In 2018, Bangerang artist Peta Clancy was awarded a Fostering Koorie Art and Culture Residency Program grant from the Koorie Heritage Trust, Melbourne, to research massacre sites on Dja Dja Wurrung Country in Central and Northern Victoria. Working closely with Traditional Owners, Clancy spent a year visiting and documenting an unmarked site submerged underwater, learning the land and it’s hidden stories to create the expansive and compelling photographic series Undercurrent. This series will be on display in the upcoming Bendigo Art Gallery exhibition The Burning World opening 8 August.
For this exhibition, in collaboration with Clancy, Dja Dja Wurrung artist and curator Natasha Carter has selected a suite of 19th century paintings and works on paper from the gallery’s historic collection that depict her ancestral land through a Euro-centric lens. In this abridged conversation with Bendigo Art Gallery Curator Clare Needham, Natasha and Peta share insights into their work, processes and collaboration.
Peta: My research was informed and deeply enriched through visits on Country and to massacre sites with Dja Dja Wurrung Traditional Owners, Mick Bourke and Amos Atkinson. I was also given a Dja Dja Wurrung massacre map documenting many massacre sites on country known of from archival history. There are countless other sites, not featured on this map or any map, which Elders and Traditional Owners are painfully aware of.
Whilst we were on Country visiting the massacre sites we didn't step onto the actual sites, instead we looked and reflected from afar. There was often a disparity between what we were looking at and what the historical records told us the sites looked like at the time or what occurred there. Many of these sites have been cleared, and the truth of what happened there has been fabricated, covered over and denied. However there was one site we visited, which George Robinson, Chief Protector of Aborigines in Port Phillip, referred to in his writings on 17 January 1840 i. Travelling through the area where this site is, we pulled over just across a bridge near the site. When we referred to the archival records it was evident that this was the exact spot; the historical description matching the view we saw. The feeling was heavy and we talked about ways to heal Country and acknowledge these significant sites.
The site I eventually chose particularly spoke to me. I spent a whole year going back every few weeks, through seasons and at different times of the day, developing a relationship, learning the site and it’s stories. It felt like a truthful way of exploring a site and its traumatic history, by developing a relationship and being respectful in a way that wasn’t sensationalising it.
I chose the site because it was underwater, you couldn't stand on the site, it was covered. I saw this as a metaphor for the fact that we don’t talk a lot about this part of Australian history. For Dja Dja Wurrung People it's a visceral knowing about the history of massacre sites, but in the general Australian community there is a lot of denial.
Natasha: It’s a really hard story to tell and talk about. Your work is beautiful and respectful. It's a subject that the wider community needs to recognise and acknowledge to be able to heal as a whole community. To sweep it under the rug creates a tension and a heartache that is never resolved. Your work creates a moment of solemnity and pause to think about the site and the stories without being really intense about it.
While obviously not the intention of why the water is over the site you chose to document, the whole idea of the site being covered and therefore protected by the water is symbolic. Water is cleansing and healing. It is also such an important part of our environment and our Culture, where we choose to make our homes and centre our life. A precious resource, waterways have historically been sites of conflict and trauma for First Nations communities.
I’m interested in your description of the site you visited where you could see the markers in the landscape that matched the historical record. The landscape never forgets; it holds stories and actions. Whether we build on it, dig it up, change its shape, it doesn’t change the significance of the site and what has happened there.
Peta: That’s so true and that’s why I wanted to develop a relationship with the site I ended up choosing to document. Through going back again and again, I allowed the site to just be over time and I listened and watched, acknowledging the layering of stories that exist in the landscape and different timeframes that overlapped.
Natasha: The works in I have chosen from Bendigo Art Gallery’s collection are historical records that tell us stories of a time and place. A lot of artworks depict a bit of an ideal though, not necessarily what was actually there. When spending time with the collection, I was always looking at what story was being told through the artwork, what was recorded (or not) and how that played into my People’s history. There are a lot of artworks that show the environmental destruction of the gold mining industry. If you overlay an understanding of the current city, you start thinking about what it looked like back then, and for me, I also think about what it looked like before all this, before the gold rushes.
Dja Dja Wurrung value quartz, it’s a great material for knapping and creating tools, historically we had no use for the soft material of gold. Yet quartz and gold come hand in hand. Our quartz quarries left open a seam for pastoralists to find gold and this has had a catastrophic impact on my People. We call Dja Dja Wurrung Country upside down Country because of the rotation of the soil as a result of mining. What should have been below, now sits on top, and so many of our artefacts can be found sitting close to the surface instead of the layers upon layers that should be on top of it.
I have introduced a gold seam into the installation to converse with the horizon line in your work Peta, and speak to the significance of gold to the history and identity of Bendigo and the history of my People. The gold seam is like a scar through the land, of above and below and acts like a kind of timeline connecting stories and artworks. It subtly references that we have always been here, we may not be depicted in many of the images, or our history acknowledged in the same way, but we have always been here along this same historical timeline.
I start the gold seam with a section of quartz to highlight a difference in perspective. I am interested to try to get people into the mindset of looking at the artworks from an Aboriginal perspective. The landscape paintings don’t always show us or our impact of 60,000 plus years. In those moments Aboriginal people are shown, what is the interpretation? Are we shown as strong, resilient people, or secondary characters in our own homelands, deferential or dependant on others? These are important distinctions because it can skew a person’s perception of another, especially if the viewer of the art may never meet and converse with the people or culture being shown.
From 8 August – 8 November 2020, Undercurrent will be on display in Bolton Court, built in 1867 and converted in 1890 to become the permanent site of the newly established Bendigo Art Gallery.
i Ian D Clarke, Scars in the landscape: a register of massacre sites in Western Victoria 1803–1859. Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 1995. p91-92.