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Form x Content – Storytelling and Curatorial Practice: Emily McDaniel
Wednesday 14 April, 1pm
N'arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs AM: Mirambeek beek. Boon wurrung Nairm derp bordupren uther willam. That means welcome to our beautiful home, the lands of the two great bays, Nairm, Port Phillip Bay, Marrin, Western Port Bay. We're here at the Monash University campus and it is about celebrating knowledge, yulendji. It's also about respect, respecting the Country that you're now a part of. And it's also djeembana, how you will build a stronger community, how do we unite community within Monash University. And it's about respecting sacred ground or Parbyn-ata, Mother Earth. These are the guiding pillars of Wurrung biik, the law of the land. Come with a purpose. Womindjeka mirambeek beek. Boon wurrung Nairm derp bordupren uther willam. Ngondjin.
Tara McDowell: Welcome. My name is Tara McDowell, I'm the Associate Professor and Director of Curatorial Practice in Monash's Faculty of Art Design and Architecture. It's my immense pleasure to introduce today's speaker, Emily McDaniel. Before I do, I want to acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the lands from which I'm speaking to you today, unceded Wurundjeri land. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging. I'm a visitor to this Country and especially want to acknowledge the more than 80,000 years Indigenous people have tended this land.
We are currently in the third of eight Wurundjeri seasons. The Woondabbil Tadool-Marguk season lasts until mid-April, and is the thunderstorm and rug sewing season. Traditionally, in this time, pelts would be made into rugs and cloaks. So, we might keep in mind the making, weaving and storytelling of this period of the year, as we listen to today's speaker.
It's a pleasure to introduce Emily McDaniel. Emily is an independent curator, writer and educator from the Kalari Clan of the Wiradjuri Nation in Central New South Wales. She consults on curatorship, engagement, and interpretation in the public domain, the museums and galleries sector and media. Her practice centres on truth-telling, storytelling and resurfacing site-specific histories through the work of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.
In 2018, she was commissioned by the City of Sydney to curate a Harbour Walk as part of Eora Journey Public Art Strategy. That year, she launched the world premiere of 'Four Thousand Fish', a site-specific, large-scale art project for Sydney Festival. In 2017, she was selected to represent New South Wales in the Venice Biennale Professional Development Program as Aboriginal Emerging Curator.
Her recent exhibitions include 'Void' at UTS Gallery, 'Measured Response' at the National Art School Gallery, 'Walan Yinaagirbang | Strong Women' at Firstdraft Gallery, and 'Dhuwi' at Australian Design Centre. In 2015 she curated the first public art commission for Sydney's Barangaroo precinct. She was the Assistant Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery in New South Wales, and Aboriginal Emerging Curator for the 18th Biennale of Sydney. Emily has held numerous Public Programming and Learning positions at the Art Gallery and Museum of Contemporary Art, with particular emphasis on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs. Welcome, Emily.
Emily McDaniel: Thank you so much, Tara. Thank you. In beginning, I would like to begin as I always do, and that is by acknowledging the Country that I'm fortunate enough to be living on, belonging to the Cabrogal people of the Darug Nation in Sydney's South West. As Tara mentioned, I'm a curator, a writer, an educator, and I've held those positions across institutions, such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Object Gallery, and Sydney Living Museums.
Growing up, I wasn't particularly interested in visual art. As a Year 8 student, your capacity to enjoy art, to participate in art was directly related as to whether or not you could paint or draw or replicate, and I could do neither of those things.
But one moment in my secondary education has remained really vivid in my memory, and it's a moment where I can now, in reflection, go back and pinpoint my practice. I remember, we were asked to produce a ceramic totem pole in Year 8, imbuing this totem pole with our personal significance and stories. And I remember there was something that sat within me, intrinsic, I felt it deep within my gut, that something wasn't right, and I spoke up, I said, "We don't have the context. We don't have the culture. I don't think we should be doing this." That comment went down like a lead balloon, and I was quickly asked to leave the classroom, and I did so happily.
Reflecting now I can see that there was something instilled in me, at the time without explanation, understanding, or context. I think it was instinct, ancestral, taught and ingrained. An understanding of cultural practice. What is appropriate and what isn't? What is my story to tell, and what isn't? What is for us and what isn't?
But ironically, my first job was in visual arts learning. I was about 17 and a family member working at the Art Gallery of New South Wales said that there might be a job supporting the delivery of First Nations' art programs, for educational groups with additional needs. I was hesitant, I was still holding that assumption that visual art was not for me. But when I visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and I looked at the collection works in the exhibitions, there was something so familiar, I hadn't felt that familiarity in my school education.
The artworks expressed conversations that I had heard around the dining room table since I was young. They reflected my identity, experiences and memories, and I realised that what was framed as visual art, for me, was quite simply culture. And purely an expression of that culture.
In thinking about what I wanted to talk about today, I really enjoyed the process. It's given me a moment to take a breath, to take stock and to pay attention to what I've been doing so far in my practice, and why I've been doing it. Today, I'll be sharing an insight into the development of my practice. The questions I'm asking, the responsibility I'm leaning into, and the processes that I'm undertaking and creating.
For as long as I can remember, I've been interested in the body, embodiment, its movements, the information and memories it can inherently contain on an unconscious level. In thinking about how this obsession emerges, I go back to when I was 12 years old. My father decided to take my brother and I out to our ancestral Country for the first time. It's about a seven and a half hour drive west of Sydney, and I'd heard about this place for such a long time. We'd spoken about it around the dining room table since I was little, yet having never visited there, it existed only as a place in my memory.
As we crossed the mountains and the mountains became hills and then stretched out to expansive plains, the soil became redder and redder and redder the closer we got to Euabalong. Sitting at the backseat of the car, I remember an anxious feeling, a thought that I had to myself. I remember thinking, "What if I get to this place, and I feel nothing at all? What if it is just an unfamiliar place to which there is no connection? What if my Country does not recognise me?"
Then my father said something to me that I've never forgotten. He said, "Non-Indigenous people, they can buy land, they can lease land, they can rent land, but they can never be of the land. And you are of this land. When you stand here, you will be standing in the same place that your ancestors have always stood. You'll be breathing in the same air that they breathed. You will hear what they heard, and you'll see what they saw."
In that moment, he encapsulated the inextricable connection between our bodies as a place of memory, Country and generational ancestry. To return to Country isn't just to return to a place, it's to return to a place that remembers you, and connects you to every generation of ancestors before you, known and unknown.
My exhibitions emerge from deep listening and observation, like this, noticing the small details, expressions and conversations that can often be lost in our complex identities as First Nations people. I enjoy observing the trajectory of artists' practices, and starting to thread together and weave a narrative. I don't believe that the role of a curator is to always create anew, but to generate new conversations about old knowledge. This for me is the process of Yindyamarra. Yindyamarra is a Wiradjuri word, which encapsulates a way of being, a behaviour. Simultaneously, it means many things; to be gentle, to honour, to be polite, to respect and to go slowly.
I'm dedicated to applying this to my work. It's not a perfect process without mistakes, but it's my dedication to responsibility, deepening my listening, bettering my decisions. I will never be a curator of endless exhibitions and projects, but each one will be born of deep conversations, listening, responsibility and responsiveness.
Wiradjuri people have always known and recorded and connected to the practice of Possum Skin Cloak making. They were sacred objects, but they were also everyday. I'm actually sitting on one at the moment instead of a cushion. It was understood that they were used for warmth, for sitting and ceremony at the same time. Possum Skin Cloak making was a practice that laid dormant for many centuries. However, across the South East, there has been a reclamation and a remembrance of that practice. My father taught himself how to make Possum Skin Cloaks. It was an intuitive process, he let his hands do the talking to remember a skill that his ancestors hands had once held.
After he had made the cloak, he then showed my brother, Lachlan, how to make his own, and about eight years ago, he decided that it was my time to make a Possum Skin Cloak. It was a long process, it took about six months, and it could have been done quicker, but that wasn't the point. It was about slowing down, taking time, the cups of tea, the conversations, the road trips. I remember we went on this beautiful road trip across our Country, and we visited every town and community that our family was connected to through multiple generations.
We threaded the story together of who we are today. Wiradjuri Country is known as The Land of Three Rivers; the Kalari, the Murrumbidgee, and the Wambool, and we visited each river, we got our feet wet, we introduced ourselves back to Country so that Water would know who we are. We collected a bottle of water from each of those three rivers and we collected the fallen gum leaves and bark that we found on each site.
When we returned home, we made a beautiful thick brown tannin, that almost looked like a tea and we painted and imbued each Possum Skin pelt with this dye. We took the time to create our own designs to express who we were. You can see that there are images of The Three Rivers, specific waterhole sites, and the gugaa, the goanna. Each burnt mark holds a conversation, a sentence and a transfer of memory.
In making this Possum Skin Cloak we had conversations we had never had before. We spoke in a way we've never spoken before, and we shared things we wouldn't have otherwise. I approach my exhibition-making and storytelling in much the same way. It's about the conversations, cups of tea, experiences, laughter, gossip, and most importantly, the listening and learning. It's about weaving together and patching seemingly disparate items, juxtapositions and relationships. Taking the time for deep listening and for conversations to emerge. The outcome is always imbued with the spirit of making. The process is gentle, but it produces something strong and powerful.
When I was working at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I noticed throughout collection items the physicality and the body as a vessel for change, ceremony, performance and transformation. In the process of doing, the knowing emerges.
This was an idea I was drawn into purely through observation. I initially began to refer to it as enactment as I was pulling the exhibition together. But one of the artists, Julie Gough, quickly corrected me. It wasn't a re-enactment. Re-enactment is to perpetuate the past, or colonial violence. To re-enact isn't to critique. But to embody is to give an expression or tangible physical form to an idea, a feeling or a quality. It's to embody the experiences of past ancestors, and histories with all of the sentiment and knowledge engendered by the initial event, with the addition of the here and now.
This exhibition represented histories, and they didn't reference the past for history's sake. It's about the relevance of what happened in the past, in the here and now. You could say that the artistic re-embodiments are not affirmative confirmations of the past, but rather questionings of the present, through reaching back to historical events that have etched themselves indelibly into our collective memory.
Embodiment can be defined as a physical process, by which empathy can be developed. This process of embodiment provides an opportunity to address the absence of written documentation of significant historic and cultural events, creating an opportunity to re-evaluate, redefine, reconnect and rewrite. One of these key works that drew me into this concept was by Gamilaraay artist, r e a. 'Poles Apart', which is the video that you can see on the left, was a deeply performative video, time-based work. She assumed the position of her grandmother, Ruby, who was a member of the Stolen Generation. She was forcibly removed from her family, and taken as a maidservant for Cootamundra Girls' Home in 1916.
Through this bodily process, r e a documents and provides a physical form, wearing those clothing that is so restrictive, moving through the burnt-out bushlands, feeling the fear that her grandmother would have felt as she was leaving her Country.
Julie Gough is another critical artist who critiques and shapes this practice, and this work that is centralised in this image, 'Dark Valley, Van Diemen's Land' refers to the tradition of Tasmanian shell-making, and also what she felt was a gap in her immediate family of passing that knowledge on, and how the processes of dispossession of Country, colonisation, farming, hunting, and mining are all responsible for the gap of this cultural knowledge.
Her Tasmanian Aboriginal family and her paternal Scottish family both worked in Tasmanian-owned coal mines. To her, the feeling of holding coal was compelling and familiar. She felt the pull to collect, to drill, to sort, and to thread these giant necklaces. After creating them, she would wear them, literally feeling the heavy weight, the shared load of our history, and she would walk Country holding these.
In the spirit of deep listening and observation, after leaving the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I then directed my attention to First Nations female artists, creating platforms that allowed them to articulate their strength through the use of delicate materials, intricate techniques and hand languages. In the Wiradjuri language, 'Walan Yinaagirbang' means 'Strong Women', and this exhibition featured the work of eight First Nations artists who reflected on their identities as women, articulated through materiality, familial connections and personal and political observations.
Masculine objects such as spears, shields and weaponries dominated early Australian ethnographic and anthropological collections and exhibitions. These collections seemingly confirmed the depiction of a warfare culture, a culture to be feared and avoided. In contrast, less coveted women's cultural objects and practices, such as delicately detailed fragile textiles, woven forms, shell work and necklaces, were able to be passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter, and so on.
Muslin cloth is imbued with domestic history, being commonly used in the kitchen as well as mending garments and healing wounds. The fabric is also manipulated through Tamara Baillie's alchemical process, as she sets the muslin fabric in this work here, 'Awash', with a sugar-coated solution, transforming this fragile material into a fibreglass state. Her artistic practice considers the ways to conceal, disguise and control histories.
'Awash' traces and maps the primary waterways upon which Europeans, and the Indigenous people first interacted with one another in Broken Bay, Port Jackson, and Botany Bay. Tamara is from a family of boatmakers and sailors. By subverting the functionality of a map and rendering it entirely arbitrary, Baillie challenges the masculine accounts of mapping Sydney's shorelines and places it in her personal and familial history.
Similarly, Larrakia artist, Nadine Lee who you can see on the right, created 'Healing', in memory of her family members and friends that have passed on. Her selection of tactile materials like driftwood, mica and muslin allow her to physically connect with these individuals for the last time. The mica in this work was collected from Mica Beach, on the Cox Peninsula in Darwin. The catharsis and the quietude of peeling back fragile layers of mica designates time for the remembrance of her ancestors, and the healing of generational trauma in the present.
You will also see to the left is a work, 'Yilaalu', by Lucy Simpson, who's been an artist who I've continued to work with over time. It was an honour to curate her first solo exhibition, which was the result of deep conversation and collaboration. 'Dhuwi' was a sensory collection of works that sung up the spirit and the inner life force embedded within our cultural objects. Dhuwi, or Essence in Yuwaalaraay language, is imparted from the maker to the object, with an embedded sense of the Country on which it was created.
It is the embodiment of all that has ever been before and all that ever will be. The exhibition responded to the culturally embedded understanding that function does not diminish beauty. Objects are designed with the consideration of longevity, but accept everyday wear as part of the story. Everyday use adds meaning to objects and strengthens the relationship between maker and object.
Lucy's experimentation with design began as a child finding and using echidna quills and emu feathers collected. She would clean and polish them before constructing necklaces with string. 'Yilaalu cont.' was the first work made for 'Dhuwi', that you can see on the bottom half. It represents her departure from wearable sculpture.
Materiality absorbs a history of use, and the contemporary use of the material is informed by the makers and users before it. The chalky finish of the quills recalls the porous soils of Lightning Ridge, which re-surface as the red top layer of soil is disturbed by human activity. Such as scouring of the landscape for opals, of which the region is known for.
A catalyst for this exhibition was Lucy's experience of visiting cultural collections within the Pitt Rivers Museum. When viewing objects on display, she became conscious of a physical presence behind her. As she turned around, she found that she was actually standing in front of a carved tree that had been cut and collected from Central New South Wales. These trees and their associated markings are strongly connected to mens' ceremonies. 'Mubirr', the textile work on the left, reflects on this bodily response to cultural material and concurs that perhaps these objects do not belong in a museum or gallery, but rather with their makers.
This installation responds to the appropriation and the appropriate use of marks drawn from carved trees. The word Mubirr in Yuwaalaraay language speaks of traces of human interaction or intervention. It can refer to ceremonial scars, or mark-making. Lucy gathered offcuts from renowned Muruwari carver Tom Barker and extracted natural dyes and experimented with using rust collected from industrial detritus. Two evenings before this exhibition opened, Lucy meditatively passed each textile element through smoldering smoke, imparting each fabric with the scent of transition.
The work also reflected on how information and knowledge was passed on. She engaged her nephew, to then be connected to the history of carved stone tools. She was taken by Ted Fields Jr to a place that was called The Men's Shed, an ancient place where old fellows would teach the boys how to make tools. The men would complete 50% of the tools before passing them on to the next generation to finish.
She engaged her nephew in this process, understanding her custodianship role as a woman supporting young men. I believe in the investment of long-term relationships and friendships with the artists that I work with. Often you observe that there is a number of artists that continue to reappear throughout my practice in exhibitions, and that's because the conversations don't stop with the exhibitions. Exhibitions are just simply an expression of the continuing conversation.
One day I was sitting at the dining table of my good friend, Lucy Simpson's house, and she was creating a new work and she wasn't quite sure what that work would be. As she sat there, she started measuring out the thread that she would use. She would hold the string and stretch out her arm and create these lengths, using her body as a form of measurement for the work that she would create. She started weaving around her body in this form with kangaroo leather. Whatever it was that she was going to create would be a reflection of her body.
This work here was created in response to when her sisters and Lucy visited the United States. They visited cultural collections that contains Yuwaalaraay ancestors. It's a bodily response to this experience. The title is a Yuwaalaraay translation of 'my hands remember'. Her practice begins with cerebral thoughts, memories, and emerged from the time spent working and responding with her chosen materials. She was drawn to the kangaroo leather before she even knew how she would use it.
Every time she touched the leather, her oils in her hand would imbue a stain in the leather, and this time-intensive process offered resolution and acknowledged the ceremonies that never took place for the ancestors and objects held off Country and abroad.
These conversations and observations led to 'Measured Response', an exhibition that acknowledged the bodily and spiritual relationship between the artist and object. The body has always been a point of reference and measurement, and our relationship to the world is gauged in proportion to our physical dimensions. The artists engaged with materiality by activating their bodily knowledge, and in doing so, left traces of themselves within every object that they made.
Artist Julie Freeman considers herself the embodiment of every ancestor. Julie never made a basket simply for the sake of making a basket. It is not just the beautiful or purposeful object, it must have purpose and meaning and cause for conversation. These works were not originally considered for display or exhibition, but to hold stories and pass knowledge on.
Kuku Yalanji artist, Delissa Walker, seemingly also contains matrilineal histories in her work. She recalls that when her grandmother was almost taken by authorities as part of the Stolen Generation, as a young child, she was hidden in a kakan, like one of the big ones that you can see here. You can almost see how a baby's body could just fit within it. Delissa's grandmother was given some burnie beads to play with to keep her quiet, so the authorities wouldn't find her. The form of this is imbued with the sense of her grandmother.
Yhonnie Scarce breathes her sculptural glass objects into the form of bush bananas, representative of her people, the Kokatha, Nukunu and Mirning peoples from the Nullarbor Plain and the Australian Bite Regions of South Australia. Scarce conveys that despite suffering under the tight grip of European colonisation, her people have resisted, survived, even when pressured to breaking point. By incorporating the scientific apparatus, Yhonnie also reflects on the extensive and humiliating anthropological research Aboriginal people were subjected to, from the 1920s and 1930s.
Penny Evans looked at the physical forms of matrilineal ancestors that would emerge in the process of making ceramic objects. At the time the object will emerge as an ancestor, others it will be a form of constellation of stories. She creates her pinch pots and makes a lot of noise. She tears apart clay slabs, slapping, rolling, and puncturing them with her fingertips before pinching out the material in concentric motions. There is an ancestral familiarity with the earthly clay, a material that has always known our bodies. To watch her hands independent of one another, but in perfect conversation with one another is to recognise that in her making, she's activating a bodily knowledge that inherently knows what to do next.
For each of the artists in 'Measured Response', the personal narratives are deeply intimate that are very difficult to articulate. As such, they were really best experienced in person. A critical aspect of my storytelling and curatorial practice is articulating cultural concepts that are not singularly or simply defined, allowing ideas to exist in their complexity. One example of that exhibition was 'Void'. I'm interested in the in-betweeness of things, the space between the said and unsaid.
Void is an interesting word and when considering the associations and meaning we derive from it, they are, for the most part, negative, absence, nothingness, disconnection, emptiness. What this exhibition hopes to convey is that the void is a multifaceted concept, not simply presence and absence, but a place that exists between distinct worldviews. It's occupied by meaning and imbued with personal significance. There is no one answer to what is a void.
Hayley Millar Baker's work, 'Meeyn Meerreeng' draws its inspiration from the translation, Black Country. The eruption of Budj Bim, now known by its colonised name, Mount Eccles, resourced her ancestral Gunditjmara Country, and granitic and volcanic rock formations, which provided her ancestors safe passage and protection from impeding colonists.
In an act of reciprocity, she carefully washed and cleansed 71 rocks before painting them black and varnishing them to conceal their identity, to protect her Country, as it protected her and her ancestors. Country is an interesting and complex concept for First Nations people, which encompasses landscapes, waterscapes, skyscapes, and highlights their relationships to one another. We can see the void in looking to astronomy. Western astronomy draws meaning from the stars themselves. First Nations astronomy, however, will look to the space between to tell those narratives, such as the Great Emu in the Sky, a constellation that's recognised by many First Nations nations across Australia.
Mick Namarari is an incredibly interesting artists to look at through the perspective of the void. This painting, 'Untitled (Nyarkulnga)', actually takes its title from the process of concealing one's body with the sand from his desert homelands, to protect oneself from the burning sun, also repeating that process of making oneself void in the landscape.
The exhibition was incredibly interesting as a touring program. I found it quite difficult to understand how I, as a First Nations curator, who usually start with a place-based or Country-based approach. What stories are here? What stories do we tell? How do you continue the same exhibition across multiple places in Australia? For me, it was about holding space for localised conversations.
When this exhibition was first shown in Bathurst, the South East was being swept by bushfires, and we were being told at the same time that this was not the moment to have the conversation about climate change. Yet again, our voices were being considered to be void. We were silenced, we were unable to speak of this pain and trauma. Wahluu, a significant site known as Mount Panorama, was considering being developed by the local council.
This was again another methodology of the void appearing within our existence. 'Void' became a space to consider it. Within COVID, it took a new meaning of what it is to feel physically distanced from someone, yet maintain connection. In my experience, often when curating exhibitions and experiences that encapsulate First Nations stories, non-Indigenous people will often view these exhibitions as though they don't include them, they're not part of this story. It's a story about someone else. I want to encourage people who visit my exhibitions to find themselves in this story, what is the void for you? How have you experienced the void, and what does it look like in your life?
I encourage active participation in my exhibitions. Because First Nations knowledge isn't for free. You need to give to receive, you need to be part of the story to hear the story. As a First Nations woman, I've become very used to people shutting me down when I want to have conversations about the truth of colonisation in Australia. If we leave these conversations unsaid, we can never fully reconcile our past. What chance do we have of reconciling with each other? Stories of the past are also stories of our future, although we have the power to change the outcome.
A lot of non-Indigenous people assume that this conversation leads to blame, accusation and guilt. But as First Nations people, we understand that what we're really talking about is responsibility. We inherit the actions of our ancestors, and we acknowledge that place holds memory, and the responsibility that we have standing on it.
The obstacle, I think, is that people often look to the past and feel helpless, like passive, disempowered observers. "I didn't do it. There's nothing I can do about it now. It's not my problem." Or the worst, "Get over it." In my work, I tried to create new ways to facilitate this discussion. For me, it's through shared action and ceremony, if you will. It's very confronting to sit across from someone and have a conversation like this. But when you share an experience, it opens up new ways of understanding.
In many ways, I think that words have failed us in truth-telling. We've been telling our truth for 230 years, we've been speaking, but no one has been listening. There's a cognitive dissonance and detachment, and I wanted to have a public conversation about what events mean to us today, particularly back in 1790. I curated a large-scale public conversation and participatory art project for Sydney Festival called 'Four Thousand Fish'.
In 1790, recorded by Judge Advocate David Collins, a group of British colonists holding an excessive catch of 4,000 fish in just one day in 1790. 4,000 fish. The population at that time was 1,715, and I can only assume that not everyone received a fish. That one moment disrupted the delicate ecosystem that the accomplished Eora fisher-women of Warrane, Sydney Harbour, had preserved for millennia and that undermined their status. I think they did this because they had no comprehension that the resources that they found here were only as a result of the ingenuity, respect and care of the Eora.
I think it's in these small stories that hint at how our disrespectful relationship to this Country has developed. This project was dedicated to Cammeraygal woman, Barangaroo, after whom the location of the artwork was positioned. It was the result of a collaboration with artist and Dharawal and Yuin woman Phyllis Stewart, Bidjigal artist Steven Russell on the left, Yuwaalaraay artist Lucy Simpson in the middle in black, and Lille Madden, unpictured, a Bundjalung, Arrernte and Kalkadoon woman with Gadigal connections.
Visitors were invited to participate by creating one of 4,000 frozen fish using seawater collected from the harbour and a cast mould that was designed by Lucy Simpson. They would then carry these fish moulds into a large industrial-sized shipping container where they would be frozen collectively. They would then be asked to turn out one of those frozen fish moulds and collect the fish that somebody else had made, to place them into their buckets and to transport them down to an interpretation of a Nawi bark canoe.
The canoe held a beautiful form of a Coolamon that was designed by Phyllis Stewart. As you placed your frozen fish on the flame, held by banksia pod, you slowly watched that water return back to the ocean. It was a project that made you wet when you collected the bucket of seawater, cold when you stepped inside the refrigerator, off balance as you walked down the wharf and you felt the heat of the fire upon your face. I wanted participants to physically feel part of that story that they inherited in that place. This was about taking responsibility for the historical actions that we've inherited and considering what it means to give back something that never should have been taken in the first place.
I hadn't really considered the level of reverence that would emerge in this project. I spent every day working down at Barangaroo, dressed as an art attendant in black clothing, watching people's responses. You can see in this image that people sat on a bench on either side. What they were listening to was the voice of Phyllis Stewart and Steven Russell talking about their sustainable fishing practices and the continuity of their culture.
People gave Buddhist prayers as they placed this ice fish. I had conversations with people I never would have spoken to otherwise, people who were incredibly conservative in their viewpoint. However, this moment, this shared action of holding a frozen fish, of our bodies both experiencing the same thing, we were able to connect.
There are intangible connections between us and the waters we live by, and as Aboriginal people we often introduce ourselves through the waters we're connected to. I will say, "I'm a freshwater woman." Someone will say, "I'm a saltwater woman." In a cultural context when we acknowledge Country or introduce ourselves to Country, we often put our feet in the water so it knows our scent, it knows who we are.
All humankind is connected to water, not just First Nations people. It holds memories of everyone who has ever come in contact with it. It remembers the gradual flooding of Sydney Harbour 60,000 years ago. It remembers the Gadigal women who skimmed across it in their nawi. It remembers the British entering its headlands and coming upon its shores.
In early 2019, the City of Sydney in partnership with Place Management NSW, commissioned the Harbour Walk, one of seven major public art projects of the Eora Journey Public Art Strategy. It would take form as a nine kilometre stretch from iconic site to cross Sydney. From Darling Harbour in the West through to Woolloomooloo, passing significant sites such as this. The Harbour Walk isn't a passive experience. It requires the physical and emotional engagement of the participants.
As they walk across this nine-kilometre stretch, they will hear stories, see interpretation, be part of public artworks and activation. It's about the participant getting to know Country, as much as it is Country getting to know the participant.
As you walk through the Country and interact with public art and stories, you're introducing yourself so that this place remembers you. It's about you seeing what we see, and feeling what we feel when we enter a place that we're connected with.
Walking Country isn't just a mode of transportation, it's a process and it's a dedication. With every step you take, you should feel more deeply grounded in that place than when you began. You familiarise yourself with sights and sounds and textures, emotions, and come to the realisations of the countless and infinite generations of First Nations people who have walked that journey as well.
Perhaps at this point of realisation, Country will begin to tell you its stories. On this map here, you can see how they all intersect and connect, how one story responds to another. Barangaroo Headland looks out to Me-mel, which was the island said to be held by Barangoo's husband, Bennelong. They look to each other in the distance. There are conversations and connections, constellations of stories that interconnect and intersect a place.
But as I said, these stories here, that we will be telling through 30 years of realising the Harbour Walk project, it's not information and knowledge that you get for free. What are you willing to do? What are you willing to offer? What action and commitment are you willing to demonstrate to earn the insights of Country? Perhaps it's walking the nine kilometres or placing your feet in salt water? Perhaps it is placing a frozen fish on a beautiful Coolamon to watch it slowly melt back into the water. We must be willing to actively participate, to be part of the change.
I returned back to where everything begins for me, and I think back to a comment I once heard, First Nations Yamatji curator, Stephen Gilchrist say, it was incredibly profound, provocative, and simple and probably just said in passing, and it stayed with me ever since. He said to look at the word curator, and when you break it down to the essence of that word, it is to cure, or rather to care, to care deeply. I think that can be translated as creating healing conversations, truth-telling, creating spaces and opportunities where people feel that they can be heard in culturally safe spaces. It's to care about the conversations that we generate in the spirit of Yindyamarra, to ensure that the right people are at the table for decision-making, to care about whose voice is being heard, and the cultural safety of an exhibitional project. To return to the core practice of care in curatorial practice is to move past, quick burn, disposable curatorial methodologies that rely on shock value, controversy, or media spin as a cheap substitute for deep connection and consideration.
Truth-telling is interesting for me, because I'm interested in how we frame and facilitate the space for truth-telling to occur. But now, it's up to participants. Can you hear the truth that we are speaking? Are you an active participant in this space? I don't think of my curatorial or storytelling practice, as a singular notion. I think of it as collective. I've inherited the legacies, the practices and processes of everyone that has held space for me, to ensure that there's a seat at the table. Now, every time I take on a curatorial opportunity, it is part of my prerequisite that there is funding to bring along another emerging curator.
I continue to mentor as I'm still being mentored. I used to think that I wound up in visual arts, accidentally, not fully of my own intention, but rather through others' leadership. That's actually a very colonial framework to think of these things. I think everyone has a purpose to play in the community, the role that we're playing, and we cannot possibly be everything, but for me, I'm a storyteller, I'm a connector, I'm a weaver.
Now, when I accept those opportunities, I bring that greater awareness. Since curating 'Four Thousand Fish', I've noticed that there has been an inherent change in the language that I feel comfortable using. Often, I'm introduced as the curator, a writer and an educator, and I do all of those things, I do them interchangeably with as much effort and passion as the next. But whether I curate, write, or educate is dependent on the story I want to tell. They are simply different ways, methodologies of telling a story.
From this point on, I'll predominantly be introducing myself as that, a storyteller, weaving those narratives in the spirit of Yindyamarra, mimicking and recalling those same cultural practices as Possum Skin Cloak making.
Tara McDowell: Thank you so much for that really incredible presentation. I feel just a tremendous sense of gratitude to you for sharing that. As I was listening to you speak and looking at those extraordinary images, I imagine students may be on the Caulfield campus or Clayton campus watching this and feeling much the same. I just want to begin by saying thank you, it was such a gift to have that incredible overview of your practice, and to understand and to really see how the projects are quite linked, and you could really understand that sense of conversation, and in a way, you have this reciprocity between conversation and exhibition, and then perhaps, then the relationships are deepening and the conversation is extending in a new way.
I see very much that commitment, that kind of ethical commitment to privileging those relationships that you have. I feel like in what we just experienced, you are modeling for us what curatorial responsibility, as well as curatorial storytelling is like for you in a lived, embodied practiced way. So, thank you. I might maybe just will ask three questions, something we can keep it short. I know, probably everyone listening has lots of questions of their own. But I was curious, I know that you mentioned how important public programs and education are to you, it was interesting to see the trajectory of your curatorial practice, how the last two projects are in public space. I was just wondering if that was a conscious move? If it's even really a move? If you are interested in working more in public space? If so, why?
Emily McDaniel: I think that's a really important question, and it's both conscious and unconscious, it's responsive. All of our practices are responsive. We're finding new ways to move through space. Again, in my obsession to draw out active participants, I thought the best way to do that is to work within the public space. More and more, I found a discomfort in working in what started off in that "blank canvas" approach to an exhibition space, which you then introduce meaning. In public spaces, and in fact, I believe in gallery spaces, there is already meaning there, and it is in the Country that it's positioned within.
The first question I always ask myself, whenever engaging in the public space on Country, is "What stories can be told here? What stories are already here? What stories aren't people listening to?" And working back from that. I think it's a really important way of working. However, I did find the difficulty in maintaining that practice. Then when I was doing touring projects with 'Void', I thought, "How do I maintain this place-based grounding, speaking to Country, communicating with Country, when I'm moving between different places with the same exhibition outcome?"
There's a tension within that, but it's certainly something that I'm incredibly interested in. Within Sydney, all of the natural markers that would tell us who we are and where we are in the world. Of where is the shoreline? Where is the sun setting? Where is it rising? Are all completely removed. We are entirely reliant upon street names. What I wanted was to move beyond that, and reintroduce, and reconnect people with these ways of navigating and understanding their place within a city.
You have to walk a place to understand it. It's that experience that we all know, when you've just arrived at a new city at night, you don't have time to walk around and understand where you are, you feel displaced, you feel like a visitor, you feel almost that you shouldn't be there. The Harbour Walk is a way of approaching that sense of disconnection with a process of connection.
Tara McDowell: It's really, really wonderful also to hear you conclude this talk by speaking of that shift from curator to storyteller, which I think is so evident in the practice. And to understand the myriad ways that stories get told, such as walking the city, walking the harbour, handling the fish, carrying the fish, that sense of almost obligation to complete the journey, of freezing, and then melting and almost participating in this loop of returning the seawater to the ocean.
As someone who's interested in curatorial practice, I find that to be such an evocative shift, to shift from curator to storyteller. It's quite specific, but on the other hand, it suddenly opens up what the role might be.
I guess I'm just wondering if you might elaborate on that role of storyteller, storytelling a little bit more. Is it something that you can discern or recognize in your practice looking over it, or is it something that you imagine you wanting to nourish, or do you see a direction in which you'd like to take this storytelling practice?
Emily McDaniel: I think, when I was younger, and it's tested as a way of receiving information and holding on to information. We hear more through a story than we do through a list of facts. We're able to place context and a narrative around knowledge, and it resonates with people more so. Rather than an understanding, it becomes a memory that people hold.
That's what I'm really interested in, finding the deeper connections and how you do that. For me, it's through storytelling. Storytelling, for me is weaving different connection stories, a colonial diary entry from 1790, 'Four Thousand Fish', the name, Barangaroo, named after a woman who strongly opposed development, yet is now home to the greatest development and the most expansive corporate development in Australia. How do we rectify that? How do we speak of women in this site? How do we bring together multiple artistic practices, such as Steven and Phyllis and Lucy and Lille?
For me, that is storytelling. It's drawing together those threads to tell a stronger narrative, one that is collective and inclusive at the same time. For me, it's a responsive way of moving through different ideas. In thinking back throughout... I've really enjoyed the process of coming up with this talk, enjoyed and not enjoyed with the stress, but I really had to pinpoint different projects and I kept going through them, and I just thought, they're pretty similar. They're pretty similar. They seem to just be a new iteration of the same story.
By the end of writing this, I've come to the decision that it is one long, never ending process and story. That has different titles, occasionally it will be shown at different galleries or spaces, but it is the one trajectory, it continues on.
From that moment, I became obsessed with the body and the memory and what exists within me, when I was 12 years old, standing on Country, through to now. It's the same story that is being been told. Potentially, the next layer from that is, potentially it's not even my story, it's a continuity of everyone before me, and it will continue on from people after me. But it is just that continuous sense of timelessness is really important. You just mentioned that cyclical notion of participation, which I really, really enjoy. I think of that as my practice, it's a cyclical process. I only see one small curvature of the greater circle that I'm part of.
Tara McDowell: I think also, maybe stories help us to clarify... They both reinforce our values and help us to clarify our values. Something like 'Four Thousand Fish', which was not a story that I knew before I knew of your practice and that work. So, thank you for telling that story to me. I find that to be such a fascinating... Almost like it's a story that you can hold onto and understand the bountifulness of this place, as cultivated and cared for by the people, the Indigenous people who lived here, and also the incredible extraction of that by the settlers.
Just in that one concept, it's almost like it holds so much meaning, and there's such an possibility for us all to learn and reflect on that.
Emily McDaniel: Yeah, I remember a really pivotal moment that came after that project was a Senior Curator who has been very generous and been somewhat of a mentor to me, she was unable to attend the project, and she said she was driving her nephew one day, and without prompting anything, her nephew said, "On the weekend, we went to this really interesting project, and we made these frozen fishes. Did you know that 4,000 fish were taken from Sydney Harbour? There's barely enough fish to feed one person every day, but they took 4,000. And there was this woman and her name was Barangaroo...."
He just riled off all of these different facts and memories that he had of his day. Just in that retelling, that narrative was now his narrative, that he had an experience of, a memory of, and was able to reposition it and continue the conversation. I just thought that's what I want to do. I want to continue doing that.
The beauty of that project was that people accessed it in many different ways. There were some people who almost made 4,000 fish personally, they were very into the process, and would make one after another almost in this meditative state. There were some people that took their time, really stretched it out over a few hours. There would be some people who just wanted to come and talk about fish, really into fishing, and that was their entry point. Other people just wanted to sit and observe. But having those flexible experiences where people can choose their own journey, their own entry point, to start at a point of comfort, and to get comfortable with being uncomfortable in that space is really important.
Tara McDowell: Well, on that note, I think I might just ask one last question, before ending this session. When we spoke last week, you said something that I've just been thinking about ever since, which was so powerful. Which is that when you curate, and I hope it's okay if I'm sharing this, you said that you think about, you have a question, which is, what is my responsibility in this moment? I just find that to be such an extraordinarily powerful place from which to be a cultural practitioner in the world, and something that I think that all of us should probably take on board a bit more.
I was wondering if you could just maybe speak a bit more about that, what that means for you and why that's a core questions that always stays with you?
Emily McDaniel: It's quite a mantra for me, for every step of any project, any story, any exhibition, what is my responsibility in this moment, and to this moment? That is because I recognize that the role of curator is inherent with the role of who holds power. Working within the First Nations cultural sector, our voices haven't been heard, they haven't been recorded. If they have, we've been spoken for.
I consider my role is to create platforms that allow artists, communities, members of the public to speak for themselves, to speak through their own experience. If you look through my exhibitions, you'll notice that there's always quotes direct from the artists, the participant, the cultural knowledge holder. It's not my voice, I don't use that voice, but I hold space for it.
That also comes with decentralising the role of the curator as well into a sense of a storyteller. It's a collective practice, where I hold space for people to tell their own stories as well. It's in recognition of the power that we hold, whose voice needs to be heard, who needs to be at the table of consultation, and also the ethics behind that are incredibly critical to our power as curators.
It's also that notion of decentralising the role of the curator to the collective rather than the individual, you're part of a greater whole, and that's my responsibility. Responsibility can also be substituted for Yindyamarra that notion, going slow, being respectful, being polite, listening deeply. Part of that, asking, what is my responsibility in this moment, is my way of practicing Yindyamarra in my practice.
Tara McDowell: Well, I think that's the perfect place to end. Emily, thank you.
Emily McDaniel: Thank you so much for having me.
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