Revealing and Revelling in the Floods on Country: Memory Poles within Toonooba

Bronwyn Fredericks, Abraham Bradfield

Abstract


In 2013, the Capricornia Arts Mob (CAM), an Indigenous collective of artists situated in Rockhampton, central Queensland, Australia, successfully tendered for one of three public art projects that were grouped under the title Flood Markers (Roberts; Roberts and Mackay; Robinson and Mackay). Commissioned as part of the Queensland Government's Community Development and Engagement Initiative, Flood Markers aims to increase awareness of Rockhampton’s history, with particular focus on the Fitzroy River and the phenomena of flooding. Honouring Land Connections is CAM’s contribution to the project and consists of several “memory poles” that stand alongside the Fitzroy River in Toonooba Park. Rockhampton lies on Dharumbal Country with Toonooba being the Dharumbal name for the Fitzroy River and the inspiration for the work due to its cultural significance to the Aboriginal people of that region. The name Toonooba, as well as other images and icons including boomerangs, spears, nets, water lily, and frogs, amongst others, are carved, burnt, painted and embedded into the large ironbark poles. These stand with the river on one side and the colonial infrastructure of Rockhampton on the other (see fig. 1, 2 and 3).

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

 Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

Within this article, we discuss Honouring Land Connections as having two main functions which contribute to its significance as Indigenous cultural expression and identity affirmation. Firstly, the memory poles (as well as the process of sourcing materials and producing the final product) are a manifestation of Country and a representation of its stories and lived memories. Honouring Land Connections provides a means for Aboriginal people to revel in Country and maintain connections to a vital component of their being as Indigenous. Secondly, by revealing Indigenous stories, experiences, and memories, Honouring Land Connections emphasises Indigenous voices and perspectives within a place dominated by Eurocentric outlooks and knowledges. Toonooba provides the backdrop on which the complexities of cultural and identity formation within settler-colonial spaces are highlighted whilst revelling in continuous Indigenous presence.

Flood Markers as Art

Artists throughout the world have used flood markers as a means of visual expression through which to explore and reveal local histories, events, environments, and socio-cultural understandings of the relationships between persons, places, and the phenomena of flooding. Geertz describes art as a social text embedded within wider socio-cultural systems; providing insight into cultural, social, political, economic, gendered, religious, ethnic, environmental, and biographical contexts. Flood markers are not merely metric tools used for measuring the height of a river, but rather serve as culture artefacts or indexes (Gell Art and Agency; Gell "Technology of Enchantment") that are products and producers of socio-culture contexts and the memories and experiences embedded within them. Through different methods, mediums, and images, artists have created experiential and intellectual spaces where those who encounter their work are encouraged to engage their surroundings in thought provoking and often-new ways.

In some cases, flood markers have brought attention to the “character and natural history” of a particular place, where artists such as Louise Lavarack have sought to provoke consciousness of the movement of water across flood plains (Lavarack). In other works, flood markers have served as memorials to individuals such as Gilbert White whose daughter honoured his life and research through installing a glass spire at Boulder Creek, Colorado in 2011 (White). Tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 have also been commemorated through flood markers. Artist Christopher Saucedo carved 1,836 waves into a freestanding granite block; each wave representing a life lost (University of New Orleans). The weight of the granite symbolises the endurance and resilience of those who faced, and will continue to face, similar forces of nature. The Pillar of Courage erected in 2011 in Ipswich, Queensland, similarly contains the words “resilience, community, strength, heroes, caring and unity” with each word printed on six separate sections of the pillar, representing the six major floods that have hit the region (Chudleigh).

Whilst these flood markers provide valuable insights into local histories, specific to each environmental and socio-cultural context, works such as the Pillar of Courage fail to address Indigenous relationships to Country. By framing flooding as a “natural disaster” to be overcome, rather than an expression of Country to be listened to and understood, Euro and human-centric perspectives are prioritised over Indigenous ways of knowing and being. Indigenous knowledges however encourages a reorientation of Eurocentric responses and relationships to Country, and in doing so challenge compartmentalised views of “nature” where flooding is separated from land and Country (Ingold Perception; Seton and Bradley; Singer). Honouring Land Connections symbolises the voice and eternal presence of Toonooba and counters presentations of flooding that depict it as historian Heather Goodall (36) once saw “as unusual events of disorder in which the river leaves its proper place with catastrophic results.”

Country 

To understand flooding from Indigenous perspectives it is first necessary to discuss Country and apprehend what it means for Indigenous peoples. Country refers to the physical, cosmological, geographical, relational, and emotional setting upon which Indigenous identities and connections to place and kin are embedded. Far from a passive geographic location upon which interactions take place, Country is an active and responsive agent that shapes and contextualises social interactions between and amongst all living beings. Bob Morgan writes of how “Country is more than issues of land and geography; it is about spirituality and identity, knowing who we are and who we are connected to; and it helps us understand how all living things are connected.” Country is also an epistemological frame that is filled with knowledge that may be known and familiarised whilst being knowledge itself (Langton "Sacred"; Rose Dingo; Yunupingu).

Central to understanding Country is the fact that it refers to a living being’s spiritual homeland which is the ontological place where relationships are formed and maintained (Yunupingu). As Country nurtures and provides the necessities for survival and prosperity, Indigenous people (but also non-Indigenous populations) have moral obligations to care for Country as kin (Rose Nourishing Terrains). Country is epistemic, relational, and ontological and refers to both physical locations as well as modes of “being” (Heidegger), meaning it is carried from place to place as an embodiment within a person’s consciousness. Sally Morgan (263) describes how “our country is alive, and no matter where we go, our country never leaves us.” Country therefore is fluid and mobile for it is ontologically inseparable to one’s personhood, reflected through phrases such as “I am country” (B. Morgan 204).

Country is in continuous dialogue with its surroundings and provides the setting upon which human and non-human beings; topographical features such as mountains and rivers; ancestral beings and spirits such as the Rainbow Snake; and ecological phenomena such as winds, tides, and floods, interact and mutually inform each other’s existence (Rose Nourishing Terrains). For Aboriginal people, understanding Country requires “deep listening” (Atkinson; Ungunmerr), a responsive awareness that moves beyond monological and human-centric understandings of the world and calls for deeper understandings of the mutual and co-dependant relationships that exist within it. The awareness of such mutuality has been discussed through terms such as “kincentrism” (Salmón), “meshworks” (Ingold Lines), “webs of connection” (Hokari), “nesting” (Malpas), and “native science” (Cajete). Such concepts are ways of theorising “place” as relational, physical, and mental locations made up of numerous smaller interactions, each of which contribute to the identity and meaning of place. Whilst each individual agent or object retains its own autonomy, such autonomy is dependent on its wider relation to others, meaning that place is a location where “objectivity, subjectivity and inter-subjectivity converge” (Malpas 35) and where the very essence of place is revealed.

Flooding as Dialogue

When positioned within Indigenous frameworks, flooding is both an agent and expression of Toonooba and Country. For the phenomenon to occur however, numerous elements come into play such as the fall of rain; the layout of the surrounding terrain; human interference through built weirs and dams; and the actions and intervention of ancestral beings and spirits. Furthermore, flooding has a direct impact on Country and all life within it. This is highlighted by Dharumbal Elder Uncle Billy Mann (Fitzroy Basin Association "Billy Mann") who speaks of the importance of flooding in bringing water to inland lagoons which provide food sources for Dharumbal people, especially at times when the water in Toonooba is low. Such lagoons remain important places for fishing, hunting, recreational activities, and cultural practices but are reliant on the flow of water caused by the flowing, and at times flooding river, which Uncle Mann describes as the “lifeblood” of Dharumbal people and Country (Fitzroy Basin Association "Billy Mann"). 

Through her research in the Murray-Darling region of New South Wales, Weir writes of how flooding sustains life though cycles that contribute to ecological balance, providing nourishment and food sources for all beings (see also Cullen and Cullen 98). Water’s movement across land provokes the movement of animals such as mice and lizards, providing food for snakes. Frogs emerge from dry clay plains, finding newly made waterholes. Small aquatic organisms flourish and provide food sources for birds. Golden and silver perch spawn, and receding waters promote germination and growth. Aboriginal artist Ron Hurley depicts a similar cycle in a screen-print titled Waterlily–Darambal Totem. In this work Hurley shows floodwaters washing away old water lily roots that have been cooked in ant bed ovens as part of Dharumbal ceremonies (UQ Anthropology Museum). The cooking of the water lily exposes new seeds, which rains carry to nearby creeks and lagoons. The seeds take root and provide food sources for the following year.  

Cooking water lily during Dharumbal ceremonies contributes to securing and maintaining a sustainable food source as well as being part of Dharumbal cultural practice. Culture, ecological management, and everyday activity are mutually connected, along with being revealed and revelled in. Aboriginal Elder and ranger Uncle Fred Conway explains how Country teaches Aboriginal people to live in balance with their surroundings (Fitzroy Basin Association "Fred Conway"). As Country is in constant communication, numerous signifiers can be observed on land and waterscapes, indicating the most productive and sustainable time to pursue certain actions, source particular foods, or move to particular locations. The best time for fishing in central Queensland for example is when Wattles are in bloom, indicating a time when fish are “fatter and sweeter” (Fitzroy Basin Association "Fred Conway"). In this case, the Wattle is 1) autonomous, having its own life cycle; 2) mutually dependant, coming into being because of seasonal weather patterns; and 3) an agent of Country that teaches those with awareness how to respond and benefit from its lessons.

Dialogue with Country

As Country is sentient and responsive, it is vital that a person remains contextually aware of their actions on and towards their surroundings. Indigenous peoples seek familiarity with Country but also ensure that they themselves are known and familiarised by it (Rose Dingo). In a practice likened to “baptism”, Langton ("Earth") describes how Aboriginal Elders in Cape York pour water over the head of newcomers as a way of introducing them to Country, and ensuring that Country knows those who walk upon it. These introductions are done out of respect for Country and are a way of protecting outsiders from the potentially harmful powers of ancestral beings. Toussaint et al. similarly note how during mortuary rites, parents of the deceased take water from rivers and spit it back into the land, symbolising the spirit’s return to Country.

Dharumbal man Robin Hatfield demonstrates the importance of not interfering with the dialogue of Country through recalling being told as a child not to disturb Barraru or green frogs. Memmott (78) writes that frogs share a relationship with the rain and flooding caused by Munda-gadda, the Rainbow Snake. Uncle Dougie Hatfield explains the significance of Munda-gadda to his Country stating how “our Aboriginal culture tells us that all the waterways, lagoons, creeks, rivers etc. and many landforms were created by and still are protected by the Moonda-Ngutta, what white people call the Rainbow Snake” (Memmott 79).

In the case of Robin Hatfield, to interfere with Barraru’s “business” is to threaten its dialogue with Munda-gadda and in turn the dialogue of Country in form of rain. In addition to disrupting the relational balance between the frog and Munda-gadda, such actions potentially have far-reaching social and cosmological consequences. The rain’s disruption affects the flood plains, which has direct consequences for local flora and transportation and germination of water lily seeds; fauna, affecting the spawning of fish and their movement into lagoons; and ancestral beings such as Munda-gadda who continue to reside within Toonooba.

Honouring Land Connections provided artists with a means to enter their own dialogue with Country and explore, discuss, engage, negotiate, and affirm aspects of their indigeneity. The artists wanted the artwork to remain organic to demonstrate honour and respect for Dharumbal connections with Country (Roberts). This meant that materials were sourced from the surrounding Country and the poles placed in a wave-like pattern resembling Munda-gadda. Alongside the designs and symbols painted and carved into the poles, fish skins, birds, nests, and frogs are embalmed within cavities that are cut into the wood, acting as windows that allow viewers to witness components of Country that are often overlooked (see fig. 4). Country therefore is an equal participant within the artwork’s creation and continuing memories and stories. More than a representation of Country, Honouring Land Connections is a literal manifestation of it.

Figure 4

Figure 4

Opening Dialogue with Non-Indigenous Australia

Honouring Land Connections is an artistic and cultural expression that revels in Indigenous understandings of place. The installation however remains positioned within a contested “hybrid” setting that is informed by both Indigenous and settler-colonial outlooks (Bhabha). The installation for example is separated from the other two artworks of Flood Markers that explore Rockhampton’s colonial and industrial history. Whilst these are positioned within a landscaped area, Honouring Land Connections is placed where the grass is dying, seating is lacking, and is situated next to a dilapidated coast guard building. It is a location that is as quickly left behind as it is encountered. Its separation from the other two works is further emphasised through its depiction in the project brief as a representation of Rockhampton’s pre-colonial history. Presenting it in such a way has the effect of bookending Aboriginal culture in relation to European settlement, suggesting that its themes belong to a time past rather than an immediate present. Almost as if it is a revelation in and of itself.   

Within settler-colonial settings, place is heavily politicised and often contested. In what can be seen as an ongoing form of colonialism, Eurocentric epistemologies and understandings of place continue to dominate public thought, rhetoric, and action in ways that legitimise White positionality whilst questioning and/or subjugating other ways of knowing, being, and doing (K. Martin; Moreton-Robinson; Wolfe). This turns places such as Toonooba into agonistic locations of contrasting and competing interests (Bradfield). For many Aboriginal peoples, the memories and emotions attached to a particular place can render it as either comfortable and culturally safe, or as unsafe, unsuitable, unwelcoming, and exclusionary (Fredericks). Honouring Land Connections is one way of publicly asserting and recognising Toonooba as a culturally safe, welcoming, and deeply meaningful place for Indigenous peoples.    

Whilst the themes explored in Honouring Land Connections are not overtly political, its presence on colonised/invaded land unsettles Eurocentric falsities and colonial amnesia (B. Martin) of an uncontested place and history in which Indigenous voices and knowledges are silenced. The artwork is a physical reminder that encourages awareness—particularly for non-Indigenous populations—of Indigenous voices that are continuously demanding recognition of Aboriginal place within Country. Similar to the boomerangs carved into the poles representing flooding as a natural expression of Country that will return (see fig. 5), Indigenous peoples continue to demand that the wider non-Indigenous population acknowledge, respect, and morally responded to Aboriginal cultures and knowledges.

Figure 5

Figure 5

Conclusion

Far from a historic account of the past, the artists of CAM have created an artwork that promotes awareness of an immediate and emerging Indigenous presence on Country. It creates a space that is welcoming to Indigenous people, allowing them to engage with and affirm aspects of their living histories and cultural identities. Through sharing stories and providing “windows” into Aboriginal culture, Country, and lived experiences (which like the frogs of Toonooba are so often overlooked), the memory poles invite and welcome an open dialogue with non-Indigenous Australians where all may consider their shared presence and mutual dependence on each other and their surroundings.

The memory poles are mediatory agents that stand on Country, revealing and bearing witness to the survival, resistance, tenacity, and continuity of Aboriginal peoples within the Rockhampton region and along Toonooba. Honouring Land Connections is not simply a means of reclaiming the river as an Indigenous space, for reclamation signifies something regained after it has been lost. What the memory poles signify is something eternally present, i.e. Toonooba is and forever will be embedded in Aboriginal Country in which we all, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, human and non-human, share. The memory poles serve as lasting reminders of whose Country Rockhampton is on and describes the life ways of that Country, including times of flood. Through celebrating and revelling in the presence of Country, the artists of CAM are revealing the deep connection they have to Country to the wider non-Indigenous community.

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Keywords


Public Art; River; Flood; Regional; Country; Indigenous; Australia; Rockhampton; Dharumbal; Toonooba



Copyright (c) 2020 Bronwyn Fredericks, Abraham Bradfield

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