This exhibition presents the Worrorra stone tools collected by Kimberley bushman VIc Cox and asks the question, If a stone tool is found what should you do?
In 2015 I bought a 10 acre bush block in the Kimberley that had belonged to Vic Cox, a well known bushman and crocodile hunter. Vic was a scavenger and his property contained collections of found and traded objects from the Kimberley coast including 100 Aboriginal stone tools, some marked with a location and date linking the tools to the Worrorra language group. With permission from Worrorra elder Nyorna Woolagoodja, who I have known since 2012 I have made studies of the tools looking carefully at the way the tool has been reshaped. Vic Cox and Nyorna's late father Sam Woolagoodja were friends and had respect for one another. It is through the discovering of these objects on our bush block, their connection to Vic and Sam and also my friendship with Nyorna that this body of work is developing.
Exhibition text by Glenn Iseger-Pilkington, 2018 (Nhanda, Wadjarri and Nyoongar peoples, Dutch and Scottish)
"Put it back where you picked it up from and just let everybody else know not to pick it up" Edmund, Worrorra and Ngarinyin Peoples
Growing up in both the west and the eastern parts of Kimberley region of Western Australia, I was made aware through the teaching of my father and grandfather that this was not our Country; it was the Country of other Aboriginal people, who belonged to and cared for the land. We often visited places of cultural importance and would traverse the land to go fishing, swimming and camping. I enjoyed exploring much more than I did fishing, and would often search for beautiful stones of quartz and agate. At the end of each day, my father would make sure I put everything back where I had found it. By the time I was 5 or 6 I knew instinctively to leave the things I had found, where I had found them. This was the place they belonged to, this was their home.
Everything on Country belongs. From the rocks on a riverbed, to the river itself and to the animals that live in the river. This belonging, and the interconnectivity of people, places, objects and the natural world is central to Aboriginal understandings of life. It is also foundational to the recent work of Katie Breckon, as seen in her solo exhibition Safe Keeping.
Breckon, a Pakeha artist originally from Aotearoa New Zealand, lives and works on Nyikina Country, near Derby in the West Kimberley. This land is also where Mowanjum Community sits, home to the Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunambal peoples, who were historically displaced to a number of sites, before the Mowanjum Community was established in 1956. For the past 6 years, Breckon has worked with Mowanjum Arts and Cultural Centre, and has developed a deep respect for the Country she works on and people she works alongside.
In 2015, Breckon and her partner purchased the deceased estate of Vic Cox, which included a property close to Derby, on Nyikina Country. On that property Breckon located a large collection of stone tools stored in two buckets. These were collected by Cox throughout his time spent exploring the coastline of the west Kimberley. Many of these tools were identified by place names that were familiar to Breckon and she knew that these were objects of significance; objects that had been collected and relocated. They had been taken from their homes, from their keeping places.
Breckon engaged with Worrorra people in a discussion around these cultural objects. Through meaningful two-way exchange with Worrorra elders, Breckon was granted permission to creatively explore the making and safe keeping of objects found on Country, specifically the stone tools she had found, crafted by the hands of Worrorra people. Discussions continue to this day around what should happen with these tools. For now, however, they are safely stored at Mowanjum Aboriginal Arts and Cultural Centre in the company of the original makers’ descendants.
Stone tools have long been collected, or taken, by scientists in the study of people and place. Archaeological collection stores around the world are full of these displaced objects. These are, however, far more than just objects: they are important cultural tools that emanate with the energies of ancestors, of ceremony and of song. Embedded within each tool are both archaeological and cultural histories, they hold stories of this continent and its First Peoples. For many Aboriginal people, these tools and other cultural materials are extensions of the collective and individual self; physical objects that speak to the spiritual and metaphysical. They reflect the deep and enduring relationship between people and their Country.
Many artists have looked to Aboriginal Australia for inspiration. Historically, many have done so through the lens of the voyeur, the outsider looking in, which has often resulted in pictorial, social and political misrepresentation. Breckon’s approach is not one of being on the outside. Instead, her important relationships with Worrorra people, her sense of responsibility, and her willingness to be instructed by custodians on doing things the right way, have informed a highly complex body of work.
The works in Safe Keeping seek to understand the rationale behind why people remove things from Country, and how we can protect Country and culture by educating people on what to do if they find something that belongs to the land and its custodians. Breckon explores these ethical and cultural scenarios, while also seeking to understand the craftsmanship and processes behind the making of these tools. She documents, deconstructs and reforms each of these tools through her highly methodical photographic, drawing and printmaking practices.
In doing so, she showcases the knowledge and cultural practices of Worrorra people and the beauty and importance of hand-crafted stone tools historically and in the here and now. Equally, Breckon’s work seeks to question the roles of museums, scientists and artists working in intercultural spaces and this is heavily informed by her archival work with Aboriginal tools, artefacts, language, song and ceremony.
Through the creation of each large-scale etching of a stone tool, Breckon pays tribute to its maker and to the Country from which it heralds. Most importantly, Breckon has worked with custodians in the creation of these works, knowing that she is a visitor, and that even in that role, she too has a responsibility in the safe keeping of the Country she is on, and all that is held within it.