The aboriginal population of this area didn’t have a say in the establishment of Melbourne. They were dispossessed, their land was declared empty and unowned and Australian law legally reduced them to being part of the fauna and flora. Consequently they rarely figure in Melbourne’s public sculpture, they were not part of the collective consciousness of Melbourne for most of its history. They were being officially ignored and neglected.
Australian aborigines briefly appear on the bas-reliefs on the Burke and Wills Monument by Charles Summers. The story of the expedition is told in four low relief panels around the base of the statue. Burke and Wills were unwilling to deal the local aboriginal people, the sole survivor John King was help by the Yandruwandha people and lived with them until found by the rescue mission. To prepare the panels Summers lived for six weeks with local aborigines to design the figures on the lower panel and depicts them as dignified, well-proportioned people.
This is the first time that aboriginal figures appear in the history of Melbourne’s sculpture. After that public art representing Melbourne’s aboriginal population vanished. For over a century Aboriginal art and identity was official ignored. In the last twenty years it has slowly changed and there is public art representing Melbourne’s aboriginal population by indigenous artists.
Amongst the new aboriginal art along the Yarra River in Burrung Marr there is Birrarung Wilam (meaning river camp) by Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm.
Made of stone, wood, stainless steel, bronze, nickel and audio installation, 2006, this is a complex installation with many elements. The twisting, textured eel path represents a major food source, the feminine mound “camp site” and the masculine the five metal shields along the riverfront. Marking the site’s eastern and western ends stand intricately carved hardwood message sticks representing the Wurundjeri/woi wurrung and Boonwerrung people of the Kulin Nation. The metal shields represent the five clans of the Kulin Nation.
The performance space is magnificent even remembering that the stones were moved by machines and not by hand while remembering that these ancient British monuments are themselves reconstructions. The best part the ancestral stones the petroglyphs of animals carved on the stones. The monolithic carved ancestor stones are placed to form a semi-circular performance area. Unfortunately they are sort of hidden behind ArtPlay, the children’s arts centre next to a playground.
Birrarung Wilam may be a very large and complex work but it is still dwarfed by the scale of this riverside park. There is room for an entire north bank of the Yarra River and meeting up with the carved poles of Scar – a Stolen Vision (see my post).
Indigenous artist were also represented in 2011 the Laneways Commissions with an all indigenous year that included Reko Rennie Neon Natives, a neon light display, Yhonnie Scarce’s Iron Cross in Brien Lane, Melbourne: Two Worlds a painting by the Wurundjeri Council: Judy Nicholson, James McFayden, Asley Firebrace-Kerr and Derek Smith is still up on a wall off Burke Street, and Urban Doolagahl by Steaphan Paton. Very few people in Melbourne would have heard of the Doolagahl before Steaphan Paton introduced them by his retelling of the story in an urban context revives an ancient tradition.
This public art publicly acknowledges the existences of Aboriginal Australia in Melbourne’s collective consciousness.