We carry the responsibility for continuing to care for and look after the land upon which we live. Take a moment to connect with this site; consider that this place has an active memory. As you stand here, you are its most recent memory and part of a contemporary ceremony, an action and process marking the beginning of change.
Tony Albert, Artist Statement for Healing Land, Remembering Country, 2020
The Native Institution (a former residential school for Indigenous children, established in 1815) was the beginning of Australia's Stolen Generations. The Blacktown Native Institution Site (where the Institution moved in 1823) was handed back to the Darug people in 2018.
Albert's project for NIRIN extends and expands upon his Blacktown Native Institution project, which aimed to support Aboriginal custodianship, to honour the Native Institution and their families, and raise awareness of the Stolen Generations in the broader community. For the project, Albert had local children gift written memories to the former children of the Institution, written on paper imbedded with native seeds.
Albert’s work for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, Healing Land, Remembering Country, is a new gesture of ‘memory exchange’. Presented as a sustainable greenhouse at Cockatoo Island, the work poses important questions such as: how do we remember, give justice to, and rewrite complex and traumatic histories?
The greenhouse acts as a site for reflection, writing and giving. It is filled with an immersive installation of hanging baskets, displaying the weaving and basket making practices of Indigenous artists and communities from around Australia, that act as the holding places for people’s letters and memories.
Many community baskets are based on the shape of other carrying vessels and are objects with multiple purposes and meanings: as cradles, to hold food and for use in ceremonies. These are artworks that intimately care for what is placed in them. Visitors, including families and children, are invited to use the house as a space for reflection and conversation, and to create messages in the form of ‘gifted memories’ on handmade paper imbedded with native seeds to place in the baskets.
The greenhouse is also a place for planting, to step into warmth, light and mist; to witness the growth of plants native to New South Wales; and to experience a healing atmosphere. Visitors are able to plant and pot their seed letters, placed on a tiered structure to show the growth of the plants. The greenhouse is open to the diverse international and local visitors of the Biennale, and Albert has worked closely with the Public Programs and Learning team to engage communities, and to build specific programs of ‘memory exchange.’
The project also acts as an opportunity to rejuvenate the land through vegetation (which, after the project, will be planted in locations selected in close collaboration with communities) and to heal it through collective memories.
At the National Art School (formerly the Darlingurst Gaol), Brothers (The Prodigal Son) I is a site-specific work which responds to a window in the nearby chapel building depicting the prodigal son. Albert has incorporated one of his own references to the holy trinity – drawn from his work Brothers a series of photographs of young Indigenous men who were staying at Kirinari Hostel. The images were inspired by an incident where Albert saw teenagers at a rally protesting an instance of police brutality in Kings Cross, Sydney. The demonstrators painted their chests with a red target as an act of protest. Placed outdoors, this window memorialises another story of heroic figures, enshrining a beautiful act of defiance, and imbedding a local Indigenous story at this site.