Reimagining the murrumbidgee

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REIMAGINING THE MURRUMBIDGEE ISBN: 978-0-9924046-0-4 Design by Jason Richardson, Western Riverina Arts


Our region draws its life from the waters of the Murrumbidgee River. People have settled and travelled around the banks for millennia; and more recently, the very shape of the river has been carved, bent and extended, engineered into a massive agricultural irrigation system.

Reimagining the Murrumbidgee was conceived of as a response to purely economical conceptions of the Murrumbidgee River: the artists involved were brought together and challenged to think about what this large, snaking flow really means to them.

But water for farming is only the beginning. People grow up in the Riverina Region and experience a connection that transcends the necessity of H2O. The river is a site of recreation, inspiration and reflection. The river and its surrounding redgum forests is a place of continual stillness and movement.

David Williams, Sarah McEwan, Trent Light, Jason Richardson and HapĂŠ Kiddle have all worked with different mediums and forms to create new work for Reimagining the Murrumbidgee. The result is a showcase of works by regional artists engaging with the challenges and comforts of their river, and their homes.

Derek Motion Curator

River Views: Murrumbidgee imaginings and transformations George Main

Imagination matters. How we view places, people and other species, the stories we tell about them, shapes how we engage with them, emotionally and physically. One November day in 2001 I turned off the Sturt Highway at

Galore village and drove down a dusty track to Berembed Weir, where I took this photograph. A grey mass of concrete blocked the churning flow of Murrumbidgee water. Berembed Weir redirects a significant proportion of Murrumbidgee water down channels to the bustling towns of Griffith and Leeton, and more than 3000 irrigation farms.1 Photograph by George Main.

The security fence, its barbed wire and signage revealed something about my society’s most established view of the river, and perhaps of nature in general. Here was a resource to extract, by violent means if necessary. The structures implied that my people imagined the Murrumbidgee River as a force to meet with force.

Before the construction of the Great Southern Railway south from Sydney to Wagga Wagga in the late 1870s, settlers valued the Murrumbidgee as a reliable pathway for steamboat traffic. In 1875, a Wagga newspaper published a series of letters that explored issues of local trade and transport.2 The anonymous writer journeyed down the Murrumbidgee on the steamer Victoria. He saw workers dragging fallen trees and branches from the river channel. Snags hindered the passage of steamboats and their barges laden with wool. ‘It has been computed’, the traveller wrote, ‘that it will take ten years to remove all the snags between Hay and Narrandera.’ Passing Berembed station, he described deathly eucalypt forests ringbarked by selectors as they built their farms. On Berembed station, a few decades before the Victoria carried the newspaper correspondent downstream, Wiradjuri men destroyed one thousand head of cattle. ‘The Settlers on the River are in a Great state of alarm’, wrote Henry Cosby, a colonial official responsible for licencing Murrumbidgee squatters, ‘not daring to go out even the shortest distance from their huts, except in parties of two or three, well-armed, & they are obliged to desert their lower stations altogether, finding it impossible to persuade any men to remain at them’.3 A local squatter described how Wiradjuri killed cattle: The plan the black men adopted was to hide in the reeds that grew on the water’s edge, and watch until the cattle went down the steep bank to drink. Then the blacks would range themselves along the top of the bank and spear the cattle that were below them.4

Frank Jenkins came to the Narrandera district in the early 1830s to graze cattle with his father and brother.5 As an old man, Jenkins said that when Wiradjuri fighters forced squatters to abandon their Murrumbidgee River stations, all the settlers on both sides of the river determined to give them a lesson; so one day they all went out armed and drove the blacks before them, who took refuge on an island thickly overgrown with reeds in the middle of the river, about seven miles up from the town of Narrandera, and here they were shot down in numbers. The island is known as the Murdering Island to this day.6

The imperative of a river to flow and flood, the strident desire of a people to protect their traditional land and society. Beside the Murrumbidgee, most European settlers imagined both as barriers to commercial development, as forces to thwart. As always, there were exceptions. During this time of bloody warfare between Wiradjuri and squatters, James Devlin held Ganmain and Deepwater stations, upriver from Narrandera. According to one of his descendants, Devlin abandoned his stations ‘owing to the blacks spearing his cattle.’7 Despite his stock losses, the squatter saw the resisting Wiradjuri as patriots taking reasonable action: He would not shoot the blacks himself nor allow any of his men to do so. He said these people were human beings like ourselves, and were only doing what they themselves would probably do under similar circumstances. Mr. Devlin took up some country near Yass at Blackall Range and moved the cattle from Ganmain and Deepwater there.

James Devlin returned to his Murrumbidgee stations when the trouble passed, and rebuilt relations with surviving Wiradjuri: ‘He used to shoot a bullock regularly for the blacks so they would have plenty of food’.8 In the 1860s, the Devlin family gave an inscribed brass breastplate to Peter, a respected Wiradjuri elder on Ganmain station.9 Donated to the Wagga Wagga and District Historical Society by a member of the Devlin family a century later, the breastplate reads ‘Peter, Ganmain, Murrumbidgee’.10 Over time, different ways of imagining and understanding the Murrumbidgee and its surrounding terrains have delivered different ecological realities. In 1837 Evelyn Sturt became the first Commissioner of Crown Lands for the Murrumbidgee squatting district, south of the river. He encountered country teeming with life: The country was at this time most beautiful—miles of it untrodden by stock, and, indeed, unseen by Europeans. Every creek abounded with wild fowl, and the quail sprung from the long kangaroo grass which waved to the very flaps of the saddle.11

Like Sturt, noted writer and activist Mary Gilmore remembered lively swamps and woodlands throughout the Murrumbidgee region. She grew up in the Wagga district in the 1860s and 1870s. ‘The richness of unbroken centuries of an untilled land sapped through everything’, Gilmore wrote. ‘Life teemed in the water, life teemed on the earth, life teemed in the air. Life fed upon life in balance; bred, multiplied, and knew no famine.’12

As pastoral and agricultural colonisation enveloped southern New South Wales, profound changes came to the land and its waterways. Like other Aboriginal groups across Australia, Wiradjuri people reserved places where no hunting, fishing, gathering or burning was allowed.13 These sites held special religious and social significance. Animals and plants flourished inside the sacred refuges, spreading beyond sanctuary boundaries to replenish populations legally available for hunting and gathering. According to Gilmore, Wiradjuri reserved Parkan Pregan lagoon on the Murrumbidgee floodplain at North Wagga for pelicans, swans and cranes. Westward, on Deepwater and Ganmain stations, they tended swan and duck sanctuaries: The law of sanctuary in regard to large or wide breeding-grounds, such as Ganmain and Deepwater, where once there were miles and miles of swamps (as also down near Deniliquin), was that each year a part of the area could be hunted or fished, but not the same part two seasons in succession.14

Sanctuary regulations fostered vast animal and bird populations. Often as a child, Gilmore heard thunder in a cloudless sky. She remembered running terrified to her mother, And she would tell me it was swans in the distance beating their wings as they readied for flight. Later on I learned to recognise the sound, and to listen to it unafraid.15

Graziers viewed the great flocks of swans nesting at Wiradjuri sanctuaries as a nuisance. Reeds polluted by the birds repelled cattle. As livestock ate feathers trapped in grass, feather-balls gathered inside their

stomachs, eventually killing them. Concentrated populations of swans, Gilmore noted, enriched the soil and naturally boosted its productivity. Squatters didn’t recognise or value the ecological offerings of the swans, and rejected Wiradjuri sanctuary regulations in brutal style. Mary Gilmore wrote of ‘the swan-hoppers’: Their work was to hop the swans off the nests in the breeding-season, and smash the eggs. It was filthy work; they reeked of the half-hatched and the addled, and their trousers grew stiffer and stiffer, and filthier and filthier, as the yolks and the whites of the smashed eggs set in the material of which they were made.16

In the final decades of the nineteenth century, as farmland spread and towns grew, Wiradjuri could no longer enforce sanctuary law or maintain established patterns of engaging with country. Mary Gilmore’s family witnessed a decline in the natural productivity of land and river systems. When Gilmore asked her father why they could no longer easily catch fish in the Murrumbidgee, ‘he said, “When the blacks went the fish went:” meaning that the habit of preserving the wild was destitute in the ordinary white settler. Yet at that time the white population on the rivers was only a fraction of what the black had been.’17 Mary Gilmore’s father knew that ‘the wild’ was a force to suppress, or befriend. Across time, Wiradjuri people and newcomers to the Murrumbidgee have both acknowledged the powers of land to nourish, to give life. ‘Ngangaana-gu karrai billas, dya karrai billas durai ngangaana ngingu’ teaches Wiradjuri elder Flo Grant: ‘Look after the land and the

rivers and the land and the rivers will look after you’.18 From at least the 1930s, until perhaps the 1990s, each edition of the The Land newspaper, a weekly publication that lies on every farm kitchen table throughout Wiradjuri country, carried the motto: ‘Nations may battle and the world rock with revolution, but the land will care for him who cares for it’. I couldn’t find the motto printed anywhere in a recent edition of The Land. Maybe the sentiment doesn’t make sense anymore, within the imaginative framework of modern, industrial agriculture. The National Museum of Australia holds in its collection a sturdy plastic bag that held genetically modified (GM) canola seed, sown in 2008 into paddocks near the watershed of the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan rivers. ‘TECHNOLOGY THAT YIELDS’ is boldly inscribed on the front of the bag, and ‘The miracles of science’ on the rear, suggesting a view that agricultural land is inert and passive, dependent on industrial inputs and scientific interventions to produce. Across fenced spaces, vacant and indistinct, groomed by vast machines, a crop might appear identical to one in Chile, from where GM canola seed sown in Australia in 2008 was imported. Photograph by Jason McCarthy, National Museum of Australia.

As a rapidly changing and ever more erratic climate begins to undermine the productive capacities of farmland, there is value in building again a view of country as active and distinct, as having inherent abilities to nourish those people and societies who seek responsive, responsible relationships with it. In the face of crisis, there is security and resilience within imaginative and material ties of mutual care. Wise farmer and powerful writer Wendell Berry recently spoke of the hope that is enabled when we attend respectfully to places, and the widespread consequences of not doing so: Because we have not made our lives to fit our places, the forests are ruined, the fields, eroded, the streams polluted, the mountains, overturned. Hope then to belong to your place by your own knowledge of what it is that no other place is, and by your caring for it, as you care for no other place. This knowledge cannot be taken from you by power or by wealth. It will stop your ears to the powerful when they ask for your faith, and to the wealthy when they ask for your land and your work. Be still and listen to the voices that belong to the stream banks and the trees and the open fields. Find your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.19

After massacres, disease and removal to reservations like Warangesda and Brungle had erased Wiradjuri from many Murrumbidgee places, Mary Gilmore described a forlorn river, mourning the loss of its people: The Murrumbidgee whispering at its banks cries, “Where are they

Whose thousand camp-fires drove the darkness of the night away?” Silent the camps, the tawny embers cold, No more to throw on night their scat- tered gold.2

In her poem, Gilmore imagines the Murrumbidgee as a living and feeling entity, with abilities to bond emotionally with people, able to grieve their loss. Artist and Leeton resident Jason Richardson, as part of his work for the Re-imagining the Murrumbidgee project, took this photograph from a Murrumbidgee riverbank:

I’m looking forward to hearing the whispers captured by Jason’s microphone. How might we imagine and interpret the recordings? How might we respond?

George Main is an environmental historian and a curator in the People and the Environment program at the National Museum of Australia


1 Murrumbidgee Irrigation Ltd, ‘MIA System Information’, pamphlet, 12 March 2013. 2 Eric Irvin (ed.), Letters from the River, Wagga Wagga, 1959. 3 Henry Cosby to Edward Deas Thompson, May 12 1839, State Records NSW, 4/2438.2. 4 James Gormly, Exploration and Settlement in Australia, Ford, Sydney, 1921, p. 118. 5 Bill Gammage, Narrandera Shire, Narrandera Shire Council, Narrandera, 1986, pp. 35-38. 6 James Baylis, ‘The Murrumbidgee and Wagga Wagga’, Journal and Proceedings, Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. 13, 1927, p. 256. 7 James Devlin Sr., Stan Devlin, and Elsie Devlin, Reminiscences, privately published volume in the Wagga Wagga City Library, no date. 8 Devlin et al., Reminiscences. 9 Keith Swan, A History of Wagga Wagga, City of Wagga Wagga, Wagga Wagga, 1970, p. 13. 10 Wagga Wagga and District Historical Society newsletter, no. 58, December 1967, p. 2. 11 Evelyn Sturt, letter to Charles La Trobe, 20 October 1853, in Thomas Francis Bride (ed.), Letters from Victorian Pioneers, Lloyd O’Neil Pty Ltd, South Yarra, 1983, p. 364. 12 Mary Gilmore, Old Days: Old Ways, A Book of Recollections, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1963 [1934], p. 146. 13 Deborah Rose, Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness, Australian Heritage Commission, Canberra, 1996, p. 49. 14 Gilmore, Old Days: Old Ways, p. 118. 15 Mary Gilmore, The Passionate Heart and other poems, Angus and Robertson, London, 1969 [1948], p. 307. 16 Gilmore, Old Days: Old Ways, p. 168. 17 Gilmore, Old Days: Old Ways, pp. 117-118. 18 ‘Wiradjuri Yalbalingada’, Pass the Salt online feature, and_wagga_wagga/wiradjuri_yalbalingada, accessed 15 October 2013.

19 ‘Renowned Farmer and Writer Wendell Berry: Confronting the Consequences of Runaway Capitalism’, 7 October 2013,, accessed 18 October 2013. 20 Gilmore, ‘O Race the Forest Knew’, The Passionate Heart, p. 68.

HapĂŠ Kiddle

A craftsman through and through, HapĂŠ has been creating since the age of six; crafting, building, constructing with anything he could

hold in his grubby little fingers. Thinking back he remembers finding pumice stone in the Rangitikei and

Hautapu Rivers from the Waikato Region of New Zealand and shaping them to what ever shape he imagined.

Collectively the underlying philosophy of all his work draws back to his strong connection to the

environment and the land. With each work he strives to achieve an inherent beauty which seems to come quite naturally

presenting stories encompassing nature, dreamscapes and traditional Maori symbolism.

HapĂŠ studied Furniture Design at University of Tasmania, Hobart and is currently studying Jewellery

Design at Enmore Design Centre, Sydney and has exhibited in many group shows in Tasmania and locally in the Riverina.

HapĂŠ Kiddle, River, 2013. Redgum Wood and Silver. 1100 x 450mm. Photography by Sarah Brown, Sarah Brown Photography.

Trent Light

Trent’s career so far has led him to take out second place in the NSW Digital art awards in 2011, win various awards

for his work in both local and national photographic and art exhibitions and international travel photographing

people and their culture. Trent recently held his debut photography exhibition,

which looked at disadvantaged Fiji people and their surrounding environments. This exhibition was successful and raised

over five hundred dollars to help expose Fijian kids to the visual world. Trent’s dedication to people and

portraiture is reflected in his works. Photographing people and portraiture, both in and out of his studio

allows Trent to create works that are one of a kind. Trent’s photographic style is demonstrated throughout his work: using natural light

complemented with off-camera flash and a more formal pose of the subject, Trent’s work is recogniseable.

Trent Light, (clockwise from top-right) Jason, The Boys, Bobbie & Sue, Michael, Reg, 2013. Photographic prints, 610 x 760mm.

Sarah McEwan

An artist and musician based in Birrego whose interest in the visual is ever evolving and has taken on many

different forms over the years including painting, drawing, video, installation and textiles.

Sarah’s ongoing fascination is with private, inner worlds and the mechanisms of extracting these hidden authenticities to the surface.

In 2013 Sarah began making work under the pseudonym Her Riot. Her Riot is Sarah’s anti-band; recording songs shown as video

installations rather than performing live gigs. The politics of imagery is explored in the work by following a set of rules created in

order to counteract one dimensional mainstream consumer signifiers of how one should look or perform.

Sarah is a core member of The Cad Factory which began as an underground warehouse space in Marrickville, Sydney in 2005 and

relocated to the remote location of Birrego in August 2010.

Sarah McEwan, Rest in the River. 2013. Bed, fabric, thread, rocks, bottles and bark, 2500 x 1800 x 700mm.

Jason Richardson

Sound has been a focus of Jason Richardson’s artistic practise for decades.

Since being inspired by disco as a small child, he has explored the visceral effects of music through

making mix-tapes, playing in bands, interviewing artists, photographing concerts and producing digital audio recordings.

Since moving to the Riverina in 2001, Jason Richardson has produced albums under the pseudonym Bassling

featuring a variety sounds. From the electronica of SHAKES in 2004 to the ambiance of a hillside outside Wagga Wagga in

VIBRATING STING from 2010. Recent work has seen a focus on remixing field recordings into electronic dance

music, particularly the FOR 100 YEARS project celebrating the centenary of Leeton.

See www.bassling. com for more

Jason Richardson, Reimagining the Murrumbidgee, 2013. 44100 Hz, 16-bit stereo PCM. All photography in this catalogue, except where noted, by Jason Richardson.

David Williams

I was born in Narrandera in 1980. I spent most of my childhood living with different parts of my family from Sydney down to the Riverina.

I grew up in households where there were always people painting and I took interest in all types of art from a very young age.

In 2008 I wanted to learn more about my culture and like many of my family chose to pursue that path through Aboriginal (Wiradjuri) art.

By late 2008 I knew I wanted to pursue a career with my art. In early 2010 I was lucky enough to be able to open an Aboriginal art gallery

in Wagga Wagga NSW with two of my elders. In 2011 I won first place in the Indigenous section of the Spirit of the

Land Festival and started my career as a full time Wiradjuri artist. I paint everything from my dreaming stories that I

learnt growing up to animals and landscapes of Wiradjuri land, all with a contemporary twist to the style and colours I use in my paintings.

Each time I pick up a brush I feel like I’m connecting more with my people, my culture, and my land and will continue to do my art for the rest of my life.

David Williams, Marrambidya Bila (Murrumbidgee River), 2013. Acrylic on Canvas, 700 x 890mm.