Brisbane is an Olympic-dreaming city with an ancient past. Long before high-rise buildings dotted the city skyline or chic alfresco cafes spilled over the banks of the Brisbane River, the Indigenous Turrbal and Yuggera people inhabited the land and developed a fascinating artistic, musical and cultural heritage that endures today.
Australia’s Indigenous population are recognised as having the oldest ongoing tradition of art in the world, and in Meanjin (Brisbane), there’s plenty of new talent keeping this custom alive.
But it’s not all to be found within the four walls of a gallery. Instead, art aficionados can strap on their runners and experience Aboriginal art on a walking tour around Brisbane’s cultural precinct, visiting outdoor exhibitions, public art installations and renowned galleries.
Local Indigenous guide, Cassy Saunders, begins each tour with introductions in the leafy courtyard of the State Library of Queensland, asking each participant about their mob (family) and where they come from, before sharing her own story about her mob in rural Queensland, and life in the city with her husband and two sons.
Water dragon lizards dart around the group’s feet as everyone chats, and Cassy then introduces fellow guide, Tiga, to demonstrate the didgeridoo, a work of art in itself. Made from a tree branch hollowed out by termites, Tiga says he’s been playing it for as long as he can remember, which shows in how deftly he produces music and sound.
“This didgeridoo is made from an ironbark gum tree, with a beeswax seal for my lips. Logs of different shapes and sizes produce different sounds, and I can make bird calls and animal noises through it using my voice box,” he explains.
“But it’s only for men’s business; women are forbidden to touch or play the didgeridoo because it causes bad luck.”
With that to mull over, the group is then led on a journey through time, walking in the footsteps of Aboriginal ancestors along the Maiwar (Brisbane River).
“No two tours are the same as the artwork installations are often changing,” Cassy says, as the group follows her through parkland punctuated by shady poinciana trees, flushed with scarlet red flowers. “But we always yarn about the stories behind the artworks. I guess we use art to start a conversation.”
The first canvas Cassy stops at is the underside of the William Jolly Bridge, its concrete structure transformed into a painting entitled Looking Forward, Looking Back by the ProppaNow collective, a group of urban Indigenous artists that are known for their thought-provoking work.
Featuring native fauna such as the rainbow serpent and barramundi fish, the painting depicts the significance of Australia’s animals as both a food source, and a spiritual totem to Indigenous people.
As the group studies the painting, a flock of native white ibis birds pick their way around the nearby picnic tables in search of lunch remains, and a brazen brush-tail possum dips in and out of a parkland bin, reminders that this urban area was once flourishing with wildlife and vegetation.
The tour continues on foot with Cassy showcasing several more outdoor artworks, many of them hidden gems, including a captivating portrait under a rail bridge of a young Aboriginal girl, Bella, by graffiti artist Adnate. Tow Row, a large, purse-like fishing trap, woven with rope by artist Judy Watson is also a highlight.
Later, the tour group discovers more treasures within the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, including the extraordinary landscape paintings of the late Albert Namatjira, whose work sells for as much as $80 000 AUD.
Cassy says that in Australia, Aboriginal people are now recognised as the largest producers of art per capita. And it’s not only dot paintings as the souvenir shops would suggest.
Indigenous fibre art, pottery, sculpture, modern art and landscape paintings are flourishing alongside the dot painting and ornate didgeridoo traditions. Each piece tells its own story, often alluding to the injustices that Indigenous people have faced.
“By looking at these artworks and answering questions about them, we are essentially unpacking Australia’s history,” Cassy says. “We’re also sharing our own stories, and in the process, educating people.”
More information: www.theblackcard.com.au/tours/blackcard-cultural-tours