This is a Commended Project from the 2019 International Award for Public Art

The Garden Palace in Sydney, Australia, was built for the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition. Sited in the five-acre Royal Botanic Garden, it eventually became a government office and museum housing thousands of priceless objects of Aboriginal culture—and remains of Aboriginal human beings as well. In 1882, it burned to the ground, and this precious part of the country’s heritage was lost forever. Here Jonathan Jones, who is of Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi heritage, installed barrangal dyara to “commence a healing process.”

The title paid homage to those lost bodies and pointed to a “starved” Australian history that excludes the Aboriginal presence. The installation commemorated the Garden Palace in a way that foregrounded Aboriginal culture past and present while underlining a colonialist mind-set that denigrated that culture even as it preserved elements of it as examples of the “primitive.”

Barrangal dyara had three components. First, 15,000 replicas of Aboriginal shields, made of gypsum, were placed on the ground in a tight but random-appearing pattern that traced the perimeter of the vanished Palace. The uniformity and whiteness of the shields suggested the loss of tribal and cultural identity under colonialism and all the other losses that Australia’s original inhabitants have suffered: land, language, culture, rights, and their rightful place in history. (The term the first White explorers of the continent used to describe it—terra nullius—means “land of no one,” and nullifies the millions of humans who have lived on the land for something like 60,000 years.)

The second element was a meadow of native kangaroo grass, which once grew everywhere in the Sydney region, and which Jones planted not only as a symbol of the rebirth of the Aboriginal spirit, but also as a reminder that, despite the pervasive belief that native Australians were all “primitive” hunter-gatherers, there is increasing evidence that they were agriculturalists and land managers of great skill: kangaroo grass, or “native millet,” was the first cultivated grain and was ground into flour for the first bread ever baked.

The third component, a soundscape, presented visitors with the living sounds of young people speaking eight Aboriginal languages at eight different sites. It was a testimony to another face of renewal, since in the not-so-distant past Aboriginal children were punished (and their elders were jailed) for speaking their mother tongues.

Text by Jon Spayde, based on reports by researchers for the International Award for Public Art.

Public Art Review issue 59Included as part of a feature on the International Award for Public Art in Public Art Review #59.