Sophie O’Brien, Head of Curatorial and Learning at Bundanon posed some questions to Gamilaraay and Wailwan artist r e a about their recent work IMPRINT, the process of working on Country and methods of realising and translating cultural knowledge through art.
Sophie O’Brien: You have made work for Bundanon on the theme of fire previously (MAANG, 2010) which was a site-specific work looking at Indigenous knowledge systems and the absence of traditional language. In that work fire and its aftermath was treated as an act of activism. Could you talk about this work, as a precedent to the new work, IMPRINT?
r e a: MAANG was a site responsive work which evolved via a process of participation, discussion, inspiration & collaboration in the 2010 iteration of Siteworks, titled Laboratory. As I was making MAANG two issues kept resonating in my thoughts; firstly, I was on Yuin country, which is not my country. It’s always challenging for me to make work on another mob’s country. Secondly, I was obsessed by the lack of Indigenous language in the landscape. So, using the word MAANG (Gamilaraay for message stick), I crafted the word using lantana and I set the installation on fire, which left an imprint on the paddock, this ‘imprint’ has long since disappeared.
SO: How have you approached fire in this new work? How has the impact of the recent bushfires affected your process for making the new work, and your thinking about making work on Country? In a previous conversation, you said that you had discovered in your research a connection between your own country and the country Bundanon is a part of. You mention songlines in your artist’s statement, in particular the songlines that connect Yuin Country to your Gamilaraay and Wailwan ancestral Country. How did you come to discover these songlines? Tell us about how these connections and songlines informed the making of the new work.
r e a: IMPRINT evolved slowly through a number of interconnected, creative processes. Initially I spent a significant amount of time at Bundanon – walking on country, looking, listening and learning – ultimately experiencing the ‘country’ sensorially (I learnt this technique when I was making PAUSE, 2019 (my PhD work, on my country). As I walk I visually & aurally record my impressions, insights and reactions. During one of these sojourns I had a very in-depth & intense conversation with Richard Scott-Moore & Dwayne Bannon-Harrison who are local Wodi Wodi custodians of the Yuin nation. They explained to me that there is a major songline which crosses through the centre of Australia, which connects both Gamilaraay / Wailwan & Yuin Country. This knowledge, critically & emotionally informed the final image.
took lots of footage while you were here in residence at Bundanon, and I think the footage transformed into the still image displayed in the Homestead. What was your path from filming to still image? How has the work evolved during your visits over the last few months?
r e a: Yes, I was going to make a site responsive video installation when I first visited Bundanon, which I wanted to locate in the music room in the colonial homestead. The space, furnishings and paintings were critical to both my conceptual and artistic framework but when the exhibition moved to the on-line space due to COVID19, I knew that video wouldn’t work.So, I decided to make a large-scale panoramic, hyperreal photographic image which is made up of a series of layers of images,blended together to produce the whole.This is a technique that I have historically used in my photographic work; in RIP Blak Body Series, 1995, and EYE/IMMABLAKPIECE, 1997.The images that I blended together to make the final layered version of IMPRINT are made up of a number of images that I shot during my visits to Bundanon.
Firstly, I used an outline of the mountain. When you are at Bundanon you are always in the valley looking out to the mountain vista. I was also struck by the fact that the Boyd Family used this same mountain outline in a number of paintings, which I kept seeing around the homestead.The burnt trees are from my country, which was subject to a huge fire in 2013 and 2019. This connects both countries. I have also mixed several images of both smoke and clouds, kind of like a painter mixes paint.Smoke has a transformative quality in traditional Indigenous story.And finally, my exaggerated use of colour was critical to the power of the image. Fire has a power that imprints itself on our retinas. It never goes away, it is imprinted forever on our psyches.