I had the pleasure today of attending a workshop hosted by Victorian Child and Nature Connection at the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) in Melbourne with the likes of three inspirational Aboriginal artists: William Barton, one of Australia’s leading didgeridoo players, Delmae Barton, Dreamtime opera singer, and Glenn Romanis, sculptor and visual artist. The reason for gathering – to explore the processes of connection, creation and collaboration to share the bond we feel to country.
Beginning with a smoking ceremony involving the burning of leaves from the Wattle, Cherry Ballart and River Red Gum we were welcomed to the gardens, a traditional meeting place for the people of the Kulin Nation. The beat of our clapsticks and stamping of our feet developed a collective energy and feeling of group belonging that grew stronger as our morning of experiential activities unfolded.
The group divided and those of us who stayed on the oak lawns were mesmerised by the incredibly intricate sounds of Will’s Didgeridoo that captured the antics of a cheeky young kangaroo chasing its mother through the bush. This morphed into a kind of rap beat with the equally cheeky humour of Will’s commentary mixed in between. The groups humble and somewhat embarrassing attempts at mimicking the sounds that this man could produce Didgeridoo or no Didgeridoo, only highlighted the immense connection he has to music and nature.
Next up was Will’s mother Delmae, a physically tiny woman with a soft voice that was hard to hear over that of the noisy crows, parrots and the wind in the trees. She stood up, closed her eyes, took a deep breath and delivered a strong and masterfully improvised operatic composition. Her son Will accompanied her with the Didgeridoo and when I closed my eyes I was swept on their journey through creeks up mountains and across the land.
After a short break we were in the hands of artist Glenn Romanis, a very humble and genuine person. This man has produced some beautiful sculptures that if you live in Melbourne you may well have seen, there are near 100 of them that he has made. He explained how his work interprets people’s stories about a place or their experiences; some are installed permanently and some are ephemeral. I was particularly struck by the use of petrified wood inlaid into stone (link) he told me that if he doesn’t know how to do something he just ‘works it out’.
Glenn brought us to a space beneath a huge River Red Gum of some 400 years of age and invited us as a group to tell a story with found natural objects inspired by that tree and the place. We were the second group to take on this task for the morning, so the first decision to be made was whether we added to the sculpture that the other group had made before us or started our own piece from scratch. The decision was to build on what lay in front of us which to me looked like leaves, to others a canoe and to some a woman’s womb. We agreed that our story would involve the 5 different Wurrundjeri clans coming together by boat on the old path of the Yarra River and our scene would include those animals that inhabited the area. The result was platypus, turtles, eel, fish and Bunjil the eagle which I was involved in creating with 4 or 5 others. We came back together as one group and shared our different aspects of the story and what it represented. There was some spontaneous ‘performance art’ – the dance of the swans, inspired by the entrance of two of the curious birds .
The final closure of the day came in the form of a song that was composed in Will’s native language. He had the whole group find the right key on his didgeridoo, settled us into an accompanying tone and then with Delmae sang a hauntingly beautiful song over laid on top of our collective voices. With eyes closed you could feel the vibration of voice and at times didgeridoo resonating and connecting us together and with the land about which the song was written.
This was an inspiring morning; the coming together of people, land and story with an overlying hope of more people both children and adults experiencing connection to nature and place like we felt today.