Reflections of a Breathing Space—First Nations Public Art

 A collaboration of significance

A deep-seated commitment to honouring the Traditional Owners of the land on which 116 Rokeby sits — the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung  — and the common values of family, knowledge sharing and sustainability were the genesis of ‘Reflections of a Breathing Space’.

Imprinted into the southern façade, ‘Reflections of a Breathing Space’ is a powerful commissioned artwork that respectfully acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people, pays homage to their rich stories and history, and represents Figurehead’s journey and commitment to the path to reconciliation.

Through its permanence and symbolism, it depicts the importance of coming together, of collaborating, and preserving future generations and the natural environment.  It’s about a community connecting, sharing, learning and growing.

“Doing things the right way has been really important; and the significance is magnified with every yarn and First Nations story that has been generously shared with us.

Knowing that the Traditional Owners have embraced the artwork as part of the community makes me really proud of what we’re achieving at 116 Rokeby.”- Joe Grasso, Founder and Managing Director, Figurehead Group



The process

To ensure the process was considered, authentic and respectful, Figurehead was introduced to the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation by ‘reflections of breathing space’ artists, Lowell Hunter and Gerard Black.  The Figurehead leadership team then undertook cultural awareness training with Wurundjeri Elder, Uncle Bill Nicholson.  Given the area, in particular Dights Falls, is a place of significance for the Wurundjeri people, it was important to Figurehead and both artists to receive a blessing from the Traditional Owners before the artwork commenced.

The 116 Rokeby site team and Figurehead leadership team commenced Cultural Awareness training with Uncle Bill Nicholson through the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation. Knowledge shared about the land gave us a deeper appreciation of Wurundjeri history and people, Country and culture as we started construction on Wurundjeri land.

Figurehead provided an artwork brief for Lowell and Gerard for 116 Rokeby, with two main goals that focussed keenly on sustainability and connection:

  1. To respect the history and the Traditional Owners, and share the stories of the land that surrounds the building; and
  2. To represent the better future that Figurehead wants to create for the wider community.

“The real first step in my mind of reconciliation is when non-Indigenous people can feel the pride of the cultures of this land. I want non-Indigenous people to feel connected to this land and learn to love it like we do, and my ancestors did. Because if we love this country, we’re not going to harm it so much.” – Uncle Bill Nicholson, Wurundjeri Elder

Uncle Bill Nicholson perfromed a smoking ceremory on Wurundjeri country at Dights Falls with 116 Rokeby collaborators including Figurehead Founder Joe Grasso.

The art: Reflections of a Breathing Space

The final piece 'Reflections of a Breathing Space,' features Lowell's sand artwork which took place Wadawurrung Country at the beach Aireys Inlet; the drone photographs were then overlaid with Gerard's digital art.

Lowell Hunter

Lowell is a proud Nyul Nyul Saltwater man from the Kimberleys in Western Australia, who grew up on Gunditjmara Country in Warrnambool, and now lives on Wathaurong Country, Geelong. Although far apart, each of these special places has kept Lowell strongly connected to the ocean.  Lowell creates sand art and uses drone photography to capture the scale of his works within breathtaking landscapes, which all started simply as a way for him to get out and connect with culture, Country and sea.  Using only his feet, Lowell carves stories into the sand using the same foot movements he was taught through traditional dance movements his people have practiced for countless generations. Lowell’s artworks tell stories of family, identity and connection.  He was awarded the NAIDOC Creative Talent of the Year in 2022.

We worked with the Wurundjeri people and shared our intentions of the artwork and how we would bring it to life, as we all wanted to make sure we were respecting the Traditional Owners of the land.  With their blessing, I commenced my work.

It was obvious that relationships and respect were a priority for Figurehead, so it felt natural that the themes of relationships, coming together and community were a central focus for the sand art that I created.  When I placed my feet on the sand, these were the themes that were front of mind.

‘Reflections of a Breathing Space’ is a depiction of people sitting together, which represents the shared learnings across families and communities. Once you start to embark on this journey of reconciliation, you will spread this knowledge with your families and the wider community – this is where we can start to make real change for future generations.

The central part of the artwork represents a central meeting place, this reflects the community coming together to connect, to share, to learn and to grow.  What holds a meeting place together and maintains a community are its people – people are depicted by the U-shaped symbols.

The squiggly lines that lead into the central meeting place represent pathways and that our journeys are not always straightforward, but rather have various turns.  Ultimately, all pathways lead us back to community, connection, togetherness and understanding each other.

On the outside of the meeting place, there are dots. These are dots as reference points, which indicate that we all learn different things along our journey that we bring back to share with our community – further enriching and nourishing our community and our individual relationships.

– Lowell Hunter, Salty One

Artists Lowell Hunter and Gerard Black walking with Wurundjeri Elder Uncle Bill Nicholson at Dights Falls location for 116 Rokeby collaboration

Gerard Black

Gerard is a proud Worimi Man.  After a 10 year career as a tattoo artist, Gerard is now focusing on his painting, drawing and digital art. His work reflects his Indigenous background, storytelling and his love of nature, and draws on his strong design background from tattooing to produce a unique style of art. Together, this connects ancient Indigenous art with modern design and medium, bringing them into the future, and creating a new contemporary style that promotes reconciliation and connection.

Though the artwork was created by Lowell and myself, I see it as being a collaborative piece between Elder Uncle Bill Nicholson of the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Traditional Owners and Figurehead.  Listening to and reflecting upon what was shared by Uncle Bill and Figurehead, I then started to create my elements of the artwork, adding to the sand art that Lowell created.

A piece of reflection, connection and storytelling – these were the most important themes of culture that I wanted to represent and display in my collaboration with Lowell.  It was important to me to reflect in my art the Manna Gum, Dights Falls, knowledge sharing, walking together and our ancestors – all interconnecting and flowing as one.

The Manna Gum, which represents ceremony, healing food and protection, is a natural resource in our culture. Importantly though, it represents sustainability, carbon-neutrality and breathing, all of which are key components of 116 Rokeby.

Dight Falls was a natural crossing place, which I represented with water and the three bridges. It was also a place of coming together for ceremonies, resolution and trade, and it remains a very important and spiritual place to this day for the Wurundjeri People. I show these connections in my artwork with the people sitting alongside the water with the knowledge sharing cup in front of them.

Other elements I introduced were the stars, to acknowledge the creator spirits, Bunjil, in the sky, our ancestors and the Dreamtime.  Kangaroo tracks show a link and connection to wildlife and living with nature.  To respect my Worimi Ancestors, I added a subtle link with the recurring theme of three elements which represent the three stars in the constellation where my creator spirit, Baiyami (Gullumburra) rests.

As I created this artwork, I imagined myself sitting with my eyes closed in ‘a breathing space’ as I would on the land or in the water. I was just listening and feeling the wind flow and the smell of the natives around me. I imagined the artwork being on the building and how its presence made me feel inside the space.  A place of calm and quietness that holds a powerful energy of its own – it transports me to a place of connection.

– Gerard Black, Baiyami Art

Uncle Bill Nicholson welcomes 116 Rokeby Collaborators to Wurundjeri Country: Pictured L-R Figurehead Founder & Managing Director Joe Grasso, First Nations Artist Gerard Black, Wurundjeri Elder Uncle Bill, First Nations Arist Lowell Hunter

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