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Written by Sophie Price, Assistant Curator Anthropology
The First Nations Foyer Commission is an initiative of the Townsville Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Centre (TATSICC) advisory committee and the Queensland Museum Network. The project presents an opportunity for First Nations artists to express their creative artforms at Museum of Tropical Queensland.
Many visitors to the museum assume that only galleries collect art, and museums only collect objects, or ‘artefacts’. In reality, what museums collect are stories. And these stories come in many forms. Objects, artworks, sounds, movements – museum collections are as fluid and diverse as the stories they represent.
Stories told through artworks are a prominent feature of many museum collections. When it comes to art created by First Nations people, these stories are often told in a way that teaches the viewer about culture, knowledge and connection to Country.
At Museum of Tropical of Queensland, an evolving space in the museum’s foyer shines a light on how First Nations artists interpret place and connection to land, sea, sky, and community. The use of this space to showcase different artists helps to teach the public about the myriad Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures in Queensland, and how different artists interpret and convey Country in their own way, in their own artistic styles.
In 2021, Jumbo Prior’s vibrant work Connections to the land and sea was installed in the museum’s First Nations Foyer. Jumbo, a Bwgcolman, Birri-Gubba and Mamu man, is a self-taught artist based in Gurrumbilbarra (Townsville).
Jumbo’s artwork captured various elements of the Townsville region. The sun at the top left of the work represents the ‘giver of life’ to all peoples. The footprints leading their way across the canvas represent all Townsville people and their connection to land and sea, following the waterways that flow from the Ross River Dam, through channels of creeks and past the museum. These waterways are represented by the swirling circles used throughout the artwork.
Jumbo used arches in his work to represent families and tribes who connect to the land on which the museum sits, Wulgurukaba country. He incorporated the circle in the centre of the work as a representation of the museum, as a gathering or meeting place, inviting people to come and learn about the past, present, and future.
Jumbo included handprints, placed prominently near the centre of the work, his way of paying respect to the cultural diversity of the Townsville region. The ten circles connected across the bottom of the work represent the journey that people have taken to reach the area, from different communities, suburbs, and towns. The cross hatching below symbolises the pathway taken by all to reach the museum.
Niketa Law, Bindal, Wulgurukaba and Wakka Wakka artist, has created a work titled Wulgurukaba Country, which will replace Jumbo’s work in the next installation at Museum of Tropical Queensland. Niketa expresses in her work a contemporary view of Townsville, showcasing land and sea country where her ancestors have a continued connection.
Niketa pays homage to her roots by using dots and storytelling in her art, giving her interpretation a contemporary edge with the range of colours she uses. Niketa uses a variety of contemporary shapes to showcase the growth of Townsville – the different elements depicting iconic features of Townsville such as Castle Hill, Magnetic Island, Palm Island, and the coral cays just off the region’s coast. The Great Barrier Reef is another prominent feature of the work, with different types of coral and marine life depicted. If you look closely, you can spot a turtle and several starfish in the waters. The different style used to illustrate the water in this section was purposefully chosen to show where and how visitors explore the reef.
Two different artworks, two different artists, two vivid interpretations of Gurrumbilbarra.