October 2019

The Nation Reviewed

Seven monuments to Coranderrk

By Patrick Witton
Illustration
The art project marking the boundaries of the Yarra Valley’s historic Aboriginal station

Wurundjeri elder Uncle Dave Wandin is jabbing at his smartphone when we meet. “I’ve got be somewhere else at 11 o’clock,” he explains as we walk up an unpaved road towards a stately, two-storey building framed by gum trees full of warbling magpies. It is clear that Uncle Dave is a busy man: as well as being a member of “many boards with too many acronyms” (Waterways of the West Ministerial Advisory Committee; Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation…), he does a lot of conservation work in the area, undertaking extensive plant surveys, and doing a lot of brush cutting. This morning, however, he’s invited us on to Wurundjeri land to learn about a new project.

Over the past few months, seven near-identical structures, known collectively by the clear-cut moniker untitled (seven monuments), have appeared across this patch of the Yarra Valley, an hour east of Melbourne. Each comprises a metre-high block made from around 40 bricks of varying ages, patinas and makers’ marks. One of the monuments stands a few kilometres away at a suburban crossroad in the town of Healesville; one can be found opposite the town’s cemetery; there’s another at a cul-de-sac where houses abut a paddock; one more is perched on the northern flank of nearby Mount Toolebewong, framed by thick bracken. And there’s another monument not far from where we’ve met on the Wurundjeri-run estate, down the hill and across the river flats at the confluence of the Birrarung and the Coranderrk (Yarra and Badger) rivers. Our small group will venture down to the latter.

Uncle Dave, who looks after this nearby site and was integral to the project’s recent launch, describes how the seven monuments mark the boundary of what was Coranderrk Aboriginal Station. The property, originally campaigned for by Wurundjeri elders William Barak and Simon Wonga, was gazetted in 1863 as a place where Aboriginal people could live and work, supposedly without fear of further displacement. During its heyday, Coranderrk spanned 4850 acres, and produced vegetable crops, cattle and other livestock. Hops grown onsite won first prize at the 1881 Melbourne International Exhibition.

By dint of Barak and Wonga’s campaign, Coranderrk had been recognised as an Aboriginal reserve that could only be rescinded by legislation. And yet, as Uncle Dave points out, not least for the irony, that’s what the Aboriginal Protection Board lobbied for. Over the following years the station’s viability was compromised by the “Half-Caste Act” of 1886, which forced residents with European ancestry aged between 15 and 35 to leave Aboriginal reserves. This decimated Coranderrk’s workforce and pulled the community apart. Pressure from developers further eroded the station and it was officially closed in 1924.

Today we are on 200 acres of Coranderrk that the Indigenous Land Corporation bought back 21 years ago. From where we sit, on the verandah of what was the superintendent’s house, Uncle Dave points out key landmarks of Coranderrk: a flat area on a rise where the village and school dormitory used to be, the hillside where Barak is buried, the pasture where dairy cattle grazed, and a depression in the paddock where clay was quarried to make bricks onsite. “Most of the bricks are handmade,” he says, gesturing to the wall of the superintendent’s house. He tells us that when Coranderrk closed in 1924, other buildings were pulled down and the bricks used to construct Healesville. He’s negotiating with local developers that if Coranderrk bricks are salvaged they can be returned for use on the station.

This return is also at play with the seven monuments: each is partly built with Coranderrk bricks collected after the TarraWarra Museum, which commissioned the project, put a call-out to local residents. For the artists – Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin ­(Wurundjeri, and Barak’s great-great niece), Jonathan Jones (Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi) and Tom Nicholson (Celtic Australian) – that call-out yielded a kind of brick-form archaeology. Nicholson later tells me that “each brick was marked by the living they have encased, or in some cases, by the destruction they have been subject to, like the Black Saturday bushfires. They have their own history.”

It’s a couple of kilometres from the superintendent’s house to the monument near the rivers, and Uncle Dave waves us off once we’ve piled into a four-wheel drive with a bung door. While bumping across the grassy plain we pass revegetation plots, banded cows and well-fed goats, and where the land slopes to the river there’s a small, cleared patch where the monument stands. It’s beguilingly serene: with the engine off all we can hear is the rivers’ hum, and the crunch and squeal of black cockatoos foraging for hakea seeds. At first glance the monument is not dissimilar to your standard, highway-side historical marker, but on closer inspection a story unfolds. At the top is a cemented-in cylinder, and it soon becomes clear that we’re looking not at a squat marker but at the inverted “footing” of a full-size flagpole, turned on its head and stabbed deep into the ground.

Upturning a flagpole – that classical claim to sovereignty – is partly a response to what Nicholson describes as the “bombastic overstated visibility” of classical monuments. But driving a flagpole into the ground also links it to the surrounding terrain. Nicholson says both he and Jones love the way Aunty Joy, when performing a welcome to country, will refer to a tree “from the tips of the leaves to the bottom of the roots”, unseen deep in the earth. Presenting a flagpole this way – invisible yet nonetheless there – echoes this perception.

For the three artists, the monuments give visitors a chance to become active participants in how Coranderrk is seen today. They hope people will tend to the Prostanthera lasianthos (Coranderrk bushes) planted in a brace around each structure, and perhaps do some “weeding, watering and pick up any rubbish while knowing they are on well-loved country”.

The seven sites are spread across 20 square kilometres. It takes hours to see five of them. Today’s was visited by request only, and reaching the seventh, located on Crown land with no public access, would involve further hours of river crossings and trespass. One just has to accept that the seventh monument exists and, due to the impermanence of property rights, will be accessible at some point.

“The work does not make its subject visible,” Nicholson says. “It invites acts of imagination as you traverse that landscape.”

Patrick Witton

Patrick Witton is The Monthly’s production editor.

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