One River artists’ talks facilitated by Barbara Paulson
Jude Roberts, Carmel Wallace, John Shortis and Major Sumner with Barbara Paulson, 25 August 2013
MODERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll kick things off for this afternoon because otherwise we’ll be behind schedule. We have got two panel sessions with artists from the One River project, each facilitated by a curator from the National Museum.
But before we do that, we have a beautiful musical moment for you performed by John Shortis and Moya Simpson, who have been one of the artist teams working on the One River project, in this case working from Canberra but working with a whole cycle of songs that connect across the Murray-Darling Basin. Part of that work has involved research to unearth some forgotten musical gems that relate to the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin. So I give you a quick performance by John and Moya. [applause]
[Moya Simpson sings Murray Moon by Reginald Stoneham, written in 1920]
The stars are gleaming and there’s a charm
[John Shortis sings * Murrumbidgee Rose* by J Casey, written in 1925]
She is my own sweet Murrumbidgee Rose.
[Moya sings a song written in 1957]
Oh the Murrumbidgee’s flowing
Though it’s just a muddy river
[yodeling and then repeats second verse]
KIRSTEN WEHNER: Thank you so much, John and Moya. Every symposium should have a musical interlude definitely. Welcome back everybody to our first artist panel. It’s my pleasure to introduce my lovely colleague Barb Paulson, who’s going to facilitate the discussion.
Barbara is a Mununtjali/Gungari woman from Queensland originally but who’s also lived in many places across Australia, including Adelaide where she developed, she says, ‘A love for the Murray River and the Coorong.’ Barb is a curator in the National Museum’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program in which role she gets to contribute positively to representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures, and lives in Australia.
Barb is currently working on an exhibition entitled On Country: connect, work, celebrate, which celebrates Indigenous contribution to and achievements in land and sea management practices in Australia. She’s also recently completed a new exhibit on Raukkan in our first Australian’s Gallery. This exhibit features Ngarrindjeri objects from the 1920s to the 1950s, including baskets and mats, and she’ll be telling us about some of those objects today. If you have a bit of time at the end of the day today, I would encourage you to pop down and check out that new exhibit. Please join me in welcoming Barbara. [applause]
BARBARA PAULSON: This afternoon’s session is different to this morning’s session where we’ll be having an open conversation with you guys. What I’m going to do first is introduce the panel and then I’m going to have 20 minutes where I ask them questions and get them to talk about their project.
We’re talking really about community and cultural expression, and how living on a river and living in the waters and what that means to people culturally and how that gets expressed within the community in diverse ways, and particularly with the work that they’ve done for this project that is on display at Belconnen.
Also because John and Moya had their performance last Sunday as well as today, and at Belconnen yesterday as well, which went really well. We’ll talk more about that in a minute.
First of all, on behalf of myself and the panelists, I’d like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngamberri people who are the traditional owners of the country on which we gather. I’d also like to pay thanks to all of our ancestors without whom none of us would be here today to celebrate.
This is a wonderful coming together of people to talk about one thing that is really important to us - and that is water. We heard in this morning’s panel the fact that water is a primary resource that we need. We’re talking about sustainability. We’re also talking about the fact that it is water security that we need to have. We live in a dry continent. It doesn’t matter how variable the landscape is, there are different ways in which the water moves across the landscape and at various times water doesn’t move at all. That’s one of the key things that will get talked about in different discussions that are going to be happening today and just generally as we talk about water security for Australia.
Let me introduce our panel. We have to my left Uncle Moogy Sumner, who you’ve already met this morning. He is a Ngarrindjeri elder, and I’ve asked to come and speak today because I’ll be talking about his collection. [image shown] Here are these baskets. This is part of the Ngarrindjeri collection that we have here. I was lucky enough to go down and do community consultations with the Ngarrindjeri community in Raukkan and along the Coorong, Adelaide and Murray Bridge talking about this collection that we have here that was collected by Herbert E Read. He was a lay missionary who worked at Raukkan from the 1920s to 1950s, and he collected these objects. Uncle is a teacher and mentor for his people. You’ve already heard a lot of this. The ceremonial journey, Ringbalin, of which you are basically the leader, is happening a lot. We’re going to talk about that more in a minute
Then we have the lovely Jude Roberts. Jude’s project was focused in Mitchell and is called ‘Unravelling the Maranoa’. Jude works along the Maranoa River. She had different sections along the Maranoa that she worked at. One of the wonderful things that I spoke about with Jude was the fact that. myself being from Maranoa Gunggari country. the Maranoa River runs into Gunggari country. The local Gunggari call it the ‘Marinaw’, not the Maranoa, but the local settler current population call it the Maranoa. Jude is an experienced artist. She has many exhibitions under her belt over many years. She has exhibited in Toowoomba, in Brisbane, and in Quebec, Canada, as well. She works mainly on paper, and her beautiful works for this particular project were seen at Belconnen Arts yesterday. Jude won the Australian Day award for community arts in 1997 and attained her fine arts degree with first class honours at Griffith University in 2001. We will talk more about Jude’s experience in a minute.
Carmel Wallace is living in Portland at the moment, but her work centres on lakes Mungo, Hattah, and Hawthorn. It is just not about the cloaks, which you will see up here [image shown], but there was an additional performance element which was performed at Belconnen Arts yesterday as well to rave reviews. So it’s fantastic. Carmel has done some pretty amazing work. She’s worked for a long time as an artist. With this particular suite, it’s a multidisciplinary practice that she’s incorporated into her works that talked about the whole community, brought them together. She was also part of the Illuminated by Fire Regional Arts Victoria project in 2010-11 so she’s worked on some pretty big projects that really are community-based, and that reflection comes through in the works that she has now.
Then we have John Shortis, whose partner in crime is Moya Simpson, who we saw earlier today. John has done some amazing works working with the choir. His One River project is community radio-based. It’s a multi-episode radio program that goes across the broader area in New South Wales here, and it happens - is it weekly, John? It’s for today but it’s part of a few other programs that happen as well. John is also part of the Worldly Goods World Music Choir based here in Canberra that is really quite successful.
We’ll start with Carmel. We were talking earlier today about the fact that with the fifth cloak that you see up there - the white with the blue - we’ve had quite a number of people ask me what that blue was, and to be surprised to hear that they’re actually socks. Do you want to tell me what the socks were, why they’re there, and what’s inside them?
CARMEL WALLACE: If I backtrack just one second, I was actually born in Mildura. My grandparents on both sides actually cleared the land and established fruit plots there. So I spent my childhood up there in the Murray but I’ve lived the rest of my life by the sea in Portland where there’s no river at all. This project I thought was a wonderful opportunity to go back and reconnect with my birthplace, my family up there.
This is relevant in terms of this cloak that is made of socks, as one of the points of connection was the lake school that is on the shores of Lake Hawthorn. It was established there for children of the soldiers who came back after the war, and my grandfather was one of those. I wanted to work out an art form that could encompass the school kids, get them involved, and also talk about Lake Hawthorn that’s across there. The water levels are a huge issue there. So I thought, ‘Well, socks are an item of clothing that you wear that touch the ground, that are the closest to the ground. They also hold part of our body so they’re part of that sort of personal garment.’ Also school kids wear school socks.
So I thought that we could make them into dye water level indicators so that they could start thinking about the water levels in the lake, and also, because they did hold feet, they could now hold stories. So I could collect stories and incorporate them into this cloak. That’s the reason the socks are there, if that explains it.
BARBARA PAULSON: I think it was an extraordinary way of storykeeping and storytelling. So you wrote your story down and you put them inside the sock. You’re engaging children in understanding what it means to measure out the water but also what it means to tell a story. One of the most amazing things about our panellists today is they engage in ways to bring a wider audience to thinking about water, water management and the water issues that are prevalent to us today.
If we can just go to Jude now. In ‘Unravelling the Maranoa’, one of the things you did was to go to very particular places along the Maranoa River and use the paper inside the water to let the water then stain it, however it will. But you also had very deliberate acts of human interaction, so you actually got a truck to run over one, and you got some dyes from the trees, and every other thing to stain it. What was one of the challenges that you found in having these huge lots of reams – those papers are quite long. What were the challenges you found?
JUDE ROBERTS: Yes, well, they’re nine metres long. The process I used does encompass a lot of risks, but that was the part of the project. It was in sharing the river space and those opportunities to talk to different community members and with the children and families on the riverbank that we exchanged knowledge and memories and connections about the river. It also gave me the opportunity to choose the seven sites that I chose along this sand-based ephemeral river in inland Queensland. Those sites were chosen for different reasons significant for historical, spiritual, or having a connection with swimming and the sports of people.
By immersing the paper into the river, and sometimes with the help of community members that were with me, when you approach a site you look to see what is around, and that determined a lot of the stains on the paper. Cut logs perhaps on the side of the bank were placed along half of it. Half of the paper perhaps was exposed into the water. So that determined those sorts of markings. But it was all sort of chance and a lot of risk taking, because there were thunderstorms and that sort of thing along with it as well. And the American Roughy crane. Mitchell had its world record floods in 2012. There were building a new bridge this year so I got the driver of the American Roughy crane to drive over it after I’d rubbed the tires with charcoal, and it symbolised the new bridge for the town of Mitchell.
BARBARA PAULSON: One of the greater challenges, of course, is the fact that you’re working on paper in water, and water itself, particularly along the Maranoa which has a pretty good mineral base down the bottom, wants to actually break apart or dissolve paper. In your work, you’ve actually got little cracks in the paper, little rips that are occurring, where the paper itself is starting to break down. That was one of your bigger challenges. I also thought it was really interesting the way you then dealt with that. Do you want to explain how you did that?
JUDE ROBERTS: My main aim for the project was to have seven different pieces of work showing the differences of the site just along one part of the river. The amount of time the paper was soaked was determined by the flow of the river, the heights of the river and what was around, apart from my time management of putting the paper in and then two or three days later pulling it out. That was all part of the mark, making to those sorts of challenges. At some sites I wanted to leave the paper a bit longer to show that decaying of the paper. That’s why I used paper, because it responds immediately to its surroundings. It seeps up any oils and the sediments around it. The tears of the paper, obviously when you’re putting paper in water it’s very fragile, yet when it’s dry it’s very stiff and quite strong. So the tears are part of that process. I wanted to mend the paper and make that mending quite obvious by just using Japanese paper sort of like a masking tape to mend it to show that fragility.
BARBARA PAULSON: Excellent. If we can go back to John: John actually won the Harold White Fellowship at the National Library of Australia where you’d done some research and that’s where you first came across this collection of songs. Do you want to just talk about why you picked these three songs to share as part of this One River project?
JOHN SHORTIS: My fellowship was to research the sheet music collection at the National Library in general in 1998, and I fell in love with the sheet music collection as a result of that. There are hundreds of thousands of copies of music there from all different eras, different music styles, and I zoned in on popular music. The most popular aspect of popular music is always to write about love. In Australia, the second most common one is war. That’s interesting, isn’t it, love and war? And the third most popular - I’m making this up. Maybe there’s something else that comes in third, but to me the third most popular are location songs.
Either they were people in the town who wrote about the joys of their town or they were professional songwriters. After the First World War with people away from home, they did long for their home. The first one that I know of that became really popular was I’m going back gain to Yarrawonga. It was a song written in Europe while the songwriter actually heard a digger who was coming home after the war say that line, ‘I’m going back again to Yarrawonga’, and that became popular. It led to Along the road to Gundagai, and Jack O’Hagan who wrote that had never been to Gundagai in his life. He just wanted a river that sounded like the Mississippi, because Old Man River had just come out, and Murrumbidgee is the same number of syllables.
It started this incredible craze about town name songs in the 1920s and, as I said, professional writers who never went to the places then caught onto this craze. These songs really fit into that category. The first one we sang comes from 1920, so that was around that time post world war. The second one was 1925, and then 1957. I chose these songs recently. I’d come across them maybe along the way. I just knew that whenever you’ve got a major landmark like the Murray, the Darling or the Murrumbidgee, there would be songs about them. So I looked them up and chose these ones. I reckon they’re really nice. You can send them up, but they’re actually very charming, romanticised to buggery, like there’s nothing wrong with anything. But they’re charming if you just sing them as they are.
BARBARA PAULSON: If you have a look up in the right top-hand corner [slide shown], you’ll actually see John, Moya and their choir singing, and in the corner in inset is actually the album cover or the sheet music cover?
JOHN SHORTIS: Sheet music cover, yes.
BARBARA PAULSON: The sheet music cover of the Murray Moon. It has that very romanticised styling in that iconography. The other thing that was really interesting to note was that the romanticised style of writing that occurred in songwriting back then as opposed to the songwriting that is more warts and all that happens now.
JOHN SHORTIS: There are today’s writers who mention place names - Paul Kelly is a perfect case: Have you ever seen Sydney from a 747 at night?, From St Kilda to King’s Cross and Adelaide. His song Adelaide has a line in it: ‘All the king’s horses and all the king’s men wouldn’t draw me back again to Adelaide.’ But still there’s something fond in that song. You still know that he probably really likes the place but it’s quite critical of the town.
Yes, we get much more realistic views of the songs. Murray Moon has whole descriptions of Aboriginal people: ‘Ddusky natives by the banks’, at the same time that babies are being taken away from their mothers. It’s a very romanticised view of the world without the warts and all, whereas now you get much more of the warts and all. But both are poetic, both have their place.
BARBARA PAULSON: Excellent, thank you. If we can pass the mike along to Uncle Moogy. One thing that I just want to bring up is that we have this wonderful collection here now at the Museum [image shown]. We have some of it on display down in the lower part of the Gallery of First Australians. So if you have time you go down there and have a look later, please do so. The wonderful thing about these baskets and the mats is that they’re famous.
They’re part of what was the tourist trade that happened in the very early 1900s right through to the 1970s. They had the paddle steamer that used to come across the peninsula and across Lake Alexandrina. The paddle steamer used to come across and stop in at Raukkan. You could buy baskets, mats, feather flowers, and numerous other stuff including toys, which the Ndarrindjeri at Raukkan made as the paddle steamer then moved along and up and over.
What is really amazing is that the baskets and the mats are made from one particular grass of the many different grasses that grow along the Murray and the Coorong, but it is only that one grass that is harvested for making these baskets. You have to have a real knowledge of how to gather that grass, because it can actually be quite treacherous on your fingers.
MAJOR SUMNER: The grass itself is what they call the ‘yalkiri’in our language. They are freshwater rushes. They go and pick that grass, and then they take it home and spread it out and let it dry. Then when it dries, that is when you can use it. You have to dampen it so that it doesn’t split. You pick it, you dry it, and then you wet it down again, and you keep it in a wet towel where you are putting water on it all day to keep it damp. In that way you use it so it is pliable, so it won’t split when you bend it, and when you’re pulling it through and doing the weaving. When the drought was on the plants were disappearing.
BARBARA PAULSON: Yes, the plants were disappearing, but also one of the programs down in the Coorong and along those waterways that’s happening now is the re-vegetation of these grasses, but particularly this grass because there isn’t a lot of it there. A lot of the artists, who would ordinarily use this grass to express their connection to country or express their culture for continuational practice, weren’t able to do so because this grass was just not available.
MAJOR SUMNER: With the weaving itself, a few years ago before it came back really strong again a message was sent out to all the different elderly people around Raukkan and the Coorong area asking anyone who knew how to weave. One lady, Dorothy Kartinyeri, put her hand up and said, ‘Yes, I know how to do that.’
She took a group of young girls out and showed them how to pick the rushes and Ellen Trevorrow was one of them. She taught all them ladies, all them girls, again how to weave. She used to pick the rushes and then get her sons and her husband to take them up on the roof and spread them on the roof. With the hot sun and the tin they’d dry really quick, so they’d bring them down and then do the weaving.
But without that knowledge being passed down from her, one of our best noted cultural activities within the Ngarrindjeri, the weaving, would have disappeared. So even though the weaving was there, the baskets were there in the Museum, this lady Dorothy Kartinyeri was the one that brought that back and showed a lot all the other ladies, Yvonne Koolmatrie who learnt from there. You got Ellen Trevorrow and all other different ladies that were involved at the time. They were young women at the time. They all carry that on now. Ellen Trevorrow has made a lot of baskets and mats in all styles.
All of us - we know how to weave; we all do it. The men do the weaving, because the men had to weave their own weapons bags. So we do our bags when we carry the boomerangs for the dancing and the clubs and all that. So we carry a bag with us. But the process of coming into that there is that you start weaving a bag to carry them.
BARBARA PAULSON: That’s fantastic. The other thing I found really interesting was the fact that you have to know the grass and get the length of the grass to be able to put these patterns in. If you have a look at the image up here, you’ll see that the dark bits are actually the very end of the reed and you actually weave it in such a way that you get that pattern coming across. There’s a real skill to it. There’s also a skill to actually having your weaving where there’s no pattern or no dark pigment in it all. You’ve got to understand the grass and the coil system.
The other thing is that the Ngarrindjeri technique was then adopted by the other fellows up north.
MAJOR SUMNER: Up north, yeah.
BARBARA PAULSON: Up in Arnhem Land. So the coil baskets that you see in contemporary galleries today that were done by artists from across Arnhem Land actually that technique they’re using is Ngarrindjeri technique that was taken up.
MAJOR SUMNER: They come down to the Coorong and learnt from our women how to do that weaving and then they took it back and put their own grasses into it now.
BARBARA PAULSON: They use their own natural resources from their area but they use that technique.
MAJOR SUMNER: But they use our style of weaving. It is funny that you should mention that because I was sitting at the Tandanya Aboriginal Arts Centre one day, and the people from up there had brought all their stuff down, and our stuff was there. One of the ladies said, ‘Hey, look, they weave just like us.’ The old lady who was sitting near, she said, ‘No, we weave like them.’ Then she told the young women from up there the story about that old lady and a number of other people who came down to the Ngarrindjeri and learnt how to do that and then took that back. It was just to turn that around a bit to let that young lady understand that they came down to us - we didn’t go to them.
BARBARA PAULSON: This particular collection enables us to be able to look at Raukkan at this particular time and what was going on. One of the things that was happening was the sustainability of this particular mission that was established before it became a town. The fact that Raukkan not only sustained itself financially but did so in a way that was much better than some of the settlers in the region who were really struggling to find any kind of footing or any kind of financial gain in terms of trying to farm in the area. A lot of the reasons for that were because they were trying to transpose ideals of what agriculture and farming were from Europe, from England, onto this Australian landscape, and were really finding it difficult because South Australia is not England.
MAJOR SUMNER: No, that’s right.
BARBARA PAULSON: The landscape, the weather, the seasons were not England and trying to transpose that knowledge to make the landscape work their way wasn’t working. At the time, there was actually a lot of hostility and begrudgment that was going on. That social attitude built - what was in the beginning quite a good relationship over a 20 to 30-year period became quite a negative one because of this begrudgment, because their farms weren’t working and the Ngarrindjeri settlement was. A lot of that was because you guys know your landscape.
MAJOR SUMNER: Even some of the stuff that was brought into the country like the building of houses and showing people how to build houses with the stone - a lot of our people became stone masons and they built all the houses. You know the church on the 50 dollar note? That was built by my people on Raukkan. That church is on Raukkan. It’s still standing today. My people built that church from the skills they learned from some of the missionaries about stone masonry.
Old Uncle David there, David Unaipon. He’s another outstanding Ngarrindjeri man that has done a lot of things within his time. But he was an inventor too. He invented a lot of things that he didn’t get recognised for. No one said, ‘David Unaipon, a Ngarrindjeri man done that.’ No, they wouldn’t do that. They kept him in the dark until now. There’s a lot of these stories coming out now.
Even with the paddle steamer coming there to Raukkan, to the jetty, that originally came there to collect the wool because on the shores – this was before the 1951 flood. I remember the flood because I was there. Was it in 1951 or 1956? 1956, I think.
BARBARA PAULSON: In the ‘50s, yeah.
MAJOR SUMNER: In the ‘50s, anyway. I was there, and the shearing shed is right on the shores of Lake Alexandrina. Before the flood, the steamer used to come and pick up all the wool. We had a lot of sheep there, but we also learned how to shear, and some of our people all around the country are very good shearers. I worked in a shearing shed myself with my uncles and that, and I travelled all around Australia. The skill of shearing was another thing that the people around the area didn’t - that was one of the other things that turned them against us, because there were a lot of good shearers there.
BARBARA PAULSON: Basically the bigger point is that, as Kim was saying earlier, there’s a way of being economically and financially viable and still being sustainable in the environment and not doing the environment any harm. You guys had fishmongering as well as wool, as well as farming, as well as a whole lot of other activities that were happening to establish it.
MAJOR SUMNER: Fish in fish traps. We had our own fish breeding. We didn’t go fishing for them. We would just go to the trap and pick them up.
BARBARA PAULSON: What’s really remarkable is the fact the Coorong is where fresh water and salt water meet. There’s a whole lot of plant and animal life that is dependent upon that Coorong. You could see from Uncle Moogy’s film earlier how it has degraded. It is because it is so fragile. There’s a whole lot of revivification going on at the moment.
But the fragility of it and making sure that we look after these and build it back up to what it was. There’s a whole lot of Australian native plants which are so unique to that area that have other uses not yet known in universities and in medicines and stuff yet. But you’re getting to the stage where that is coming out more.
MAJOR SUMNER: A lot of medicine plants that we know about that relies on fresh water to grow. The rushes, that’s a fresh water plant.
BARBARA PAULSON: But there are also plants down there that rely on both fresh and salt water.
MAJOR SUMNER: Yes.
BARBARA PAULSON: And there are salt water plants. It’s the kind of information that locals know. If we can just come back to Jude for a moment, along the Maranoa, because your community and your family live along there as well, and you know that community in Mitchell, you knew which sites to go to. Your knowledge of ‘These are the trees and this is how they’re going to lay, and this is what it means.’
The expression of understanding your landscape and putting that into paper – if you can just talk a little bit more about that, because it’s one of the questions: how do we then record the knowledge we have of our landscape? The Maranoa is very different to the Coorong. How do you, in your artwork, express that uniqueness that is the Maranoa River?
JUDE ROBERTS: Yes, living in a community, I had a head start already knowing the people and the various places along the river so choosing those places was a bit easy for me. But each site depends on the season and the time. You go to one site and there’d be a particular flow of the river but within weeks that flow would change. So it’s identifying those changes within the river. They always surprise you too. Everyone that lives on the river will tell you that every flood is different. It’s identifying those.
Working with the paper, when you arrive at a site, it’s identifying things around and what can work for that particular moment at that time whereas six weeks later that would be quite different. So you’re exploring the river banks for that different vegetation or the sand or the colour. Particularly up in the headwaters of the Maranoa, there’s sandstone that’s a beautiful rich red colour, so trying to rub that into the paper and incorporate that into the marks. That’s all part of it, yes.
BARBARA PAULSON: You also at one stage floated one of your sheets down, and when it came back up it had a red streak in it that was different to the sediment that you were expecting.
JUDE ROBERTS: Yes, that was the iron in the water. That particular site was the confluence of the Topaz and the Maranoa. The river at this stage, which a lot of times it is, is a sand based ephemeral river, so the only flow was about this deep [indicates]. A lot of that had quite a high iron content, because the iron in that groundwater oxidises and has this beautiful rusty colour. I was really pleased that at least one of those sites had that.
I was concentrating on that little flow of river on top of the paper, looking at the oils that the eucalyptus leaves had brought onto it, and concentrating on those marks on the upper side of the paper. But it wasn’t until 36 hours later that I dragged the paper up onto the bank and realised that that flow of the river with the iron in it had made the mark underneath. It was quite unintentional but, by chance, it turned out to be a beautiful mark showing that flow of the river.
BARBARA PAULSON: Then how did you further express your knowledge about your river in the exhibit, because you had a soundscape?
JUDE ROBERTS: I did have a soundscape in Mitchell. While being on these sites I was with a variety of different groups of people that came and helped me with the soaking or it was just a matter of talking and sharing those responses. I’ve forgotten your question -
BARBARA PAULSON: It was just about how you expressed your knowledge of your region, of your part of the river.
JUDE ROBERTS: I have forgotten my line of thought that I was going to say -
BARBARA PAULSON: The soundscape.
JUDE ROBERTS: The soundscape - yes, that’s what I was talking about. Listening to all those different memories and stories that I wanted to incorporate into that and to show that that interaction with the community was part of this soaking, it wasn’t just me being on my own and letting the river make the marks. That was quite an important part of it, the documenting of it.
BARBARA PAULSON: Thank you.
If we can go to Carmel: in one of the fantastic conversations that we had you talked about the value and devaluation of lakes according to whether or not there’s water in them and you were talking particularly about real estate. This comes down to how communities or the real estate market value real estate according to the river and there being water in it or not water in it. Do you want to just talk a bit more about the particular story that you shared with me earlier?
CARMEL WALLACE: Yes, it is a different way of valuing water, I suppose. Lake Hawthorn, for those of you who don’t know, is right on the outskirts of Mildura, between Mildura and Merbein, and basically it’s a drainage hole if you like - and it connects to the river. At the same time when there’s a lot of rain and it fills up, it’s seen as being really beautiful in terms of real estate as much as anything else.
There are some really large expensive houses built on the banks of it or on the edge of it. And apparently not so long after they were built there was a drought and it was really dry. Once it’s dry, it’s really renowned for being smelly. If you have a look of any of the little kids’ stories in the socks, some of them talk about the smell of the lake. Then it’s completely undervalued when the water levels are low.
An interesting thing was that the Lake School is straight across the road from the lake, and the kids live in that environment. So many of them hadn’t been down to touch the water in that lake. It was incredible. One of the things that I did was to take them down there and get them to write down what they heard, what they smelt and what they saw. The water levels were dropping and so there bottles, tyres and different things revealing themselves. They recorded those as well.
The whole water level issue seems to be encapsulated in a way by that particular body of water, and I was thinking of how I could express that in that particular cloak. On the inside of that is an aerial view of the map of the lake when it’s full made with the kids’ handprints to put their mark on it. It is interesting talking about water levels. By the way, I think it’s really beautiful down there. I’ve never seen so many pelicans in my life as when I was there. There would have been at least a couple of dozen of them all together there and flying across. When you listen to the frogs and all of the different wildlife that’s there, the kids were really surprised saying, ‘It’s actually nice down here.’
BARBARA PAULSON: It’s also interesting Lake Hawthorn is near Lake Mungo and it’s all part of that Willandra Lake’s world heritage site. I had a friend of mine who works at the Willandra Lake’s Heritage come up. They’re dry lakes. There hasn’t been water in them for lots of years. He said to me, ‘It’s amazing how many people still rock up in a bikini and say, “Where’s the water?’”
CARMEL WALLACE: [laughs] At Lake Mungo?
BARBARA PAULSON: At Lake Mungo, yeah. They’re expecting that, because it’s a lake, therefore it must have water in it. Does it suddenly not became a lake or lose its value as a lake because there is no water in it? I think that’s one of the bigger questions that we have to ask.
CARMEL WALLACE: It’s amazing how lakelike those environments remain. When you think that Mungo hasn’t had water in it and hasn’t been a lake as such for 15,000 years, yet when you drive up to it you can see the lake there just about. It’s amazing the imprint of that water system on the land even that many years later.
BARBARA PAULSON: I think, too, because across our landscape we have river ways, tributaries and creek beds that have no water in them but once a year. Some of them have no water in them, but every 30 years you get a water flow from them. That’s according to the traditional Aboriginal water cycles. They get water flow in those periods. But if we’re thinking in terms of the European annual calendar, it doesn’t quite work when you transpose that knowledge across. That’s one of the reasons why it was really interesting to hear when you guys had that consultation within your projects you brought that knowledge forward.
Speaking of bringing knowledge to the masses, John - this was one of the big points that you made in our conversation that we had earlier - was the fact that in your radio program you were able to reach a lot of people and you were able to get people to express their knowledge, attitude and understanding of issues surrounding the Murray-Darling Basin and water resourcing.
JOHN SHORTIS: Yes, we decided to use radio. It’s just a one-off radio program that’s on this afternoon at 4 o’clock on Art Sound, which is a community radio station here in Canberra. I used to work in radio. In the 1970s I was a radio scriptwriter for the ABC and did the programs that taught music to kids over the air. So I had this radio background. The good thing about radio is that it makes people listen, because even when we coming here today we’re asked to bring an image. These days you have to have an image. There’s so much visual. Whereas using radio is a terrific medium for having stories and people just sit and listen to it or drive and listen to it and whatever. So it seemed like a good way to go.
There are some great radio styles, like ads, news, quizzes and things like that that we used to tell the stories. It also reaches a lot of people. Even though it’s community radio, not the ABC, it still goes out to a large audience here in Canberra. Then there’s a network of community radio stations, so we’re hoping that that radio program will then go to other communities, especially the ten that were involved in it.
In that radio program there are new songs written with people in the community. I went into a school and told the kids some stories I’d found about sitings of a lake monster, a bit like the Loch Ness monster, so they wrote their own song about their imaginary monster.
The songwriting group I formed just from people in the community wrote a song about the endangered Corroboree frog.
Also a fisherman - and talking about real estate - a trout fisherman came along to the songwriting group and just talked about what he does. Someone asked him, ‘How do you find the spot that you go to to fish?’ He says, ‘Oh, we go for the prime real estate,’ but he meant ‘the fishes’ prime real estate’ so the best place for them to be he can know where to go to. So the group wrote a song about that called Silence.
As well as that, somebody looked up on the internet a list of the rivers that are in the Murray-Darling Basin. We grouped them in rhymes and syllables that sounded nice together and just did a song that was literally a list of many of the rivers.
We also interviewed a few people. A Polish migrant whose family came here after the war so his father could work on the Cotter Dam. The Cotter River is one of the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin. So we found a traditional Polish song which the choir sang. A Polish woman in the choir helped us to pronounce it. So It was that style of thing. We tried to use as many voices as we possibly could.
There were great stories about the lake filling up because the lake here is artificial but it is actually the Molonglo River, and Molonglo means the sound of thunder in the local Aboriginal language. There was no thunder or rain back in 1963, or whenever it was when they decided to turn this into the lake, so they dug up this massive area and nothing happened because there was no rain. There were some great stories about people who actually experienced that.
A woman in the choir used to drive down from Goulburn to Canberra every Sunday. It was their outing to see if the lake had got any more water in it. That was the style of thing we did. We tried to use as many different voices as possible. A whole lot of new songs and, of course, the ukulele songs that we did today and that I talked about earlier.
I also wrote a piece for the Carillon and choir, which was about the contrast in the range of landforms and vegetations that all these rivers go through. It was when I went to Wentworth as part of this project and just saw the Murray meet the Darling and there is the muddy Darling and the deeper blue Murray coming together. It spoke about the range of journeys these rivers have had. So I wrote the piece for the Carillon, and then we recorded that last week. That’s in the radio show as well.
BARBARA PAULSON: Thank you. We’re going to open up to questions in a minute. But first of all if I could just get a final statement on community relations in terms of what you’re actually trying to do when you express what the river system actually means to you and then when you started talking to the community. What did it mean to you when the community shared their stories with you? If we could just get a final statement from each of you and then I’ll open it up to the audience for questions.
JOHN SHORTIS: Apart from those stories of the monsters, I went with no stories to the group and basically just looked to see what came out of what they told me. Like the carillonist told a great story about uni students who stole a carillon bell for a treasure hunt, a scavenger hunt, and then couldn’t get it back again – things like that. I just waited to see what came out and then built the songs and the radio program around their stories rather than what I brought to them.
BARBARA PAULSON: Thank you, John. Carmel?
CARMEL WALLACE: When I did this project I was in residence at the Art Vault and there was a gallery space there. The normal procedure for having an exhibition is that you have all the work ready, you put it in the gallery, people come and look at it, and then they go again. Maybe they come back. But with this, I tried to think of a way of having an exhibition that would include the community so that they could come in and add to the work there and make a difference in the outcome, and then we could celebrate it at the end.
In the gallery, people would come in, a number of them wrote stories and put them in those socks or helped with the embroidery. Actually making things with your hands like that enables you to sit around like we are now and talk at the same time as make something. The stories that came out in those conversations were special and really gave me an added insight into that place.
I’d love to read this really short quote about how important stories are to how you see and value place. This is the physicist Niels Bohr when he visited Kronborg Castle in Denmark, which is the one that inspired Hamlet:
To me, that just really summed up how a story can really influence how you see and value place.
BARBARA PAULSON: Thank you, Carmel. Jude?
JUDE ROBERTS: I guess the aim for my project ‘Unravelling the Maranoa’ was to listen to the different opinions, memories and connections of the river. But it was coming from the river itself, trying to hear those stories from the river itself, the histories, and the layers of the cultural/spiritual/geological histories. I was trying to have the community members think about that more than the stories that were probably coming from their own lives.
BARBARA PAULSON: Thank you. Uncle Moogy, when you did Ringbalin and you went up the river, you actually got a whole bunch of people to come meet you and jump on board this Ringbalin project. How did that make you feel? What did you learn? What was new from that?
MAJOR SUMNER: Just on what Cheryl Buchanan said, it was something that they were waiting for. They were waiting for someone to start doing something. Before we went up, me and a fellow named Linton drove up there, and then we went and spoke to each different community. This was about two months before, and then we come back. Then on our way up again we went and visited the same people we spoke to and said, ‘We’ll be back here in five days, three days or two days.’ When we started, people were ready for us when we got there, the fires were going, the area where the ceremonies took place was cleaned up, and the dance area was there. It was a good feeling inside to know that people wanted something to happen.
Four years on now, people still want to see something. They want to be a part of it. I know it’s going to cost a lot of money for everyone to come down with their money and time and getting time off of work. But to see the look on people’s faces when you’re dancing, when you’re telling the story about travelling up and then the different countries that you see as you’re going down, and all the little children are getting involved. We go to the Youth Centre in Wilcannia, and they get involved. Even though they’re doing disco dancing, they’ll start doing traditional dancing with us. So we paint up there. While they’re watching us paint up, they’re ready for their disco dance, and they want to get painted up so they can dance with us. So yes, it’s a really good feeling.
BARBARA PAULSON: It’s a good feeling that you were able to share that with the communities that you’re living, working and participating.
MAJOR SUMNER: If I could say one thing about one of the stories that John said about the monster. I told a story about the Muliawon. The Ngarrindjeri have a story about the Muliawon, these big monsters that will come out of the water and grab you and take you all the way down to this big cave under the water. This is for children. I told the story at a school over in the Yorke Peninsula about this big monster coming. I said, ‘If you go near the water without your mum and dad, this big monster will grab you and take you all the way down to this big cave, and you’ll never see your mom and dad ever again.’ All the little kids were crying. It’s a story about keeping our children safe from the water. That’s one of our stories that is linked to our community.
About a month later I got a letter from all the parents - oh, they were angry with me. They said that their children wouldn’t go for a bath, they were afraid. [laughter] I wrote a letter back to the school and said, ‘Well, can you please distribute this amongst the families there. This is the reason behind the story: it keeps the children away from drowning. Rest assured, your children will never drown because of the story.’ They wrote back and said, ‘Well, thank you very much.’ It is understanding that story, understand behind the story, all these concepts behind it is about looking after ourselves. They’re looking after the land and all this here.
BARBARA PAULSON: Thank you very much. We’ve actually run out of time because we’ve got a cake downstairs that we need to cut. So we won’t be able to ask questions now because we really will be running over time but you’ll be able to ask questions in George’s panel this afternoon. If we can have a round of applause for the panel. [applause]
KIRSTEN WEHNER: Afternoon tea is back in the bay window where we had lunch. We are having a bit of a birthday celebration for the paddle steamer Enterprise so please come along to be a part of that and be back here. We’ll be back here promptly at 3 pm for the last session. Thank you again to all our panellists.
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Date published: 8 November 2013