On Friday, 30 October I was sitting in my car in the main street of Darby’s Falls near Cowra NSW, watching a major storm cell head my way. I’d been staying at the CORRIDOR project for several days undertaking the second part of my 2020 artist residency there, but I was keen to watch the Fisher’s Ghost Art Award announcement on the Campbelltown Arts Centre Facebook Livestream as I’d been announced as a finalist a month earlier for my video work, Dust Storm of the Waagan. Unfortunately, my phone didn’t have enough reception at the residency site for the live stream, so I had to make the trip a few kilometres down the road to watch it.
As the award announcement got underway, lightning flashed around me and rain and hail pelted my car already rocking in the wind. I couldn’t see out the windows but I was focused on the screen of my phone anyway.
In the middle of the storm, my name was announced as the winner of the Contemporary award sponsored by the Marsden Group. To say I felt shocked was putting it mildly. I’ve only ever entered three art prizes since my 20-year practice went mostly digital 12 years ago, all of them this year — Fisher’s Ghost was the second of the entries. It was a thrill to be a finalist, but I never expected in a year when art prizes across the country had record numbers of entries that I’d ever be in the winning.
Dust Storm of the Waagan captures the habitat to the Australian Raven (commonly called a crow), a landscape that is harsh and stressed. Here it’s experienced from the perspective of the raven in saturated red ochre detail, often leaving the viewer feeling uncomfortable. It’s accompanied by a multi-layered acoustic soundtrack recorded in the field, and narration by Wiradjuri elder, Diane Riley-McNaboe, who shares the story of how the ‘crow’ became black and Wiradjuri words for “crow”. Ravens are a species we’ve co-evolved with, and the environments they now thrive in are entwined in whatever future we decide to create.WORK STATEMENT FOR DUST STORM OF THE WAAGAN, EYE OF THE CORVUS
Dust Storm of the Waagan is an eight-minute video of one of the many dust storms we experienced near Dubbo during the last drought (2017-2019). It’s also one of four videos that make up part of the digital media installation body of work, Eye of the Corvus: Messenger of Truth. These videos and soundscapes were the culmination of a two year (plus) project that looked at the landscape from the perspective of ravens/crows in rural, regional and remote Australia and Iceland, and the co-evolution/existence cultures across the world (ancient and contemporary) have with these birds — and why some species have thrived and others are now endangered. The works and resulting exhibition were commissioned by the Western Plains Cultural Centre (WPCC) in Dubbo.
I spent 18 months travelling across regional NSW, on Wiradjuri and Wayilwan Country (the latter is where I grew up), talking with people about ravens and recording the landscape. There’s a website dedicated to the project that breaks down the different phases of developing the work and the resources I used. In the course of my travels, I’d talked to several Wiradjuri Elders and artists to see if there was a story about the ‘crow’ that was widely known and told. By mid-2019, I’d only found documented versions from other far-away Indigenous nations. In Iceland, there are many stories and variations of stories about the raven, which is so central to their culture, that it became a matter of deciding which one to use. The need to ensure the narrator and the story was from the place where the video was shot was the decider.
Returning from Iceland only six weeks before my exhibition at WPCC was due to open as the last major gallery event before Christmas 2019, a couple of weeks out from install, WPCC’s curator Kent Buchanan suggested I contact Dubbo-based Wiradjuri Elder, Diane McNaboe about whether she may have a story about the crow that would inform my project. He knew I’d struggled to find anything in my cultural research and could see it might be worth one last try. Diane and I had never met, even though I was aware of her work in education, language and cultural practice.
Two of the videos in the Eye of the Corvus collection are intensely dramatic landscapes — a dust storm and a snowstorm. I’d used one of the Icelandic folk stories of the raven in the soundtrack of the snowstorm, a video designed to sit alongside the dust storm video in the gallery space. The dust storm video soundtrack at this stage was simply a mix of atmospheric field recordings.
I called Diane, not so much for the video soundtrack but because of the lack of Wiradjuri presence in my cultural research — something I wasn’t comfortable with. It felt incomplete. Over the phone, she suggested she did have something she could share with me. We agreed to meet one Saturday afternoon at the Cultural Centre in Dubbo, where she explained the nuances and protocols around the sharing of the story. After talking it through, explaining the context of the work and making it clear that it was completely her decision, she agreed to share what she called her version of the crow’s story for the video soundtrack, as well doing a broader interview about the crow*. Together, we spoke with the WPCC curator about acknowledgement and agreed we’d print an insert for inclusion in the exhibition catalogue that had been designed and sent to the printers while I was in Iceland, and ensure credit to Diane was included in the wall text for the show.
Diane and I continued to communicate about the exhibition in the lead-up to the opening on 14 December 2019, with great anticipation her family would be able to attend or see it shortly after.
Alongside the Snow Storm of the Hrafnar** video with the Icelandic folk tale of the raven told in Icelandic, Dust Storm of the Waagan captured everything I’d spent two years exploring. These two videos are now more than just atmospheric landscapes, but intimate works made special by the generosity of the storytellers. These aren’t my stories — although I consider myself a storyteller. I’m privileged to be able to share them in a way that makes them part of a wider narrative.
When the opportunity arose to enter the videos in some of the significant art prizes of 2020, I contacted Diane to talk about the dust storm video. We tossed around the idea of the ‘what if’ it won anything, agreeing it would simply be great if a regionally-based artist achieved that sort of recognition. Right from that first conversation earlier this year, my intention has always been to give something back to the community if I was ever so lucky to win. The details of that are to be worked out between Diane and me.
There has been some social media-fuelled outrage in some quarters about my win in the 2020 Fisher’s Ghost Art Award — from people who had neither seen or heard the work nor knew anything of its creation — for what was perceived to be at the cost of Diane’s recognition as a collaborator. A work statement with the acknowledgement wasn’t included in the announcement details, but Campbelltown Arts Centre have since included the statement and acknowledgement in the online presentation of the video. There have also been questions raised about the protocols I followed to create the work. As well as informing Diane, I’ve spoken to several regional Indigenous leaders and Elders to seek their advice and they’ve been generous in answering my many questions. I’m not going to respond to the accusations on social media as it’s not the right platform for these discussions. This post is the only public statement I plan to make, but there’ll continue to be many private conversations with those involved and with those whose judgement I trust and respect.
As a non-Indigenous, regionally-based artist who grew up in the regions I continue to live and work in, who works alongside regionally-based artists of Indigenous heritage whose work I admire and knowledge of Country I greatly respect, I appreciate the concerns raised. I contacted Diane on the night of the win and in the week following, also sharing in her excitement of having her creative work shown in The Rocks (Sydney) over the next couple of months in the exhibition, DHAGA NGIYANHI NGAN.GIRRA – WHERE WE ALL MEET, 9 November – 3 January. Created with her sister, Lynette Riley, this exhibition was also first shown at the Western Plains Cultural Centre in Dubbo.
Dust Storm of the Waagan was never meant to offend or disrespect any individual or the Wiradjuri Nation. The intention was to show the relationship we have with birds, like the raven, is as old as the landscape we inhabit, and that our futures are entwined. More broadly, it celebrates the raven as a bird of significance across the world that offers us a rare opportunity to view the impact we have on the world through a different lens.
Dust Storm of the Waagan will show at the Fisher’s Ghost Art Award exhibition at Campbelltown Arts Centre until 11 December. Eye of the Corvus: Messenger of Truth will show at the Outback Arts Gallery in Coonamble from 23 November 2020 – 5 February 2021.
*Interviews with Diane Riley-McNaboe and Sigrún Lárusdóttir can be heard on the Eye of the Corvus website, talking more about the significance of the raven/crow to their cultures.
**The dust storm and snow storm videos were not titled in the original exhibition.