New Berninneit Cultural Center showcases Millowl Indigenous Art. Penguins, racing, and sea changers fuel a recent residential and infrastructure boom on Phillip Island.
Island’s new $30 million cultural center, “Berninneit,” meaning “gather together” in Bunurong language, is a prominent addition. Bunurong territory encompasses the Mornington Peninsula, Western Port Bay, Phillip Island, and Wilsons Promontory.
Cowes’ cultural center, 20 years in the making, is a community-driven landmark on the island. Alongside the theater, it houses a library, art gallery, and historical society-run museum, hosting performing and visual arts.
It includes a customer service desk, meeting rooms, a versatile 400-seat community space, and a grand entrance hall.
Love for the island
Berninneit’s debut exhibition is described as an immersive experience exploring the spirit and place of Millowl, the Bunurong name for Phillip Island.
Presented by Baluk Arts, one of two Aboriginal owned and run arts organisations in Victoria, the multimedia exhibition weaves through the sky, land, water and animals of the beloved island.
“I chose to do birds because they’re my gauge in life, my compass,” Aniwain artist Patrice Mahoney said.
She said she was part of the Bass Coast’s small “multicultural” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population who were born elsewhere in Australia.
She said there was common misconception with non-indigenous Australians that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were all traditional owners who only lived on their own country.
She said First Nations people moved around and settled in other parts of Australia for work, study, relationships or a lifestyle change as much as anybody else.
“A lot of Torres Strait Island people live in Melbourne and then they come down here,” she said.
“We are such a multicultural country and such a multicultural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community,” Ms Mahoney said.
She said Victorian based Aboriginal artists tended to be influenced by a variety of approaches, narratives and traditions in developing their own contemporary styles.
Originally from the NSW Central Coast, Guringai sound artist Charlie Needs Braces moved to Melbourne, where she has regularly performed and recorded two alternative pop albums.
As a trombone player and electronic artist, she created an accompanying soundscape for the Millowl exhibition, recording organic and natural sample sounds on the island.
“We had a lot of fun coming down to Millowl and just recording all the sounds, the wildlife, the birds, the ocean and the caves and different tree trunks and rocks, things like that, and sand,” she said.
Bunurong and Barkindji artist Mitch Mahoney, who moved from the Bass Coast to New South Wales to live with family, said he had learnt the art of canoe making from his extended Bunrong family in south-east Victoria.
He crafted a stringybark canoe for the Millowl exhibition, which was suspended from the roof of the exhibition space.
He said the canoe, which was seaworthy enough to travel within the bay areas of Western Port, told the story of the Bunurong mob and their travels across to the island.
“For us our canoes are key for all of our travel, we use them for fishing, for traversing country, for meeting other mobs and before the bridge was built, we’d use our canoes to travel across to the island,” he said.
He observed that while some families had unique designs, south-east artists often used lines and curves to depict the landscape.
He mentioned, “Rather than using dots like central desert mob, we very much use repeated lines and repeated curvings, and some key symbols that may represent men or women”.
Census data from 2021 revealed the Mornington Peninsula as having the fastest-growing Indigenous population in Victoria.
“Victorian Aboriginal artists take a little bit more risk, they really put themselves out there with their stories and their styles,” Baluk Arts manager Che MacMahon said.
Based in Mt Eliza, he said he hoped to bring a purpose-built, dedicated Aboriginal arts facility, similar to Berninneit, to the Mornington Peninsula.
“Victoria is known as the arts and cultural leader of the country, but in the Aboriginal space we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said.
Mahoney emphasized that Berninneit would spotlight the diverse talents of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander residents in the Bass Coast.
“It’s just such a stunning building and I love the environmental thought behind the timber and the recycled plastic and the concretes,” she said.
“It’s great that we’ve all got a voice here.
“This amazing Berninneit cultural centre here in Cowes is really leading the way as an example of how Aboriginal people have so much to share and how our creativity is quite diverse.”
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