For Yorta Yorta people, the land and the world view in which they live is an extension of themselves. The land and water is the embodiment of their identity and existence, as river based people, passed on by the great creation spirit Biami.
Through millennia, our movements over woka (country/land) read like choreography, a repetition and series of sequences across the landscape as the river falls, rises and floods. Bone and mussel shell remnants are layered in the Earth’s strata like musical notes descending the bars on a sheet of music. They denote a continual dance of life, ceremony, gathering, and feasts held on country, at one with the rhythm and tune of the cycles and seasons.
Since baparra banarrak (long ago), wala (water) remains core to who we are and our survival. Middens including earth ovens remain as evidence of the life our Old People led according to the cycles and seasons, on and near sources of water. Signs of ceremony, remnants of food hunted and collected over thousands of generations are everywhere in the landscape: layers of earth, fish bones, mussel shells and clay remind us of where our Ancestors were, and where we continue to walk.
Resting on the Kailtheban lands of Yorta Yorta woka, the Aboriginal art centre Kaiela Arts sits in the heart of the expanding regional township of Shepparton. Its name points to Victoria’s longest river, Kaiela or the Goulburn River, that flows just behind the township and makes its way toward Echuca where it meets the Dungala (Murray River). The river and the surrounding country that draws life from it, is a constant source of spiritual sustenance and inspiration for artists.
Their practices and works are a means of expressing perspectives on historic events, aspects of culture or unheard stories that inform their identities. Midden (2016) by Yorta Yorta artists Jack Anselmi and Elder, Aunty Cynthia Hardie, explores and reimagines a significant cultural heritage site that once existed along the Kaiela before it was destroyed through development works. Laboured over three months, the artists engaged with the reclamation of old knowledge and practices to create a work that illustrates cultural continuity.
Shortlisted as one among seven exhibitors from across the country to create a new body of work, the duo were awarded the prize of the Shepparton Art Museum’s (SAM) 2016 acquisitive Indigenous Ceramic Award. At just below knee height and made of buff raku, the sculptural form comprises eight sizeable hand-built segments that nestle together on a bed of river-sand like ceramic grog. The quiet presence of stunningly rich terracotta-coloured hand-shaped clay balls made with clay sourced by Anselmi from the Kaiela sit neatly at the foot of each of its ends. Their addition highlights Ancestral genius in using the clay balls as a cooking aid to help regulate oven temperatures. Fragments of white porcelain bones and shells pressed into the top and along the outside walls reveal the food sourced from the river and nearby plains. The scattering of contrasting fine porcelain continues to the sand’s edge, tempting the viewer to take a closer look.
Of the installation, judges commented “It is a statement and testament of knowledge and connection to country that weaves the past into the present, gathering communities, families and culture, and leaving a legacy for the future.” The artists’ vision to make apparent a relatively unknown and unremembered place serves to assert familial connection to woka, invoke conversation and new connections that highlight the cultural and heritage values.
A midden represented in an art collection or featured in the natural landscape provides advocacy for the lives of Peoples based on river country. The acquisition of Midden (2016) is a powerful example of Yorta Yorta cultural practice, realised through a new medium that recalls, shares and celebrates our kin and country. It’s an important addition to the SAM Collection, deepening its holdings of ceramic works by Indigenous ceramicists such as Thanakupi, Vera Cooper, Janet Fieldhouse and collectives such as Hermannsburg or Ernabella Arts. This growing collection expands the Museum’s capability to take responsibility in remembering the history of place. It also acknowledges the ongoing Yorta Yorta connections and sovereignty in respect to the land upon which the Shepparton Art Museum stands, and the continued care for woka and cultural practice that the community maintains.
Belinda Briggs is Yorta Yorta and Wamba Wamba, and Curator at Shepparton Art Museum, working closely on its Indigenous Ceramic Award and community relationships with Kaiela Arts and Rumbalara Football Netball Club.