Creative Koori Project Spotlight: Ngalawan – We Live, We Remain, The Call of Ngurra (Country)

Leanne Tobin Ngalawan – We Live, We Remain, The Call of Ngurra Photo courtesy of Biennale of Sydney.

Ngalawan – We Live, We Remain, The Call of Ngurra (Country) was a highly-engaging, interactive and collaborative work by multidisciplinary artist, Leanne Tobin, exploring the cultural importance of the eel.

Leanne Tobin received $35,000 through Creative Koori Projects, 2021/22 Arts and Cultural Funding Program (ACFP) to present her work Ngalawan – We Live, We Remain, The Call of Ngurra across two Sydney riverside locations as part of the 23rd Biennale of Sydney.

Through video, hand-blown glass eels, and an interactive weaving frame, Leanne took audiences on an immersive journey beginning with the local creation story of the Gurrangatty, the Ancestral Creator in the form of an eel/serpent that long ago created the rivers and mountains. Audiences were invited to physically follow, interact and imagine the lifecycle of the eel, with its strange migratory journey and remarkable metamorphosis to adapt and survive in freshwater, saltwater and on land. Audiences were invited to weave the word “Ngalawan” – meaning “we live, we remain” – using the native weaving grass lomandra, in a weaving frame.

Ultimately, the eel was a metaphor, alluding to the historical and contemporary experience of the Dharug people and the Parramatta River itself, which like eels, have been resilient and survived against the odds.

“The project wasn’t just for me, it had meaning and significance for many others, including my Dharug community, the Biennale organisers and other artists.”

With exhibitions connected across two river locations – Arts & Cultural Exchange (ACE) Parramatta and The Cutaway Barangaroo, audiences gained an appreciation that ‘what happens upstream affects those downstream.’

More than 600,000 audience members connected with Leanne’s work across the exhibition sites, vastly exceeding engagement expectations. This exposure gave Leanne the opportunity to network, connect with other artists, industry professionals and media.

Tobin was offered the opportunity to participate in several of the Biennale programs, including Building Blocks, River Conversations, Participant Spotlight Talks and the 23rd Biennale Being With podcast series. Since then, the exhibition has toured to other regions, connecting a wider audience.

The success of Ngalawan can be attributed to its highly-collaborative approach.

Speaking about her experience of the ACFP grant application process, Leanne explained the application really came together through collaboration with other organisations, artists and supporters.

“The project wasn’t just for me, it had meaning and significance for many others, including my Dharug community, the Biennale organisers and other artists. There were many people who contributed to writing the grant application and encouraged me to go for it and think big.”

“The environmental, historical and cultural message, the connection to the River and the eel’s epic journey for survival, meant it was a story that spoke to a universal experience beyond my own interpretation. It took on a life of its own.”

Leanne is a story-teller, educator and collaborator, and the success of Ngalawan can be attributed to its highly-collaborative approach. It connected people and places across multiple exhibition places, connecting saltwater and freshwater, and inviting the involvement of many hands – from glass artists who blew and crafted the many glass eels, to the audience who wove the word Ngalawan with grasses and also with arts and cultural professionals working behind the scenes.

Leanne’s tip for others looking to apply for funding:

  • Collaborate with others, draw on different people’s expertise and strengths

Creative Koori Projects funding is open to Aboriginal artists, arts and cultural workers, groups, and organisations. It aims to support a strong, resilient, and creative Aboriginal arts and cultural sector for NSW by embracing the principles of Aboriginal self-determination and putting Aboriginal artists, arts and cultural workers, organisations, and communities at the centre of funded activity.

About the artist

Leanne Tobin is a multidisciplinary artist of Irish, English and Aboriginal heritage descending from the Buruberong and Wumali clans of the Dharug, the traditional Aboriginal people of the Greater Sydney region. Leanne works collaboratively with community groups, local schools and institutions using her art to tell local stories and to evoke an environmental conscience and respect towards the land and its original people. Her art practice seeks to encourage an open and honest dialogue about the past and to nurture, respect and care for Country, paying homage to our Old People and their legacy.

Image: Image: Leanne Tobin, Ngalawan – We Live, We Remain: The Call of Ngura (Country), 2022. Courtesy the artist. Made in collaboration with glass workers Ben and Kathy Edols. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous support from Create NSW. Installation view, 23rd Biennale of Sydney, rīvus, 2022, The Cutaway at Barangaroo. Photography: Document Photography.