April 9, 2022

Ngalawan We live we remain

Leanne Tobin & Rilka Oakley

Dharug artist Leanne Tobin in conversation with Rilka Oakley the curator at Blue Mountains City Art Gallery, discussing her work exploring burra(eels) on Dharug and  Gundungurra Country

Tell me about your interest in representing eels.

I have an avid interest in the eel, not just because it’s an incredible creature but also because of its cultural significance to my people as well as other Aboriginal people, particularly those nations along the east coast of Australia. The Burra (eels) are seen as descendants of an Ancestral Creator Being, known by the Gundungurra people as Gurrangatty, the maker of the rivers, underground caverns, and the mountains.

Recent evidence has surfaced that reflects this Creation story on Dharug Country as well. Old documents with the traditional names listed in consecutive order along the river allude to rainbows, songlines, and the Giant Eel Ancestor.  A rock engraving of a 30-metre-long giant eel exists along the banks of the Dyarubbin (Hawkesbury River) and an ancient charcoal sketch of an eel migration in a cave in the foothills of the mountains also speaks to this.

My glass Burra, while highlighting environmental concerns, also provide a metaphor for the survival and resilience of my people, the Dharug people, despite a concentrated effort to eliminate them. The Burra’s age-old life cycle continues in spite of the building of dams, the dredging of sand from the riverbeds (now illegal), disruptions to the river flow resulting in dangerous blue-green algae bloom, and the ongoing extraction of rivers’ precious resources.

Throughout the east coast, the Burra, upon maturity, leave their freshwater abodes and head upstream to the ocean seeking the warmer waters of the Coral Sea. There they breed and then die with their offspring returning to Ngura (Country) once again.

The intricate relationship with these primordial creatures is shared, not only by Dharug and other Aboriginal peoples, but also by other nations across the world.

How is your creative practice related to water and water health?

Telling the story of the eel’s lifecycle through my artwork allows audiences to understand these migratory cycles and the importance of clean water. My art practice is strongly linked with the need to raise awareness of our role as custodians. The Old wisdoms of the Traditional Custodians hold even more relevance today, as we struggle with floods, fires, droughts, and poisoned waterways. The significance of recognising seasonal changes in advance was knowledge used to live safely in the natural environment, but this was thwarted by the arrival of the colonisers.

The use of glass as a medium was intentional, harking back to its river-sand origins. The reflections and rippling shadows of the hand-blown glass eels in The Call of Ngura emulate water but are also a metaphor for the ongoing Dharug struggle. The adaption to new environs is seen in the need for our people to ‘go with the flow’, to bend with the current and not resist. Enduring smallpox (galgala), massacres and subjection, teetering on the verge of extinction, the Dharug have managed to adapt.

Paying homage to the phenomenal eel itself, the work also acknowledges the amazing qualities of the eel. Within their life cycle, Burra move between saltwater and freshwater: they can climb dams, creep across land, and undergo extreme physical transformations.

Water resources have always been held as sacred to the Traditional Custodians as they understood the importance of water to everyone’s wellbeing. The Traditional Dharug understood the importance of Caring for Country to ensure long-term survival. The pristine environment that greeted the colonisers, the freshwater springs that provided sustenance to them, were contaminated within a year of their arrival. In Sydney Harbour, the colony’s main freshwater source, the Tank Stream, was polluted by industries that sprung up along the creek, dumping pollutants into the water – a trend that although regulated now, continues to this day.

Today with the emergence of fracking and the drilling of local aquifers, disturbing the natural balance of things, it gives an urgency to the need for change for our long-term survival as a collective community.  Learning about the shared history of our waterways and how to Care for Country respectfully as our Old Ones once did here is now a necessity.

We have talked about how the water starts at the top of the mountains and flows down to the rivers and coast. How does your work show this concept?

The animation The Running of the Eels aims to challenge people to look at what happens around them and under them. What happens upstream affects those downstream.

The delicate ecosystem of the hanging swamps found throughout the mountains act as a natural filtration for water. Traditionally, the mining of coal was unheard of; the disturbance of rock and soil forbidden. Natural water springs feed the waterways that snake through the valleys and spill off the mountains, joining the rivers that then empty into the sea. All is related – all interconnected.

The present environmental horror we live in caused by overdevelopment, mining, and the excessive use of chemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides that leach into the water, negatively affect this fragile balance.

This region was once a place of plenty for those who lived here. The Traditional people lived as one with the land, with deep harmonious and spiritual connections to Country. They had intimate knowledge of the weather, of seasonal changes and the life cycles of the animals and plants and regular ceremonies were held to honour these connections.

My work seeks to shine a light on the relationship Aboriginal people continue to have with the land and it is hoped that it will be understood on a deeper level and possibly adopted as a guiding influence in the future.

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