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What are some factors that influence contemporary Boonwurrung culture and folklore, in public and digital space?


The Boonwurrung From Pre-Sovereignty Until Now

Prior to 1788, there were approximately 250 First People languages spread across the continent and approximately 800 dialect varieties.

In the Country of my ancestors, which included five estates, extending from the Werribee River in the west to Wilsons Promontory in the east, the language belonging to Country was Boonwurrung.

The Boonwurrung were part of a large confederacy, known as the Kulin. This confederacy, with complimentary but diverse dialects, extended from Boonwurrung Country in the east up to the northern Murray River region around Swan Hill and Moulmein. The immediate neighbours of the Boonwurrung formed part of an intermarrying confederacy, based upon the moieties of Bundjil and Waa.

From the late 1790’s, lawless sealers in the Bass Strait and coastal areas of Victoria began to impact upon thousands of years of the continuous culture and society of the Boonwurrung People. By 1836, the Europeans established a settlement on the banks of the Yarra River (known to the Boonwurrung as Birrarung – or the ‘river of mists’). Anthropologists describe this later period as the beginning of a period defined as “effective sovereignty”. However, for the Boonwurrung People, who have never ceded their “sovereignty”, this period sits as a marker that defined the changes and transition of Boonwurrung society from a collection of five sovereign estates to a society in transition, responding to the impact of colonisation.

Furthermore, since the systematic colonisation of the Melbourne area in the early 1830’s, which was followed by policies and laws that limited Indigenous cultural tradition and expression, Kulin art forms have been smothered almost to the point of extinction; much like across the rest of Australia.

In order to understand the contemporary expression of the culture and language of the Boonwurrung – we need to understand the relationship between contemporary Boonwurrung art and its relationship to the spirituality and the society of the Boonwurrung, which was so expressly defined by their society prior to colonisation.

The Context Language and Art

The components of the language that belonged to Country and the material artefacts that survived the period of colonisation, now exist alongside a strong and rich oral history and a documented activism reflected in the arts up until the present day.

Historically, there are examples of the unique and identifiable Eastern Kulin and Boonwurrung – reflecting its tradition of repeating geometric shapes, herringbone and chevron, and utilising natural plant and animal materials, carving, weaving, ochre and body art. Many of these examples are housed in museums throughout Australia and overseas, as well as in the personal collections of Boonwurrung Elders.


Factors Impacting on Boonwurrung Contemporary Expression

​Since the 1970’s, there has been a rising interest in Indigenous culture and artwork. This has had the unintended effect of boosting certain art forms unique to specific areas to the forefront of what Australians perceive as ‘Aboriginal art’ – whilst many other art forms, such as Kulin arts, remained very much unknown. 


The protection and succession process for maintaining and developing Boonwurrung traditions within the public art space have been supported by individuals, particularly people connected to the Boonwurrung and their kinship network.

Prominent practising artists who have contributed to the revival of Kulin art forms are Maree Clarke and Lin Onus.

Integration of Other Cultural Forms in the Public Space

The public art space has also evolved to include the integration of expressions through other mediums of Boonwurrung culture, including oral history, song, performance and digital forms.

Central to the concept and values of Boonwurrung art is the importance of communication and storytelling. For a culture that does not have a written script, art – in all its forms – was the means of transmission of non-written communication, both with the present and as a record into the future. This can be best seen through the maps of Country and stories associated with place – etched in the designs on possum skins.

Similarly, weaving was not just a practical exercise to create a household artefact – it was a means of relating to children and telling stories as part of the process of creating community art.

In recent years, many examples of the diversity of Boonwurrung public and community art has been reflected through static exhibitions, for example: the Bunjilaka exhibit at Melbourne Museum; M Pavilion installations as part of the Melbourne Festival; and many performances of dance, literature and story as part of public and corporate events.

The appreciation of the significance of Boonwurrung art and culture has been recently embraced by a number of Local Governments within Country. Most significant examples are demonstrated through the partnership between artist and storyteller in the Bayside Trail – a collection of installations based on the stories told through the oral tradition of Elder Dr Carolyn Briggs AM.  

The Boonwurrung tradition has always maintained the duality of maintaining past traditions as a part of normative society, while embracing the change that cannot be ignored. This has created a unique entrepreneurial element to contemporary Boonwurrung culture – a cultural characteristic that was evident during the interaction between the Boonwurrung and the Europeans. Early records of William Thomas, the Assistant Protector of Aborigines (1839 to 1849) recorded instances of two Boonwurrung men catching a ship to the California Goldfields and returning later that year; John Pascoe Fawkner recorded instances of the Boonwurrung A’rweet, Derrimut, travelling by ship to Launceston; and the son of Big Benbow, Yonki Yonke, who was kidnapped as a boy and taken to Western Australia, but overcame amazing odds to return to his Country, to be reunited with his family, dressed as a cowboy, in 1841.


Embracing the Digital Medium to Maintain Boonwurrung Traditions

The introduction of digital medium has not only increased the access to information across global institutions, but it has also aided the recording and collection of many resources that have, in the past, been inaccessible.

The extension of the digital medium, and its access by Boonwurrung practitioners, is being harnessed to both preserve the past and generate communication through the public space to the Boonwurrung and general community. 

This platform provides an opportunity to explore the potential of recording our past and presenting our cultural heritage in a dynamic and relevant construct

While we must maintain traditional foundations to our art to maintain identity, we must also make way for cultural evolution that acknowledges contemporary influences that shape First Nations artists. 

Melbourne has a rich First Peoples’ history, that is oppressed by Western and European public arts, which has a decreasing relevance to the people who live here.

My research also looks at the relationship and meaning of Possums to the Boonwurrung Peoples and the use of digital medium to develop and explore this cultural construct.

This research will contribute to:

  • The knowledge of how to inform best practice when designing and commissioning Indigenous public arts;

  • Finding the balance between traditional and contemporary art forms; and

  • The use of place for specific art forms that can reclaim the visual cultural identity of Melbourne.

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Recent Example of Oral Knowledge passed down

The “Farewell Song” is part of the tradition of the Briggs family and tells of the final return of Louisa and her family
to her Country.
Louisa and her family travelled between the Bass Strait and her Country at least four times from the time of their
removal to the Bass Strait (Preservation Island) and her final return to her Country for the birth of her first child,
where she sung this song.
Aunty Beryl preformed this song at this years Parbin-ata Louisa Briggs Day held at Mallanbool Reserve. I was
fortunate to witness and record this performance.

Aunty Beryl Carmichael Philp.
Parbin-ata Louisa Briggs Day - Mallanbool Reserve

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