The connection between plants and Country

In 2014, Bruce Pascoe published Dark Emu. The book sparked conversations about Indigenous Australia’s relationship with the land, and transformed “mainstream Australia’s imagination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders”, according to Sophia Sambono.

Sambono is the curator of Seeds and Sovereignty, an exhibition inspired by Dark Emu as well as the writings of academics Zena Cumpston and Bill Gammage. It draws on the Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art’s (QAGOMA) Indigenous Australian art collection to celebrate the connection between plants and Country. “It’s about reconceptualising the use of land, and the sustainability that comes out of this connection to plants through totemic and kinship relationships that’s expressed through songlines and teachings over countless millennia,” Sambono says.

Carol McGregor, Wathaurung people, Skin Country (detail), 2018, Ochre, charcoal, wax thread and pyro-incision on Eastern grey possum skins, 266 x 282cm (irreg.). Purchased 2020 with funds from Constantine Carides and Elene Carides in memory of their parents Kiryacos and Mary Carides through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art © Carol McGregor.

It’s a vast show, presented across four sections. Sambono points out highlights including Danie Mellor’s bronze mangrove sculptures, first commissioned for the Museum of Contemporary Art; vibrant ceramics from the Hermannsburg Potters; Christian Thompson’s portraits, using flora as a way to explore incarceration and the profiling of Indigenous men; Carol McGregor’s possum skin cloak with botanical illustrations and maps in ochre; and spinifex weavings by Shirley Macnamara in the shape of water lilies.

The one work on loan is Libby Harward’s Ngali Gabili (We Tell), an installation of glass terrariums alongside a soundtrack in language. Sambono saw a previous iteration of the work in Germany, and worked with Harward on a site-specific version for this show. It references the Wardian case, an invention in the 19th century that allowed explorers to bring home live plants and raise them in a new world. “They’re trapped in this process of Eurocentric institutional classification and cultural acquisition,” Sambono explains. “Hopefully people will start thinking about where these plants are from and how they came to be across the world.”

Seeds and Sovereignty
On now—18 August

This article was originally published in the May/June 2024 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Preview Words by Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen