Barkindji Storytellers Illuminate Old Quad

Karnka (digging sticks) and Emu Sky by Uncle Badger Bates. PICTURE: CHRISTIAN CAPURRO

Zena Cumpston, who has recently finished curating a show at the University of Melbourne, said that working with other Barkindji people and artists has been important to maintaining a feeling of connection to country.

Ms Cumpston said that Emu Sky is a show that opens conversations about Indigenous knowledge transfer and what is at stake when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not listened to when it comes to managing country.

Ms Cumpston, who has been working as an academic researcher at The University of Melbourne, said that First Nations knowledge is frequently disrespected and used as a “garnish” to western science.

“We can have these really amazing oral traditions that everyone knows is how things happened on our country. But we have to have western scientists come in and prove it against their science before anyone acknowledges that it is real knowledge of country,” she said.

“The University of Melbourne is a relentlessly colonial landscape. So it feels really amazing to have our show, which is all Aboriginal artists. More than 30 Aboriginal collaborators together telling our stories.”


Ms Cumpston said that being able to share her Barkindji culture through the works of artists David Doyle and Uncle Badger Bates who are featured in the show, with Wurundjeri and Woiwurrung friends and colleagues on the land that she currently resides has been important.

“Because I am Barkindji, I wanted to include some of my people. I am always trying to bring other people with me to share stories.

“For me someone that hasn’t grown up on country I have to work really hard to keep those connections strong,” she said.

“I usually only get to be back about once a year and that really isn’t enough, so working with other Barkindji people and artists is really important to me in terms of my cultural grounding.”

Ms Cumpston said that Uncle Badger Bates print Emu Sky (2008) informed much of her thinking around the overall message and theme of the show.

“Uncle Badger has been very generous to my family and me, taking us out on country and sharing stories every time we come to Broken Hill.”

“I was looking at his linocut called Emu Sky and realised it was exactly the story I was trying to tell.”

Ms Cumpston said that from a non-Indigenous perspective the shining bright stars is what would be seen to make up the image.

“In our culture we see the dark and the light spaces and all of it is part of these stories in the sky or maps for living that also tell us lore,” she said.

“It’s kind of the way non-indigenous science sees our science and our knowledge.

“Sometimes the architecture of their perception is the little that they have learnt about all that we know.

“This means that they can only see the black mass. They can’t see all the knowledge within.”

Ms Cumpston said that the challenge for academia and non-Indigenous science is figuring out how to look and listen to the people that do have the knowledge to manage country.

“What I think non-Indigenous science and academia often does is it looks as hard as it can, but it doesn’t understand in the way we do.”

Ms Cumpston is currently in Broken Hill planning her next show, which will be held at Bunjil Place in Narre Warren Victoria and will include six Barkindji artists and one Ngiyampaa artist and will span the diverse practices of dance, photography, weaving, digital art, and carving.

Emu Sky is on now at the Old Quad Melbourne University.

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