Cry me a River

Tree Stumps, Western Shoreline – Nookamka, 2007, inkjet archival print on canvas, hand coloured with watercolours and pencils

Cry me a River

Sandra Conte

1 October 2013

Have you ever stood before a piece of art and wept? With the work of Nici Cumpston, it’s hard not to. Her painterly photographs of riverscapes turning to parched land before your eyes, tell a story of an ongoing journey with the river to which the artist is bound.

I am connected to the Murray and the Darling River systems through my Barkindji family and since 2000, I have been documenting the backwaters and inland lake systems in the Riverland of South Australia”.

“I have found many ‘signs’ in the landscape, Aboriginal artefacts and trees that bare witness to Aboriginal occupation and reflect the connection people have had with this place over many tens of thousands of years”.

“Interestingly, most of the remaining trees bear scars, depicting canoes, shields or coolamons. There are also many ring trees, which were made by tying young branches together to form a ring shape. As the tree grows the ring remains a ‘sign’ within the tree branches. A few trees have scars as well as rings and some trees have more than one ring. These trees are always near places of abundance, where there is a lot of food, fresh water and protected shelter”.

Nici began photographing the backwaters of the River Murray in 1999-2000 as part of a journey she went on with a group of women for a project entitled ‘Weaving the Murray’. In meeting many family members for the first time on this journey, the artist discovered her own Barkindji family to be connected ancestrally to the Murray River and the inland lakes in what is now known as the Murray Darling Basin. It is the location where, depending on the seasons, they would travel inland to find food and gather to share information.

In 2007, the Australian government stopped the flow of fresh water in to Lake Bonney in an attempt to keep water in the River Murray due to the ongoing drought conditions in the Riverland of SA. The lake is fed from the River Murray through a backwater known as Chambers Creek.

Nici explains, “The town of Barmera is situated on the lake and draws a lot of people to the town as this is the town’s main attraction. While researching information about the area, I came across an article posted on the internet by the Barmera Visitor Centre on Wednesday December 21, 2005”.

“It is an historical account of Lake Bonney, Barmera and in the article it states, ‘While building the northern approach to the bridge, the bones of hundreds of natives were unearthed and went into the structure.’ My first reaction was to dismiss it and move on, there are all sorts of accounts like this and a lot of articles are written in this manner but I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. How can someone write something like this as a throwaway line, like this is normal practice to use the bones of human beings to build a structure? Whose bones were they and why were they there, was it a grave site or were the people massacred? All of these questions came into my mind”.

Nici’s images reflect an uneasy undercurrent to the beautiful lake. She states, “Having some insight and understanding of what has happened to Aboriginal people around the shores of the lake enables a differing opinion to hopefully show through. The work ‘Tree Stumps’ is an oddity, there are so many trees and they are all dead. There is not one living tree in the whole place. I stand there and wonder what on earth has happened and why? It is like a scene from a holocaust. The Aboriginal people from this area were witness to this destruction and I wonder how it was for them. I can feel the loss and terror when reading such sordid accounts of past history”.

In her continued documentation of the area through photography, Nici outlines how “as the water receded it revealed the original campsites and further evidence of Aboriginal occupation. As I walked around the trees that were once surrounded by water I could see the scars that remained from canoe trees, coolamans, shields as well as ring trees that indicate the boundary for different language groups, signs that tell us this is a safe and plentiful place of abundance. The roots were washed away from the trees that have long ago died, making the ring barked stumps look as though they are dancing along the foreshore, celebrating and singing for our ancestral land.

There is a midden in this area that runs to at least two metres deep and is at least 400 metres long. It is a sight of gathering and is one of the many gathering grounds where people from many different language groups would have come to share information as well as to trade goods. It is ancient and I believe should be acknowledged officially as a protected and significant site. At this stage there are signs indicating that this area is of cultural significance but it doesn’t indicate what is what and that we shouldn’t walk on this area. Precious turtles endemic to the lake and many species of fish were under serious threat during the drought. The town suffered as the sulphuric acid rose to the surface of the mud and it stank, many many fish and other birds and animals died and added to the stench. People couldn’t sell their homes and businesses closed as the tourism trade dropped right off”.

While the floods and big rains north in Queensland, some 18 months months ago, brought a slight reprieve, filling the River Murray and allowing water back into the lake, the water has risen and the campsites are no longer evident.

Nici explains her ongoing commitment to photographing the river’s journey is because “I still believe that it is of major importance for Aboriginal people to try to get an archaeological survey done on the area to ensure that our history can be shared and recognised. I continue to visit and photograph the area as I am interested in the stories that I can see hear and feel in this significant place”.

See Nici visit Lake Bonney and explain her practice in ‘Colour Theory with Richard Bell’, an eight-part art series presented by artist and activist Richard Bell, featuring the work of eight outstanding contemporary Indigenous artists (the series is available on DVD through Dymocks bookstore).


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