Driven by cultural motives, photographer Jo Scicluna explores the theme of ‘occupation’, recently shifting her perspective to who has a say in setting the terms of occupying a landscape due to a new working relationship with members of the Gunaikurnai community.
In 2017, I was invited to produce a body of work that interpreted the Gippsland region by Gippsland Art Gallery director, Simon Gregg. From the onset, this project presented an opportunity to reflect and expand upon my established fieldwork of traversing, inhabiting and documenting an allocated region.
“...who had informed my ‘occupation’ of landscape to date and who had a say in setting these terms.”
I was driven by cultural motives as a first-generation Australian and the imperative to extract the unresolved tensions underpinning the Australian landscape. I embarked by querying the terms upon which my previous projects have been grounded: who had informed my ‘occupation’ of landscape to date and who had a say in setting these terms. This critical shift inspired me to initiate a working relationship with members of the Gunaikurnai community and instil a process of cultural recognition and community consultation into my long-standing landscape practice.
What emerged was an active conceptual framework, which I call ‘A Cumulative Topography’, derived and developed in collaboration with community Elders and representatives. It has enabled me to actively confront my own assumptions as a (settler-colonial) landscape photographer and challenge my assumed ‘right to take’ a photograph.
I did not want to proceed by perpetuating the same colonial approach to the landscape that I sought to critique. Rather, I chose to scrutinise my established methods and modify them accordingly.
Working with tensions productively, the Australian landscape is crafted as a porous interplay of diverse cultural histories and practices – each rising to the surface – and re-presented through my expanded photographic and site-responsive practice. Approached as a vehicle for redressing problematic cultural practice(s) entrenched in landscape photography, this practice proposes a shaping of future topographies.
Working predominantly with Dr Doris Paton, widely respected community Elder, educator and researcher, I was allocated sites along the Bataluk Cultural Trail, spanning the extent of the Gunaikurnai nation. The allocation of these sites determined both my physical and conceptual jurisdiction as a photographer, guided by the terms of engagement specified by Dr Paton.
This meaningful exchange assisted me in determining which landscape is mine to photograph and which is not. It influenced how I chose to frame and focus on my subject: what to disclose or conceal, add or remove through my interpretations of each site. My artworks enable me to ask both what vital detail can be lost through cumulative erasure and what detail can be revealed: who holds the right to reveal it, and who carries the responsibility to maintain it. Most importantly, becoming situated in the Australian landscape not only involved seeking permission, site allocation and guidance from First Nations peoples, but it also marked a significant shift from assuming the right to occupy and document sites to observing and materialising a respect for Country.
The Australian landscape was reimagined and reinhabited through story sharing. It became more than just a surface, and I began to see well beyond it. This process enabled me to not only materialise but enact a more multi-dimensional cultural topography, guided by a community that contributed toward its active re-shaping. This topography is irregular, porous and dynamic. It seeks to destabilise settler-colonial foundations, or call into question the foundations that settle the settler, while also offering a conceptual 'scaffold' for potential rebuilding.
Navigating the necessary and inevitable peaks and undulations of cultural exchange and long-term story sharing entailed a new-found ‘literacy’. This literacy enabled new ways of reading the landscape surface, sensing active histories on site and listening to the land. It inspired an appreciation of the endurance of community and culture that the allocated sites embody. Forever transforming my understanding of, and relationship with, the Australian landscape, I now inhabit, traverse and depict this complex and sometimes turbulent terrain with an awareness that sees and reads the marks and markers inscribed upon its more nuanced topography—etched onto its surfaces, gathering along its coastlines, being ground down in stone, or morphing as shadows upon the river’s fluid undulations.
Working with my Gunaikurnai hosts and honouring the terms presented to me at the threshold of their home, this exchange also entailed a new way of traversing the landscape – treading lightly and with care.
Ultimately, it is driven by a particular form of place-making, one that resists a grounding in placetaking, and encourages questions about one’s sense of place amidst the unresolved tensions and vexed histories that comprise this cumulative topography.
After travelling thousands of kilometres across the Gunaikurnai nation, I am no closer to resolving the cultural tensions that motivated this project, but they have momentarily risen to the surface and I am positioned differently in relation to them.
Informed by ongoing community guidance, and embedded in my art practice and as a foundational framework informing all forthcoming projects, A Cumulative Topography will adapt to each new context that I am invited to respond to as an artist. Aiming to work with tensions productively, I will re-navigate locale-specific cultural interrelations and the specific protocol(s) offered by each First Nations community. While it is impossible to anticipate outcomes, I remain open to the guidance that will inform the process and proceed with the key finding generated through Where The Land Lies; I now have a framework with which to work with and alongside others.
Acknowledgements for the project.
I would like to acknowledge and pay my respects to the Krowathunkooloong, Bratwoloong, Brayakooloong, Tatungooloong and Brabawooloong clans of the Gunaikurnai nation as the traditional owners and custodians of the land and waters upon which my exhibition and affiliated events took place. I acknowledge First Nations peoples’ enduring connection to land and culture, and recognise that Aboriginal sovereignty has not been ceded. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.
I acknowledge and express gratitude to specific members of the Gunaikurnai community – Dr Doris Paton, Grattan Mullett and the committee members at the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GLaWAC) and Rob Hudson (Krowathunkooloong Keeping Place) – whose invaluable guidance, support and generosity in sharing vital cultural knowledge has forever changed my relationship to the Australian landscape.
I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to Gippsland Art Gallery’s Simon Gregg for inviting me to undertake the project Where The Land Lies, and for encouraging me to pursue this life-changing experience of the Australian landscape. A warm thank you to Cr Carolyn Crossley (former mayor of Sale) for offering ongoing support.