Songlines Exhibition Celebrates Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Culture in Kingston

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Entrance to Paola Balla’s exhibition

Today was the beginning of NAIDOC Week, celebrations held across Australia each July

to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The national NAIDOC theme for 2016 is: Songlines: The living narrative of our nation.

As Kingston Citizen of the Year, I was invited to attend the opening of a wonderful exhibition by the artist Paola Balla, a Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman of the Day & Egan families, which is part of NAIDOC activities in Kingston.

Paola is of Italian and Chinese heritage and is a mother, artist, curator, writer, speaker, educator and cultural producer whose work includes developing Footscray Community Arts Centre’s Indigenous Cultural program, lecturer at Moondani Balluk Indigenous Academic Unit, Victoria University, Senior Curator of the First Peoples’ Exhibition at Melbourne Museum and in 2015 curated Executed, honouring the freedom fighters, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener for the City of Melbourne.

Currently, Artist in Residence for Moondani Balluk, Victoria University, Paola is conducting research into trans-generational colonial trauma as a Creative Thesis PhD.

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Interpreting this year’s national NAIDOC theme of ‘Songlines: The living narrative of our nation’,  Paola presents a series of new photographic and site-specific works as a love letter of respect and awe to her Aboriginal family and the strong, beautiful women within it. There are paintings, photographs, poetry, sculpture and a slide show with country music audio – a veritable feast of creative talent! 

the artist Paola and grandmother's poemgrandmothers poem

Paola’s work is driven by a commitment to justice, addressing trans-generational colonial trauma, creating spaces for people to have ownership and voice through de-colonising practices and the assertion of sovereignty. She puts the gaze back on whiteness and colonisation by asserting her identity as a sovereign woman and as the descendant of matriarchs.

Her work addresses colonial injury and celebrates Aboriginal female beauty and strength.

the artist Paola Ballaexplanation of the gown

At her Artist Floor Talk on Saturday 16 July at 2pm, there will be a fantastic opportunity to learn about the artist’s Aboriginal heritage and her inspiration for the exhibition.

mayor opening Naidoc exhibtion
Tamsin acknowledging Country with a series of canvas paintings in the background.

 

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mayor opening NAIDOC
The Mayor opening the exhibition

 

Mayor Tamsin Beardsley opened the NAIDOC celebrations acknowledging the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land. This is the seventh year running, Kingston Arts celebrates NAIDOC with a month-long program featuring a range of arts and cultural activities including :

Clock Tower Projections by Josh Muir INTEGRITY, LOYALTY, RESPECT: Screening nightly from Sunday 3 July, 6-9pm . Josh is a Melbourne-based multimedia artist and proud Yorta Yorta/ Gunditjmara man. He painted an illuminating picture of Aboriginal people of Victoria during Melbourne’s White Night celebrations and now his stunning artworks will be projected onto the Kingston City Hall Clock Tower.

clock tower
Tonight once it gets dark the passersby will be in for a treat!

 

The history and development of NAIDOC Week can be read here and a timeline downloaded and a full explanation of the theme Songlines: The living narrative of our nation

 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are today using digital technologies and modern mediums to record and celebrate these ancient Songlines or dreaming stories.

Dreaming tracks crisscross Australia and trace the journeys of our ancestral spirits as they created the land, animals and lores. These dreaming tracks are sometimes called ‘Songlines’ as they record the travels of these ancestral spirits who ‘sung’ the land into life.

Songlines are intricate maps of land, sea and country. They describe travel and trade routes, the location of waterholes and the presence of food. In many cases, Songlines on the earth are mirrored by sky Songlines, which allowed people to navigate vast distances of this nation and its waters…

Aboriginal language groups are connected through the sharing of Songlines with each language group responsible for parts of a Songline.

Through songs, art, dance and ceremony, Torres Strait Islanders also maintain creation stories which celebrate their connection to land and sea. 

Songlines have been passed down for thousands of years and are central to the existence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They are imperative to the preservation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural practices…

Through learning more about Songlines and how they connect people to Country and the Country to people – we celebrate the rich history and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures – the oldest continuing cultures on the planet.

 

 

The artist and arts officers
Paola with Kirsten Freeman and another member of the Kingston’s Arts & Cultural Services Team with Paola’s Photograph of  her country in the background

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THE IMPORTANCE OF WELCOME TO COUNTRY

Aunty Carolyn Briggs, a Boonwurrung Elder from Victoria who is recognized as a keeper of the history and genealogies of her people welcomed us to Country. She complimented the Mayor on her pronunciation of Aboriginal words and explained the Kulin are the five language groups who are the traditional owners in the Port Phillip region.

The language groups were connected through shared moieties (divided groups) — the  Bunjil (wedge-tailed eagle) and Waa (crow). Bunjil is the creation spirit of the Kulin and Waa the protector of the waterways.  Their collective traditional territory extends around Port Phillip and Western Port, up into the Great Dividing Range and the Loddon and Goulburn River valleys.

  ‘It’s about the strength of families, our heritage and the sense of belonging to place.’

The ‘Welcome to Country’ is only given by a Traditional Owner – a descendant of the first people living in an area. The Traditional Owner will welcome people to their land at the beginning of a meeting, event or ceremony.

Aunty Caroline Briggs
Aunty Carolyn Briggs

For the Aboriginal people, the land has a spiritual connection; it is mother. The human spirit is born from land and returns to it upon death. The land supplies  everything necessary for living.

Outside, Carolyn’s grandson also offered traditional Welcome to Country with the Smoking Ceremony (Tanderrum). Green leaves from plants are placed on a small fire. The smoke is used to cleanse the area and people present.

smoking ceremony introduction

This traditional way of welcoming people to their land and of cleansing your soul involved three plants for the ceremony. The purification ritual is always undertaken by an Aboriginal person with specialised cultural knowledge.

Aunty Carolyn Briggs reminded us  that smoking ceremonies are common in countries throughout the world.

The Black Wattle (Muyan) representing the elders, vital to local clans. Symbolic of the Elders’ strength and what they pass onto the future generation. The wattle (its seed, bark, wood, and gum) was used to provide nutrients, food, and warmth.

River Red Gum leaf ( Biel) – representing diversity within the community – more than 500 different eucalypts throughout Australia just as there are more than 500 different indigenous language groups or clans. Symbolic of the entire community and offers respective access to the land and its resources.

Cherry Ballart- (Ballee) – represents children (bubup) needs a host plant just as children need a guardian or Elder to grow. Symbolic of youth, strong and resilient but requires support when young and never really disconnects.

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There was difficulty getting the fire to light because of the wind so modern technology (cigarette lighter) was harnessed amid much laughter, but we were all able to circle the fire (children first, then ladies , then men) and inhale the smoke to cleanse our souls.

fire at smoking ceremony

The atmosphere in the exhibition (despite serious subject matter) and outside was friendly and uplifting. A great buzz as people chatted and shared stories.

When Paolo spoke about her exhibition she mentioned Mok Mok,  an old woman, ‘a hag’ who she was told to fear as a little girl because she steals children and kills and chops up men.

Always watching and waiting for people to break laws Mok Mok was written about by the esteemed Elder and author, Aunty Margaret Liliarda Tucker, one of the first Aboriginal women to write her autobiography: If Everyone Cared, published in 1977.

Mok Mok is angry about how  women and children are treated, too much male violence and too many children being stolen.

The assorted photographic images, slide show and audio relating to the story of Mok Mok are thought-provoking and provide a strong message:

Our Elders and matriarchs keep family stories, genealogies, connections, nurturing ways, child raising, teaching, singing, language and culture and teach me how to be an Sovereign Aboriginal woman. I respect these lessons by quietly listening, passing on knowledge to my children and creating works that reflect the strength of our women so they are not forgotten.

I hope people take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to connect with Paola and her art and for further information and interaction with Aboriginal Australia during NAIDOC Week, visit Lisa Hill’s blog and take part in her great initiative for Indigenous Literature Week.

The Kingston Arts Centre is easy to access by public transport, being a short walk from Moorabbin Railway Station. A selection of buses also stop outside and there is a carpark at the back.

When I was preparing to write this post, I reflected on many years of involvement with various groups fighting alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as they struggled for recognition and respect. I’m so glad that the Andrews Government in Victoria has started negotiations for a Treaty. Recognising Aboriginal Sovereignty has to be the first step in true reconciliation.

I rummaged through a box of old posters in the shed – many already enjoyed by silverfish – and was reminded of events, people and places from the past, 1970 – 2000.

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Unfortunately, some of my Aboriginal friends died far too young and although we now see the Aboriginal flag above council offices, and many officials are mindful of Welcome to Country protocols, there still needs to be more appreciation of the cultural significance and contribution of Indigenous Australians in the wider community.

How easily memories are triggered and stories beg to be retold and retained.

 

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7 thoughts on “Songlines Exhibition Celebrates Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Culture in Kingston

    1. Thanks for reading the post, Glenice and it was great to hear Paola talk about the strong matriarchs in her family with such pride and admiration and how determined she is to keep their stories alive for future generations.

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  1. Life conspired against me attending this. I had a ticket for a Mordialloc Theatre Company play at the Shirley Burke Theatre which was on the same day, and in the event I didn’t go to that either because I wasn’t well.
    But I’ll be going to the exhibition while it’s on:)

    Like

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