Canoes and reflections in Melbourne

Photo of

Canoe on display at ACMI

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.

Photo of

Canoe and still images from Ten Canoes film at ACMI

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.

LED light artwork

Jonathan Jones, untitled (muyan) 2011.
Glass, aluminium, light emitting diodes, electrical cable; designed by Marc Raszewski and Andrew Hayes; dimensions variable; installation view National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; commissioned by National Gallery of Victoria for The Barak Commissions, Felton Bequest; collection of National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

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.

Canoe model at Custom’s House

Well it’s great to see that the few metres of yellow stringy bark which was magically folded into a canoe shape at the Nawi – exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft conference has become a two metre model of a Sydney-style nawi, AND that it is already on display, revealing Gadigal stories of fishing, fires, travelling and trading.

Photo of

Model canoe on display at Virtual Warrane II exhibition

Murramarang man Paul Carriage from Ulladulla and our curator David Payne demonstrated how to fold the bark, to shape it and to tie strands of stringybark at its ends, at David’s Canoe making workshop session. The finished model is today in an exhibition by Indigenous interactive artist Brett Leavy entitled Virtual Warrane II at Sydney’s Customs House at Circular Quay, or Warrane as it was named by the Gadigal people.

Photo of video screens set up at exhibition

Virtual Warrane II exhibition

Virtual Warrane II is an immersive 3D computer simulation of the Gadigal people’s rich connection to the harbour (which was by installed by Customs House producer Jennifer Kwok).

The canoe model, set in a diorama of rocks and bush and an incredible harbourscape of graphics, is displayed alongside tools from the Australian Museum. It shows something of the physical, tangible representation of life of Gadigal people on the harbour’s lands and waters before the arrival of the Europeans.

Diorama you say? These sets at Virtual Warrane II are not your 19th century dioramas of old museology though. There are no painted black mannequins here. It’s as if the people have left the scene for a moment and it’s up to the visitor to imagine the characters to populate this pre-colonial landscape.

The immersive heritage experience on screens and a number of computer stations shows more of the intangibles, the stories told, natural resources used, waters and pathways roamed – you can hop in a canoe and follow ‘the sacred tracks of the Gadigal’ around the harbour, in Brett’s words.

Photo of

Amazing seafood banquet at exhibition opening

The experience is enhanced by a soundscape, and on opening night additionally enhanced by an incredible seafood feast – a table laden with Balmain bugs, prawns, mussels and fish – a feast for the eyes as much as the stomach! A reminder to all of the bounteous wealth of the Gadigal waterways of pre-colonial Sydney. All that was missing were the huge shell middens…

How great to see canoes being used to help unlock these hidden histories and to see how work initiated at the Nawi conference can inform other projects. Wonderful.

The exhibition is on display at Custom’s House until 19 August 2012.

In September the model goes to Mosman Art Gallery for an exhibition on Bungaree of Broken Bay, voyager and mediator between the colonists and local Aboriginal people.

Photo of

Brett Leavy and Redfern Elder Molly Ingram at the exhibition

Saltwater Boatmen – Meet Keith Vincent Smith

Keith Vincent Smith

As the museum’s conference, Nawi – exploring Australia’s indigenous watercraft nears, we will be turning your attention to the fascinating array of speakers who will be presenting on the 31 May and 1 June. Previously, I wrote about the story of Gnung-a Gnung-a, the first Aboriginal to sail across the seas to America. I enjoyed delving into part of the history of first contact and early European settlement, and Dr Keith Vincent Smith’s talk in the first session will be a welcome addition to what is shaping up to be a diverse program of events.

Keith is an independent historian and curator, whose expertise includes ethnology and the history of the Eora, the Indigenous clans of the Sydney coastal area. His talk will feature the first illustrations produced of Aboriginal watercraft at Botany Bay and cover some of the earliest moments of contact between the British and Aboriginal peoples, who had greeted the foreigners on board their nawi or stringy bark canoes.

Keith curated the exhibition, Mari Nawi – Aboriginal Odysseys 1790-1850, at the Mitchell Library in Sydney in 2010. He described this exhibition as a ‘journey across time, place and cultures.’ Already, preparations for the conference have achieved exactly that, with nawi building being undertaken on the shores of Sydney Harbour. Next week, on 30 May, past and present will come together and canoes will light up Darling Harbour marking the beginning of the conference, but more importantly, it will symbolise an Indigenous cultural tradition that began thousands of years ago.

Have a look at the program of events and register online today.

Nicole Cama
Curatorial assistant

Bark canoe workshop, Ulladulla – Part 1

Saturday, 21 January

In late October 2011, the museum awarded a grant through the Maritime Museums of Australia Project Support Scheme (MMAPSS) to the Budamurra Aboriginal Corporation at Ulladulla, allowing them to host a weekend workshop to build tied bark canoes with material supplied by Forests NSW.

The grant also included sending me (David Payne, museum curator) to share my research of Indigenous watercraft and recent experience building a tied bark canoe, as reported in my blog last year.

Two days before the workshop, Paul Carriage, Cultural Heritage Officer, with the Forests NSW Southern region, and his colleague Dave felled four stringy barks. They peeled off the bark and took it to a stream where it was left to soak.

Paul was a key member of the workshop group, along with his brother Shane from Ulladulla Local Aboriginal Land Council (ULALC) who applied for the grant, and other ULALC members. We also had Jonathan Hill and Gordon Campbell representing Vincentia High and the Jervis Bay region, while Elder Tom Butler came up from Mogo Local Aboriginal Land Council with James and Cameron.  During the workshop other people came and went – they looked on, joined in or just gave their encouragement as we steadily turned sheets of bark into canoe hulls over the two days, all out in the open.

We followed the steps recorded and illustrated in reports from the late 1700s and early 1800s. The information is short on detail, but clear on concept.  Essentially we had to fold the ends and tie them with strips of bark, then support the middle with branches.

The build…

The weekend started on Saturday morning with four of us up to our knees in a stream well off the main road, heaving three 4 metre long pieces of wet, heavy bark to Dave’s Forestry truck. The bark was taken to ULALC and their backyard, the site for the canoe building.

Loading stringy bark logs onto truck

Step one

We had to invert the bark so the outside of the tree became the inside of the canoe. Then came the long, laborious process of peeling off the loose exterior bark, back to the good fibres tightly woven together that give the canoe its strength and form.

The sheets were about 4 metres long and 1. 4 metres wide – a lot of area to cover on hands and knees. Hatchets and other blades are used to lift an end of the bark to start a strip peeling. Then you stand up and peel it back as far as it will go. 

When we reached an even clean surface, both ends needed further thinning down for about a metre in, to make it easier to fold. Peeling this back showed the wet, resin coated nature of the live bark. This moist and supple feel is vital to the process – old dried bark is not suitable.

Stripping back bark

Step two

After a late lunch, we lit a fire – our means of heating the ends of the bark to help with the folding process.  After the flames died down we put the first end over the hot coals. Quite quickly it picked up the heat, almost to a point where you could not leave your hand on it – that’s the temperature test. The bark is then taken off the coals and laid down on the grass. Working on their knees, two people, one either side, grasp the bark at the edges and fold the sides into the middle with two folds. A third person lassos it with a rope, further compressing the ends. A fourth person pierces the folds with a screwdriver so a branch peg can be hammered through, helping secure the folds. Finally wet strips of bark lash the end together and its complete. 

Tying the ends of the bark canoe

Over the first afternoon we heated and folded four ends to form two boats. As we progressed, each end improved on the last. We encountered problems as we went, such as tears in the bark ends, uneven thickness at different points, and the general nature of a material that none of us were all that familiar with.

We made the fire wider to help with the heating and began to hose the ends lightly to reduce drying out. Each end was part of a learning process and that summarises the intention of the weekend. We expected mistakes, and problems, but by doing a series of canoes we also hoped to learn and improve. With a mixture of modern tools and traditional materials we went upwards on the learning curve.