An artwork review by Claire Kinder who is a postgraduate student currently studying a Master of Art Curating at the University of Sydney.
Figure 1. Robert Andrew, (Rubibi (Broome) region West Kimberly, Western Australia) Garabara, 2018, CNC routing/steel on granite & polished granite, Sydney University Public Art Work – FASS Building. Courtesy of Barney Maple Photography.
There is gathering, and there’s knowledge that’s imparted through this process, but it’s not the end of that knowledge. Knowledge keeps growing, and keeps being passed on, and added to, and then reinforced. And for me, that’s what ceremony is. – Robert Andrew 2021
To be human is to share knowledge. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, sharing knowledge is at the centre of almost all human endeavours. In fact, it is this ability to pass on selected and refined knowledge that has led humans to distinguish themselves from our animal counterparts and indeed, from each other. The dissemination of knowledge has led in part, to the establishment of many great empires, as well as the destruction of equally important and rich cultures. The acquisition and dissemination of knowledge has been the focus of many of Robert Andrew’s artistic endeavours.
Being of European and Filipino descent, Andrew’s mixed heritage has given him access to a very unique set of knowledge sharing processes. But it is his descendance from the Yawuru people of the Rubibi area of West Kimberly, that is the guiding force for his artistic practice. In nowhere is his admiration for his Indigenous heritage more prevalent than in his 2018 work ‘Garabara’ – a public art work that adorns the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) building at the University of Sydney. While the imposing architecture of the building is in itself a sight to behold, it is Andrew’s artwork that bridges the gap between the austere image of the institution and the intended use and outcomes that are to be had by sharing knowledge within this space.
‘Garabara’, meaning to dance or a method of dancing, is a word that comes from the language of the Eora people, a group of clans that belong to the Sydney basin area. ‘Eora’ was a name given to the clans in this region by European settlers and is itself an interesting touchpoint to start discussions around the problematic components of colonial history. Much of Andrew’s art comments on this phenomenon. It pinpoints the early European settlement of Australia and the resulting ‘overlaying of English language in Indigenous culture’ as a colonising tool. A tool that was used to erase Indigenous people’s language and culture.
The dismantling of Indigenous culture that ensued was devastating and the pervasiveness of the attempt to erase Indigenous languages can still be felt today. The pendulum is only just beginning to swing back. The emphasis on the epistemic value of European structures of knowledge, over all other knowledge building practices is indeed beginning to wane. Knowledge is now recognised to be an intrinsic right of every human life. As a part of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), quality education is number four. It is defined as a goal to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. Quite unknowingly, Andrew’s placement of ‘Garabara’ (Figure 1) on the FASS building has firmly earnt its legacy as part of the message behind this SDG but its poignancy in doing so is multifaceted.
‘Garabara’ has been curated by Urban Art Projects whose aim is to bring people together and inspire ‘incredible possibilities’ through arts, culture and creativity. Andrew’s work is just one of many other recent public artworks that have been commissioned as part of an aesthetic reinvigoration of the university space. But along with uplifting university aesthetics, many of the works aim to blur the line between the institution and the traditional use of the land that it sits on. For example, Dale Harding’s series along Eastern Avenue --Spine 1, Spine 2 & Spine 3--(Figures 2 and 3) stands as a testament to the past, present and future knowledge baring abilities of the land and material that the university was built from . Spine 2 is particularly poignant as it sits in the middle of the avenue, where university attendees and general public walking past can see the very sandstone used in the erection of some of the oldest buildings on campus. The raw material minimally adulterated, the veins running through the stone serving as a reminder of its past life, the knowledge it holds and the communities that are connected through this stone and its home on the Great Dividing Range.
Figure 2. Dale Harding, 'Spine 2' courtesy of Barney Maple Photography
It is important not to see Andrew’s work in isolation. It is part of a larger statement that artists like Dale Harding, wha was also commissioned to created public art in this space, are trying to make. The works act a reminder of past and present and of the knowledge already held within the land that is now ascribed to institutionalised learning. Andrew interprets ‘Garabara’ as a place where knowledge was held. He describes it as a social gathering whereby knowledge was brought and passed on to family and friends as well as other clans. A Garabara was therefore an essential part of Indigenous culture that allowed for the perpetuation and evolution of cultural practices. The land once utilised for the accumulation and sharing of knowledge through ceremony and dance has certainly evolved but its purpose remains the same. The building now plays host to the study of Arts and Social Sciences, a faculty that focuses like no other, in the study of cultures and ideas. It is a place for students and academics to convene, to debate, and to pass on knowledge.
To look at this work is to admire the embedding of old new knowledge, but it is not designed for us to commit to memory the distinction between what is new and what is outdated. ‘Garabara’ asks us to do something more complicated, it asks us to remember the original use of this land, not as consigned to history but as a practice of knowledge sharing that has and will continue to evolve.
Figure 3. Dale Harding, 'Spine 3' courtesy of Barney Maple Photography.
Like many of Andrew’s works, it encourages us to use the language of Indigenous peoples. To keep the language alive and most importantly, to keep the culture and its rich history of the passing of knowledge alive. ‘Garabara’ takes aim at the ruthless decimation of Indigenous languages by early settlers. Etched in to the façade of a building of one of the earliest colonial institutions. It is a counterattack, not just a word, but a statement that will stand as long as the building does. This statement says ‘This language is here to stay’.
The composition of this artwork however, tells of a somewhat different story. By etching into the Granite with a computer numerical control (CNC) router, Andrew was able to produce an erosion-like effect that mirrors the erosion patterns that are present along the coastline at Bondi. Mild steel and bronze embedded in the granite create the illusion that the individual letters are eroding. Over time, this will continue to bleed, representing the knowledge held in the text and telling its own story of change over time. The closer the observer is the more these erosion lines are visible, because of its large size, the further away, the more legible the text becomes. Where the building meets the floor, the pavers are polished in a pattern reminiscent of water, another connection to the Bondi coastline. For those in the know however, it takes on special meaning as it serves as a reminder of the pavers on Eastern Avenue that reflect the buildings when wet in an almost ethereal effect .
One can view this work from afar or up close. It is framed within a public area where students are enticed to take a break amongst a very precise set of equidistant trees and benches surrounded by synthetic turf. All of these surrounding environmental factors immaculately curated to be conducive to institutionalised learning but serves as a reminder of the jarring difference between the two systems of knowledge transference. The artwork invites us to interact, to walk up close and stand far away. Its location in an outdoor public space invites us to take a minute to think about what it once was, what it will be in the future and how it might look in different light and at different times of the year. It also encourages us to look around at the surrounding environment, to the grand architecture of the building it is installed on. As well as the built environment that surrounds it which is now so far removed from the beauty of the natural landscape that the Garabara was once practiced on.
Perhaps unintentionally, ‘Garabara’ serves as a reminder of other sites of historical cultural significance within Australia that have been taken over by colonial forces like the Opera House (Tubowgule), where its Indigenous history has become consigned almost as a sidenote to its modern-day use and perceived esteem. Placing art in the public domain does not always mean that it will be admired by a greater audience. In fact, it runs the risk of becoming ‘part of the scenery’. Andrew’s ‘Garabara’ is literally etched into the walls of the FASS building. It will persist as long as the institution itself does. It is indeed part of the scenery. But it turns this saying on its head by turning our heads. By demanding our attention. The importance of the institution becomes second to the text adorning its walls. It speaks of a language that will not be overwritten. Exclaiming “Garabara” – share knowledge and know that we will share ours.
Claire Kinder is a postgraduate student currently studying a Master of Art Curating at the University of Sydney. She also holds a Bachelor of Business and Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in History. Her thesis explored the political climate and changing social mores of late Victorian Britain. Her interests, however, are wide-ranging. She is currently working on exhibitions with the aim of Indigenising art museums in a sensitive and inclusive way.