My Weekends With A Sociologist series is going to start coming to you more frequently and completely out of sequence. I will share with you my visual sociology adventures from different places, at different points in time, showing you what has captivated my sociological imagination most recently, through to what has lingered with me over time. The purpose of this series is to showcase what it is to see the world through a sociological lens. (For visually impaired readers, descriptions in the alt.) So let’s get started!
What better way to restart our journey, than with the enduring legacy of a strong Aboriginal woman, Barangaroo.
Beginning in the first week of January, Sydney annually hosts the Sydney Festival, with various sites around town housing performances, public art and sculptures, including many interactive installations. The best this year was the artwork, Four Thousand Fish, curated by Emily McDaniel, artist from the Kalari Clan of the Wiradjuri nation in Central New South Wales. The artwork blends sea song, visual story telling, sound, lighting, sculptures, landscape photography, music and of course, a beautiful nawi (bark canoe).
Held at the Cutaway in Barangaroo, every weekend this past January, the site was transformed into a public art sculpture that was set ablaze nightly at dusk. I attended an event hosted by the beloved street photographer, Legojacker (formerly from Melbourne, they had moved to Canberra in recent months).
Barangarro is named after the mighty Cammeraygal woman of the Eora nation, who defied colonialism in Gadigal, her homeland (also known as Sydney).
Cammeraygal fisherwomen held central roles as the primary providers for their people. Over millenia, they perfected fishing from their bark canoes (nawi) with lines and hooks. They fished sustainably, only catching what they needed each day. We learn this history as part of the Four Thousand Fish installation:
Senior women would teach the young girls to line fish using a burra – a crescent fishing hook carved from a turban shell, with handmade bark fibre lines, weighted with stone and occasionally a feather lure. They would learn to identify the best fishing places and conditions and to sing songs that kept time with their rowing. Pulling in each fish one by one, they would cook it over the flame in their nawi or surf onto the shore to share the catch with the family
The British invaded Australia in 1788, decimating the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations. Of those who survived, many were raped, enslaved or kidnapped. One of these was Woollarawarre Bennelong, Barangaroo’s second husband. Kidnapped as a youth, he would go on to become the first published Aboriginal author, and famously travelled to England as a diplomatic envoy. In his early life, he attempted to negotiate with the British colonisers, much to Barangaroo’s anger.
In 1790 British colonists plundered four thousand salmon fish in one day. These fish were presented to Bennelong and other Eora men by the British male officers as a way to establish authority. This was the beginning of environmental damage that continues to this day, and also diminishing women’s status as the main food providers for family and community. Barangaroo refused to meet with the British, to wear colonists’ clothes, and to accept the displacement of Eora women.
It is a sad indictment of Australian history that non-Aboriginal people do not understand Aboriginal women’s central role, which does not fit patriarchal understandings of leadership seen in present-day Australian society. Barangaroo was not just equal to other leaders like her husband. She was, like other fisherwomen, a decision-maker who found many ways to lead a resistance against colonial violence. British soldiers and leaders dismissed women and their knowledge. Associate Professor Grace Karskens documents this living history:
“Eora women’s control of the food supply would have been essential to their status and self-esteem, as well as their power in society. So, what may have triggered Barangaroo’s anger on first meeting the Whites was fish. This meeting, on the north shore at Kirribilli in November 1790, coincided with a massive catch of 4,000 Australian salmon, hauled up in two nets.
“Two hundred pounds (91 kilos) of fish may well have been far more than the small group could eat – an extravagant, wasteful gift, given from men to men. As an Eora fisherwoman, winning fish one-by-one through skill and patience, Barangaroo may have felt insulted.
“There were ominous implications too: future alliances with these food-bearing Whites meant that women would lose their control over the food supply. Barangaroo must have observed the way the Whites dealt with Eora men, not women. Living with them, relying on their food, plainly meant dependence on men, White and Black.”
This art installation celebrates the mighty Barangaroo’s stance by inviting the public to create ice fish which are then placed into a canoe and set alight each weekend evening of the Sydney Festival.
You begin on the walk towards Barangaroo, where beautiful fish stickers are placed along the pleasant 15 minute walk from the edge of the city to the foreshore site. On arrival, you pick up a bucket and fill it with water. Then you walk to the undercover area, taking care not to spill your water along the brief five-minute walk.
Once inside, you are given a fish mould, where you will pour your water. You are invited into one of two giant freezers to place your fish mould, which you deliver and store into a set of shelves. The water will turn cold and solidify, and become someone else’s fish, later that night.
Having replenished the stock, you are free to take someone else’s fish that is already frozen. The frozen fish is now yours to tend. Place it into your now-empty bucket carefully.
It’s time to walk back outside, to where you first collected the water. You take your frozen fish and place it with love onto the pile. It joins hundreds of other frozen fish, entrusted by other happy members of the public.
The frozen fish are housed in a giant canoe. You will hear the voices of Aboriginal experts and elders talking about the central role of Barangaroo’s leadership, and the valiance of women who fought in battle against the colonisers.
When the sun begins to doze off, the frozen fish are slowly melted, as a fire is lit, to commemorate the bravery of Barangaroo, whose story should be known by one and all.
My video below takes you on the journey.
Walk back over to the undercover space so you can learn more about Barangaroo’s actions to protect her people and their culture. Across large, beautiful murals, we learn that the colonisers were afraid of her and that she was deeply disapproving of Bennelong’s attempts to mend diplomatic relations with the British.
We learn that, “The British thought Barangaroo to be intimidating and demanding”:
Even when invited to the Governor’s house, she still refused to be clothed, preferring just a small bone through her nose septum. Barangaroo fiercely opposed her husband’s interactions with the British. When he first visited the Governor she refused to go, breaking his fishing spear in protest. She was outspoken and didn’t hesitate to speak her mind.
Barangaroo died in defiance. Her first husband and two children died of smallpox, brought to Australia by the colonisers. Now pregnant to Bennelong, she declined to give birth in a British-established hospital, and instead went to give birth on Country alone. Sadly, she died not long afterwards, and her daughter would die in infancy.
It is worth noting that, in later years, Bennelong (who remarried) would abandon his attempts to smooth diplomacy. Disillusioned with the ongoing violence, dispossession and broken promises, he would help lead a rebellion, much as Barangaroo had done, in her own way.
Before the evening was done, Legojacker taught us some photographic techniques to play with dimensions, especially size and reflections in the water. A few Instagrammers tried these out using the Lego figurines for which Legojacker is famous. The rest of us sat together and chatted intermittently, and enjoyed the warmth by the water, as the sun went down.
Phillis Steward, the artist who built the coolamon (vessel), which stands as the centrepiece of the installation, says of the exhibition:
I want them to think back and imagine the women out on their canoes and how beautiful it would have looked with their fires going out there… Just how powerful and strong they were, and still surviving today.