Boorun’s canoe at Melbourne Museum

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Uncle Albert Mullett, with daughters Doris Paton (Steaphan’s mum) and Christine Johnston at Bunjilaka

A few weeks ago I attended the opening of Boorun’s canoe, an exhibition at Melbourne Museum’s Bunjilaka Gallery, which we heard about at the Nawi conference.

This exhibition was born out of the canoe building project undertaken in Gippsland, Victoria, by senior Gunai/Kurnai Elder Uncle Albert Mullett, initiated by his grandson, artist Steaphan Paton and photographic artist Cam Cope, one of Steaphan’s acquaintances from school, to explore and strengthen culture from Steaphan’s Gunai perspective, and to understand and connect with it from Cam’s non-Indigenous perspective.

Steaphan and Cam spoke about the collaboration in the Canoe Communities session at the Nawi conference, yet Uncle Albert Mullett was unable to make it to Sydney because of ill health.  It was an honour to meet him at the opening and it was wonderful to see his bark canoe in the gallery space.

Uncle Albert Mullett is a leading figure who led the Gunai/Kurnai people to gain full native title over their traditional lands in 2010 and he is a respected master-craftsman of traditional wooden artefacts.

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Removing the bark for the canoe. Photographer: Cameron Cope

Uncle Albert built the canoe with Steaphan and other young men of his family over some months over the past year. The canoe was chosen as the perfect way to share and pass on knowledge and skills, in an intergenerational continuum. The canoe holds an important place in Uncle Albert’s Gunai/Kurnai culture – Boorun the pelican flew to Gunai/Kurnai traditional lands in Gippsland with a canoe on its head and canoe-building is something he in turn learnt from his Elders.

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Canoe on display in exhibition

The beautifully textured tied bark canoe with its fire hearth takes centre stage in the Bunjilaka gallery, encircled by Cam Cope’s magnificent photographs of the process unfolding and a film of the Boorun creation story.

At the Nawi conference we saw Cam’s photographic series on screen but in the flesh these large scale black and white photographs take your breath away – nuanced, sensitive and powerful, with fabulous captions. The scale of the photographs matches that of the canoe and they are in no way merely contextual. They show Uncle Albert Mullett guiding the process, peeling bark, stripping, shaping and firing it – the respect he holds central to each one – the photographer largely invisible in the entire series, except in one shot where his hands are shown caked in mud. They are sensitive respectful portraits of a family making their canoe led by their grandfather which conclude with Steaphan seated in the canoe, paddling on the local waters of Lake Tyers, like many before him for thousands of years.

“Lake Tyers was the perfect place to float the canoe; the country is picturesque with so many stories and so much history.” (Photo caption from exhibition)

The exhibition is on until 4 November at Melbourne Museum.

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Steaphan Paton seated in the canoe, paddling on the local waters of Lake Tyers. Photographer: Cameron Cope