11 Mar 21

Big Weather

For more than 65,000 years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have developed an intimate understanding of the lands and waterways that make up this country. This profound knowledge has been handed down over generations, recorded through song, dance and art. Big Weather celebrates this unbroken cultural connection across time, bringing together works by more than fifty artists from the NGV Collection, which share the sophisticated appreciation of weather systems that exist within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural knowledge.

At the heart of Indigenous culture is connection to Country. The concept of Country refers to a personal and familial relationship to the land, a birthright and responsibility to care for and respect the living and breathing landscape. Country encompasses the waterways, the plants and grasses, animals and fish, air, wind, clouds and storms. As such, the relationship that exists between First Peoples and their Country is not an ownership but a union – it connects all elements of culture with individual spirituality, language, family and law.

Albert Namatjira is one of the most significant artists in our country’s history. A remarkable Western Arrernte artist, Namatjira painted his Country across the Central Western Desert. A master of European painting style, Namatjira’s landscapes are infused with an innate knowing and deep personal connection to the rocky escarpments, native grasses and majestic ghost gums represented in his watercolour landscapes. Namatjira’s legacy continues with contemporary Western Arrernte artists such as Noreen Hudson, who have been inspired by his work, creating a connection across time, enabling audiences to see changes in the landscape and highlighting the importance of the intergenerational transfer of knowledge. In Hudson’s work Abandoned car, 2016, a familiar Western Arrernte landscape is interrupted with a contemporary intervention, in the form of a broken-down car on the side of the road. The juxtaposition of Namatjira’s and Hudson’s works reminds us of the connection to Country that continues across generations and the way contemporary artists perceive change. Through these important Hermannsburg watercolours we see that culture is not static, but an ever-evolving lived experience.

So, too, creatures of the land and sea are forever linked to the identity and spirituality of First Nations people. For communities connected to waterways, fishing is an essential practice that requires skill and deep knowledge of the constantly changing environment. From identifying and harvesting seasonal grasses, which are then prepared and woven into nets and traps, fishing has always been a practice requiring a high level of expertise. For Ngarrindjeri artist Yvonne Koolmatrie, weaving is an important way of connecting to her cultural identity and her Country. As a master of the Ngarrindjeri coiling technique, Koolmatrie creates customary objects such as eel traps and fish scoops – tools that are used to collect fish caught in nets and to entrap small fish, yabbies and crayfish in the shallows. Using local sedge grasses, Koolmatrie’s work is led by the cultural knowledge of her ancestors, who she sees as guiding her practice.

Each wet season in northern Australia, cyclical storms roll in filling the vast skies with heavy clouds, which are lit up by the theatre of lightning and thunder. These atmospheric changes have spiritual importance to many Aboriginal communities, connecting them to their ancestral past and informing their daily lives. Throughout the country there are many important, spiritual beings that manifest and direct weather systems. Wanjina is the general name for ancestral spirits from the Kimberley that are associated with the life-giving properties of water. Wanjina is the general name for ancestral spirits from the Kimberley that are associated with the life-giving properties of water. Wanjina brings the monsoonal rains each year and plays an important role in the laws and social behaviour of the Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Woonambal peoples of the North West and Central Kimberley. In North-East Arnhem Land, Yirrkala artist Noŋgirrŋa Marawilli paints Bol’ngu, the Thunderman, a being who appears within the first rain clouds of the wet season. Travelling as the clouds that shower rain across the land, the falling water creates important waterholes and river systems all named by Bol’ngu. Many of these ancestral spirits of weather play a role in forming and reforming the landscape. 

In the recently acquired work Stolen climate, 2020, Meriam Mer/Ku Ku artist Clinton Naina addresses the experience of climate change from a personal perspective with the resulting work radiating loss and grief. The large-scale hand-bleached works feature silhouettes of objects from the natural world and speak directly to the destruction of the environment, linking climate change to the oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens also takes a personal approach in her response to the destructive bushfire event, drawing on humour to emphasise the devastation in We are on fire (not in a sexy way), 2020. This recent work reminds us that the bushfires were unexpected for the season and an unprecedented horrific outcome of climate change.

Aboriginal people across the country have an intimate and enduring relationship with fire that is grounded in a union of science and spirituality. Used as a resource and tool for land management, seasonal burning promotes growth and abundance in both plant and animal species and is often referred to as firestick farming. This ancient and ongoing practice is based on specialised local knowledge and relies on a deep understanding of complex ecological systems.   

In the summer of 201920, the south-east of the country was ravaged by devastating fires. As a response to this catastrophic fire event, Yorta Yorta artist Treahna Hamm created a possum skin cloak in two parts. The first cloak titled Eye of the storm, 2020, references the horrific images we witnessed during this time; in particular, a photograph of a deceased young kangaroo who was caught and trapped in a wire fence. Hamm memorialises the kangaroo, placing it at the centre of the cloak, and in turn pays her respects to the nearly three billion animals, birds, insects and fish who lost their lives to the fires. The second cloak titled Dark Emu spiritual cultural connections to Homelands, 2020, provides hope for the future. Inspired by the book Dark Emu by author Bruce Pascoe, Hamm makes connections with the ancient landscape, the rivers that flow through her Country and the history of connection that carries on through her bloodline. 

Our landscape is forever changing and First Nations people have learnt to adapt to these changes fomany thousands of years. Big Weather reminds us that cultural leadership is more important than ever in navigating the climate challenges that face us and cultural knowledge deserves to be respected as the key to our shared future.