WILAM BIIK is an exhibition arising from the unsevered connection between First Peoples of South East Australia, their Country, and their Ancestors. In the Woiwurrung language of the Wurundjeri people, Wilam Biik means ‘Home Country’. Wilam Biik is the Soil, the Land, the Water, the Air, the Sky and the Animals that reside within. It is the only home we know, and we revere it for its sacred exchange. A home where custodial rights and responsibilities have never been ceded. The First Nations people of the South East Australian region are a part of Communities and Ancestral stories which extend through deep time. Wilam Biik is a place we connect to when we need to go within ourselves, when we seek our truth.
The exhibition features ten new commissions by contemporary Aboriginal artists who have been selected based on their Country, language group, and songlines. Each of their works link together a story of extended familial connections. The honouring of family and Ancestors, the sharing of traditional knowledge, and the continuance of cultural practices, are integral to the transgenerational installations woven within WILAM BIIK. Their works call on visitors to consider and respond to the following values which go to the heart of First Peoples knowledge, traditions, and ways of being:
How do we see Country?
How do we listen to Country?
How do we connect to Country?
The First Peoples of South East Australia are all closely connected through kinship, songlines, waterlines, and the land itself. As you journey through each artist’s installation, you are participating in the story of this land and its geological history. Each of these artists have long developed their deep relationship with Country. This relationship is embedded in Culture and their respective Ancestral stories, which maintain a respect and love for the places they call Home.
WILAM BIIK is proudly presented on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people and when we honour Country, we need to honour the Liwik (Ancestors) first. The exhibition acknowledges this by placing the works and stories of the Ancestors and their Wurundjeri descendants, along with those of the Taungurung and unprovenanced tools and adornments from nearby regions, at the beginning. These Ancestral belongings have returned home and, in this way, the Old People are respected as are the protocols that are an important element of our Cultural Values. There have always been protocols for moving across Country, so as visitors journey through the exhibition, they know that these have been taken into consideration and that they are travelling with care. As our Ancestors and Elders would say to those visiting: ‘Wominjeka Wurundjeri balluk yearmenn koondee bik’ (Welcome to the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people).
Our Ancestors passed on knowledge through storytelling, ceremony, dance and song, and always adorned themselves with pieces crafted from Country. At the start of the exhibition against the backdrop of an enlarged photograph of Coranderrk Aboriginal Station, there is a display of three hand-crafted tools — a parrying shield, a boomerang, and a spear thrower — and five paintings by the great Wurundjeri Ngurungaeta (Head Man) and artist, Beruke, or William Barak. Coranderrk was established along the Birrarung in 1863 by Wurundjeri people and other Aboriginal people who had been displaced from their Country, and through the leadership of Barak, and Simon Wonga before him, the station became a thriving and self-sufficient community. As his great-great niece, Senior Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin, has written, Barak was not only a powerful advocate for the rights of the community he represented, his paintings continue to play a vital role in maintaining Wurundjeri cultural heritage:
Your paintings are our ancient treasures. In the modern world you remind us of our place of belonging. Thank you Uncle for keeping the fire burning and keeping our culture alive.
We should never forget who we are and where we come from. Today I walk this land in recognition and with the utmost respect for those who walked before me … Perhaps Barak knew that people would be writing stories about his life. Maybe he felt the need to tell his own story in his own way. These beautiful images reiterate and confirm the importance of identity and the central place of ceremony in Aboriginal society. These images should not be ignored. They are embedded with respect and integrity and represent the stories of the oldest living culture in the world.1
1. Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin, ‘Barak, my uncle’ in Remembering Barak, (exh. cat.), Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2003.
These invaluable works, and the Ancestral personal tools and adornments displayed alongside them, acknowledge those who have come before us, who cared for Country, and who led the way for future generations. This process of passing on traditional knowledge from one generation to the next, is continued through the contemporary practices of the artists in WILAM BIIK.
Kim Wandin keeps the weaving practices of the Wurundjeri people alive by using reeds and other fibre plants collected on Country and employing traditional techniques in making her intricate eel traps and baskets. This process of gathering and weaving these natural materials is one she learnt from an esteemed Elder, who had learnt it from Granny Jemima Burns Wandin Dunolly, a highly significant member of the Coranderrk community who was staunchly committed to maintaining her culture and who was instrumental in continuing many traditions. Kim honours Granny Jemima, along with Robert Wandoon (Granny Jemima’s husband), Annie Borate (sister of William Barak and mother of Robert Wandoon) and William Barak, with her series Wrapped in Country, whereby each of their photographic portraits have been housed in rescued Victorian Mountain Ash wood frames and lovingly wrapped in woven natural fibres. In turn, her son, Lewis Wandin-Bursil, is also picking up the Ancestral knowledge from Barak, via the wooden tool making and carving techniques he utilises. The direct passing down of important traditional skills through intergenerational practices ensures culture and Country are preserved and nurtured, while also representing the resilience and power of familial connections.
As the only female dance group entirely made up of Wurundjeri descendants, the Djirri Djirri Wurundjeri Women’s Dance Group are also deeply committed to restoring and maintaining important cultural practices. In WILAM BIIK, three of their dances — the Wominjeka Ngarga (Welcome dance), Biik Ngarga (the Six Layers of Country dance) and the Djirri Djirri Ngarga (the dance of the Willy Wagtail) — are projected onto a large-scale wallpaper image of a special part of the Birrarung in Warburton. Each of these dances has been performed on Country, among Tea Tree, Bracken Fern, Manna Gums, Blackwood trees, giant Mountain Ash and alongside river reeds and the flowing Birrarung. These dances and songs, sung in Woiwurrung — their Mother Tongue — share stories of Wurundjeri culture and language, celebrate their Creation stories, and are created to honour their Liwik (Ancestors), Kerr-up-non (Family), Biik (Country) and Animals (Spirit Protectors). These dances and songs have been woken up via a Women’s Ceremony called Murrum Turrukuruk, in which babies are given their spirit protectors by their Elders. This Women’s Ceremony had not been practised for more than 180 years. This process, now in its 7th year, is restoring an important coming-of-age ceremony. The presence of these ceremonial dances, alongside an installation of their personal adornments made in the traditional way, represent a continuity of cultural knowledge sharing. Seen in the presence of the cultural practices of William Barak, Granny Jemima Wandin Dunolly, Timothy Korkanoon, Aunty Joyce Moate and the Liwik (Ancestors) presented in WILAM BIIK, their works ensure that this repository of knowledge will continue into the future through the next generation.
The paintings of Wadawurrung artist Deanne Gilson also share stories of Creation, Ceremony, and the many layers of Country, and often feature the native birds which are our spirit protectors (sometimes referred to as totems however this is a term more commonly used by other Indigenous cultures). The spirit protectors we each are given take the form of birds and other native animals, and they carry with them stories of their role on Country, the values they represent, and their distinct personality traits. As the artist relates, the story for Karringalabil Bundjil Murrup, Manna Gum Tree (The Creation Tree of Knowledge), 2020 — given to Deanne by her mother — reveals deep cultural knowledge:
My painting depicts the Wadawurrung Creation Story of South Eastern Victoria, at a place known as Black Hill in Gordon, situated on my Ancestral Country. A man known as Karringalabil, the creator spirit, created the first man and woman out of clay (paapul). He took bark and leaves from the great birthing tree known today as the manna gum tree. The manna gum tree is a sacred tree that housed all the spirits of creation within its branches.
Karringalabil turned the tree spirits into the birds of creation, who today represent our Ancestral totems. He then turned himself into the largest and most powerful bird, Bundjil the Eaglehawk.2
For WILAM BIIK, Deanne painted a diptych titled As I Walk on Country, Passing the Manna Gum and the Banksia Tree, I Remember the Past and Work Towards a Brighter Future, which depicts a sacred Manna Gum tree with a visible scar where wood to make a shield has been cut from its trunk. Visual representations of cultural treasures such as this are highly significant to the people of South East Australia as they are tangible marks which reveal the continued presence of our Ancestors on Country.
During Glenda Nicholls’s childhood she often watched her mother and grandmother crochet, sew and weave using natural fibres collected from in around the Swan Hill area where she grew up. Camping and fishing along the local waterways was also an important part of Glenda’s childhood and still is today: ‘It was schooling at its best with cultural knowledge of the water and waterways, local plants and habitat taught by Elders’.3 These formative experiences have directly informed her installation for WILAM BIIK which brings together her net-making and feather-flower making practices over the past decade. Both her Ochre Net, 2012, and recent Drag Net, 2021, are imbued with her knowledge of the rivers and plants of her Country and continue her familial storyline, connecting her contemporary practice with her Ancestral past.
Alongside her woven works, Glenda’s series of new feather flowers are displayed beside a selection of flowers created by her mother, Letty Nicholls in the late 1980s. While feather-craft was and continues to be used for adornments, and for dancers in ceremony, the practice of making flower bouquets from feathers emerged during colonisation, when traditional cultural practices and language were banned on missions by colonial forces. During this time women living on the missions, including Glenda’s mother, adapted and re-interpreted their traditional feather-craft practices to make flower bouquets which were sold to locals and tourists in the area to make what Letty Nicholls called ‘wheelbarrow money’ for the family. This intergenerational installation represents the continuation and evolution of feather-craft in Glenda’s family and she continues to teach these practices to pass on the tradition and the story to future generations.
Nannette Shaw, a Tyereelore Elder from Tasmania who also has ties to the Trawoolway of Tasmania and the Boonwurrung/Bunurong people of southern Victoria, is a traditional kelp worker, basket weaver and shell stringer whose practices witness the passing down of traditional knowledge from one generation to the next. Importantly, they also carry stories of colonial resistance by Tasmanian First Peoples across generations. For this exhibition, Nannette has created three Kelp Vessels, made in the way she was taught by two Elders, Dorothy Murray and Yvonne Kopper. For the artist it is important to always acknowledge her teachers ‘because without them taking the time to teach me, I would not be doing what I am doing today … I feel the importance of passing on what I have learnt as Culture is extremely important to me and must be heard’.4 Presented according to their size, from largest to smallest, the display of these vessels represents the dramatic decline in the size of the ‘underwater forests’ of giant kelp off the coast of Tasmania.
2. Deanne Gilson, Artist statement for WILAM BIIK, 2021.
3. See biography of Glenda Nicholls, Glenda Nicholls Creative, URL: http://www.glendanichollscreative.com.au/about.html, accessed 15 July 2021.
4. Nannette Shaw, Artist statement for WILAM BIIK, 2021.
Like the seashells which have been strung for generations, the kelp is becoming much harder to source as it cannot survive in the significantly warmer ocean temperatures caused by climate change.
Arika Waulu’s work is dedicated to the knowledge of the Blak Matriarchy, and honours the ongoing nurturing of Country, family and community. Their works are acts of resistance in defence of Country and call for a reclamation of traditional ways of connecting to the land as a means of regenerating Country. The mainstay of Arika’s practice has been the re-establishment of the Kanak/digging stick which, while essentially used as a tool for gardening, building and hunting, holds what the artist describes as ‘a spiritually tangible purpose of directing, manifesting and travel’.5 For WILAM BIIK, Arika has created Yuccan Noolert (Mother Possum), 2021, an installation featuring two large scale digging sticks — painted in red and yellow ochre, acrylic and gold pigment — which are adorned with melaleuca bark and suspended above a circular formation of crushed granite and surrounded by koolor (lava stone).
As the artist explains, the work represents both a tribute to their mother and an offering to the Wurundjeri community:
This work was made in honour of my mother Marjorie Thorpe whose work of over 40 years in the community has brought about important changes in housing, education and employment. More recently she has held off the destruction of Djapwurrung sacred women’s birthing sites and plans to continue to question cultural heritage legislation in the near future. My mother has not only shown myself, my siblings and my family how to care for Country, but she has also demonstrated what it takes to protect living cultural landscapes which are home to our threatened totem kin … This work will be a peace offering to the Wurundjeri Matriarchal bloodlines, our tribal neighbours with whom Gunnai have worked alongside for thousands of generations. This offering will bring health and strength to the land and peoples’ understanding of the power of working the land back to its original self.6
The intergenerational Matriarchal practices embedded in this work keep this deep knowledge system thriving and offer a means of considering how to care for Country in ways that are of direct benefit to the planet.
On one of the walls in the gallery Arika has installed a large scale digital print titled Gunnai Matriarchal Tree Wallpaper, 2021, which is a representation of their Gunnai bloodlines which have ‘not only survived bloody massacres but have fought to exist with dignity and pride … carry[ing] the power of generations with the strength of Matriarchal laws and love’.7 The opposite wall is lined with nine Kanak / Digging Sticks honouring further paternal and maternal Grandmothers while a planter box of six Murnong (yam daisies) sits outside the gallery window, standing for the five central Kulin clans with the sixth representing Gunnai Country.
Paola Balla’s installation for WILAM BIIK, Murrup (Ghost) Weaving in Rosie Kuka Lar (Grandmother’s Camp), 2021, also honours an intergenerational, matriarchal way of knowing Country. For this work, Paola has adorned a full size tent with a collection of delicate bush dyed silks which she tied to the frame with the assistance of her daughter Rosie. As many communities did traditionally, the process of dyeing the fabric and creating the work was accompanied by many yarns about the times when Paola and her mum would visit her Grandmother on Country. As the artist explains, she ‘created this space to visualise healing from ongoing traumas, racism and the impacts of grief created by colonisation to show what healing spaces could feel like, where restorative aesthetics, cultural acts and sovereign art weave across time’.8 For First Peoples, it provides a place for our stories and the spirit of oral storytelling to be breathed into the fabric of the work and the voices of our people will continue to absorb into the material and be held.
The tent is installed alongside a work by Paola’s late grandmother Rosie Tang which appears twice, once as an original painting, and once as a large-scale wallpaper reproduction which holds the space and situates the camp on Country. For the artist, it is a way of honouring the women and family who taught her and continue to walk with her:
5. Arika Waulu, Artist statement for WILAM BIIK, 2021.
8. Paola Balla, Artist statement for WILAM BIIK, 2021.
My grandmother Rosie taught me how to ‘see’ Country by drawing and painting it, and by listening to it. This work is a tribute to her, her art, and her love for her family and community, and functions as a place of remembrance. Whilst Aboriginal women’s contributions to art, culture, health, wellbeing and colonial resistance are largely invisible in the colonised landscape, we remember Aboriginal women as healers, artists and leaders in Country through story and art.9
Rhiannon Williams is an artist who also draws inspiration from the resilience of the women in her family. The canvases she has painted for WILAM BIIK, Rebirth 1 and Rebirth 2, both 2021, reveal her feelings and perceptions of home, Country, family and growth through two powerful compositions of a female torso. While strong and courageous in self-expression and determination her brushstrokes also express vulnerability and pain. These paintings are accompanied by Rhiannon’s poetry which is presented in a delicate way which draws you in to the words of a woman who is unafraid to speak her truth. The final lines of her poem Rebirth, convey her deep trust in the Dreaming of her Ancestors and her unwavering connection to Country, no matter where she finds herself:
… Country to me is knowing I will never walk this land alone.
It is the feeling of letting go and a knowing that I will always be safe when I wander the lands of my ancestors.
My idea of Home and Country is always changing as I step into the woman I am meant to be, for in the end, I am still learning.
Steven Rhall’s installation for WILAM BIIK is guided by his own personal relationship with Country as well as his consideration of the potential of Country’s self-representation. Of the Earth, 2021, is based around the presence of a boulder which the artist encountered on Taungurung Country. A printed photograph of this large rock is presented twice,
once as an editioned print, framed and hung on the gallery wall, and again unframed and lying horizontal on a tabletop which is installed in one of the museum’s (normally hidden) storage spaces. The installation is only visible through a hole which the artist has made by smashing through the inner plaster wall. The work is activated by a field recording made on Country which, when played through a subwoofer, causes the photograph to reverberate on the tabletop. This sonic vibration makes audible the depth of geological land shifts and movement over millions of years that have led to the formation of these giant boulders. The vast timeline they represent also calls to mind all of the Ancestral stone tools which have been collected and studied, a selection of which are displayed in close proximity to Steven’s installation. Like these boulders they are of the earth and represent deep time.
Kent Morris is a Barkindji man whose work aims ‘to reshape and reaffirm contemporary thought, understanding and truth about the deep-time existence of Aboriginal philosophy, spirituality and knowledge’.10 Through his installation Barkindji Blue Sky-Ancestral Connections #11, 2021, Kent takes us to the sky Country and up through to the cosmos through the Creation story of two sisters, the kiinki (corellas), who ascended to the stars. The photographs for the work were taken on Kurnu Barkindji Country during a rare family gathering. As his relatives connected and exchanged stories, a small flock of kiinki gathered around the top of a nearby telecommunications tower. As Kent explains, these birds hold great significance for his people:
The kiinki reflect the important Barkindji Ancestral constellation story about two sisters called kiinki’ngulu, the two white cockatoos (corellas) in the sky, representing ancient and ongoing links to the Magellanic clouds, two dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way.
This narrative connects Barkindji people to their Ancestors and the cosmos in a cultural continuum of shared knowledge that reinforces spiritual cohesion and an unbreakable connection to Country.11
10. Kent Morris, Artist statement for WILAM BIIK, 2021.
The artist represents this story by manipulating the technological structures and elements from nature into designs that reflect the knowledge systems and cultural practice that have been passed down by his Ancestors since time immemorial. The geometric shapes in Kent’s work that appear in the mirrored patterns of his prints and wallpaper design, are iconic to South East Australian traditional art practice. As you journey through WILAM BIIK you will discover that these shapes are present throughout the gallery, incised into Ancestral tools and adornments, represented in paintings of shields, carved onto jewellery, and seen in reflections of light and the formations of shadows.
The origins and lives of all the artists in WILAM BIIK are rooted in South East Australia, and their bodies of work engage deeply with their Home Country. Cultural Values are woven throughout and within — as are layers of Country explored from the depths of the earth through to the clouds above and the stars beyond — bringing forth the importance of place, family and connection. Time does not erase this. These stories have been, and always will be a part of these places.
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My hope is that you walk away from WILAM BIIK in awe of the beauty of Country and empowered with a personal sense of connection and responsibility to care for it as we always have.
And for the future generations of this Country, I share with you the inspiring words of our Elder and knowledge keeper, Uncle Jim Berg, a Gunditjmara man who has dedicated his life to returning the remains of our Ancestors home, and to passing on his cultural knowledge to the next generation. Uncle Jim is an Elder who is always there for us, with a generous spirit and a heart which, like Country itself, is pure and sustaining, ngoon godjin (thank you). The following poem, written in October 2018, is from a collection of Uncle Jim’s poems titled Walk the River: A Journey through Country and is reproduced with his kind permission:
‘My Message To The Young Koories of Victoria’ Young Koorie of this Land now called Australia,
You are the Custodians, Educators
Oldest Continuous and Resilient Culture in the World. Stand Tall,
Culture, Language, Identity, Spirituality, Dignity and Pride. Be proud of who you are.
May the Spirits of my Ancestors be with you
Your life Journeys