The systematic destruction of Indigenous cultures and languages and the control exerted by governments over every aspect of an Indigenous person’s life in the 19c and 20c ensured that the artists would come from very different positions of power and authority. Without this dynamic being clearly understood the possibility of equal collaboration would be problematic. (Moreton-Robinson 2002, Kinnane, 2003)
In addition to this invisible disparity in power, there was also an unspoken assumption that we were all working towards the same goal, the production of an artwork designed ‘as a lasting legacy of national significance (to be) bequeathed to the people of Australia’ (Source to Sea design brief p3). A retrospective examination of the biographical statements we submitted for the catalogue highlights a key difference in the reasons cited for joining the project between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists.
In their biographical statements in the catalogue the non-Indigenous artists cited the following range of reasons: Kirsty Darlaston, was ‘interest(ed) in European exploration and cataloguing of the Australian landscape coupled with experience working in community projects.’ For Sandy Elverd, the project enabled her to combine her ‘great love and respect for the natural environment (and) experience in collaborative projects and fibre art skills.’ My reasons for participating were my ‘passion for all forms of textiles practice and an interest in developing cross cultural links between artists.’ For Karen Russell, it was her interest in the landscape tradition in art history and its influence on the colonisation of Australia as well as the decorative arts, collaborative practices and weaving practice. (Weaving the Murray, 2002 p21 -22)
While all the non-Indigenous artists mentioned an interest in collaborative and intercultural practice, as well as a desire to understand the impact of colonisation on the land, for the Indigenous artists there was a more urgent and compelling reason; the need to reverse the destruction of their culture through keeping stories and cultural practices alive. While this could occur in the symbolic form of the artwork, the processes involved in making the work were just as important. Making physical connection with country and other Indigenous communities along the length of the river through the community consultation process was not just a form of research but integral to the maintenance of culture. (Kleinert, Neale and Bancroft, 2000) The production of a lasting artwork was secondary to this process of cultural maintenance.
This is clearly evident in the reasons the Indigenous artists cited for their involvement. As mentioned before, the significance of the project for Njarrindjeri elder, Rhonda Agius was not focused on the river but on keeping significant cultural stories alive. Nici Cumpston, whose Aboriginal and Afghan forbears came from the area around Broken Hill on the north-west border of South Australia, ‘under(stood) there (was) a spiritual connection between the river and the communities who live alongside it and (felt) compelled to share this knowledge in order to raise awareness of culturally significant sites.’ (Weaving the Murray, 2002 p21)