Caring for Country
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Hayley Panangka Coulthard, Bethany Inkamala, Rona Panangka Rubuntja standing amongst large red rock formations at Pmurlankinya (Palm Valley, Western Aranda Country), Photographer Genevieve Walshe, Image Courtesy of Hermannsburg Potters.
Caring for Country is a fundamental element of First Nations experience. So, it makes sense that Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-owned and run Art Centres are deeply connected to their Country, going to great lengths to look after and protect the surrounding environment and climate.
Simply put, Art Centres are professional art making studios that support and foster First Nations art practice. But they are also important community hubs, where artists can come together to share knowledge, culture and Country. The art that is created here has Country at its heart.
Words by Camilia Wagstaff, July 2023
Many Art Centre artists are discovering new ways to incorporate Country into their art making practice in a profoundly physical way. Chair of Hermannsburg Potters, Hayley Coulthard, is leading a new project to reintroduce working with locally harvested wild clay into art practice at the Art Centre.
Hayley has been guiding the potters in a re-learning of how to harvest their own clay from local creek beds and family outstations and process it into a usable medium. It is a beautiful way of both connecting to Country and to the potters’ histories, which started with three Western Aranda men making figurines with clay from the creek.
“I was looking for local clay in the Finke River. I found it and I collected all that clay and brought it to the studio,” says Hayley.
“I made a pot from that clay, a pot with my Country Pmurlangkinya [Palm Valley] and little bird, the willy wagtail, painted on it. Where I found that clay, down the creek at Salta-Salta, from there you can look up the river and see the way into Pmurlangkinya, that’s all my Country.”
Hayley speaks to the profound importance of Caring for Country.
“We got to look after all the trees, bush medicine, thepa mapa [all the birds] and all the animals too. We got to help them grow up, don’t make fire. We [Western Aranda people] and other people got to respect Country. It’s important for me and my family and other Western Aranda people, it’s in our heart to look after Country. I always make stories with paint on my pots, stories about Country because it was my Grandfather and Grandmother’s Country. It’s special for me, always thinking about Country and keeping memories of them that way.”
Ilpatjina (Donkey) by Shirley Wheeler, terracotta and underglazes, 2023, 25 x 16cm, Image Courtesy of Hermannsburg Potters.
Outstation near Kings Canyon by Dawn Wheeler, terracotta and underglazes, 2023, 23 x 14cm, Image Courtesy of Hermannsburg Potters.
Many artists working out of Baluk Arts in Victoria seek out environmentally responsible ways to source materials. This sustainable sourcing often takes its cue from ancient techniques and includes the use of natural ochres, charcoals, wood burning, possum skin pyrography, and weaving using natural grasses or emu feathers.
Tasmania-based artist Fiona Hughes creates striking jewellery pieces with mariner shells that she harvests herself around Tasmania, while Tyereelore Elder Nannette Shaw – known as Aunty Netty – uses hand-harvested kelp to create stunning jewellery and traditional water vessels. Not only are these artists caring for the land, but they are also embracing traditional methods as a way to connect with ancestors.
When Aunty Netty started working with kelp, she felt her ancestors telling her “what she was doing was right”. It helped with healing her mind and her spirit, felt like a gift from the ancestral women of Tasmania.
Netty reflects that the kelp cleans the sea and is there to support the fish and sealife. Only when it’s washed up onto the beach does she take it, as the “sea has given it to her”. She thanks the Mother Sea for it.
When harvesting shells from the beaches of Tasmania, she was always told, “never to take the big ones as they are the mothers. And never take the small ones, as that will be next years’ stock. Always gather sustainably and only take what you will use and no more.”
Many Art Centres also lead important environmental awareness projects for their regions.
Aunty Netty, traditional kelp water vessel, 2023, Image Courtesy of Art Centre.
Aunty Netty, hand woven basket, 2023, Image Courtesy of Art Centre.
Fiona Hughes, Mariner Shell necklace and bracelet, 2023. Image Courtesy of Art Centre.
Aunty Netty, kelp necklace, 2023, Image Courtesy of Art Centre.
Erub Arts has developed a model of practice where creation, research and education from Country and for Country are intertwined. The island-based Art Centre has been working with ghost net since 2010, transforming discarded fishing nets and other marine debris into striking works of art.
From a practical beginning with largely utilitarian objects such as bags, Erub is now recognised for large scale collaborative installations featuring the marine animals found on the reefs surrounding Erub. The works repurpose an environmental problem for the island community and help promote environmental conservation in Far North Queensland and beyond.
Beach shoot of Erub Arts Ghost Net artworks. Photo by Lynnette Griffiths, Image Courtesy of Art Centre.