Jonathan Jones on identity, language and developing a greater cultural understanding through his craft.

Jonathan Jones - Image by Jules Boag

Jonathan Jones – Image by Jules Boag

In October 2017, Jonathan Jones was awarded the Create NSW Visual Arts Fellowship for mid-career/established artists, in partnership with and ArtBank. We spoke to him about being awarded the Fellowship, learning his language and his work on the Wiradjuri philosophy of galing (water).

How did the idea for your Fellowship activities come about?

For several years now I’ve been lucky enough to work with Dr Uncle Stan Grant Senior AM on a range of art projects. Uncle Stan is a Wiradjuri elder and senior language holder for our community, although I’m not great at learning my language, with Uncle Stan’s help, I have been able to support the revival of Wiradjuri language through art projects. In this context, language and the knowledge embedded within language have created a cultural underpinning for many artworks, a philosophy if you like.

A key example of this was for the 32nd Kaldor Public Art Project, barrangal dyara (skin and bones), held in the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney in 2016. Here, the Wiradjuri concept of wiiny (fire), which is culturally linked to winhanganha (thinking) and winhangaygunhanha (memory), was used as the project’s conceptual underpinning. The destruction of the Garden Place in the fire of 1882 can, in this framework, be understood as a point of remembering and reflection.

Your Fellowship focuses on the Wiradjuri philosophy of galing (water). What attracted you to explore this idea in the first place?

Since developing a cultural framework for wiiny (fire) with the Kaldor project, Uncle Stan and I have been looking at developing Wiradjuri gulbanha or Wiradjuri philosophies that look at other elements, such as dhawura (wind), madhan (wood) and (galing) water. Each of these elements will draw on the embedded knowledge within language, involve research within the archive and community, and include an active engagement with country.

We’re looking at these elements as they are culturally important not just to Wiradjuri but to everyone, as they are elements we all share. Galing is culturally significant to Wiradjuri. We are sometimes described as the people of the three rivers, the Wambuul (Macquarie), Galari (Lachlan) and the Murrumbidgee. Galing is part of our identity. These three major rivers and their catchments are central to the wider Murray–Darling Basin, which is suffering enormously from current farming practices and an ongoing unwillingness to care for our resources. This project hopes to develop a greater cultural understanding of galing set within a Wiradjuri worldview.

How did elder Uncle Stan Grant Senior become your mentor?

Uncle Stan is a really impressive man. He is a true leader within our community. He mentors a lot of people and inspires many more. The work he has done, often on his own, on our language will be used for generations to come. I first met Uncle Stan at a Wiradjuri Council of Elders meeting many years ago.

I would often talk to elders about my work and I remember Uncle Stan always had a lot to say. He would offer me Wiradjuri words for art ideas and for objects and was always good for a laugh.

Most importantly, he also made it clear to me that any young Wiradjuri, as I was then, who wanted to research our culture had the full permission of the Council of Elders, as long as we acted with yindyamarra or (respect). Being backed like this was really important for me, it empowered me to take on research and art projects, knowing that I had elders like Uncle Stan to support me.

I always take research back to Uncle Stan, and others, for feedback and advice. He often points me in the right direction or puts me on to a new way of thinking about things. One of our first major projects together was a public artwork at the Wagga Wagga Regional Airport. Along with Aunty Sandy Warren, Aunty Joyce Hampton and Aunty Lorraine Tye, we created a Wiradjuri welcome that greets people as they arrive. Uncle Stan wrote the text for the work, which was sandblasted onto the glass or the airport terminal. The text included a welcome in Wiradjuri along with rules or responsibilities for how to act while on Wiradjuri country. The project was really successful and Uncle Stan is always talking it up. I went through the airport the other day and it was still looking great.

Has this Fellowship impacted your professional development?

This mentorship represents a significant professional development opportunity and can be seen as cultural schooling. Being able to spend time with elders like Uncle Stan is perhaps the most important thing for my practice. Being brought up with his grandfather, who spoke to him in fluent Wiradjuri, means Uncle Stan’s knowledge is extraordinary. Developing a cultural framework like Wiradjuri gulbanha will inform my practice for many years to come. Having this strong cultural basis to work from is invaluable and will permeate throughout my practice at all levels, shaping my approach, informing the creative process and inspiring artworks.

What are you hoping to gain from this experience?

Having the opportunity to work with Uncle Stan will hopefully ground me in Wiradjuri language and knowledge. Both Uncle and I really want to use our language in creative ways that reflect Wiradjuri ways of seeing and doing things. It’s hoped that the Wiradjuri gulbanha project will inspire other Wiradjuri to work with language and cultural knowledge to develop new ideas and artworks. Also, projects like this show that our language plays a vitally important role within the cultural sector, that is taken out of the schoolrooms and applied to the world around us.

What does National Reconciliation Week mean to you?

 While Australia is still struggling to come to terms with its history, major events like the National Reconciliation Week are really important, they anchor us, especially this year with the theme being to learn more about our Indigenous histories. History is really important, and I encourage everyone to learn more about Australia’s Black history, and get involved so we can all have a better future.

How will you be observing it this year?

I will be working in my studio. I’m currently on a deadline to create the next phase of the Wiradjuri gulbanha project, which is an installation looking at dhawura (wind) for the upcoming 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art. Winds bring change, knowledge and ideas. Connected to the winds are budyaan (birds), who know the winds best. And in order to represent the winds I need thousands of native bird feathers. To gather all these feathers, I’m calling out to everyone who wants to be involved to collect native feathers and post them to my address, PO Box 65 Bondi NSW 2026.

I’m looking for complete (undamaged) and clean feathers, everything from seagulls to magpies, wood ducks to cockatoos, even your pet budgie. Make sure you also send your name, so I can acknowledge your help. To find out more about the project and the importance of birds go to the Kaldor Public Art Projects blog: http://kaldorartprojects.org.au/blog, who are also kindly getting the word out.

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Published: 28 May 2018