The Self Reconciliation Project
Updated: Nov 9
Artist-in-Residence Central Craft, Mparntwe (May to June 2023)
I was not prepared me for the outcome of the recent referendum to change the Australian constitution. The referendum question asked the Australian people to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to: A Proposed Law to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
Having recently moved to Bundaberg in Queensland, I understood Queensland and Western Australia would lead in the ‘no’ vote. I had volunteered to help with the ‘yes’ campaign, and my first experience was with a group of volunteers creating a ‘yes’ presence on public land near the entrance to Bunnings. The volunteers were mainly women, mostly elderly – clearly grandmothers and mothers. I was shocked by the verbal abuse shouted at us. It was unfathomable to me that there was no recognition we could have been their mothers and grandmothers.
I had placed myself in the 'firing line'. I am white, I could walk away and disappear into anonymity, the safety of my home and be assured I would not experience this again in my day to day life. It was a side of white Australia I had not directly encountered before, such vitriol and overt racism. I understand ‘a difference of opinion’ in a democracy, but this was something different. It shook my core.
The majority of Australians in all states and territories – except the Australian Capital Territory – voted ‘no’. Sixty-one percent of Australia voted no, thirty-nine percent voted yes.
Recently published in The Guardian newspaper, Bruce Pascoe shared how hollowed out he felt by ‘the fact that Australia’s sentiment had been made so explicit’. His word – hollowed out – was the word I had been looking for to articulate my feeling. I felt hollowed out, all hope and optimism to stand together with First Nations people in my life-time evaporated. What was left? The “fair-go” and “generous spirit” of Australia on view for what it really is, a myth born to hide our violent and racist past, our present, and now it seems – the future.
A soul-less, culture-less society looking to multiculturalism to give us meaning, and to cover the foundation and lies of our brutal past. We already have a soul and a culture, if only we had the integrity and courage to acknowledge, embrace and respect those whose country we have come to and call home.
I started to learn more about our history after I read Sally Morgan’s book, My Place, published in 1987. The more I learnt about the past, the more I felt I didn’t belong. This made me question my place and connection to country. I was born here, my mother was born here, and my father. How can I not belong here? I began to realise that to belong we must stand side-by-side with the First Nations people of Australia and move forward together.
This questioning of belonging has led me to my current research and The Self Reconciliation Project, investigating our history of conflict, abuse and racism between First Nation People and the colonisers/settlers. The taking of Aboriginal land, introduced disease and violent conflict is a dark shadow over Australia, an even darker shadow now, since the outcome of the referendum.
During my residency at the Fremantle Art Centre in 2022, and as a settler descendant, I focused on the notion of self reconciliation through research into my family history (an internal lens), in relation to politics, racial issues, community attitudes and the laws of the times. Tracing government policy not only highlighted how our family and other settlers benefited, but gave insights into the oppression of First Nations peoples, instilling racism and violence at the core of our society. Our laws supported systematic dispossession of a peoples and the annihilation of family connections and culture.
As artist-in-residence at Central Craft in 2023 I continued to explore the notion of self reconciliation and investigated connection to ‘place’ through the Australian landscape (an external lens). As the spiritual and physical heart of Australia, I found Mparntwe and Arrernte country to be both inspirational and challenging.
I was at Central Craft for two months, traveling from Queensland to the Northern Territory via the Landsborough and Barkley highways. On that trip I traveled through sixteen Aboriginal nations (as detailed on the AITSIS Map of Indigenous Australia), and over the two years of the project I have traveled through fifty-seven nations, driving over forty-five thousand kilometres across Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. There are three hundred and ninety regions/nations listed on the AITSIS Map.
Acknowledging the nations and their number is important – my schooling in the sixties and seventies in Western Australia lacked any mention of the regions’ histories before colonisation. We fully brought the myth of an empty, vast land left to be conquered by adventurers and settlers.
Driving across Australia, reading about the history of places and seeing the destruction of our vast country first hand was shocking. Eyres Peninsula, fenced for cattle and farming, only stopped by land reaching the ocean, there is no coastal strip of vegetation. How had I thought South Australia was environmentally forward thinking? Broken Hill depleted having used every tree to feed the mining furnace. There is nothing left. Goats being farmed, left to wander freely over vast areas, literally eating everything in their path. How did we become so inured to such destruction?
I was a visitor to Mparntwe, invited to be part of the arts community at Central Craft – an exchange of knowledge and skills. My first feeling was one of being an outsider and my impression of the Mparntwe Arrernte population was one of ‘this is our place’, with such confidence. Also poverty.
My aim for the Central Craft residency was to immerse myself in the landscape with the expectation I would gain an understanding of the deep spiritual connection between ‘place’ and people.
I found Tjoritja (the MacDonnell Ranges) was a landscape like no other-– the age of the country was intangible. I'm convinced I could hear the landscape humming it's song, with it's energy.
The visual, sensory immensity of the country and the aroused emotions for the earth was palpable – the colours, the rock formations, the eco-systems, plants, animals, the visible timeline of millions of years. It was more than connection – a depth not previously felt or imagined, a sinking into, a disappearance of self. I was at the core. Of what I cannot explain.
How do you articulate this vast, vibrant, energy rising from the earth?
How do you reconcile it with sacred sites being destroyed, built on and over, or simply ignored?
Hearing Arrernte Elder Doris Stuart Kngwarreye’s opening acknowledgment at The Australian Ceramics Trienale in Mparntwe in 2022 offered new ways of thinking and approaches to my understanding our cultural history and connection to country. As a result I had no choice but to change my approach to collecting found clay to use in my work. As part of the residency it was important I gained permission to collect the clay from the region.
I was fortunate to meet with Doris, to hear her storytelling as a senior Arrernte custodian, to talk to her about my own project and surprisingly, our mutual connection to Canberra. I was also extremely fortunate to gain permission to work with the clay from the mudflats.
I met the wonderful Vanessa Sim, studio manager at Hermannsburg Potters, who was so welcoming and generous. Spending the day with the potters, talking and hearing their stories was very special. They were making pots for the Desert Mob exhibition at Araluen Art Centre.
Vanessa introduced me to Hayley Panangka Coulthard, who was exploring the use of local Ntaria clay. Her work in the Desert Mob exhibition talked about Nahasson Ungwanaka and Joseph Rontji, the first two men to use Ntaria clay making little figures such as horses, camels and people. Vanessa, Hayley and I spent a day together in the Central Craft ceramics studio preparing tests for Hayley, exploring processes for the use of the Ntjaria clay in her work. Hayley generously gave me some of her clay and permission to use it in my work.
I attended many events - art exhibitions, the writers festival, a locally produced documentary - Audrey Napanangka (2022), the beanie festival and had access to an incredible collection of Aboriginal art, art centres, sacred sites and story telling, and I had the time to immerse myself in the ancient landscape.
Had I learnt from my previous residency and time in Quairading where arranged meetings, studios visits and events presenting opportunities to meet Elders and artists were all canceled. My time in Mpartwe was different. Had I become a little more attuned to the slow unfolding, was I learning to listen? Kathleen Kemarre Wallace spoke at the writers festival, and as the title of her book suggests, Listen deeply, let these stories in, perhaps I was.
While at Central Craft I did test clay from the mudflats and explored ideas for The Self Reconciliation Project exhibition. However it is now time to go into the studio in earnest and make new work that articulates the project’s two lines of inquiry and perspectives – family history and connection to place – to tell stories that hopefully imparts a deeper understanding of cultural histories and differences.
I will strive to keep my journey to understand the culture of my country alive, and know that I will be forgiven and humbled by my ignorance.
In the landscape
Walking the rim of Watarrka (Kings Canyon) in the Watarrka National Park was truly astounding. According to geologists (wikipedia), the valley was formed more than 400 million years ago and cuts through a layer of Mereenie Sandstone. The canyon contains some sixty rare or relict plant species, and a total of five hundred and seventy-two different plant species and eighty species of birds. A ‘living plant museum’ and notable for its stands of cycads.
It was awe-inspiring to walk the rim and stand at the top of the thirty metre high cliffs in this ancient landscape.
It brought back memories of my time in Seoul, Republic of Korea, with its thousands of years of pottery tradition -- thinking at the time how we had such a short history with clay in comparison. Now I understand why so many Australian potters draw their inspiration from the landscape, perhaps even unaware of the desire to capture the thousands of years of tradition and spirit in country.
The Pound Walk at Kwartatuma (Ormiston Gorge) was a favorite -- several hours of walking along ridges, crossing rivers, traversing the vast expanse of the Pound, and the gorge – the land was speaking, revealing it’s stories as we slowly moved through it.
From childhood I had wanted to see Uluru, I was completely fascinated by it. Decades later I finally visited. Uluru is sacred to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara peoples and stories from their dream time date back thousands of years. As visitors we are asked not to photograph certain sections due to traditional beliefs, rituals and ceremonies.
We walked the perimeter, nearly ten kilometres. There was so much to take in, so much to observe, so many rock formations and erosion, colours, plants and birds. Scientists have dated the rock at 600 million years (wikepedia), and here I was.
We had flood warnings in June (while walking the rim of Watarrka) and,nearing the end of the residency, it was time to head home before the roads closed. I missed seeing the spectacular event of magical colours and waterfalls that the rains bring to Uluru.
Another favourite walk was Valley of the Winds at Kata Tjuta -- steep, rocky and very difficult in places but the walk covers large areas of flat terrain allowing space for quiet contemplation and spectacular views. It was a walk that immersed me in the domes and sacred sites of Anangu country.
Kata Tjuta is an important site for men’s business and the stories and cultural knowledge associated with these rock formations are not shared with visitors. No photographs could be taken of any of the rock formations only images of flora and fauna, and close-ups of people.
I also walked Walpa Gorge – a narrow creek valley between two of Kata Tjuta’s largest domes. The gorge is a sanctuary for numerous plants and animals, and the beautiful wildflowers were a delight.
I have to mention that the magnificent rock formations of Uluru and Kata Tjuta we see are only the tips of huge rock slabs that continue underground down to six kilometres.
Although over three hundred and ninety kilometres from my destination, Mparntwe, Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles) was a must stop, easily accessible from the highway. We were alone and wandered the paths, marveling at the formations and shapes, and awed by the natural forces that left huge boulders precariously balanced, and at times splitting others in half. Each turn in the path somehow changed the light and left us marveling at the wonder of nature.
Karlu Karlu is of great cultural and spiritual significance for the Alyawarre, Katyetye, Warumungu and Walpiri peoples who are connected with, and have responsibilities for, the area.
I visited so many places, these are only a few of the immense spiritual and sacred sites of county.