Spanning both night and day skies; arriving and departing with the seasons; ebbing, flowing and coursing throughout all the waterways; embedded in coastal, desert, forest, sand hill, plain and mountain region; echoed by the movement and song of all the creatures, is the land’s own language. Signed, spoken, sung and danced by those who belong and call these places home, even if only in the spiritual realm, for some now.
First Peoples, and our respective Countries, have endured throughout the ensuing waves of violence and trauma of invasion to sustain a continuum of inherent sovereignty across the land and water. But it has not been without consequence. Today, of the 250 languages embedded in Country only 20 are not highly endangered or, in many cases, 'asleep'. This situation has warranted action in all parts of the country to retrieve, reclaim, repair and strategise ways to reinforce use of our languages. The arising challenge, innate in MUMA’s First Languages of the Monash University Collection initiative, is identifying relevant speakers to commission a translation for each artwork text.
Communities and their Elders, like Pakana woman Theresa Saintly, demonstrate a powerful and inspiring resilience, acting as caretakers and teachers to uphold the ways of their Ancestors. Theresa uses palawa kani, a revived language that draws on the 9 known language groups of Tasmania, to translate a text by Zoe Rimmer on Vicki West’s Kelp necklace, 2015. In her ode, Theresa employs palawa kani to reiterate the sentiments of Zoe’s text, rather than a direct translation of each word or sentence. Together, both women gesture respect and give thanks to Ancestor spirits for the gift of knowledge made tangible by the kelp necklace.
This acknowledgement is mirrored in the Yorta Yorta translation by Ebony Joachim of the text by Kerrie Clarke on Maree Clarke and Leonard Tregonning’s Thung-ung Coorang (Kangaroo teeth necklace), 2013. It is the sentiments of memory and binding relationships that the reader is invited to share in, offering new contextual information that shows the work to be more than an object. We can appreciate the workmanship, its aesthetics and learn about its origin, deepening our understanding and bridging cultural voids.
This thread of memory, evoked in the author by each work, continues in the addresses of both Shonae Hobson and Ngarra Murray. Shonae recalls the impression artist Daniel Boyd made with his chosen 'prison' styled attire during an artist talk at the opening of his Bitter Sweet exhibition at the Cairns Art Gallery. She reminds us this is Boyd’s hometown and then follows with the memory of him speaking about his great-great-grandfather, one of the 62,000 South Sea Islanders enslaved and shipped to Australia to work on sugarcane and pineapple plantations in Far North Queeensland.
Ngarra introduces us to Mulkun Wirrpanda’s Minhala (Long necked tortoise), 2013, through her own ancestral kinship to the long neck turtle, a totem of the Yorta Yorta. She chooses to present this in the Yorta Yorta language, prompting us to extend ourselves and consider both her and Mulkun’s relationship to this totem.
Each of the writers and translators who have contributed to the 2017–18 installment of the First Languages of the Monash University Collection project have generously offered unique insights and new meaning for the works they respond to. Our languages, more than just words, are born from Country and express both what is unique and shared in our cultures. Language provides context for our relationships to each other and the world around us, reaffirming our place and belonging. This project has been an opportunity to extend my passion for my own language, Yorta Yorta, and work with women who have inspired and continue to inspire me today. The depth of their intelligence, spirit and heart exemplifies what it is to be a First Nations person of this country.
Curatorial statement, Belinda Briggs, 2018
Belinda Briggs, a river girl at heart, is a Yorta Yorta and Wamba Wamba woman, raising her two sons with her partner Bradley in her home town of Shepparton. In her role as Community Engagement Officer – Indigenous Belinda works within the curatorial team at Shepparton Art Museum (SAM), and recently curated Ever-present: Recent Works from the SAM Collection. She was also co-curator of SAM’s prestigious Indigenous Ceramic Award in 2016 and is currently overseeing this year’s Award. When not at SAM, Belinda can be found at the Rumbalara Football Netball Club, documenting life at the Club through photography, managing their social media platforms or helping with game day afternoon teas. She is also working with Polyglot to deliver First On The Ladder, an arts based program of activities engaging kids to encourage their individual expression. Belinda is a board member of Shepparton Aboriginal Art Centre, Kaiela Arts and loves to spend any chance she can with family, preferably by the Dungala (Murray River).
This project has been assisted by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.