2010.
- ^ See http://www.ringbalin-riverstories.com.
- ^ This occurred as part of the 2012 Australian National Maritime Museum “Nawi” conference. See http://www.anmm.gov.au/site/page.cfm?u=2052.
- ^ Steaphan Paton quoted in Boorun’s Canoe: A Journey of Connection, Museum Victoria, Melbourne, 2013, unpaginated.
- a, b Andrew Snelgar, from an email conversation with the author.
Sydney-based artist and curator Jonathan Jones is a member of the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi peoples of south-east Australia.