Sacred music launch highlights Aboriginal spirit of country and inspires hope

1-IMG_4705I missed the opening event of the Sydney Sacred Music Festival, but by chance discovered unexpected beauty and symbolism. Owing to wet weather, The Gathering Ceremony at Marrong, featuring internationally acclaimed Aboriginal musician William Barton, was transferred from Marrong or Prospect Hill, to Pemulwuy Community Centre. I missed the message and arrived instead at the foot of the hill in Daruga Ave, Pemulwuy, at 2pm, last Friday, September 2. With no one in sight, the concert was clearly happening elsewhere. From the road, the view was of carefully landscaped bushland, polished steel and timber stairways, and signage including Burra – the Darug word for food – found in the bush around.

The hill is a central feature of the Cumberland Plains and the region of western Sydney. The sight was a revelation. The last time I had been on the hill was probably more than 20 years ago. The hillside was deeply scarred after years of mining for building and roadmaking materials, and battered old pine trees still formed a windbreak of sorts along the ridge line. At Worlds Collide, the Festival concert on the following night, others confirmed their only consciousness of public discussion about the hill was a pre-Bicentenary proposal in the 1980s for a giant flagpole on the hill – a symbol of white Australian triumphalism. In the 30 years since that time, a quiet revolution had been taking place with many participants, particularly members of then Holroyd Council’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Committee and local resident Jacqui Douglas, a descendant of the Malyankapa language group of western NSW.

1-IMG_4709Jacqui’s research of early documents had led her to question why the third colonial settlement of Portland Place, established at the base of Prospect Hill in 1791 appeared to have been abandoned in favour of Toongabbie, now officially recognised as the third white settlement in Australia. Holroyd Council commissioned historian Michael Flynn to undertake a formal study of Portland Place and the indigenous history of Holroyd. Three months after the establishment of the penal colony at Sydney Cove in 1788, Governor Arthur Phillip set out with a party including Captain Llieutenant Watkin Tench to search for arable land for growing crops. On the fifth day, they arrived at what was soon known as Prospect Hill because of its fine vistas and dominant position in the landscape. Settlement followed but quickly met with Aboriginal resistance. Attacks and counter attacks were occurring elsewhere in the colony. In a chapter called War on the Cumberland Plain, in her award winning book The Colony: A History of Early Sydney, associate professor Grace Karskens details the complexities of relationships that were emerging between Aboriginal groups and white settlers throughout this period. There was no simple racial divide, but a network of sympathies and conflicts between and among Aboriginal and white groups across the plains. Outstanding among the Aboriginal resistance fighters was Bidgigal man, Penmulwuy from the Botany Bay area whose defiant exploits took him to many locations around Sydney. In 1802, despite previous remarkable escapes, Pemulwuy was killed.

1-IMG_4708Grace Karskens writes that in 1805, Governor King reintroduced the strategy that had successfully eliminated Pemulwuy. “A few days later, Aboriginal people of Prospect, Parramatta and the Cowpastures asked (the Reverend) Samuel Marsden to attend a conference ‘with a view to opening the way to reconciliation’. A complex dance of diplomacy and negotiation followed, brokered by Aboriginal women with the assistance of  Prospect settler, Jonathon (also called John) Kennedy, When Marsden arrived at the appointed place, the women told him that the men were in conference and would be calling on him when they were ready. And they did: . . .” Skirmishes in the area died down, though they continued elsewhere, particularly where white settlements had destroyed access to indigenous food sources.

The peace talks were held on May 3, 1805. On Monday, May 4, 2015, the 210th anniversary of the talks, Marrong Reserve was officially launched by the Mayor of Holroyd, Greg Cummings and Darug Elder, Aunty Sandra Lee. The commemorative plaque acknowledged the contribution of resources for the establishment of the reserve from Lend Lease and Boral Resources (NSW) Pty Limited. A Holroyd Council media release stated that “Marrong Reserve provides recreational, cultural and visual amenity to the residents of Pemulwuy and surrounding areas, and is named after the Aboriginal word for Prospect Hill because it follows the ridgeline. . . . The Reserve will be dedicated to Council by land owner, Boral Resources (NSW) Pty Limited and developer, Lend Lease after a maintenance period. The northern section of Marrong Reserve has been completed as Stage 1 with the expectation that Lend Lease will develop the southern portion as Stage 2.”

1-IMG_4704As I walked through the misty rain on Marrong, I heard and saw currawongs, kookaburras, crested pigeons and little finches. The surrounding scrub looked like a metaphor for the symbolic nature of the hill itself. Introduced plants like lantana threatened to overwhelm native shrubs, but other native grasses and trees flourished and hardenbergias were resplendent in purple spring flowers. Clearly there is a lot more planned for the reclamation and maintenance of Marrong/Prospect as a focal point for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal intercultural understanding and respect. Martha Jabour, cultural officer for the new Cumberland Council, which has absorbed much of the former Holroyd and Auburn Councils, writes that “the treatment of Marrong is very much about the work of our ATSI committee. Recent forums and programs have been effective in bringing  additional Aboriginal partners to the process.”

With so much progress in little more than 20 years, it’s encouraging to think that the hotly contested North Parramatta Heritage Precinct might yet emerge as another example of honest Australian story telling, self knowledge, education and cultural tourism. Advocates are heartened by the outstanding 10 year record of achievement of Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne as a model for their future. Click here to see the video highlighted by North Parramatta Resident Action Group president Suzette Meade.

1-img_1706I arrived at the Pemulwuy Community Centre, just as William Barton and his mother Aunty Delmae Barton finished their performance for The Gathering Ceremony. Their audience was clearly uplifted by the experience. Thanks to Martha Jabour for her photo. By good fortune, the artists were present at the following night’s Worlds Collide concert and improvised with musicians in the first piece to the delight of the crowd. Sydney Sacred Music Festival program continues Sydney wide until September 18.


A champion of liveable spaces speaks out before NSW crown land enquiry

N Parra - artist's impressionAt last, a note of sanity! As the dust settles following an excoriating federal election campaign and we all try to make sense of the results, some interesting moves have been occurring at state government level. On June 22, there was a NSW parliamentary summit, attended by MPs from across the parliament, community groups and crown land campaigners. They were unanimous in supporting a parliamentary enquiry and called for an immediate moratorium on any Crown and public land being sold or developed until the enquiry reports. The enquiry was established in the NSW Upper House on the following day. The enquiry has comprehensive terms of reference and a timeline to ensure that it reports before a Crown Land Bill is expected to be tabled in Parliament in spring.

1-NPRAG - Jack MundeyAbove is one of the early images published by UrbanGrowth NSW for the government’s proposed sale and development of land in the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct. North Parramattta Residents Action Group, has been leading the fight for community consultation about the future of the site and resistance to excessive development. NPRAG president Suzette Meade was one of those who participated in the parliamentary summit. Left, Suzette is partly hidden from view behind heritage conservation warrior Jack Mundey at last year’s precinct rally. The Upper House enquiry into Crown Lands willl close on July 24. Many submissions are taking shape, but there’s still time and need for more. Click here for information.

On their website, NPRAG states that “it will remain a challenge for the community to ensure that this public land and its national heritage, river connectivity and potential open space and parkland, is allowed to realise its full potential beyond merely satisfying a government mandated housing quota.” Members argue repeatedly that the planned growth of Parramatta and its increase in high density apartment living renders the need for green space ever more important.

Then in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, they found unexpected support. Lucy Turnbull, chief commissioner of the Greater Sydney Commission, wrote , “The role of the Greater Sydney Commission in Parramatta is to work with the community, industry and all agencies of the state government to ensure that the principles of great city building are applied to greater Parramatta as it grows.

“These principles include ensuring that good urban design and place making leads to greater liveability. As more and more people live, work and study in and enjoy the Parramatta CBD, access to sunlight and high quality open spaces will be even more important. There are great examples in Sydney of how the right balance can be struck, with developments rising up around public open spaces without overshadowing them. Hyde Park, the Domain and the Royal Botanic Gardens are all protected from overshadowing. Parramatta deserves this too.” This was exactly the argument NPRAG used in its postcard campaign last December.

NPRAG - postcard campaign






To make a submission to the Crown Lands Enquiry, find guidelines and advice on the NPRAG website. Of course, where there are issues of this kind in your part of the region, or state, adapt the information about Parramatta for your own use.


Inspirational arts, science and social engagement at Penrith Regional Gallery

Penrith R Gallery - Gravity (and Wonder) AmyScience and the arts combine in a mutually inspiring exploration that will culminate in an exhibition at Penrith Regional Gallery in 2016. The gallery is the recipient of the $40,000 Inaugural Dobell Exhibition Grant for the development of Gravity (and Wonder). The exhibition will be a
collaboration with the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS). Gravity (and Wonder) will explore the history and philosophy of this fundamental law of the universe through contemporary art and related objects, instruments and papers in the MAAS collection.

The exhibition, scheduled for 28 August – 21 November 2016, will introduce audiences to new ways of thinking about the multi-dimensionality of matter, time and space through a range of loaned and newly commissioned sculptural and kinetic works. More than a dozen contemporary artists will participate in the presentation of new and existing works. Contributing artists already include, Richard Serra, Timothy Cook, Amy Joy Watson, Sandra Selig, David Haines and Joyce Hinterding. The image above is Amy Joy Watson’s Floating Sequence 2012, balsa wood, watercolour, gouache, polyester thread, lead weights, balloons, helium. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery, Adelaide.

Penrith R Gallery - David Haines - Violet GasAn array of public programs will accompany the exhibition such as ‘Gravity Geeks’, a symposium with artists, curators and scientists, and collaborations with the Western Sydney University Observatory staff and students. David Haines and Joyce Hinterding are Blue Mountains based artists whose research into the sounds made by rocks was recently video recorded by the Sydney Morning Herald. Not long before, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Sydney hosted Energies: Haines & Hinterding, a survey of the extraordinary range of scientific ideas and metaphors they work with. Left is David’s contribution, Violet Gas, to the Penrith Gallery’s recent exhibition Hot House. David has been creating complex chemical formulas for almost a decade as he explores aroma.

Collaboration, exploration and community engagement have proved richly rewarding for Penrith Regional Gallery this month. Not only did the gallery win the inaugural Dobell Grant, it also won the engagement category at the IMAGinE awards for their ground breaking City of Plenty project. The City of Plenty was an evolving art installation with a social conscience. Artist Sarah Goffman constructed a city made from donated non-perishable food and household consumables in the main gallery, see photo below. She worked with project partners, Ozharvest and Penrith Community Kitchen and with students from Caroline Chisholm College. Museums & Galleries of NSW‘s IMAGinE awards recognise the people who work in museums and galleries across NSW and the contributions they make.

The 2016 round of the Dobell Exhibition Grant was assessed by a panel of three – Michelle Belgiorno, trustee and Paula Latos-Valier, art director of the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation and Michael Rolfe, CEO of the Museums and Galleries Association of NSW, which will manage the grant. Continuing the themes of creative collaborations, science, mentoring, conversations and social interactions, Michael will open Penrith Regional Gallery’s next suite of exhibitions on Saturday, December 5. The major exhibition goes under the title Deborah Kelly – Bodies of Work, first created for the 19th Biennale of Sydney (2014) – No Human Being is Illegal (In All Our Glory). The second exhibition will be Networks – Communication Highways – brain imaging, Brain Sciences, UNSW.

The third is Queen Street Riches and Textures 2015 – Sharing the Seeds. Each year, supported by Penrith Council, St Mary’s Corner produces a Queen Street Riches and Textures project by inviting artists to explore issues relevant to Penrith R Gallery - City of Plenty - winthe local community through different artistic media. The 2015 Sharing the Seeds project has brought together artists, art educators, local gardeners and farmers. They are creatively exploring innovation and sustainability in community gardening and growing your own food. Partners include Mamre House, Permaculture Sydney West, TAFE NSW Western Sydney Institute Nepean Arts and Design Centre, and Penrith Council.

It is now more than 40 years since Penrith Council began its pioneering role in developing arts opportunities for its residents. Despite many claims to the contrary, Penrith Council was the first council in western Sydney to employ a community arts officer (1976). It was the first to provide a permanent home for the professional Q Theatre company (1977) and the first to accept responsibility for a regional gallery. The Lewers Bequest.and Penrith Regional Gallery (now the Penrith Regional Gallery and Lewers Bequest) was officially opened in 1981. The gallery is at 86 River Rd, Emu Plains NSW 2750, phone 02 4735 1100.

Blog - PPM book coverThere are endless fascinating stories behind the flourishing arts scene of present day western Sydney. Many are recorded in my book Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney. It makes a great gift and some very pleasurable holiday reading. Click here for information about where you can buy copies. Among the outlets are Campelltown Arts Centre, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Penrith Regional Gallery, Blacktown Arts Centre, Hawkesbury Regional Gallery and Riverside Theatres, Parramatta. “. . . Its messages have resonances far beyond western Sydney” – Dr Peter Shergold, Chancellor of Western Sydney University.


Have you ever found a feather – a Gaurii – and wondered whose it was?

Wagana - Gaurii - Boobook OwlsFrom a very early age, in their traditional upbringing, Aboriginal children learn to be very acute observers of the natural world around them. They learn to understand the seasonal variations in the behaviour of birds and animals and the plants on which they depend for food and shelter. They learn to imitate movement and sound and to enter into the meaning of each of these beings in their lore.

Wagana - Gaurii - Nest - 4All this came home to me as I watched the opening scenes of Wagana Aboriginal Dancers‘ latest production Have you ever found a feather and wondered whose it was . . . Gaurii. Choreographed by director Jo Clancy, assisted by Becky Chatfield, five dancers – Jo, Becky, Nadia Martich, Michaela Jeffries and Brad Smith were presenting a final version of a 35 to 40 minute show they plan to present at schools and festivals in 2016. They were performing at NAISDA Dance College, Kariong, near Gosford, on September 30, where Jo was completing a Birrang Creative Residency. With a few brief remarks that introduced the audience to their characters, they launched into a graceful and entertaining performance as a flock of crows. Humour was never far from the surface as the birds performed separately and in unison.

Wagana - Gaurii - Matilda, Maude & MurphyThe basic black of their costumes could quickly transform to other birds with the addition of feather trims around arms, waists, or as masks. In the photo top, the girls were rehearsing as boobook owls. A giant nest woven from sticks and vines provided their main versatile prop, see rehearsal photos above right and at bottom. We found ourselves listening to sounds and songs of the bush and laughed at the antics of emu chicks Matilda, Maude and Murphy, above left.

Wagana Aboriginal Dancers are based at Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains and many friends and family members had travelled a long way to see the production. Jo was keen to have feedback to ensure the production would appeal to children in particular. She was left in no doubt that audiences loved Gaurii. If children hadn’t been aware of birds and their behaviour before seeing the show, there is little doubt that their interest and observation would have been sharpened after seeing the performance. By October 14, shows at schools before Christmas were already almost booked out.

Gaurii Wagana - Gaurii - Nestpresents Aboriginal dance, puppetry, language and stories connected to Crow, Emu, Lyrebird, and Owl with music and sound that convey many more birds. School shows are on Thursday and Friday, December 10 and 11 and there will be many more next year. Phone 0409 651 290.

Joan Brassil – still a leading contemporary artist

1-IMG_3388Strangers: A Retrospective of Joan Brassil opened at Campbelltown Arts Centre, on Saturday June 6, the tenth anniversary year of her death. In about 1958, Joan had moved to Campbelltown as the widowed mother of two young sons and not long after, became Campbelltown High School’s first visual arts teacher. A much loved and inspiring teacher, artist and collaborator, her life and practice were celebrated by the large gathering of family members, former students, friends and colleagues. On her early retirement at the age of 50, Joan was invited by Barbara Romalis to become one of the founding members of the artist community at Wedderburn, where the surrounding bushland became one of her endless sources of inspiration. It was from this point that Joan’s professional development as a contemporary artist took off. Her academic studies ultimately included a doctorate of creative arts from University of Wollongong. In 1999, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters by UNSW. Above, Strangers in the Landscape (sculpture) located in the cafe courtyard.

1-IMG_3385Assembling Strangers: A Retrospective of Joan Brassil was a major undertaking for the project curatorial committee (curatorium) – Michael Dagostino (director of Campbelltown Arts Centre), Ruth Banfield, Susan Best, Greg Brassil, Liam Brassil, Tony Bond, Marsha Meskimmon and Megan Monte. Joan was an installation and media artist, whose early embrace of technology and video led her into collaborations with scientists, researchers, and artists from other disciplines. She participated in major national and international art exhibitions and disposed of few of the materials she had ever used. In fact, one part of the exhibition includes objects created for one purpose and then changed or re-used in another role. Joan was always experimenting and learning. A selection of pages of research commentary and critical reviews are reproduced to enhance the experience of the object room. Above, Astral Potatoes, located in the object room.

1-IMG_3372Why Stranger in the title? Stranger is a recurring theme in much of Joan’s work. In her catalogue essay, Marsha Meskimmon writes: “It is difficult to look at Joan Brassil’s work without embracing unpredictability, the possibility of change and a profound sense of contingency. Moving easily between the dust of the ground and the light of the stars, the stranger (gazing) engages all that lies between, seen or unseen, heard or beyond hearing. Brassil’s aesthetic tactics were not to fix meaning, but to allow it space from which to emerge.” She was deeply interested in Aboriginal thinking and practice and their closeness to the natural world. Above, Joan as she appears in the film (see below), describes her sense of wonderment.

1-IMG_3366In opening the exhibition, Tony Bond described elements she utilised in her work – randomness, chance, curiosity, interrogation, an intense engagement with the nature of being in the world, a manifestation of wonder. The 20 minute film made with Joan during her lifetime and which screens on continuous loop, reveals these characteristics and the way in which she used technology as an instrument of wonder, light and contemplation. Her style of work was generous, inclusive and collaborative. Astrophysicist Dr Brian Robinson was a friend and collaborator whose knowledge deepened her understanding of science. Her use of recordings such as the movement of electrical energy and pulsar registrations, helped him communicate science to a wider audience and gave a broader dimension to his work. Above, Randomly – Now and Then, 1990, microphone stand, computer, diorite mining cores, gravel rock, pavement, speakers and tuning forks.

1-IMG_3397While the technology may have changed, Joan’s approach to her work remains entirely contemporary. The challenge for the curatorium was to assemble her installations in ways she might have done, since each space was different and she responded intuitively to them. Her warmth and whimsical humour are also evident in some of her work. I was fortunate enough to have time with her on at least two occasions, when it always seemed she had a quality of stillness about her. Joan’s son, Greg, says her advice when all around seemed to be chaos was to “sit still”. Her work is deeply contemplative. Left is one of two panels which stand alongside her sculpture of giant tuning forks Tether of Time in Campbelltown Arts Centre’s sculpture garden. The forks stand over a pool of reflection and a perpetual small flow of water. The panel is inscribed with poetic observations about Tether of Time (with apologies for the layout) –

Wind harps on a busy corner tuned randomly
by natural forces sonipally declare the advent of air
NNE or SE find sound among strings
placing the ear against wood on masts
currents of air may be throbbing through wires
as a sonic harmonic searching for a song

Strangers: A Retrospective of Joan Brassil continues at Campbelltown Arts Centre to August 2. Go prepared to listen carefully. Delicate and diverse sounds are a constant among the installations. The catalogue helps illuminate the experience.

Hawkesbury Regional Gallery explores our complex relationship with the land

Salt table 2Opening at Hawkesbury Regional Gallery on Friday, February 13, are three exhibitions offering thought provoking perspectives on our relationship with the land. The centrepiece is a nine metre dinner table made entirely of salt. The Last Supper (detail) is a monumental sculpture created by Ken and Julia Yonetani, during a two month residency at  Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre last year. The artists live in the Blue Mountains and since 2009 have collaborated on a series of projects responding to environmental concerns.

Food production, rising levels of salinity and associated environmental issues are interwoven themes of The Last Supper. Up to 90% of Australia’s fresh food is produced in the Murray-Darling Basin, but 550,000 tonnes of salt are pumped out of the ground every year in an effort to stem the rise of highly saline groundwater. Soil salinity associated with irrigation has been a problem since ancient times, as the people of Mesopotamia discovered 4000 years ago.

Papunya Tula exhibitionThe second exhibition is a selection of work by Aboriginal artists, who have been part of the Papunya Tula movement, which began in the Western Desert in 1971. Utopia Art Sydney has represented this artist owned company since 1988 as its painters have continued to explore innovative forms, keeping their traditional stories alive. This group show features the work of emerging and established artists, young and old and the extraordinary range of visual representations of their relationship with the land.

HRG - Surfacing - Caren BurzinsThe third exhibition is Surfacing, featuring the work of Blue Mountains artist Caren Burzins.  Throughout her life, Caren has been an acute observer of the bushland and rocky outcrops, which comprise so much of her natural environment. Printmaking and the making of collagraph plates enable her exploration of texture, pattern and layering.

Associated with these exhibitions is a program of talks and activities for children and adults as well as regular classes. Click here for detail.

Seize the chance – share the garden

1-IMG_3069If you have the chance, make your way to Blacktown Arts Centre tomorrow afternoon, November 1, 3pm to 5pm. The Democratic Garden project developed by Urban Theatre Projects with members of the local community culminates with the gardeners giving away the produce of their labour. Herbs, vegetables and flowers on a vertical frame have flourished under their care, despite the challenges of storms and heat.

1-IMG_3070Join the culturally diverse gardening team and share the spirit as well as the results of their collaboration. Maybe you’ll come away inspired to grow more of your own flowers and vegetables, even if you have only a balcony or a windowsill.

Blacktown Arts Centre, 78 Flushcombe Rd, Blacktown. Click here for more information.