If you’ve attended any sort of official event or ceremony in Australia in the past few years, chances are you’ve experienced a welcome to country or acknowledgment of country ritual. The former is a ceremony overseen by an Indigenous elder, welcoming people to their land. The latter is a respectful acknowledgment by a non-Indigenous person that they are on Aboriginal land, a tribute to the responsibility Indigenous Australians feel for their country.
Now Barangaroo has a semi-permanent welcome to country: a huge four-metre-by-eight-metre video installation, celebrating the rituals, ceremonies and stories that were practised on the land for centuries.
The work is titled Wellama, which means “to come back” in the language of Indigenous people from the Sydney area, the Gadigal. It’s been installed at The Cutaway, where it will play on a continuous 10-minute loop from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week until May 30, 2020. The unbroken loop is intended to symbolise the cyclical nature of time and the connection between the past and present.
Created by artists Alison Page and Nik Lachajczak, the video invites viewers onto the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation – the place where white colonisation of Australia began. The film depicts a young girl in pre-colonial Barangaroo being guided into womanhood by an older woman. It transitions to modern-day Sydney where the elder teaches the girl traditional medicinal practices, reflecting the deep history and tradition of the land on which the viewer stands.
“Even if Sydney has piles of concrete and glass over the earth, it’s really important that we dig through those layers and tell those stories and really celebrate the identity we had for 65,000 years before colonisation,” says Page in a statement. “It’s about our culture coming back to the surface and being amplified again after years of being quite dormant for a long time.”
The work is an interpretation of the paintings by Eora people around Sydney Harbour. It’s not meant to replace traditional welcomes to country held around the city, but instead strengthen the meaning of that ceremony and foster understanding among all Australians.
“It’s important to remember that the Sydney foreshore was ground zero for the devastation of our culture,” says Page. “Therefore, I think it’s up to us to also make it ground zero for the healing of culture. The artwork is a reminder that we don’t have to lose that culture.
“Instead, we can help the people of Sydney to see this land in a new way and to reflect how it was for thousands of years. The artwork is a reclamation of that culture and a reflection of the strengthening of our identity and the cultural revival we are seeing across Australia. We have knowledge that needs to be shared, ecologically as much as anything, and the time to be doing so is now.”
Wellama is at The Cutaway, 1 Merriman Street, Barangaroo, until May 30, 2020 and is showing for free.