Resurrecting Indigenous Artefacts: An Interview With Jonathan Jones

Jonathan Jones | Courtesy of Kaldor Public Art Projects
Jonathan Jones | Courtesy of Kaldor Public Art Projects
Photo of Ellie Griffiths
26 September 2016

Jonathan Jones is the first ever Australian winner of the Kaldor Public Arts Project, presenting an astonishing reincarnation of the once iconic Garden Palace in Sydney. I caught up with Jones to discuss the significance of his piece barrangal dyara, the revival of Aboriginal languages and culture, and his previous honour of creating a memorial for Wurundjeri leader William Barak.

Your winning proposal for the Kaldor Public Arts Project has been described as holding the ‘potential to animate a part of our shared cultural history from a contemporary perspective that enables us to think about the legacy of this lost structure and the values and ideas it embodied’. What influenced your design of barrangal dyara (skin and bones)?

I guess the real influence of the project, in terms of the design, is the building itself. So, what we looked at doing was mapping the Garden Palace footprint and reimagining it on the site. That involved getting a number of architects, a number of plans and rebuilding that knowledge because there wasn’t a lot of knowledge around where the building actually sat within the landscape, and once we had worked out where it sat [in the landscape] we could actually start mapping it out. Then we used the three key elements of the artwork – the shields, the grassland and the languages – to occupy, or to almost inhabit, the space.

Jonathan Jones' ceramic shields on site outlining where the Garden Palace once stood at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney. | Courtesy of Kaldor Public Art Projects

Built in 1879, and destroyed by fire three years later, the Garden Palace was home to a vast amount of indigenous artefacts. Why did you choose 15,000 shields to recreate the Palace covering 19,000 square metres? What significance do these shields hold?

We chose shields for a number of reasons. The first key reason for me is that the site prior to, and during those early years of colonisation, was a ceremonial site. It’s a ceremonial site, and we know that because it was documented in the first few years of the colony where military officials were invited by the local Eora and Cadigal community to come on site and witness a corroboree (Aboriginal dance ceremony).

Now I believe those men were inviting the British to come and see this because they were keen for them to understand that they had a very strong and powerful culture that was vibrant and important, and to express that to an English audience in order to gain respect. In that ceremony we see – because there’s depictions in Judge Advocate David Collins’ publication of an account of the colony in New South Wales – we see that the men enter the ceremony carrying, dancing and singing with their shields in the performance, and one of the men is seen to be beating the shield and using it like a drum. With this project, we really wanted to reimagine that ceremony by reoccupying the space with shields, because we know that shields have been a constant presence within that landscape for a long, long time. So we wanted to re-evoke that memory and relive it.

We’re also really keen to comment on the collections and the collecting practices of museums and museum history. You know that of course the very first Aboriginal collections were, that we know, made by Captain Cook when he decided to forcibly land in Kamay – a little place called Botany Bay now – and that community on Kamay – the Gweagal men – made gestures, noises and sounds, and made it very clear that they wanted them not to settle but rather to go away. Of course Captain Cook forced himself onto the shores and invaded that land and the first thing he does of course is shoots at the group of men, the men who were resisting that landing. He shoots at those men, he wounds those men, those men rush off into the bush to save their lives. Captain Cook and the others come on shore and steal a shield, and some spears, and that in a way marks the very first acquisition policy for Australia.

This process that Aboriginal communities are constantly going to be invaded and our communities are constantly going to have our objects stolen and taken from us, it’s important to reference that history. And of course that shield recently came back to Australia as part of the British Museum’s exhibition encounters, and there were some very heavy demands from the local Gweagal community to have that shield repatriated, because we know that the shield was stolen. It wasn’t traded, it wasn’t given, it wasn’t battered. It was plainly stolen; and that story repeats itself through Australia’s history time and time again.

Exterior, the Garden Palace, Sydney, c1879. | Courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney.

What we were also interested in discussing was the idea: what does it mean to have your shields taken away from you? Shields are used by men to protect their families, to protect their communities, to protect their children, but what does it mean to have those shields taken away from our men and put into museums? And to then have those shields in this instance burnt in that museum. You can only start to imagine how vulnerable that process of taking our objects from our communities [and] leaving our communities, we were left enormously vulnerable and exposed and that is something I don’t think our communities have gotten over easily; we were keen to highlight that trauma of leaving our communities vulnerable. And so, by using these shields as a sort of bone-shaped-like shields – because they are meant to represent the bones – they mark the landscape and talk about, or respond to, the gardens themselves, but they also really look like bones or vertebras scattered across the landscape.

I guess that also goes a little bit back to your first question, the notion of the design of barrangal dyara. I was also really interested in those shields referencing or quoting the images of the palace after the fire; where the brick walls exploded across the landscapes and these bricks can be seen scattered across [the landscape], and this sort of rubble that we were trying to create with the shields. So, the shields today can be seen as ways of protecting the Garden Palace and reimagining it, playing a new role and telling in this a new story.

Jonathan Jones' ceramic shields on site outlining where the Garden Palace once stood at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney. | Courtesy of Kaldor Public Art Projects

Indigenous people across New South Wales are struggling to gain access to the natural materials that are necessary to practice traditions that have been a part of their culture for thousands of years. Being a member of the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi people of south-east Australia, is your artistic approach and choice of materials influenced by the traditions of your culture?

I very much think they are, however, as you rightly point out we’re very much inhibited as people in this region to access to our country (land); we often can’t get on country to collect the materials we want to collect. Most of the trees we traditionally use are today marked as protected species, and as Aboriginal people we don’t have traditional rights to harvest those materials. So, that in itself has caused a huge disruption in how we’re able to maintain our cultural practices and this is a huge problem for our people.

In this instance however, I’ve made the shields out of Gypsum material – Gypsum’s almost like a natural plaster – and Gypsum has been used for thousands of years by people in the Murray-Darling region and the South East region, including Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi, to make ceremonial mourning objects. So, this notion of using Gypsum was to quote those very old ceremonial practices of how one mourns and how one thinks about loss.

Jonathan Jones with ceramic shield on site at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney. | Courtesy of Kaldor Public Art Projects

With the ever-changing society and values in Australia since colonisation from the late 1700s, it is important to highlight a connecting bridge between the cultures presently sharing the country. You have previously explored Aboriginal practices, relationships and ideas in your works, do you feel it is important to portray these connections between the cultures as well? Why?

This is a really interesting question, where I have to say that I’m not alone, I don’t think, on this. People like Lorraine Connelly-Northey definitely recognise these same issues as well and try to reconcile all those heritages that we carry in our bloodline. I am of mixed heritage so my grandparents and great grandparents met and fell in love and I have to, as a descendent of those people, honour that story and I do. My grandmother – who wasn’t Aboriginal – was an extraordinary influence on my life and I’ll never forget her. As was my Aboriginal grandfather, and together they made my beautiful mum, who made me. And so I have to acknowledge their extraordinary legacies that have led me to where I am today. I also think that of course these bridges that I’m making, or hoping and trying to make, aren’t bridges, I guess, for Aboriginal people. I think the bridges that I’m trying to make are for non-Aboriginal people to realise that we [as Aboriginal people] have a lot to offer. That we are part of the national agenda, we’re part of the national story, we’re part of a global story. And we actually have a lot of knowledge and a lot of skills to offer the world.

For instance this idea that the Garden Palace has been completely forgotten – well it hasn’t been forgotten by Aboriginal people, we have not forgotten the loss that we suffered that day. We have a memory of that and we won’t let go of that memory, even though the rest of Australia has forgotten this building, the extraordinary loss that their community suffered and the extraordinary loss [of this building]. I think even in that very small instance Aboriginal people can be almost like this reminder in people’s ears that the Aboriginal people within an Australian context are constantly reminding other Australians of our history, constantly reminding other Australian’s that Australia is a very, very old country with enormous things to offer the world. I think it’s really about those ideas that I’m trying in these works to show, and demonstrate the extraordinary role Aboriginal knowledge has in Australian life that’s there, that sits underneath the surface and just needs to be pulled up and recognised.

So that, I think, is the key reason why I’m trying to do that and in doing so, what I’m hoping to do is break the vibe between the ‘them and us’ scenario, because so much of Australia’s history has been dogged by the ‘them and us’. The Garden Palace, of course, supported this ‘them and us’ scenario, but there was this ethnographic court where all the Aboriginal material was kept and then this Australian court where all the white knowledge and culture was kept. I don’t think that’s been very useful, this idea of separating the two communities, keeping the ‘them and us’ because the moment you talk about the Aboriginal community as the other, people automatically put up blockages, they automatically imagine that it’s so different, so foreign to them that they can’t engage. And that is, I think, one of the biggest issues that’s been slowing Australia down on a number of fronts.

Jonathan Jones placing ceramic shields on site at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney. | Courtesy of Kaldor Public Art Projects

The Aboriginal culture is one of the world’s oldest living cultures, although the language is becoming ‘nearly extinct’. However, there are many approaches in bringing the many languages back to life. What is your perspective of the revival of Aboriginal languages after all these years?

It’s an extraordinary gift again that Aboriginal people have been able to demonstrate; that even though a number of our languages have been asleep for a very, very long time that they’re still alive, they’re still there waiting for us to wake them up. I’ve been lucky enough to work with my Wiradjuri language inherited from my grandmother, and with Uncle Stan Grant who is leading language revival for the Wiradjuri people. I think the notion of the language revival is an extraordinary process, and it’s central to this project, because language revival proves to us that nothing’s ever lost. That we can rebuild our knowledge systems, reboot them and get them back online.

When I sort of conceptualised this project, I conceptualised it with Uncle Stan. I remember talking to him about the project and how language could be a facilitator for remembering objects that we don’t have. So, even though we don’t have those objects because they were destroyed in the fire, they were lost, we in fact can still remember them through our language, through our knowledge and through that process they’ll always be in our memories and our heart.

Uncle Stan really wanted us to take this project to the Parkes community. Parkes is a small rural town in central NSW, it’s a town that’s on Wiradjuri country that Uncle Stan has been working with language revival for a number of years – in fact I think he’s been working in the community for over 15 years. Teaching the community to become teachers and then enabling and supporting those teachers to go into the schools and teach the kids. After 15 years’ work that community is now working with over 1,000 kids a year, doesn’t matter if they’re Aboriginal or not, but they are working with them and learning the language of the traditional owners of the place. That’s an extraordinary feat because the community itself is only 12,000 people. So it’s an enormous percent of the population and a whole new generation of people that are going out into the community knowing about the traditional owners, knowing about their culture and knowing just a little bit about their language and that’s a really, really important thing.

Those schools and that community are reporting an enormous drop in racism, bullying and social cohesion within the schools that really talk about a much more healthier environment for all the students, not just the Wiradjuri or Aboriginal kids, so language can have a huge impact, and we all know that. When you know where you’re from, when you have culture, when you are strong it means that you have something to fall back on, and these kids now have something to fall back on. They have a foothold to actually move forward and feel comfortable about their own identity and that’s really important. The Wiradjuri story for me is an enormous success because of people like Uncle Stan, and Uncle Stan has been recognised right around the world now for his enormous contribution to the language revival process.

I’m really lucky and happy to say Uncle Stan and the kids from the Parkes schools [worked] on [barrangal dyara] together, contributing to the language soundscapes onsite – and the Wiradjuri soundscape is a soundscape I’m really proud of. You can hear Uncle Stan whispering Winhangaygunhanha, and that word means ‘remember’ in Wiradjuri, then you’ll hear a teacher from that community say ‘remember the designs on the shield’ and a young student saying ‘remember the shield,’ all in Wiradjuri. In that moment you get three generations of learning from elder to teacher to student, and that was something that Uncle Stan was really keen to happen.

Jonathan Jones' ceramic shields on site at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney. | Courtesy of Kaldor Public Art Projects

In 2011, you created untitled (muyan) with Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin, a memorial for the Wurundjeri leader and esteemed artist William Barak. This must’ve been a huge honour. Where did you get the inspiration for this piece?

That muyan artwork – which was a project commissioned to celebrate the Wurundjeri leader William Barak – was indeed an extraordinary honour. I have to say that I was asked on to the project and I didn’t take [the project] on for a very long time. I ended up going and seeing Aunty Joy – I’d already worked with her on some other projects – and I confessed to her that I didn’t feel that I was the right person to tell this story, that someone from her community should be telling this story. I had no right as a Wiradjuri person to be talking about a Wurundjeri ancestor. She guided me through and supported me and said ‘no, you are the right person to do this’. She is an extraordinary person, I’m guessing by your question you might have met her, or heard of her, or known of her and if so you know how extraordinary she is, she is a phenomenal leader in our community, and she is a true, true hero.

Aunty Joy took me to Barak’s graveyard, she took me around country, she showed me pictures, she told me her family story, she took me out and showed me Badger’s Creek where the community was established. We talked about things, and it was through her conversations, her knowledge and listening to and engaging with her that we started designing the artwork. Aunty Joy wanted the artwork to have a relationship to the birrarung, the Yarra River, the site line that it sits on in the art gallery, creating a direct site line to the birrarung. We put the work in-between floors, because Barak himself was between worlds. He was an amazing connector, connecting communities, connecting people, working extraordinarily hard for the benefit of his community and so that’s the reason why the work sits in the sort of stairwell. We also created five light boxes that actually make up the work, representing the five key nations that make up the Kulin nation – Wurundjeri are just one of them. William Barak was very much recognised in his role at Coranderrk – the community he helped to establish – as the leader of those five groups that make up the Kulin nation. So those five doors or five shapes, five light boxes, represent those five nations.

I call them doors because we did base their shape on the size of a standard door, so this idea that these boxes were almost like these doorways, and I think that his artwork, his stories, his work, his practice, the role he took, meant that he opened doors and created these platforms and entrances for the community to survive and to continue to learn. The designs that we used in the work are actually all from his works, so all the light designs that sit within the light boxes are from Barak’s paintings. So Aunty Joy and I worked hard at pulling them out and seeing them within the designs that he depicts within his paintings, and then finally the work every year turns yellow, and the designs and the boxes just glow yellow.

The reason this occurs is because William Barak predicted his own death, saying ‘when the wattle blooms I’ll die’ and sure enough when the wattle bloomed in early spring / late winter along the river, he got a cut on his hand which got badly infected, and that infection eventually led to his death. This notion that the wattle blooming represent the memory of Barak was extraordinarily strong to us and so we really wanted to get the story of the wattle in there. So every year when the wattle blooms, the designs fade down and the yellow fades up and you get this moment where this this living memory of William Barak is in the building and takes on a different glow, and it connects the gallery to country, and the gallery to a living history.

For this project barrangal djura, Aunty Joy also contributed a soundscape, as the community of Coranderrk was known to be producing a lot of cultural material. So it’s very likely that there was material from Coranderrk in the Garden Palace when it was destroyed. Aunty Joy found and worked up a list of cultural objects from the Woiwurrung language – Wurundjeri people speak Woiwurrung – and we recorded Aunty Joy reading this list of lost objects and her niece whispers it in the background. Then in the background of her soundscape we have Badger’s Creek – a beautiful mountain stream that comes down and hits the birrarung or the Yarra River – and at the junction of the birrarung and Badger’s Creek is where Barak and that community set up their community and tried to survive. That country, that corner between the creek and the river, is a really important site for that community. The only other thing we were lucky enough to catch while we were down there was a wedge-tailed eagle or Bunjil. Bunjil is the creator of everything for the Wurundjeri people; he created everything for that community and he is their biggest ancestral figure – and we put him in there as well, as a way of announcing the start of that soundscape.

This fantastic process of working closely with someone and collaborating deeply with them, you become family, you get connected and you love them and you work together on these projects – so you continue to work on projects – and I’m sure Aunty Joy and I will keep working on projects together, which is an enormous privilege.

Jonathan Jones with prototype ceramic shield on site at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney. | © Emma Pike/Kaldor Public Art Projects

Barrangal dyara (skin and bones) is on display at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, from 17 September until 3 October 2016.

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