‘My Mother’s Country’ in Port Melbourne

Acknowledgements of a relationship of Aboriginal people to the general area of Port Melbourne, generally described as the traditional owners of the land, are present in the forms of plaques and verbal acknowledgements in more formal settings. However, such acknowledgements offer little in the way of details.

Published accounts of Port Melbourne do sometimes start with consideration of the displacement of Aboriginal people. However, these published accounts suggest that, as the area was a swamp, the area may have been used for obtaining food but it was not a space within which Aboriginal people lived. There seems to be a distinction made between living in and using a place.

One of the moments on a walking tour when I heard Port Melbourne described as a place where Aboriginal people would have come to find food, but not live, was at a stop to view an art installation on an apartment building. Contemporary art, drawing on Australia’s Aboriginal history, had been inscribed on a 2011 apartment building. The (award winning) art work by Aboriginal artist Barbara Weir, My Mother’s Country, features a painting and representations of traditional stories cut into sheets of metal. The title suggests an intergenerational connection to place. However, the country referenced is in Utopia nearly 2,500km away. It is Australian art, but I would not call it local.

That said, perhaps it matters more that the artwork is accepted by ‘locals’? While some public art in Port Melbourne references local stories, there does not seem to be any requirement that it is made by local artists.

When the apartment developers were considering the use of Australian Aboriginal images, they had consulted a local group, the Boon Wurrung Foundation. A foundation means that some people are administratively recognised as appropriate to consult. This public art may gain a measure of legitimacy from being recognised as Aboriginal art by those people recognised as ‘traditional owners’ in the Port Melbourne area.

In any case, whether or not the story told in the art is about Port Melbourne, the piece of art itself is built into the apartment building. It has become built into this story of Port Melbourne.

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