Figures 12 and 13
The string of words, ‘we all belong to a long community’ speaks of the river connecting communities along its length over time. Ironically it has been lack of agreement amongst these communities, divided by state boundaries and conflicting interests, and a failure to recognise the importance of Indigenous knowledge in deciding how the river should be managed that has exacerbated its slow decline, visualised in the photographic image of dead, flooded trees.
On the facing wall, another grid brings into order a disparate collection of vernacular textile objects that reference the domestic and rural labour that supported the trade, fishing and farming practices that formed the economy of the River. European and Indigenous cultural practices are sometimes combined to form hybrid objects that speak hopefully of the benefits of working together, even when they allude to stories of dispossession.
All the objects are hung with tags, as in a museum. The tags, rather than identifying the object with date and provenance, provide images and texts that suggest alternative readings, setting up an oscillation of meaning that unsettles the fixity of the grid. As Sidney Moko Mead has noted, the grid reveals the anxiety underpinning colonisation, an anxiety expressed through the practices of mapping and naming.
‘Without the fixed grid of named features we would be total strangers on the land – lost souls with nowhere to attach ourselves’ (Mead, 1984)
Figures 15 and 16
Within the grid, a pair of appliquéd potholders marked 1901 and 2001 and signifying the unification of the states at Federation refer to souvenir artefacts in the Federation Museum in Corowa. This river town, known as the birthplace of Federation, hosted the 1893 conference that galvanised public interest in the potential of Federation to resolve state disputes over resources of national importance like the Murray River. The potholders are hung with tags containing contemporary texts that reveal little has changed during the 100 years of Federation. The Melbourne Age reported on the 31 May, 1889 that:
‘The river in fact belongs to three colonies…..Broad principles and not narrow jealousies or pettifogging quibbles, should rule in this matter–the Murray ought to be the great agent of Federation’
In May, 2001 conservationist, Frank Tuckwell of Goolwa said:
One of the great hopes for the future, rather than thinking like South Australians, Victorians we’re starting to think like Australians….that the great river will be placed under the control of a national body’
(Weaving the Murray, p3)
Figures 17 and 18
The consequences of this failure to unite the three states in the management of the Murray is signalled by two string bags that mark how the introduction of crops like cotton and irrigation practices, have damaged the health of the river. A traditional Indigenous netted bag made from plant fibre string is hung alongside its counterpart, netted with salt-encrusted, cotton rags and hung with a tag that states,
‘Settler Australians dreamed of greening the inland, but the salt rose, the white death, turning the dream into a nightmare’ (Wahiquist, 2001)
While Weaving the Murray critiques the dream of Federation, a unified nation symbolised by the Murray River, it also suggests through its imagery and through the way it was designed and made as a collaborative process, the possibility of connection and reparation, that Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities can work together to acknowledge and repair some of the mistakes of the past. However the process of working together towards the exhibition was sometimes strained and it’s this underlying tension during the making of the work that I want to investigate further.