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How These Whale Tail Sculptures Are Connecting Artists and Audiences to Gadigal Country

Thirty whale tail sculptures, now on display on Sydney's Western Harbour, are helping tell stories of Gadigal people and Country.
By Zathia Bazeer
September 14, 2022
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By Zathia Bazeer
September 14, 2022
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Right now, Sydney's Western Harbour is hosting Waterfront Whale Tales — a new outdoor exhibition that aims to strengthen our connection to Gadigal Country, its people and culture.

The free exhibition sees 30 whale tail sculptures scattered along a six-kilometre trail along the harbour, with each two-metre-high tail replica painted by a different local artist. Each tail tells a unique story inspired by its location and the land, and allows the audience to step into a different story and gain a new perspective on Indigenous culture and history.

Uncle Graham Toomey, one of the exhibition's two Indigenous Curatorial Advisors, says Waterfront Whale Tales allows artists to engage with the public through open dialogue and storytelling — a crucial part of preserving history.

"This project is a doorway that invites the public to step through to learn and connect to the spirit of Gadigal Country, its people and its culture. Gadigal Country is an old Country with an enduring spirit that is strong and beautiful. This spirit holds old stories, old beliefs, values, lore and practices. It's also a powerful tool that brings us all together as allies in trying to make the world a better place through sharing, understanding and creativity."

Uncle Toomey says the aim of this project is for the public to understand what the Country means to First Nations people and how important this knowledge is for the health and wellbeing of future generations.

"Aboriginal people are not only connected to Country and its water, but we are literally the Country and the water. We are the ground and what lies beneath it. We are its dust, the flora, the fauna and the environment. In sharing our responsibilities as custodians of Country, we aim to educate those on the project, to understand that we have obligations to care for Country and to preserve culture."

Aunty Joanne Selfe, the exhibition's other Indigenous Curatorial Advisor, says that passing knowledge and stories in an oral form is an important tradition passed from generation to generation — and this tradition is one that's reflected in the exhibition experience via audio narratives that can be accessed via the Waterfront Whale Tales website.

"Visitors will hear directly from the artists, their thoughts and the messaging behind their work. Accompanying this, there is a First Nations audio narrative. In this narrative, First Nations perspectives and understandings of Country, of people and place are shared with visitors, demonstrating the enduring connection and knowledge held within these oral traditions."

A diverse range of artists was selected by curators Art Pharmacy to participate in this project, to produce artwork that represents the Sydney art world's extensive range of voices. Art Pharmacy collaborated with Toomey and Selfe to identify both emerging and established artists who came from different backgrounds — including school groups, artists working with a disability, CALD artists and even eco-warrior artists — each with their own stories to tell. The lineup includes Indigenous artists, street artists, illustrators and muralists, making for a richly diverse body of works.

"We selected an exciting program of artists — all local to Sydney and all with a unique story to share," says Zeta Xu from Art Pharmacy. "The result was a whole range of stories of Sydney, water and whales told through magnificent life-sized tails. These vary from stories of childhood nostalgia and memories of the ocean, to environmental concerns and Dreamtime storytelling. The range of styles, stories and designs means there is something for everyone who visits the trail."

Geoff Parmenter, Chair of the New Sydney Waterfront Company, emphasises the importance of having community events such as Waterfront Whale Tales.

"In times of global pandemics and unseasonal weather events, these sorts of active, outdoor community events have never been more important."

So what would he like visitors to take away from the exhibition?

"I would like audiences to take a little piece of the waterfront away with them! Whether that is in the form of knowledge or just the feel-good factor that comes with experiencing beautiful art."

Waterfront Whale Tales is on exhibit at Western Harbour until Saturday, September 24. For more information, head to the website.

Published on September 14, 2022 by Zathia Bazeer
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