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Ormella, Raquel - 2008.37-40 at SAM 2018 c

Raquel Ormella

Wild rivers: Cairns, Brisbane, Sydney 2008
4 whiteboards, thermal paper, Texta marker pens
200 x 240 x 70 cm (whiteboard)
Purchased 2008

Working across a range of media throughout her career, Canberra-based Raquel Ormella has explored diverse yet interconnected subjects, including bird migration, land use, nationalism, immigration and the role of protest and political activism. Ormella frequently adopts the material markers of agitation and authority, such as banners, flags and zines, to produce a contemporary art that is alert to and questions social and political contexts in Australia.

First presented at the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, Revolutions: Forms that Turn, Ormella’s Wild rivers: Cairns, Brisbane, Sydney documents the Wilderness Society’s lengthy campaign to protect a number of Queensland river basins from land development, such as mining and irrigation, under the state’s Wild Rivers Act. The sculptural work features four electronic whiteboards, the screens of which are covered in coloured marker-pen drawings of campaign offices in Cairns, Brisbane and Sydney. The office technology of the electronic whiteboard gives the work its pragmatic sculptural form and is also associated with bureaucracy, collaboration, workshopping and discursive activism.

Visitors encountering Wild rivers in the gallery are able to print the whiteboard drawings onto thermal paper, which the machine spits out. The jumble of curled printouts that gather on the floor provide further and repeated representations of both the contested waterway and the mechanisms of the campaign.

Wild rivers: Cairns, Brisbane, Sydney also featured in The Ecologies Project exhibition at MUMAin 2008. It was exhibited in sight of wilderness photographer Peter Dombrovskis’ Morning mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River, Tasmania, the defining image of the successful campaign to prevent the damming of the Franklin River in 1983. The campaign used Dombrovskis’ romantic Rock Island Bend photograph in full-page advertisements; the dam did not go ahead.

Ormella’s installation also includes imagery of the environment in question: a drawing from a photograph of Wenlock River, Cape York, used in the Queensland campaign. In 2010, the ABC reported that Wenlock River Basin had been protected under the Wild River Act, one of ten Queensland river basins gazetted in the five years since the legislation had been introduced.[1] Ormella’s landscape, carefully drawn in green marker pen, does not entreat the emotional response that the romanticism in Dombrovskis’ mist-shrouded eddying river bend does. Instead, the Wenlock is embedded in the matter-of-fact, exhausting and messy workings of a years’-long environmental campaign played out in distant city offices.

The layered complexity of Ormella’s whiteboard drawings also refers to the deep divisions that formed around the Queensland campaign. Amid the campaign stickers and office paraphernalia, a laptop displays the opening paragraphs of a speech delivered by Cape York Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson at Musgrave, Cape York Peninsula, in 2006. Pearson voices his position that ‘the struggle against wild rivers is a struggle about the future viability of Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in this region and as long as we have breath we have got to fight resolutely against this legislation’. Wild rivers: Cairns, Brisbane, Sydney is, therefore, also something of a snapshot of a particular moment in the campaign. In 2014, six years after Ormella’s work was produced, the LNP government repealed the legislation. The Wenlock River, however, remains protected under its 2010 declaration.

Kyla McFarlane is Curator Academic Programs (Research) at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne.

[1] Nic MacBean, ‘Divisions Run Deep in Queensland Wild Rivers Debate’, ABC News, 15 December 2010,, accessed 7 February 2017.