SAM Tells a Story

Shepparton is a rural city that is now associated in my mind with birdsong. It is situated in northern Victoria on the floodplain of the Goulburn River. This fertile area is one of Australia’s food bowls and produces sweet tasting cherries and stone fruit.

Shepparton is first and foremost Yorta Yorta country and known by those people as Kanny-goopna which means deep waterholes by which people camp. The Yorta Yorta people have led the way in the fight for recognition of native title rights and for their culture. Justice Olney in the Australian Federal Court in 2002 on the matter of the Yorta Yorta native title claim said, despite evidence to the contrary, that “the tide of history has indeed washed away any real observance of their traditional customs.” In 2004 the Victorian government entered a cooperative agreement which recognised public land, rivers and lakes throughout north-central Victoria which was a compromise on the Federal Court judgment. The recently refurbished Shepparton Art Museum celebrates that cooperation and puts the Yorta Yorta culture along with other Indigenous artists front and centre of its focus.

SAM is a wonderfully spaced exhibition centre that sits on the banks of Lake Victoria which is skirted by trees where birds squabble and sing and whose waters are home to waterfowl, fish and turtles. Natural light and views of the lake pour through windows on all five floors. Its collection focuses on Indigenous art and ceramics. It reopened on 20 November 2021 with the powerful Lin Onus: The Land Within. Before one gets there, it is difficult to pass by the window exhibition of Maree Clarke’s Connection to Country – I Remember When … These exhibitions put a lie to Justice Olney’s assertion and make the point that no culture is stagnant; cultures adapt and change over time, embracing and developing new ideas. Some sections of Australian society, including political leaders and, as mentioned above, the judicial system, have been reluctant to acknowledge the rich cultural history of First Nation people, past and present. Australia’s First Nation artists are increasingly present in mainstream spaces and are re-educating people, many thirsting for that knowledge. Lin Onus, who died in 1996 aged 47, certainly did that using various media: canvas, paper, sculpture, and ceramics. His work reflects a deep attachment to Yorta Yorta country. His father was an activist and a Yorta Yorta man, a founding member of the Aboriginal Advancement League fought to achieve citizen rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, resulting in the successful referendum in 1967. He was also the first Aboriginal Justice of the Peace. Onus’s mother was of Scottish parentage, a physiotherapist and a member of the Australian Communist Party. It was a household of radical politics and this is reflected in much of his work.

Onus tells the history of dispossession, of persecution and of adjustment in a number of different ways, some witty and laugh-out-loud funny as well as heart wrenching. The sculptural grouping of two officers, indifferent to the anguished prostrate mother as they take her young daughter is emotionally powerful and confronting.

In contrast, Kaptn Koori, depicts an Aboriginal superman powerfully punching his way through the sky to the backdrop of Escher-like steps on which Indigenous people ascend and descend as they continue to fight for recognition, acknowledgment and rights. Painted in the 1980s it is as true today as it was then. His sculptural installation of found objects is joyful and mischievous.

There is so much to enjoy and contemplate in this exhibition. The themes he engaged with when he was alive are just as relevant today, more than twenty years later.

Lin Onus was self-taught and moved through traditional European styles (think von Guerard and German Romanticism, Impressionists and Pop Art) to Aboriginal symbolism and bark cross-hatching as well as Japanese printmaking. It is an exhibition worth visiting and what better than to combine the visit with an exploration of Shepparton’s surrounds, immersing the self in birdsong and the glory of riverine forests and fruits. There is plenty of time. The exhibition is on til the 22 March 2022.


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