Songlines: The art of navigating the Indigenous world

‘Zugubal’ 2006. Travellers paddle a gul (canoe), which is a key symbol of connectivity in Zenadh Kes (Torres Strait) cosmology, navigating all the cycles of land, sea, sky and spiritual life. ANMM Collection 00054665. Reproduced courtesy Alick Tipoti and Australian Art Network.

‘Zugubal’ 2006. Travellers paddle a gul (canoe), which is a key symbol of connectivity in Zenadh Kes (Torres Strait) cosmology, navigating all the cycles of land, sea, sky and spiritual life. ANMM Collection 00054665. Reproduced courtesy Alick Tipoti and Australian Art Network.

For thousands upon thousands of years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have navigated their way across the lands and seas of Australia using paths called songlines or dreaming tracks. A songline is based around the creator beings and their formation of the lands and waters during the Dreaming (creation of earth). It explains the landmarks, rock formations, watering holes, rivers, trees, sky and seas.

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A place, a philosophy and a practical experience – a passage by water in Dharawal country

Model making in the foreground while passing through Dharawal country

Model making in the foreground while passing through Dharawal country.
Photo: David Payne, ANMM

On Saturday 15th March, an eco-tour organized by Mary Jacobs from Sutherland Shire Reconciliation on the waters inshore of of Djeebahn (Jibbon, the headland at Port Hacking) was the background for a rare opportunity to learn much more than just Indigenous names, locations and history. It was a journey into another people’s country and their connections to the land, to the sea and a way of life. Continue reading

Australia’s first watercraft – Tales from ‘100 Stories’

Dugout canoe with sail

Annie Karrakayn, Ida Ninganga, Isaac Walayungkuma, Yanyuwa and Garrawa, Rra-alwanyimara, dugout canoe, 1988 Paperbark tree, 496 x 60am (length x bredth)

Yolngu country, eastern Arnhem Land, and the wet season is slowly seeping into the land. Three men haul a dampened sheet of stringy bark from a smouldering fire that carries the scent of the bush. Carefully, they push one end of the heated bark through a narrow gap between two sturdy branches driven almost parallel into the ground. Like wet, pliable leather, the warm and supple end folds upwards, and the sides come together dripping moisture at the base. The men then bind the top of the branches together tightly and, using a sharp blade, make a long angled cut, forward and down to the bottom tip of the folded end of the bark. Holes are pierced along the raw edge and fingers deftly thread fine, damp bark strips to sew the sides together. The prominent bow of a derrka has been created, and a canoe unique to Australia has begun to form, built with knowledge and skills that are thousands of years old. Continue reading

Object of the Week : Kunmatj (small dilly bag)

Object of the Week: Kunmatjs

Kunmatjs are dilly bags from the Northern Territory used for carrying small fish such as catfish. They are a common item across many Indigenous groups in the Northern Territory and known by a number of different names depending on their region of origin. This bag is painted with red ochre and decorated with painted images of catfish in white clay. Traditionally dilly bags were left unadorned but artist Lena Yarinkura has decorated this kunmatji to express her local Aboriginal culture. Lena Yarinkura is an artist from south central Arnhem Land who works with fibres, barks, bronze and aluminium. Her works cover ceremonial regalia, baskets, bark paintings and sculptures. She has exhibited locally, nationally and internationally since 1987.


Kunmatjs, ANMM Collection

Dilly bags are traditional bags used for gathering food and could be hung around the neck in order to leave the hands free. They are typically woven out of natural fibres including grasses, animal tendons and reeds. Depending on the region of their origin, these bags have a variety of names and are produced from different materials. They are typically left undecorated without paint when used for their traditional purpose of gathering food. Today they also serve an artistic purpose and are often painted with images such as catfish.

Pandanus is a common material used in Arnhem Land for making baskets, bags and traps. The plant grows in Queensland, the Northern Territory and northern Western Australia in damp environments near creeks and waterways. The top leaves of the plant are collected, stripped and dried in preparation to be woven into traditional objects such as baskets, mats, fishing nets and sculptures.

This kunmatj is representative of Indigenous weaving techniques and functional carrying equipment used in the Northern Territory. It is a common utilitarian object used by men and women when hunting and gathering food. Today these functional items are also produced for artistic purposes.

Boorun’s Canoe

Who was Boorun?

Boorun was a pelican, the first of the Gunnai/Kurnai people who came to Gippsland. When Boorun first travelled to the area, he carried with him a bark canoe. As he walked, Boorun heard a tapping sound coming from his canoe. At the deep water inlets, Boorun stopped and turning over his canoe he discovered, much to his surprise, that there was a woman in it. She was Tuk, the musk duck and she became his wife and mother of the Gunnai/Kurnai people.

Indigenous artist Steaphan Paton

Indigenous artist Steaphan Paton

Boorun’s Canoe is the title of an indigenous cultural arts collaboration by artist Steaphan Paton, his grandfather Uncle Albert Mullet and photographic artist Cameron Cope.

The project tells the story of Gunai/Kurnai elder Uncle Albert Mullet as he teaches his grandson Steaphan Paton and other young men in his family how to build a traditional bark canoe. The project captures the canoe’s creation through to its successful floating by Steaphan and his family, and in doing so highlights the importance of transferring intergenerational knowledge and the preservation of cultural traditions and pride.

Boorun the Pelican, our Gunai ancestor, came to Gippsland carrying a bark canoe on his head. Canoes are part of our story of who we are and where we come from. I want to respect my ancestors by continuing the tradition of canoe-making and safeguard it for future generations.  Aboriginal Artist Steaphan Paton.

Steaphan Paton, Uncle Albert Mullet and Cameron Cope will be among the speakers presenting at the conference Nawi : Exploring Australia’s Indigenous Watercraft which begins at the Australian National Maritime Museum during Reconciliation Week and runs from 30 May to 1 June. The conference will look at First Australians’ long and continued connections with watercraft. Some highlights will be artist talks and hands-on canoe making workshops.

The conference commences on Wednesday evening when a number of bark canoes from around the country, lit by traditional fires, will make their way from the museum’s wharves into Darling Harbour. You can still register to come along and participate in this conference, and hear the full story of Boorun’s Canoe.

Penny Hyde

Curatorial assistant

Object of the Week : The convict artist Richard Browne

Reg #00000022 ANMM Collection 'The same Native presenting the fish he has caught to his wife / Native man of NS Wales with his mutton that the [sic] spear fish with'.

Reg #00000022 ANMM Collection ‘The same Native presenting the fish he has caught to his wife / Native man of NS Wales with his mutton that the [sic] spear fish with’.

In the late 1980s the Australian National Maritime Museum found itself in the process of acquiring two unusual paintings. The works dated to the 1820s and depicted Aborigines fishing: one portraying a couple in a canoe and the other a man presenting a catch of fish to his wife (shown above). At this point the ANMM was still just a construction site, but curators working to build the museum’s collection recognised the rarity of the items and their possible contribution to our knowledge of the history of Indigenous Australians and their long association with the sea.

However there were some issues to consider with the two paintings. For a time, confusion reigned over the identity of the artist. The images, quite stylised, appeared to be by the same hand as a number of other works that were all signed with the surname Browne or Brown, and a variety of initials; T, TR, IR, JR. A study by Niel Gunson on the artworks strongly suggested they were all by the one man, Richard Browne (1771-1824), an Irish convict.

Browne was born in Dublin in 1771 and sentenced to transportation in 1810, possibly for the crime of forgery. He arrived in Sydney in 1811 and within a few months had reoffended and was convicted a second time. This time Browne was sent north, to the secondary penal colony of Newcastle and it was here that he began producing artworks. Browne’s best known works from this time appear in the manuscript titled Select Specimens From Nature of the Birds and Animals of New South Wales. The commandant of Newcastle, Lieutenant Thomas Skottowe, had an interest in natural history and commissioned Browne to create the drawings for the manuscript which included many images of Aborigines, their tools and their activities as well as insects, birds and animals.

Of the later period of Browne’s life, 1817-1824, little is known. It appears that he was designated ‘free by servitude’ in 1817 and was based in Sydney, marrying, and fathering several children before dying on 11 January 1824.

Retrospectively, Browne’s artworks have received a wide variety of interpretations, praise and criticism. The elongated, angular style of his figures have been described as caricatures, aimed at amusing rather than informing. It is thought that many of his works were intended as souvenirs and conformed to an English colonist perspective rather than providing a realistic record. It is difficult to determine what Browne’s intentions were, however he most certainly painted many of the images from life and it has been argued in recent years that his works were created as, and are useful as, ethnographic records. Many of Browne’s paintings, now in the collections of the National Library of Australia and the State Library of NSW, contain details of Aboriginal tools, clothing and occupations.

Reg #00000021 ANMM Collection. ‘Niga, Fishing in the surf with his Mutton / Burgon. Celebrated Fisherman of New South Wales, in a canoe – the woman sitting down is supposed to be is [sic] wife’.

Most importantly for the Australian National Maritime Museum, this painting by Browne provides a rare image of Aboriginal watercraft, in this case a bark canoe, generally made from a single piece of bark lashed at both ends. As depicted in Browne’s artwork, men generally stood in canoes to fish and a fire was produced within the canoe for warmth and cooking. ANMM curator David Payne has recently been involved in workshops to reproduce and build these types of lashed-bark canoes.

Browne’s painting, caught perhaps between a realistic interpretation and a fixed European perspective nevertheless contributes to the historical information available to us in relation to Aboriginal watercraft technologies.

Next week the museum will be hosting the first major conference on the watercraft of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples titled Nawi : Exploring Australia’s Indigenous Watercraft. This important conference will bring together a wide range of academics and experts and a great variety of sources to promote the study of this important topic. For information on the conference, or to register to attend, please visit our website.

Penny Hyde

Curatorial assistant

Canoe building in Sydney

Last Wednesday’s fine weather had everyone out enjoying it if they could. For me and 10 others, it was perfect for nawi construction. We were building more tied-bark canoes, probably the first ones to be built on the shores of Sydney Harbour in well over a century.

I was down at Blackwattle Bay, working with an all Indigenous group made up of  members from Tribal Warrior Association’s Youth Mentor Group, their CEO Shane Phillips, and from National Parks and Wildlife Service NSW, Dean Kelly, Aboriginal Cultural Liaison Officer, three of his team and Elder Uncle Keith from La Perouse.

This was another step in the museum’s commitment to working with and supporting Indigenous communities. For me, it was an opportunity to learn from the group and to share the knowledge of building nawis that I’ve built up over the past 12 months. There is still a lot that is not known about the craft and has to be discovered by practical experience.

The bark was already there – my previous blog about my Bateman’s Bay adventure tells that story – so we started with an introduction, just talking about the bark. The most important thing is to understand the life and spirit captured in the bark; it’s a living part of the tree. The capillaries that carry the nutrients, created by leaves, form the fibres and strength of the bark we were going to use. It has life that we can put into our nawi.

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A fire is lit to heat up the bark

We then got into the practical side. We cleaned off the loose bark, stripped the ends down to make them thinner for folding, pulled long strips off for ties, set up a fire, shaped some wooden pegs… there was something for everyone to work on.

We laid the first end of the bark over the fire within 40 minutes of starting, and 20 minutes later the heat was doing its job. So the folding team took their sides as the sheet was removed.

Hands on each side we grabbed the edges and folded it in and then back on itself. Another person at the front kept things aligned and got the middle ready to take its final crease, while the ‘lasso man’ tightened the rope to secure it all in place. On with the rope, then back off as we realigned the folds, then a final heave and we had an end in place, rising up as it should!

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We begin to tie the second end of the canoe.

Next, a blueberry ash peg was hammered through, holding the folds in place as strips of bark were lashed around to complete the process. We then turned the bark, heated it over the fire and did it all again, this time for the cameras. SBS and ABC had each sent a crew to capture the action.

Watching over the process was Redfern’s Police liaison officer, he had come down to see what the boys were up to, and staff from the museum had come across as well to see what these projects I have been doing actually involve.

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Tying the ends of the bark canoe

The final step was to fit a support structure, to push the sides out and give it a bit more shape and strength. Afterwards the TV crew interviewed us, keen to hear what everyone thought of the process.

We formed the ends on the second bark and called it a day. We were happy to have got this far, and in good shape to finish the second canoe in the coming days.  A big tidy up followed, nawi building seems to develop a lot of loose material – dead bark, strips off the inside of the bark, leaves and twigs off branches, firewood. All signs of productive activity and the restoration of a significant cultural activity – nawi building on Sydney Harbour.

David Payne
Curator, Australian Register of Historic Vessels

The Nawi conference is only a few weeks away! Over two days 31 May – 1 June, people from all over Australia will gather to explore Australia’s indigenous watercraft though a series of talks, demonstrations and performance. You can register on our website.

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Complete bark canoe on top of car

Object of the Week: Gnung-a Gnung-a’s story – the first Aboriginal Australian to visit America

Engraving of Gnung-a Gnung-a by Nicolas-Martin Petit in 1807

You may have heard of Bennelong, the famous Aboriginal man who befriended Governor Arthur Phillip and accompanied him to England in 1792. Fewer people, however, have heard of Gnung-a Gnung-a Mur-re-mur-gan, who became the first Aboriginal Australian in written history to visit America in 1793. His story has been reconstructed from written records from Judge-Advocate David Collins whose work, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, provides snippets of information about the voyage of HMS Daedalus across the North Pacific to America.

According to the records, Gnung-a Gnung-a was sent by Lieutenant-Governor Major Francis Grose to sail on the expedition, ‘for the purpose of acquiring our language.’ Lieutenant Hanson was instructed to ‘by no means’ ‘leave him at Nookta, but, if he survived the voyage, to bring him back safe to his friends and countrymen.’ Collins described his own insights regarding Gnung-a Gnung-a’s character, claiming that, ‘he was a man of a more gentle disposition than most of his associates’ and willingly accepted the voyage. On the 1 July 1793, Gnung-a Gnung-a boarded HMS Daedalus, leaving behind his young pregnant wife Warreeweer, sister of Bennelong, ‘of whom he always appeared extremely fond’.

Although not much is reported about Gnung-a Gnung-a’s time on the voyage, there are some intriguing accounts of his visit to Hawaii. Collins describes the high esteem Gnung-a Gnung-a held amongst his sailing companions as he ‘conducted himself with the greatest propriety…readily complying with whatever was required of him.’ During Gnung-a Gnung-a’s stay, the Hawaiian King Kamehameha offered to purchase him, ‘making splendid offers to Mr. Hanson, of canoes, warlike instruments, and other curiosities….’ Gnung-a Gnung-a refused the offer as he was anxious to return to New South Wales.

A few months later, on 3 April 1794, HMS Daedalus returned to Port Jackson. Gnung-a Gnung-a disembarked, appearing in ‘English dress, and very clean’, to find a large reception of his people waiting to greet him. Amongst the crowd was his wife, who was ‘in the possession of another native, a very fine young fellow, who since his coming among us had gone by the name of Wyatt.’ Collins dramatically captures the moments after their encounter:

‘The husband and the gallant eyed each other with indignant sullenness, while the poor wife (who had recently been delivered of a female child) appeared terrified, and as if she knew not which to cling to as her protector, but expecting that she should be the sufferer, whether ascertained to belong to her former or present master.’

Gnung-a Gnung-a performed ritual revenge by throwing a spear and wounding his rival. He emerged the victor with Warreeweer claimed as the ‘prize’, despite later reports of Gnung-a Gnung-a being ‘seen traversing the country in search of another wife.’

In December 1795, another ritual revenge battle is recorded to have taken place in Sydney between Gnung-a Gnung-a and the great warrior and leader of the Bidjigal people, Pemulwuy. According to Collins, Gnung-a Gnung-a received a barbed spear in ‘his loins close by the vertebrae of the back’. English surgeons later declared that they could not dislodge the spear and so Gnung-a Gnung-a, ‘determined to trust to nature’, left the hospital and was seen for ‘several weeks’ after ‘walking about with the spear unmoved’. Further to these accounts, Collins claims that Warreeweer ‘had fixed her teeth in the wound and drawn it out’. Although Gnung-a Gnung-a recovered, ‘which gave general satisfaction, as he was much esteemed by every white man who knew him…for his personal bravery’, the incident left him with an injury which plagued him for the rest of his life.

View of Sydney from Bennelong Point, as it would have appeared in Gnung-a Gnung-a's time

On 12 January 1809, Gnung-a Gnung-a was found dead behind the Dry Store (present day Sirius Park in Bridge Street, Sydney). The exact cause of his death is unknown, however, the Sydney Gazette described Gnung-a Gnung-a, referring to the injuries inflicted by Pemulwuy years earlier and his general character:

‘The deceased was to us well known, for his lameness…He was not less remarkable however for the docility of his temper, and the high estimation in which he was universally held among the native tribes:- he had extended to many an orphan a fostering hand, and, as his own children, provided for their infant wants….’

Apart from a small number of written accounts, all that survives of Gnung-a Gnung-a is a coloured drawing attributed to convict artist Thomas Watling and the engraving featured here, which was created by French artist Nicolas-Martin Petit in Sydney in 1802. From the little information we can gain from these accounts, what emerges is a fascinating story of dramatic encounters and adventure. Gnung-a Gnung-a’s story and Collins’ observations shed light on relations between Aboriginal Australians and Europeans at such a crucial moment in Australia’s colonial history. These stories bring Petit’s portrait to life in a way that demonstrates how prominent Gnung-a Gnung-a was during the period of early settlement – a figure held in high regard by both Aboriginal Australians and Europeans alike.


From Collections to Connections: Insights from a Curatorial/ Web Content Intern

Hello, Mariko here again – this is my second week back at the museum and I’m already a quarter of the way through my internship (!).

So far, I’ve caught up with the lovely people here at Wharf 7 (where curatorial is based) and met new people in the main museum building (where web content development is located).  I also have been taking full advantage of the museum’s great harbourside location – having lunch outside in the sunshine on the Wharf 7 balcony, right next to the James Craig (being an intern sure is a tough gig).

Besides the dazzling social life and scenic views, things have been pretty busy here in curatorial, as well as for the museum generally. I’ve been “hot-desking” around the curatorial section, as we have a work experience student here this week working with the Australian naval history collection. Also, staff are gearing up for the opening of AQUA: A Journey into the World of Water this week, and I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek into this sensational and very thought-provoking exhibition.

After leaving AQUA, I made my way through the Eora First People gallery – this is a core gallery showing a small selection of the museum’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural material. It presents a broad and diverse range of the various Indigenous communities the museum works with from across the country. This is much like my internship project’s selection of Indigenous artists.

Eora First People gallery

Eora First People gallery (Andrew Frolows, ANMM photographer)

For instance, Lola Greeno and the Saltwater collection artists – who are part of my internship project and also have work on display in Eora First People – come from different parts of Australia, and express their connections to the local water environments in a variety of ways. Lola Greeno is a Tasmanian Aboriginal artist from the Bass Strait region, and her works include intricate shell necklaces and water carriers made with sea kelp. The Saltwater collection artists are Yolgnu people who create bark paintings, which form detailed maps of the saltwater country and related law in northern Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.

In preparation for updating the museum’s internal object and maker records, I have been carrying out in-depth research on the artists and their works. This involves learning more about the Indigenous experiences, histories and knowledges that the artists had carried through into their work. Through this project, I hope to incorporate these themes into the records, so the works are seen as more than merely artistic or ethnographic objects of study.

On that note, I must get back to the research. Next time you’ll hear from me will be in mid-December.


PS: If you missed my last post, you can read it here.

From Collections to Connections – Insights from a Curatorial/ Web Content Intern

Mariko Smith at her desk
Mariko Smith, Curatorial/Web Content Intern

Hi, I’m Mariko Smith, and I’ll be working at the Australian National Maritime Museum until late January 2012, as part of an internship course for a Master of Museum Studies at the University of Sydney.

This is actually my second internship at the museum – I completed my first one earlier this year in the curatorial department, working closely with the Indigenous Communities collection. This collection consists of various objects, mainly artworks, from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia. That internship involved reviewing and organising image reproduction approvals from various stakeholders, so the museum could use images of the objects in this collection on its online collections database resource, eMuseum.

This time around, I’m back in curatorial (even at my old desk), working with the Indigenous Communities collection, but with a new twist. To start off, I’ll be continuing my previous work on image reproduction approvals and updating internal object and maker records – this time for a specific selection of objects chosen by senior curator, Lindsey Shaw.

However, I will also be working with web content development officer, Carli Collins to share this interesting selection of traditional bark paintings and artefacts, contemporary artworks and shell jewellery with the public, through the museum’s website and social media streams, such as Facebook, Twitter and of course this blog!

Before I started here, I wasn’t really aware of how much the museum was involved with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and their cultural heritage. Now I have a greater appreciation of the rich and diverse connections many Indigenous Australians have with water and the sea.

I look forward to sharing my experiences throughout this internship with you.

Stay tuned!