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Form x Content – More than a guulany (tree): Indigenous knowledge systems Artists Dr Brian Martin and Associate Professor Brook Garru Andrew in conversation

Wednesday 10 March 2021, 1pm

Diego Ramírez-Lovering:
Hi. My name is Diego Ramírez-Lovering, and I'm here as the chair of the Faculty and MUMA's Climate Action Task Force, and I'm really delighted to say a few words, in advance of Brian Martin and Brook Andrew's conversation, as the inaugural event of the Climate Action Task Force events.

It's also presented by the Wominjeka Djeembana Research Lab, and I'd like to thank the lab, and also Hannah Mathews, from MUMA and Catherine Murphy, from the Department of Architecture for orchestrating this.

So, the Climate Action Task Force was formed at the start of last year, after the Black Summer bushfires, and since then we have been busy establishing an action plan, which commits MADA and MUMA to climate change, climate action. We are committed to making a fundamental and critical contribution to an ethical, healthy, bio-diverse and fair future for life on our planet.

We believe that climate aware design and delivery will contribute to improved planetary health, and we strive to excel in this area. So, we seek to frame our actions as informed by Indigenous ways of knowing, and by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and to transform our ways of working, through a paradigm shift in our emphasis of knowledge and actions.

This will involve building new understandings, new partnerships, new practices, new structures, within MADA and MUMA, and others. So these new understandings, these new practices can learn so much from Indigenous ways of knowing, and here I paraphrase Brian who uses the term, the word, relationality, is the notion where we are so fundamentally connected to Country and to each other, where we respect Country, we do not hurt Country when we are, of course, connected to Country.

I found some words by Dr Dennis Foley, a Gai-mariagal and Wiradjuri man, he's also a Fulbright scholar, that really resonated, and he says, "The land is the mother, and we are of the land. We do not own the land, rather the land owns us. The land is our food, our culture, our spirit and our identity. So, these tenets are fundamental to climate action, and to our work, the work of the taskforce. And we really look forward to learning more about these notions through today's conversation, and through future events. Thank you very much.

Brian Martin:
Hello, Brook.

Brook Garru Andrew:
Hey there, Brian.

Brian Martin:
How are you? So, I'll start off this talk, and yarn we're going to have today, with of course, acknowledging Country which is really important for Indigeneous peoples, and also for myself, and also for you, as we have done many times.

Ngali na jugun. Ngali garima mala jugun. Wana janma mala guru gala jugun. Ngali wana janja mala jugun. Ngali na mala jugun. Ngay nyuhmba gara gihng Boon Wurrung, Wurundjeri, Wadda Wurrung, Kulin jugun, and ngadjang-gali Bunjil. And I said, we belong to Country, we look after Country, we don't do wrong around Country, we don't harm Country, we belong to Country. And also, pay my respects, and pay our respects, really, to Wurundjeri, Boon Wurrung Country, Wathaurong Country, where I'm located at the moment, and also, to Kulin Country and extend that respects to Bunjil, being the Great Creator, ancestor of the Kulin Nations.

So, Brook Garru Andrew and myself, Brian Martin, we're going to talk about trees, we're going to talk about Country, and we're going to talk about our collective practices, and a project that we're both working on with the Australian Research Council.

I'm just going to start off and talk a little bit about, I suppose, my drawing practice, and going into the Tree Story exhibition that's on at MUMA, Monash University Museum of Art, at the moment. And then Brook's going to talk about his practice as well, and how we both really look at Country, look at trees, in particular, and how we're both working on a specific project, the significance of guulany, which is a Wiradjuri word for trees and Aboriginal knowledge systems.

I'm going to share my screen here, to show one thing that's sort of influenced, well, not influenced, but also, drives my connection to Country, my connection to trees, my connection to practice, is this idea that a non-Indigenous writer came up with, this idea of ideational drawing, and drawing being thinking and thought as a verb. Like, when we think about the word draw, you draw something out, a set of drawers. They're active words, and when we think about relationality in language, in Indigenous cultures around Australia, our words to describe our relationships to the world are usually premised on verbs.

So, for example, in the many languages around Aboriginal Australia, we don't have words to describe what we'll translate as art. For example, Wergaia language of the Wotjobaluk in the Northwest of Victoria, around Horsham, yuka means to paint, so the active word. In Yugambeh or Bundjalung, we have words that are ganggil, or jarang, which translate as the arm, how it joins the torso, or how the leg, the thigh joins the torso, in the hip area. Or how a tree branch joins a main trunk. Same as how a wing of the bird joins its body.

So, the words are interchangeable, between the relationship between entities, between humans and the non-human, and one of those non-human things is Country, and is trees. This is important when we think about language, in general, in Indigenous languages, like the word badjili. Badjili, in Bundjalung, means to rain, but not just to rain. Badjili means to strike, and it's where rain is striking the earth. So it's visceral, it's audible, it's not only aural, but it's also got a tacit type aspect to when we think about languages.

And that goes for the word Country, so one thing that drives practice is our relationship and relationality to country, and in the various Aboriginal languages today, around Australia, we don't really have words that translate as land, we have words that translate as Country, and Country is a living subject. It's our relationship with the world that's really important. It's our relationship to each other, it's our relationship to place. And these are very fundamental things to Indigenous culture, but also to Indigenous practice, and creative practice.

I'm going to talk about this in terms of drawing, and I'm going to show a couple examples of drawing, and this particular example here is of Paakanty Country, which is in Far West New South Wales, so out near Broken Hill, Wilcannia, Menindee area, so Paakantyi Wilyakali Country.

And these drawings are an articulation of Country. They're done in 30 pieces, drawn in 30 pieces. Now, I'm going to go through how I construct the drawings, so if we look at the bottom right hand corner, that shows you how abstract the pieces are. And these drawings are made up of 30 pieces, and each piece is just, it's important to look at the tactile knowledge that we find in mark making, in relation to Country, and how that is articulated through practice, through abstraction, through to this premise of representation.

And I'll talk about this, as I'll just go through this drawing, so that makes the bottom right hand corner, and then the drawing builds itself, over the execution of it. I wish I could draw this fast, but I don't. Be pretty deadly, eh? So the drawing is constructed this way. And what really interests me, is my interest when we look at practice, and we look at Country, I've always thought about the works of, of course, celebrated artist Albert Namatjira.

And over the years, I've then looked at the work of Tommy McRae, and of course, a very important Wurundjeri Ngurungaeta Elder, and leader, William Barak. In Tommy McRae and William Barak's work, they're very interesting, because you see for the first time, really an Indigenous creative practice, the introduction of the horizon line, and the introduction of this notion of gravity, and different types of pictorial space, as understood in a Western way.

What's really important about that, is when we think about the imaginary world, which I call the Western world, the horizon line is an imaginary, you can never reach the horizon. It doesn't exist. That is very opposed to the real conditions of existence that are in Indigenous cultural practices. Country, what's under our feet, what's around us, is real. The horizon line is something that is imaginary, in a way, we cannot obtain or attain, the horizon.

And that's what's really interesting, when we look at Western historical landscape painting, it becomes this imaginary, it becomes a representation. So for me, that's what's really important about this idea, representation and abstraction, and the real world, and the imaginary world. The current work that's in the museum, MUMA, the Museum, Monash University Museum of Art, one work which is Kamilaroi drawing on the wall, is a way, a type of representation.

However, the work on the floor, which is the first drawing I've done, on Boon Wurrung Country, so I went around with Aunty Carolyn Briggs, N'arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs AM, and we walked around Boon Wurrung Country, in search for different trees.

And this tree on the ground, this gentleman is standing on, the whole idea of this notion of walking on the work, walking on the drawing is you're walking on Boon Wurrung Country. What's really important about this, is your experience. The whole idea is to have the experience of being immersed within Country, immersed within the work. And there's a different relationship that we have with practice, by standing on it.

I call this photograph Boon Wurrung on Boon Wurrung on Boon Wurrung. So, triple Boon Wurrung. We have senior Boon Wurrung Elder, Aunty Carolyn standing on Boon Wurrung drawing, actually on Boon Wurrung Country. For me, what's significant about this is our relationship, immersive relationship to the drawing, and our embodiment and relationality to it is deeply connected. When we put something on the wall, it becomes representation. It becomes that imaginary. We still have this relationship with the agency of practice, and knowing but there's like this space between ... and the work, whereas when you can experience and actually walk on the drawing it's something quite different.

And it's interesting because when we look at a lot of Indigenous visual practices around Australia, it has been described as mapping, but also, looking at the positional perspective of looking down from ... to Country, and how Country is mapped, that way. So, it's almost like looking at that, as well. So, that's what's really important is relationship to Country.

One thing that's also very ... and also the Tree School, which is part of Tree Story, is we had the opportunity, significant opportunity to become custodians of this beautiful marked tree. This sort of leads into some of the work that Brook and I are doing, in terms of the Australian Research Council Grant, and funding, that we're exploring the significance of guulany, trees, and in this particular case, this is what's known as a Scar Tree.

And also taking and reconfiguring how we describe things and use language. So I'm going to refer to this as a marked tree, instead of scar, because a scar sort of has negative connotations to it, as well. This marked tree, as we can see with these two spaces, the bottom space, or the top of the picture would have been a shield that was taken out of the bark, and also the top one, possibly would have been a coolamon.

What's significant about this tree in talking to Aunty Carolyn, and also David Tournier, another Boon Wurrung knowledge holder, is it's highly likely that this tree was marked in a precolonial period. And you can see the size of the shield would have been where the marking curves in, so the top of the curve actually represents where the actual shield would have been situated. This is quite significant because we're so honored at Monash University, and at MADA, Monash Art, Design and Architecture, to be custodians of this for a period of time, and we're trying to work out what we can do with the tree, as well.

And we're going to take 3D scans of the tree, reproduce different types of things from it, it's an exciting project. But this is really, I suppose, this shows, it's a great way to start, I suppose, the project with Brook. The importance of trees, the significance of guulany, and it's our way, entry point, through the research, through practice. And that's something, I know, that Brook, you've done in your practice, you've looked at scanning trees, significant trees, that are being held in other museums. I might stop sharing my screen, here, so we can talk a bit.

I suppose that's where I might hand over to you, Brook, to introduce yourself and talk about what you're doing. It's quite an amazing thing to go from an amazing ancestor almost, isn't it? Like, when you have, if you are on the campus, we encourage you to go look at this tree, which is in Building G, because it has a presence. So, speaking of presence, I'll hand it to you, my brother, to introduce yourself and talk about what you've been doing.

Brook Garru Andrew:
Yaama, Brian. Ngajuu ngaay ngiduugirr, ngajuu Wiradjuri, from the Kalar Midday, which is the Land of the Three Rivers, and I'd also like to acknowledge the land of the Wurundjeri, and the Boon Wurrung, and the Kulin Nation, and to you, brother, and everyone else joining today.

There are so many parts of acknowledgement and how we live our life, that is important for us and ceremony, but also that absence of things that have power, has been something that I think has inspired both of us to really focus on trees, and both of us, as artists, let alone as being— going on this journey now, has been living with us for a long time. So it's really quite extraordinary to do this.

And of course, the ARC is more than a guulany, also more than a tree, and it is more than a tree, and so thank you for that introduction for everybody. I might just share my screen now, and— here we go.

I would like to just start with this image here. This is a very early Charles Kerry photograph, it's quite shocking. This is from the Powerhouse Museum, and I mean, apart from the environmental impact, people might have seen quite large trees, four or 500 year old trees, in rainforest areas, with diameters of eight, to ten, to twelve meters being chopped down, and think it's of the past. But this sort of devastation actually continues, today, right across Australia.

And for Indigenous people, getting access to those trees, or those spaces that are often still on private land, is often still negotiated with private landholders, and it's really fantastic that you and Aunty Carolyn, and others could secure the tree. I mean, people really should look at the tree, the guulany there, on campus, with great pride, and great privilege, I think.

I might just share a little bit, I've had this relationship with this tree at the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, for many, many years, I would say, over a decade, or so. It's one of three trees that I know of, or sections, or dendroglyphs of guulany that I know are overseas. One here at Pitt Rivers, two in the Ethnographic Museum in Geneva.

It's important, because we're thinking that in 1867, this tree was actually exhibited in the 1867 Paris Great Exhibition, and was purchased by Pitt Rivers. I do work with Christopher Morton, who's one of the lead researchers at the Pitt Rivers Museum. It's important to say that the carvings on these trees are either used for Boon Wurrung men's ceremony, or to mark people of high degree, and often that's a lot of distress in our communities, because when these trees are taken away, and when they're returned, or if people visit them, some people find it very confusing about the meanings, and how we interact with some of these, out of great respect, of course.

This here is a 3D scan, and it's really great, Brian thank you for talking a little bit about the future prospects of the guulany on site. I think that these are important things for our communities, and as artists, to explore, and as scholars, and connectors, to kind of explore what does it mean about the copy, especially when we're talking about these kind of really loaded histories and the trees, and what they actually mean for us.

This was a, I say this as a position, as a powerful object, not as an artwork, but this was at NIRIN, at the Biennale, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney that I was the artistic director of, and I placed this next to other people's artworks, and certain people responded to them, along with, you can see the painting on the wall, in the background, that's of Eric Bridgeman, a Papua New Guinean, Australian artist, who also reflected on what is the meaning of, for example, if this happened to have been a burial tree?

And there was also Frederick McCubbin's "A Bush Burial" painting that we borrowed from Geelong Art Gallery, which was hanging next to it. This is really just a quick snapshot of some of my wall drawings that have been very much inspired by a continuation of our culture, of markings. And here is just a larger kind of photo, representing that kind of installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

It had Stone Maka, which is the artist who has that incredible work on the floor, the big tapa cloth, and of course, the McCubbin, and Eric Bridgeman's work, that's also his War Painting, on the left here is a film, or it's a documentation, really. It's called the Balfour Footage, taken in 1949, actually documented anthropologists and museum, I suppose, employees from the South Australian Museum, and also, pretty sure it was Museum of Victoria, who went on a pilgrimage and removed many hundreds of trees, or guulany that were carved, of great importance.

To gain permission to show this footage, I mean, this is not showing the great circular saws that were cutting down these trees, if you could imagine that. These gravestones, or they are special places of ceremony, so imagine churches, or mosques or other kind of places of ceremony being destroyed. As you can imagine, going back to community now, and talking about that, and reliving that, and asking permission to show that destruction was very important aspect of showing this, in that context.

We were really grateful to many people at Collarenebri, who brought together the children, also from the schools, and there was a smoking ceremony outside of some existing trees, which are protected. The kind of complex history of the protection of these trees still exists for our communities. Two trees were stolen, even though it's within a cage. You can see there, on the left hand side here, there are two support beams and concrete bases, where somebody had smashed their four wheel drive or something into that, and stolen two of those carved trees.

So, still today, that kind of vandalism continues, as it does, of course, with other cultural heritage like rock art, and even right up until Rio Tinto, destroying quite ancient important cultural sites.

Yeah, so I think that the way in which, I think Brian, that we're looking at, it's more than a guulany, more than a tree, is quite inspiring, and I think that it's probably the first time, maybe, that the ARC or kind of the wider scholar community has really looked at such important objects, that are often just kind of relegated to the anthropology museum space.

Brian Martin:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely Brook, and I think that's a— when you were talking, I think what you just said then is a really good sort of lead way into, a funding body like the ARC, I think you're correct, is the first time they're looking at Country, not from a scientific or anthropological positioning, but we're looking at it from a practice, cultural practice positioning, which is quite unique. For the ARC, not for us, that is.

But one thing that you said, and I think this leads significantly in there, when we think about the agency of the non-human, so I think about the devastation of trees, but also about the Rio, the Tinto, the recent destruction of the Djab Wurrung tree, and it's interesting because what draws me to that particular work, the image you showed of the tree, which is significant to Wurundjeri and Bora sites, and also the scan that you've done, and also to things like the Djab Wurrung tree, is that is, things historically have tended to be human centered.

So, for example, the argument around the Djab Wurrung tree is, because there was no evidence of human interaction, therefore, it doesn't have cultural heritage, is a interesting question. And that's what's interesting, when we think about the scan that you've done, is what cultural agency does that have, in comparison to this idea of the original tree? And these are really important questions, because we're questioning the role of the human in the non-human world, and I think an Indigenous perspective on the world was non-human.

Human agency was premised on place, was premised on the non-human.

Brook Garru Andrew:

Brian Martin:
I mean, those are really important questions, especially, you started off with that image in the beginning, really looking at sustainability, when we think about climate change, destruction of the environment, these are all things that are really important to the survival of humanity. The non-human is very important.

Brook Garru Andrew:
Absolutely, and that custodianship, I mean, we just have to look at the Whanganui River, in Aotearoa, where a Maori community was finally given title from the New Zealand government to actually name that river, as an actual identity, and a place. And it just shows that strong custodianship, and that link, as you're talking about. And I think that if that law existed within an Australian context, the relationship to the birthing trees that you're talking about, and many other sites, would flip, and absolutely be complete opposites.

I think that that would usher in a whole lot of respect, as well, for culture, and I think that this is a very interesting dilemma, that as Indigenous people, we constantly find ourselves in, because without that acknowledgement, we're firmly still placed within the kind of primitivist, kind of anthropological, uncivilized, not developed. This kind of hierarchy of importance within culture.

I mean, people's houses that they build yesterday are insured, and they're looked after, and the kind of dilemmas around that are quite confounding.

Brian Martin:
Absolutely, and I think you hit the nail on the head just then, in terms of— we've got an opportunity, which is really exciting, not only of working together, that's very exciting. But also, it's about re-ascribing value, I think is a really important thing, and you're absolutely right, because in contemporary society, we are in this constant flux, and constant dilemma, you know? COVID, climate, sustainable living. What's our footprint on the earth?

I think, that is our transition between, when we think of the Western trajectory, especially in institutions like universities and so on, that was all premised on this scientific discovery where the human being was this objective being in space and time, that did not have affect on the world, because the human being, the male, white human being was the all purveyor of truth and knowledge.

So, the scientific experiment was about, you should not have too much impact on the experiment, because you can influence the truth. I call it the God complex, in a way, whereas an Indigenous view of the world is, of course we have impact on the earth. We leave footprints in the sand. So, we are not objective beings, we have relationality with everything around us. And I think that's what's important in today's society, when we think about being in isolation, for example.

In lockdown proves that we have to stop our relationality, for us to get over this pandemic, in a way. So, we're in very interesting times, and I think we hear that term, the future is Indigenous. I sincerely and fundamentally believe that, because we have to look back to the local conditions of existence, and how our people have survived and had resistance for thousands and thousands of years, by looking at local knowledge. I think that's what's significant when we stand in front of the marked tree, which is on Monash Campus at the moment, and it contains knowledge, it contains agency.

I think that's what's really important, we have a lot to learn from the non-human. We have a lot to learn from our own historic culture, and how our culture adapts and survives, and amalgamates different technologies, always has reflected the real conditions of that type of existence at that particular time. So, we're not a static culture. That's what's exciting, as well, the old and the new, together.

Brook Garru Andrew:
Yeah. And I think that with that comes great responsibility and great care. I think that non-Indigenous people might have some sense of that, when they're caring, or tending for their own garden, for example, or their indoor plants, or like to visit certain places, some people more than others. But I call it slow culture, you know? I think that Indigenous culture is kind of like slow food, slow cooking, slow life. There's a longevity to it, there's a responsibility to it. It's not immediate. It's not expedient. And I say this without any romance, as well.

And I often think about the Blacktown Native Institute, and the Dharug mob up there, and how the local Blacktown Council gave that land back to them, and they've turned that into a caring site, and a healing site to restitute the place, back to a space of its own being, and they call that Blacktown Native Institute site, Her. So, that is an absolute being.

And Brian, I'm really excited about the PhD students who will be joining us, and I'm just wondering, this would be a great opportunity, maybe, to talk about them?

Brian Martin:
Exactly. I mean, we can't talk about exactly who they are, just yet.

Brook Garru Andrew:
Within the ARC, it's really great. Indigenous methodologies-

Brian Martin:

Brook Garru Andrew:
... and yeah, yeah.

Brian Martin:
It's amazing, it just means, we're going to have two PhDs working with us on this project, also bringing their phenomenal experience, not only as practitioners, but as also Indigenous peoples. We're a small team, and also we're working with Dr Jessica Neath, who you know amazingly well. So we're a team of five, really, working on the project, which is absolutely significant. I mean, the great thing about this is, we're building Indigenous peoples' capacity as well, within the system.

We're building critical mass by having scholarships for PhDs, as well. So I think that's a great thing about the project is, it's not only about building the cultural knowledge, and also the practice knowledge and the outputs, in that way. But it's also the benefit to community, it's the benefit to the non-Indigenous community, and it's also the benefit of building of individual people's capacity within this environment, and building critical mass in the academy, and building that knowledge, as well.

Brook Garru Andrew:
Yeah. And many people who are watching this, and who will go and see the exhibition at MUMA as well, probably don't understand that there is an Indigenous lab at MADA.

Brian Martin:
Yes, absolutely. So, we do, at MADA, Monash University Art, Design and Architecture, we have an Indigenous Research Lab, called Wominjeka Djeembana, which is located on the Caulfield campus. Brook and I, are of course members of that lab, we've got about, I think now, about 14 or 15 people, staff and candidates. We started out two years ago, with I think, three or four of us. Now we've grown to about 14, 15. And really, Wominjeka Djeembana, well the words which were negotiated and worked out with Aunty Carolyn Briggs, Dr Carolyn Briggs, means welcome, but welcome with purpose and obligation. And with that obligation is ethical and cultural obligation to Country and to people.

And Djeembana means a place to share, exchange knowledge and practices. That's the vision of Wominjeka Djeembana Research Lab, is the synergies between Indigenous ways of knowing, and practice-led research. So we've been building a lot of projects over the last couple of years, and it's all coming to a fruition, and we're becoming a substantial presence in the university, which is fantastic, which is really good.

Brook Garru Andrew:
And that's true to say, too, that it, I mean, the incredible work and dedication you've been doing Brian has, over the last few years, built such an incredible international representation of Indigenous and other connected PhD students, but also workshops, presence within that, and of course, Jacinta, as well.

Brian Martin:
It's sort of like the stars have aligned. It's quite amazing, because you've got not only the lab, but also Monash University courses, appointed the Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous a couple of years ago, who is Professor Jacinta Elston. I think all these things have come together quite beautifully, because it is about having that footprint, not just in Australia, but also in the international space. Especially in places like Canada, Turtle Island, where they're leading that decolonial agenda and trajectory, as well.

But I think the great thing, as Indigenous practitioners and thinkers, and knowledge holders, is we bring to the lab all these different connections, like your connections globally are quite phenomenal, so it's how we're getting more interest, coming into the lab for people, thinking, "Oh, look, I'd like to do a PhD now, because you're there." It's a safe space, it's a cultural space, you know? That's the huge shift, in the academy. I think that's— I mean, I'm proud to work with everyone. It's fantastic. I think we're doing some amazing stuff.

Brook Garru Andrew:
Yeah, yeah. Of course, there will be updates, too. I mean, we'll be giving some presentations about "More than a guulany" and I think it's a great way for the students and staff to get involved in these Indigenous methodologies that are often hidden from public view, and from that kind of dominant narrative, and I think there are really great ways for people to engage and learn from the work that happens at the lab.

Brian Martin:
Absolutely. And I think the great thing about "More than a guulany" project is, it's not just a research project. It comes to fruition, it materializes in practice, like Tree Story. It has these outputs, or symposia. We'll have the interface where people can connect and come in, and learn from the research that's being done, as well. So, it has pedagogical aspect, as well across, not only the University, but also in the public sphere, and that's what's really important about projects like this, and particular how it has synergies with something like the Wominjeka Djeembana Research Lab.

Brook Garru Andrew:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, that's great, Brian.

Brian Martin:
I think that might do us, really. I think we're done. So—

Brook Garru Andrew:
Absolutely. Yeah, I'd like to thank everyone for watching this, and I really encourage you to come along and say hello to us, at the lab, and look out for any updates.

Brian Martin:
Yep. Definitely. Thank you. Thank you, Brook.

Brook Garru Andrew:
Mandaang guwu. Thanks.