#076

The Art of Place

AN ACT OF VISUALLY RECLAIMING, INFORMING AND EDUCATING

Words Fay Edwards
Interview Maddie Gibbs

Back when Sydney was slowly emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic in August, I met with Maddie Gibbs over Zoom (or was it Microsoft Teams? Skype? Was I wearing trackpants and a hoodie?). I wanted to speak to her about a piece of public art that she was creating at the South Eveleigh precinct – a wayfinding artwork that meandered through the concrete, a splash of yellow on grey.

South Eveleigh is a precinct close to mine and many hearts. A place of Indigenous gathering, of industrial creation, and now a hub for technology and innovation, the precinct has undergone transformations over hundreds of years. Most recently Mirvac has been busily redeveloping the site into a mixed-use precinct, with CBA occupying enormous offices and the State-heritage-listed Locomotive Workshop converted into offices, restaurants and cafes, supermarkets and exhibition spaces. And emerging from all this glitz of metal and glass is an Indigenous landscape quietly reminding visitors that, in fact, South Eveleigh is first and foremost Sacred Land.

The Indigenous landscape was created by Christian Hampson and Clarence Slockee, who started by converting a building rooftop into a native permaculture garden. From there they went on to coax the garden beds and green spaces into an organic, native landscape. Not long after they built an Aboriginal Cultural Landscape Garden – a space of wandering paths and a rammed earth gathering space.

Extending from this Indigenous landscape is Maddie’s artwork, designed to “break the grey and white cubes and respond and direct the flow of human movement across the precinct”. The artwork is intended to capture the interest of passers-by, to ask them to look more carefully, and to slow down and contemplate the stories being told. 

The artwork is a series of botanical illustrations that takes back control from colonial interpretations of landscape. Maddie reflects that “it is vital that Aboriginal people are in control of Aboriginal content, narratives and visual expression. It is an act of visually reclaiming, informing and educating”. Like the Indigenous landscape, Maddie’s artwork sprouts out from blank buildings in wiggles of bees and blossom, joyfully planting little seeds of knowledge and understanding in those who walk by.

Fay:

First of all, where did you grow up?

Maddie:

I grew up in Dubbo on Wiradjuri land. Since then I have lived on Gadigal and Wangal land. How about you?

Fay:

I grew up on a sheep farm near Goulburn.

Maddie:

What mob is that?

Fay:

Oh, um. Yikes! I was only looking at that map of Aboriginal clans a few weeks ago. I think my farm is on Gundungarra land? Or is it Ngunawal? From memory the clan territories overlap across my farm…

Maddie:

Well, the map is a very Western construct – mobs wouldn’t have been so rigidly located anyway.

Fay: 

Maddie, I’m interested to know how you became an artist?

Maddie: 

Well I was actually a chef for a long time. I loved the creativity of the kitchen but disliked the lifestyle. I began studying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts at Eora College in Redfern, where I met amazing people and teachers including Jason Wing and Chico Monks. Eora TAFE was a real community, a place where I met my ‘Sydney Family’. On an excursion we visited the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), and not long after I started a Bachelor of Creative Design in Animation. I’m now finished!

Fay: 

What have you enjoyed most about the degree?

Maddie:

I’ve really enjoyed the design history and design thinking aspect of the degree. I enjoyed this more than the actual technical animation side of the degree.

Fay:

And where did you first start exhibiting your work?

Maddie:

I’ve been exhibiting at the Boomali Aboriginal Artists Coop, a community workspace and gallery. In Bunjalung, Wiradjuri and Gamilaroi, Boomali means ‘To Strike’. In a way, art has become our weapon. 

I’ve also exhibited at the Vivid and Fringe Festival’s (2018), and more recently at the aMBUSH Gallery Kambri in Canberra and the Australian Design Centre in Sydney. I’ve also done a live painting at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) and have put work in the Hobienale in Hobart. I’m now moving more into mural painting and have done several murals over the last year nationally.

Fay:

What do you think the role of public art is in creating places and speaking to Indigenous culture? 

Maddie:

I mean. There’s hardly any Aboriginal presence in the city – or even in the country. But I guess the importance of art is in the process and result – of Aboriginal artists telling their story, on their land, to educate people and make them aware.

Public art is a way for us to tell stories in a way that’s accessible. Public art can simply tell the truth. 

Especially in Redfern. Through art we can reclaim spaces and decolonise them. If we can afford to build brand new buildings across the city, there is no reason not to have an Aboriginal presence telling the story of Indigenous Australia. If we can have statues of the white men who colonised this land in our public spaces, we need to represent Indigenous people and culture in our buildings and art. We need to correct the massive deficit of Indigenous representation in our cities. We also need to celebrate and acknowledge the oldest, most sophisticated and intricate civilisations/cultures in the world.

Fay:

Tell me a little about your artwork for South Eveleigh.

Maddie:

The concept for the artwork came from sitting in South Eveleigh’s Indigenous rooftop garden and drawing. And this experience draws on lessons given to all Aboriginal children – that it is so important to listen to your Elders and their stories. As children we were taught to sit in a space and take in the learnings. To not be anywhere else but in that moment.

Fay:

One of the things I notice about producing public art is that the context and the audience are part of the design process. 

Maddie:

Yes, public art is exactly that – visible to the public, for the public. 

Creating public art means engaging with the community to get their input – after all, who better understands a place than the people who inhabit it?

Fay:

How do you find South Eveleigh as a space?

Maddie:

The garden plays a huge role in decolonising the space by creating an Indigenous presence. But it needs to be a community space. All ‘Public Artworks’ should be accessible and seen by the community. It’s about making the site less about corporations and money and more about the community, stories and sharing.

Fay:

I want to talk to you about how you experience Sydney?

Maddie:

Sydney is colonial Australia in built form. Nothing is ‘Indigenous’ except specific, allocated spaces that we’re given or allowed to exist in. Most places are being taken away. The Block used to be the mecca of Aboriginal Sydney and NSW – and now there’s almost nothing left. Not even an Aboriginal flag. It’s being lost – swept under the rug.

But I’ve also benefited from colonial Sydney. I’ve gotten an education here – I’ve been able to get to this point because of this. 

Sydney is confining. The buildings and spaces don’t represent our story or our culture or land. We have thousands of years of Indigenous knowledge not being acknowledged or represented in the spaces that we exist. That is really bizarre to me.

Fay:

What is your favourite place in Sydney?

Maddie:

Central Park is a great example of a building that incorporates our landscape…but my favourite places in Sydney are Blackwattle Bay Walk and La Pa, Little Bay. There is a real strong energy and connection to the land in these places. Places where our ancestors are still fighting and caring for the country.

Fay:

La Pa?

Maddie:

Oh. La Perouse! Even though it’s in Botany Bay where James Cook first arrived, it’s also the place where Aboriginal people fought for their land and people and still are to this day. And I love any of Sydney’s national parks – Lane Cove National Park, the Royal National Park. Any place where I can have my shoes off and be in nature without the sounds of the city and can really tap into that energy and connect with ancestors, animals, plants and our Mother Earth.

Fay:

Are there any urban places in Sydney that you feel comfortable in?

Maddie:

Not comfortable exactly, but I love being in Waterloo, Redfern, and Glebe. I love seeing Aboriginal faces – any brown skin I see comforts me. I don’t have dark skin, but I always try to wear clothing with the Aboriginal flag on them. For me it’s a way to start a conversation, to have a yarn. It’s also a way of normalising the Aboriginal flag and introducing an Aboriginal presence into Sydney. To start that dialogue.

Fay:

Can you talk a little more about why you try not to be too confronting? 

Maddie:

I guess…. there is this stereotype of the ‘angry black person’. I want to encourage conversations with other people to connect and educate them, and to normalise our culture. I guess I’m trying to do the same in my art.

Fay:

Has Redfern changed much since you’ve lived in Sydney?

Maddie:

Big time. When I first came to Sydney one of my best friends lived at The Block. Redfern was dotted with Tent embassies and there was a big Aboriginal presence. But the Aboriginal presence has almost been erased. The Block was sold out. So now they’re relocating residents to different areas of Sydney – further out where there are less opportunities, less access to health services and education, less public transport. Sounds familiar. 

Fay:

Can you talk a little bit about the process of gentrification? I’ve been reading about black neighbourhoods in America, and how as white people start to move into black neighbourhoods, they intentionally disrupt existing networks and ways of interacting. These white people are intimidated by black people gathering on the street, talking and mingling (as they have for decades). Their response tends to be to call the police. I wonder if you feel like this same process is happening in Redfern?

Maddie:

Oh, definitely. The police presence is increasing. They’re using police as a way to get Aboriginal families out of the area. They’ll hassle young Aboriginal kids for lingering, but won’t even blink at the same behaviour shown by a white person. The relationship between Aboriginals and the police in Redfern is absolutely appalling. I’ve seen police sitting Aboriginal girls down in the gutter and telling them to “shut the fuck up”, and that’s the lower end of the scale. It’s scary. It’s like they’re pushing us as far as they can to get a response. Provoking and inciting violence since 1770.

Fay:

How can we improve the situation? Is it to defund the police? 

Maddie:

Change the system. Change the power dynamic. Change the conversation.

Fay:

How do we keep the Aboriginal presence in Redfern? 

Maddie:

Stop selling Aboriginal land!If we want to keep an Aboriginal presence in Redfern, we need affordable, Aboriginal housing. And regulation of housing prices. Aboriginal people or people from low-socio-economic backgrounds can no longer afford to live in Redfern. And we need to fix up those towers rather than knock them down. Don’t sell the land for developers to build skyscrapers and more infrastructure. Reclaim Aboriginal land and spaces! 



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#075

On confronting stories Words Fay EdwardsInterview Kaylie Salvatori Image Credit: Arcadia It was only recently that it occurred to me to wonder what land I… Read More