Leanne Tobin, The Running of the Eels, 2022 video still. Courtesy the artist and Blue Mountains Cultural Centre

The Blue Mountains Cultural Centre (BMCC) has a long relationship with artist, educator and curator Leanne Tobin. She has been part of the art scene in the Blue Mountains prior to the Cultural Centre opening in 2012, and Rilka Oakley, Artistic Program Leader, and the BMCC team have worked with her on multiple projects as both an artist and curator. When the idea of working with the National Gallery of Australia’s (NGA) Sharing the National Collection initiative was put forward, alongside bringing First Nations video works into the World Heritage Interpretive Centre at BMCC, Tobin was invited to co-curate the project. She knows the Blue Mountains community and its First Nations artists; she understands First Nations practice at a local and national level and has personal connections with the artists selected.

This is an edited conversation between Leanne Tobin and Rilka Oakley about the development of the Ngurra Bayala project and exhibition which will be on display at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre in the World Heritage Interpretive Centre exhibition space from 16 December 2023 until December 2025. 

Rilka Oakley__Shall we begin by talking about why you chose the four video works from the NGA, and how you see them all fitting together with video works made locally?

Leanne Tobin__It’s the truth telling of stories of place. It’s the artists telling personal accounts from Ngurra, from Country…the artists’ own stories. What I like with these works and this particular piece [Julie Gough’s Hunting Ground], is the immediate impression I feel when I view them. It’s what hits you first upon viewing the work. I think a lot of the time you want people to ‘read’ an artwork. You’ve got a message and you want it conveyed to reach a lot of people. Sometimes as artists, we’re so conceptual, we leave out a whole lot of people who don’t understand or don’t get the message. With this sort of curatorial work, I want to reach as many people as possible to try and get them thinking about what happened here before. Julie’s work is very powerful for that reason because it’s obvious once you start watching. Okay, what are those crosses about? What is the meaning of the words ‘KILL, NATIVE, ATTACK’…okay, now I’m getting it. And then you’ve got dirt shovelled on top of the image, the words, and it disguises something. And to me that takes it into another level, covered up, silenced, buried.

It’s like ‘well…we’re not talking about it now. It’s gone now.’ Out of sight, out of mind. Swept under the carpet and buried. Done. To me it’s a very strong, direct message from the artist. You’re not going to miss that. I think Julie is a bit like that, a little bit like I am. I have the need to watch, and keep asking ‘What am I aiming for with this artwork?’ Well, I want to inform about the history of place. And, that’s what Julie does very powerfully. Some artists and art intellects might find them a little bit too obvious. To me, within this context, to be obvious is needed. You’ve got a colonial artwork. And then suddenly, you’ve got red crosses appearing on that artwork. And they’re the massacres. And because you’ve already got a visual of the landscape, it’s more powerful.

RO__It’s not just numbers, it’s in a particular place. And like you said, some might think it’s too obvious, but it needs to be obvious—and specific.

Julie GoughHunting Ground (Haunted), 2016 video still. Courtesy and © the artist

LT__That’s exactly where I’m coming from with this. I think too often artworks are very clever, and wow, it looks amazing. But I’m very much about truth telling, being honest and straight up, because often the audiences we need to reach are the ones who aren’t ‘reached’ by subtle work.

RO__It is often the people who are already acknowledging what’s happened that are engaged in that art and cultural space.

LT__And there’s people who don’t come and see exhibitions but who are open to other ways of learning and are too often informed by TV or mainstream media. Whereas, with this stuff, you can’t miss it.

RO__r e a is a locally based artist, and this work [PolesApart, 2009] was filmed in Victoria.

LT__It’s about her grandmother’s story, her family story. r e a’s grandmother was taken and placed in the Cootamundra Girls Home and was then sent as a domestic servant to Victoria, in the Hepburn Springs area on Dja Dja Wurrung land, a long way from her own homeland.

RO__In the PolesApart catalogue essay by Dr Christine Nicholls [featured at breenspace in Sydney] r e a talks about the visibility and invisibility of Aboriginal people. She wants to make herself visible. But by doing so she became more invisible.

LT__She is being whitewashed, coloured in. Interesting really, as my own family story was covered up and r e a’s is like a cover up too but different. It’s still powerful imagery…made in a contemporary format, telling the story of her grandmother who was part of the Stolen Generations; taken from her family then subsequently domesticated to be a servant to the “white man”. Unfortunately, a common practice that ensured all ancestral family connections were severed.

RO__It is heartbreaking, but also so important to be talking about. And how different is the work of Fiona Foley which you selected. What struck you about Bliss [2006] when you were looking at the NGA collection?

Fiona Foley, Bliss, 2006 video still. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia © Fiona Foley/Copyright Agency, 2023

LT__The poppies. Because it’s a story directly related to her country. What happened on her country? They’re the stories that really grab me because they’re coming from a place of honesty. People are talking about what happened to their families and bringing those hidden histories to light. The introduction of opium for profit was a way to steal land; it resulted in suppression and exploitation. The Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, passed in 1897 by the Queensland Parliament, effectively removed traditional owners from their homelands onto reserves. Under the pretence of protecting them from the opium trade that arrived with waves of European and Chinese migration, it was a way of ‘lawfully’ taking their homelands. Slave labour, prostitution, alcohol and tobacco and all the rest that happened…

I think we need more conversations from that personal viewpoint. It is a strength because it’s affected you personally, you’re reflecting your past events, past pains. You know, we can talk generically. Or talk specifically. And I think when we talk specifically and personally, that’s going to have an impact because viewers can identify and empathise more easily with personal stories, and that’s really powerful.

With r e a’s work too, it’s the same thing. Many First Nations people were indentured in colonial houses, taken as domestics. This work can be multi-faceted. Maybe that’s r e a herself [in the black dress], a woman forcefully taken, escaping… She tries to find freedom by recreating herself but ultimately, she’s painted over, her own identity erased. Those stories are all very personal, but they’ve affected all of us.

LT__In Megan Cope’s work [Toponymic interventions #3, 2014], she’s reintroducing the traditional place names to landscapes that have been taken and given other names. By projecting Aboriginal persons and language groups onto built environments and natural resources, she’s joining with significant Aboriginal people whose work seeks to de-colonise the familiar space, she’s presented the duality of Aboriginal cultural connections and sense of time.

RO__Again, it’s another part of Australia. It’s not all from the [Blue] Mountains.

LT__I think I mentioned to you when I was curating an exhibition at the Penrith Regional Gallery, there were interesting cultural collections from everywhere but none from the first impact point, Ground Zero [what we now know as the Greater Sydney region]. The absence spoke volumes.

RO__Well, hopefully that’s starting to change… Leanne, let’s touch on the other local works in the show. What ideas have you had about curating the NGA works and Blue Mountains videos together?

LT__I think it’s quite appropriate as these stories, despite the distance and the differences between the different nations, there is much in common. It’s the taking back of our histories and then retelling them from our own personal perspectives—open, honest and raw.

RO__Like Jo Clancy’s piece?

LT__Yes, Yindyang Bila [2022, slow river in Wiradjuri].

Jo Clancy & Wagana Dancers, Yindyang Bila, 2022 video production still. Photo: Sue Healey. Courtesy the artist and Blue Mountains Cultural Centre

RO__It’s her great grandmother’s country out west of here at Bogan River, very beautiful and evocative and the rivers flooded at that time when the work was filmed. Jo is talking about the removal of her ancestor from the river, the scrubbing and washing with that same water, the endless domestic work, so it’s a dedication to her great grandmother.

LT__I feel that was one of the most beautiful works I’ve seen of Jo’s, because it portrayed an honesty, being about her ancestral place, her story. When you do generic stuff, there’s beauty in it, but it’s more powerful when you’re telling something about place that is connected to you.

RO__I agree with you. But, not everyone would have that observation.

LT__No, well, that’s what I can see has connected all these things up because there’s an honesty with all of them. This is what I saw with the Penrith works, is that as the artists got closer to Sydney—you know, Blak Douglas, Brook Andrew—its more political and agitating, with loud and garish designs… But it was sort of funny, because it’s also a commentary about getting close to Sydney. It’s what starts to happen as you lose connection to place, that connection is replaced with anger, with protest.

RO__With what you said about being in the city and being disconnected from place, so many people were displaced and moved, often moved on twice, or more, whenever new connections in local places could have been forged…

LT__…with New South Wales in particular, along the coast up to Queensland, over to Tasmania and down to Victoria. And things change as time progresses, with the early colonial forced acquisition of ancestral lands and resources. But it became harder the further inland they went, with rugged, remote terrain and limited water supply. So cultural practice from those places remains more intact because it was protected, being hidden away. Retaining traditional knowledge wasn’t stifled, which made it easier. Whereas down here, well… we weren’t ready for it.

RO__The onslaught of invasion.

LT__And it happened very quickly, as I try and explain to people, within two or three years, two thirds of the population were wiped out, through diseases and massacres. You’ve lost your storytellers. You’ve lost toolmakers, great hunters, the Elders…

RO__…and your home. Where you belong.

LT__Where you have those connections, that familiarity, after thousands of years to suddenly be plunged into huge turmoil and uncertainty. And you can see it reflected, it’s not that long ago, you can still see it in the art. So, I think it’s great that we have those three local pieces.

I feel that there’s a need to share these things with those people who are not informed of what happened here. People who have had the continued disconnection and have endured the racism and all those things that directly impacted them. They hold everything, they hold their cards very close to their chest. And they’re not going to give anything away without making sure it’s all on the level.

RO__In terms of the seven video pieces, one of the conversations we had was about your approach. You were talking about the bold, garish men’s work and how you’re drawn to the softer but equally powerful work by female artists. Is it as if something draws you in and then you have to confirm later—why did I go for this?

LT__Yes. I hadn’t even thought about why I’m selecting something but talking has made me reflect on my reasons for choosing things. Hopefully the selection encourages people to come into the gallery. And hopefully, they leave with some kind of insight.

Some artistic creations are locked in their time, but these works are sort of ageless, timeless. I think they can drift between times and still be topical. Aunty Sharyn’s work is like that. It’s an Ancestral Creation story, where the Gundungurra are telling how their Country was made, when the hunter Mirrigan, the tiger quoll, tries to poison Gurangatch with Wattle Bark. Her piece tells that story, in the past and then about Warragamba Dam [built in the 1950s] and how it destroyed and drowned all those Dreaming places, Aunty Sharyn’s Country.

Aunty Sharyn Halls with Craig Bender & Vera Hong, Gurangatch and Mirragan, 2017–2022, still from 2-channel HD video. Courtesy the artists