From the Central West of NSW, to Cape York in far North Queensland, COOL BURN, a group exhibition at the CORRIDOR project, reflected the ephemeral beauty of the age-old practice, and its ongoing environmental importance.
Co-curated by Phoebe Cowdery, the CORRIDOR project, and Aleshia Lonsdale, Aboriginal Liaison Officer, Arts Out West, COOL BURN involved a group trip to Cape York and a two-day exhibition aiming to educate and respond to the cultural and environmental act of a cool burn.
Known and yet not well known in contemporary society, cool burns are an indigenous practice that clear fuel as a preventative to destructive fires, they also initiate processes of regeneration and renewal, making way for new growth.
A cross-cultural arts project, the exhibition engaged Central West NSW indigenous and non-indigenous artists with interstate indigenous artists. The artists involved were Genevieve Carroll, Rebecca Dowling, Bill Moseley, Jo Marais, Phoebe Cowdery, Aleshia Lonsdale, Di Nicholls, Marda Pitt, Nyree Renyolds, Irene Ridgeway, Vicki Skarratt, Heather Vallance and Lee Wynard.
In order to understand the cultural underpinnings of a cool burn, the artists travelled to Cape York, visiting three destinations over ten days in June 2015. At Mary Valley, on Kuku-Thaypan Elder, Dr Tommy George’s country they witnessed fire demonstration workshops with Dr Tommy George and Victor Steffensen.
Outlining her experience of a cool burn, Cowdery stated, “The first COOL BURN to witness is to step into the great allure of Aboriginal culture, identity, and calmness. It’s here that a true understanding of cyclic uses of land management, environmental sustainability and collaboration establish ways to view a healthy country, an area I was completely unfamiliar with”.
Engaging with the local community at the Laura Festival, the artists conducted workshops for Cape Create to bring awareness to pollution and its environmental impacts in Cape York. And at Old Mapoon, led by elder Di Nicholls and Marda Pitt, the artists investigated cool burn impacts, as well as visiting traditional sacred waterways, beaches, and a ulkul hunting (traditional mussel) field trip in dried out estuaries.
A year later, the exhibition’s weekend in late April was a site-specific installation of the multifaceted experiences from the trip. And the celebratory tone was set by an opening dance by local indigenous women, led by Di Nicholls from Cape York.
Installed in the wool shed at the CORRIDOR project, each artist’s installation was framed in the different architectural spaces of the historic shed – from the sheep pens and the board, to the shutes and the shearing stands. Removed from the white surfaces and bright light of the gallery space and situated within the corrugated iron walls and wooden floor boards, this was a unique exhibition in which the works interacted to their unique corners. The visual intensity of works were only amplified by the softly lit space, an atmosphere that wouldn’t have achievable in the sterile space of the white cube.
Whether it was sculptural work by Jo Marais that focussed on renewal and regeneration, Aleshia Lonsdale’s crackling sound and ash installations, or large sweeping bird drawings by Heather Vallance, each work revealed the different cultural, environmental and emotional elements of both before and after a cool burn.
Engaging with history, Bill Moseley evoked the ephemeral quality of a cool burn and Australian colonial history through his practice. Using nineteenth century techniques of Ambrotype and Photogravure to record his Cape York experience, he outlined, “so much of this country was recorded in colonial days using these techniques, only to miss the essential process of Aboriginal land management. I thought it only fitting to revisit the landscape using these same, emblematic techniques”.
Moseley’s ‘White Man’s grave’, an ambrotype whose ephemeral glassy surface seemed to float in the space of wool shed, showed a burial ground with a rusted cross that had been wrought from steel pipe. Set within a bushy grove, it is the only marked grave, possibly that of a missionary to old Mapoon. Moseley’s composition of the grave within the centre of the gridded glass panes, only amplified the isolation of the grave, a mark of colonial history now encompassed by the surrounding natural history of Australia.
Rebecca Dowling’s ceramic installation ‘Circling Raptures’, responded to the visual intensity and emotional intimacy of the cool burn. Choosing the beaker to express the emotional relationship of caring for country she witnessed, she states, “it is through the throwing of beakers purely for their use that I express this intimacy as a functional potter, a vessel that comes in contact with the lips, an intimate space”.
Positioned in shelves, the repetition of beakers is almost abstracted as they coalesce in their gradation of colour from the dark burning landscape to the smoky skies in the top shelf. Finally, a line of dark feathers stands vertically on top, representing the circling of birds, and their role in spreading the fire. A swirling landscape, as Dowling states, “together they make a map from my memory in Mary Valley”.
An intense collaboration, the fact that the exhibition went over only two days is bittersweet. Rather it was a celebration of the entire arts project and those involved from beginning to end, engaging with both the local community of Cape York in far North Queensland and the communities in the Central West of NSW.
The project was a great example of the positive intersection of environmental education, indigenous culture and the arts. It could only have come to fruition from the support and collaboration by the CORRIDOR project, Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife, Regional Arts NSW, Di Nicholls Cultural officer – Old Mapoon Land and Sea Rangers – Old Mapoon Community, Cape York NRM, Arts Out West, Larry Towney LLS Central Tablelands, Cowra Council, The Great Eastern Ranges – Kanangra- Boyd to Wyangala Link, Cowra Council and the COOL BURN artists.
23 – 24 April 2016
The CORRIDOR project, Cowra
Courtesy the artists, photographer Vicki Skarrat and the CORRIDOR project, Cowra.