Spirit of the Land – Sea Acres

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Spirit of the Land is a new exhibition at the Sea Acres Rainforest. We catch up with Janet Cohen to find out

How did the idea for the exhibition come about?

The idea for Spirit of the Land originated through Sea Acres Rainforest Centre’s work over the last six years with community leader and chair of the Birpai LALC, Uncle Bill O’Brien, and other local Aboriginal community members. The exhibition is inspired by the richness of Birpai culture and the spectacular National Parks of the local area. Birpai culture is deeply embedded in the land, and this land we live in is alive with Birpai history, stories and cultural practices which stretch back thousands of years.

From the beginning, the concept was developed through community input, firstly at a steering group workshop in February 2012, which provided more inspiration for content. It quickly became apparent that we had all the ingredients to make this exhibition something really special … both the enthusiasm and willingness to contribute and the talent to realise some innovative ideas.

It’s been great to see how passionately so many people have embraced the ideas behind Spirit of the Land. I think that’s because the people who live here have a love for the natural beauty of this place and a growing appreciation of how our sense of belonging to this place and this landscape can be enriched by understanding local Aboriginal history and culture.

What has been your role throughout the project?

The main activity has been to encourage and coordinate the creative input and involvement of many different visual artists, designers, photographers, film-makers, musicians, organisations and community members involved in creating the colourful mosaic that is this exhibition. The major features of the exhibition have been co-produced within the local community.  National Parks and Wildlife Service interpretation, community relations and information technology staff were also part of the project team.

The other key role was to source project funds. The project was primarily funded by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and Destination NSW Regional Tourism Product Development Funding Program through Tourism Mid North Coast. Support was also provided by the Australian Government’s Regional Arts Fund and Essential Energy’s Community Support program.

Transforming the old 60 seat theatrette into an exhibition space was a very satisfying part of coordinating the project. The renovation works were kick-started by participants in Novaskill Port Macquarie Trade Skills course. Over 3 weeks in May, they prepared the space as a fresh canvas ready for local trades to install infrastructure and services.

Tell us about the involvement the local TAFE students have played in creating the exhibition.

Input from students and teachers from North Coast TAFE’s Information Technology and Creative Industries Faculty in Port Macquarie forms the heart of the exhibition. Without their skill and creativity, it simply would not have been possible to produce this exhibition.

One of the exhibition’s key attractions is the Welcome to Country feature film produced by Diploma of Film students and teachers. The students spent months on location in National Parks, shooting hours of footage. The film is a visual poem, a celebration of Birpai culture and a virtual tour of our iconic natural environments.

Diploma of Graphic Design students designed a set of canvas wall panels 7 metres long, featuring the work of local nature photographers combined with Aboriginal designs. Inspired by field trips to our National Parks, students in the Certificate 3 in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts also created stunning batik banners which reflect the special plant communities associated with these places.

The project gave students an opportunity to extend their skills to meet a challenging brief and to be involved in a project with a very real and public outcome. The students’ work is outstanding and has created an interpretive experience that will be all the more interesting for visitors, because it’s been designed and developed by people who live here.

Why was it important to you to utilise local talent for the exhibition?

In this exhibition, Birpai people speak about Birpai Country and tell Birpai stories. The people who contributed to this exhibition have an intimate knowledge of and depth of feeling for this place, and this feeling comes across.

As Uncle Bill O’Brien says, “It’s so heartening and exciting that so many people, especially young people from all different areas of interest, have come together and cooperated so productively to produce this beautiful and meaningful exhibition at Sea Acres.”

The result is an authentic experience in which genuine stories, real people and stunning images speak for themselves.

Visitors will really be able to feel part of the exhibition with the sand play light box – what is that about?

The digital sand art element is one of the most captivating elements in Spirit of the Land. Drawing in sand has been a traditional way of telling stories for thousands of years, across many cultures. Contemporary sand artist Tiani Page and film-maker husband David, worked with Birpai community members to tell two traditional stories using the medium of digital sand art. Their performances are captured on film in the exhibition. Visitors will also be able to try their hand at sand drawing in the sand-play light box and to see their images live on screen.

Local organisational support is imperative to helping projects like this get off the ground. Who would you like to acknowledge?

Spirit of the Land is a truly collaborative community project involving hundreds of people … students, teachers, Sea Acres volunteers, contractors and many local organisations. Special thanks needs to go to Uncle Bill O’Brien, the Birpai Local Aboriginal Land Council, Nardja Davies, Arlene McInherny and many other Aboriginal people who enriched this project.

Thanks also to Wiriya Sati from ABC Open Mid North Coast, who produced several fascinating touch screen films with the community.

Birpai Barray (Birpai Country) is an animation of children’s drawings produced with students from Westport Public School and tells the story of the impact of European colonisation on the Aboriginal people of the Hastings, capturing national events such as the Rudd Government’s apology. Another film explores the importance of the revival of Gathang, the language of the Birpai people, which is being taught today.

Thanks also to the Glasshouse which, via Liz Gillroy and Niomi Sands, contributed on loan a selection of exhibition panels of photographs taken by Thomas Dick (1877-1927) whose staged photographs of Aboriginal people (1910-1920) in various locations around the local area tell part of the ongoing history of the Birpai in the Hastings.

What is the value of the Spirit of the Land exhibition to visitors and to the local community?

This exhibition has created an authentic visitor experience which inspires people to appreciate and engage with Birpai culture and the stunning natural environments of our area. It has also created a truly unique space for cultural learning … a valuable community resource that can continue to develop over time.

The permanent exhibition opens to the public on 1 December and is open daily from 10am (first screening) to 3pm (final screening). Entry on weekend of 1 and 2 December is free of charge and thereafter by $2 voluntary entry fee.

Sea Acres is offering free familiarisation tours and encourages local tourism operators, schools, community organisations and businesses interested in visiting the exhibition to make contact for more information or a group booking.

Phone: 6582 3355s

Email: seaacres@environment.nsw.gov.au

Interview with Janet Cohen.

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