During a recent Melbourne visit I encountered a pleasant surprise among the intriguing cacophony that is Australia’s film and television history at Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) near Federation Square – one of the ten canoes from Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigger’s 2006 film of the same name.Nestled in a cove of green space is one of the canoes, a ngarrdin, made in 2006 by Yolngu men Philip Gudthaykudthay, Peter Djogirr, Bobby Bunungurr, Michael Dawu, Billy Black, Steven Wilanydjanu Malibirr and Roy Burnyila.
Ten Canoes was born of a dialogue between de Heer, co-director Peter Djigger and the Yolngu community in north-eastern Arnhem Land. It was inspired by a photograph taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson during a visit to their lands Arafura Swamp in 1930s.
The ngarrdin on display is made from a single piece of stringy bark with folded and sewn ends, with knowledge from Elders Peter Minygululu and Philip Gudthaykudthay, and reference notes and photographs from the visual treasure trove that is the Donald Thomson collection in Museum Victoria (Museum Victoria holds two other canoes made for the film).
At ACMI, Thomson’s black and white photographs are displayed with the canoe alongside colour stills of similar scenes from the film – a split vision of continuity and change.
The story of making the film is an important assertion of Indigenous voices in filmmaking as told at ACMI, while the recontextualised beauty of the canoe itself entices you in to its space, but also breaking out of the historical timeline presented in the exhibitions on the ground floor entitled Screen worlds.
Just across the ACMI foyer and courtyard in the Ian Potter Centre – NGV Australia I spotted the work of a speaker from our Nawi conference – Kamilaroi/Wiradjuri artist Jonathan Jones. During the Nawi conference Jonathan spoke to us about light, reflection, water and the passage of the canoe through the water as inspiration.
Jonathan’s fabulous work is nestled in the cathedral-like foyer at the Ian Potter Centre. It is made of LEDs in light boxes which references Victorian Wurundjeri leader, quiet activist, mediator and artist William Barak (1824-1903). In particular Jonathan was inspired by two of Barak’s paintings featuring fires at ceremonies. These paintings excited Jonathan’s imagining of light, reflection, its cultural resonance, and Barak’s role in history at a time of massive change.
The work is installed near the main stairway of the centre, in dialogue with another artwork by Brook Andrew entitled Marks and witness: a lined crossing in tribute to William Barak (2011) which scales the heights of the foyer and stairway.
In his artist statement Jonathan offers: ‘In early 1903 Barak predicted his own death, stating that he would die when muyan (wattle) bloomed.’
The work turns from white to yellow (muyan) in August to remind people of Barak’s importance. Wish I’d seen it in yellow! If you visit this month, you’ll catch it as the wattle blooms.