• PHOTO: Coonamble’s John McBride (left) and Kevin (Sooty) Welsh (right) with John’s daughter Laura who is Director, First Nations and co-Curator of the ‘Unsettled’ exhibition at the Australian Museum.
THE NEWLY-opened exhibition at the Australian Museum in Sydney has attracted enormous attention and widespread media publicity and in its midst are a number of Coonamble area connections who are putting local Indigenous culture on the national map.
Local ceramics artist Kevin (Sooty) Welsh was delighted when, about a year ago, he was invited to be part of a consultation leading up to an exhibition which the Museum’s CEO Kim McKay has called “the most important show the Museum has ever done in its 194-year history.”
“It sort of came out of nowhere,” Mr Welsh said.
“There was definitely the thrill of getting an invitation, let alone having my work on display. To see some of your artwork in a place like that was just amazing,” he said.
Two of Sooty’s works – a stoneware coolamon which bears his distinctive markings inspired by traditional carved trees and ceremonial markings on the claypans west of Coonamble and a vase with a raku glaze – sit in the exhibition and have been purchased by the Museum to become a permanent part of their collection.
Mr Welsh’s artworks are among more than 100 contributions by First Nations peoples from across the country and over 80 significant cultural objects in the ‘Unsettled’ exhibition, along with long hidden historical documents, large-scale artworks, immersive experiences and never-before-seen objects form the Australian Museum’s own collections and beyond.
“I didn’t know what to expect. There were a lot of high-flyers but I got that feeling of being part of a big happy family,” Mr Welsh said. “It had a magic vibe about it.”
Local culture and connections at the forefront
As well as internationally-renowned Indigenous artists, celebrities, politicians and cultural policy makers, there were familiar faces who joined Mr Welsh at the official opening on Friday 21 May.
For one, the First Nations Curator at the Museum is Laura Mc Bride, whose father John McBride hails from Coonamble.
John’s talents are also on display in the exhibition.
Mr McBride created a replica camp-style humpy made from tin and remnants salvaged from Tin Town, the camp in the Castlereagh River where the McBrides and many other local Aboriginal families lived in huts they built from kerosene tins and bush timber before local authorities permitted them to live in houses in the township in the 1960s.
Another local connection, Wailwaan man Laurence (Locky) Magick Dennis and Wailwaan woman Fleur Magick Dennis, worked with a team of craftsmen, craftswomen and Elders to create a whole room – a healing and reflection space they called “Winhangadurinya”.
“When you enter the room you see a circle where you may sit and be surrounded by representations of our ancestral warriors – the four 7 foot tall shields and accompanying spears represent our ancestral warriors past, present and future. They are protecting us.” said Locky and Fleur.
“The shields are also carved with stories representing the four and eight skin groupings of Wiradjuri, Wayilwan, Ngiyampaa and Gamilaraay peoples.
“As far as we are aware this is the first time that NSW Aboriginal parrying shields have been created of this size and placed into such a unique arrangement representing the healing of our nation,” they said.
Outback Arts Executive Director Jamie-Lea Trindall and Communications Oficer Maddi Ward also attended the exhibition launch.
“I hope people understand how inspiring and how exciting it is for Coonamble to be at the forefront of a new era of telling Aboriginal history,” Mrs Trindall said.
An unsettling exhibition
“This is not something that was just thrown together,” said Mr Welsh. “It took years for Laura and the team to do the research and put it together.”
Ms McBride, who started working as an Aboriginal Education Assistant at the Museum about a decade ago, said the ‘Unsettled’ exhibition asked more than 800 Indigenous people how they would like to mark the 250 years since Captain Cook’s landing.
“Museums have for a long time controlled our representation, and how we’re represented is how we’re received by the public. That became clear to me in the first couple of years I worked here,” she said.
Now her role as Director, First Nations, allows her to hand control back to the original storytellers.
“Australia was never peacefully settled. Our history is unsettled. The relationship between Australians and Aboriginal peoples is uncomfortable,” she said.