‘Designed to wake people up’: Jonathan Jones unveils major public work at Hyde Park barracks | Art and design
From 1819 until 1848, Hyde Park barracks housed some of Sydney’s convict labour force, their toil helping to displace and decimate the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. When Aboriginal people resisted the British colonisers, former and serving convicts sometimes joined armed soldiers and free settlers in murderous retaliation.
The barracks remains a Unesco world heritage-listed museum, and this weekend will reopen with new, immersive audio and visual technology telling its history inside.
The outside of the structure has been reinvented, too. Wiradjuri-Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones’ new public art installation – untitled (maraong manaóuwi), which means emu footprint in Gadigal – required a team of a dozen people to cover 2500 sq metres of the courtyard with stones, to symbolise shared black and white history.
In a design repeated on each square metre of the courtyard, workers have used stencils to embed white stones in the shape of what might be interpreted as an emu’s footprint – but which is also reminiscent of the colonial broad arrow printed on convict uniforms.
This 16m-year-old white quartz, quarried from Cowra in central-west New South Wales, is surrounded by red stones from Griffith, about 300km from Cowra by road.
Cowra and Griffith are both in Wiradjuri country, where in 1824 governor Brisbane declared martial law on Indigenous people, triggering military raids and Aboriginal resistance in what became known as the Bathurst wars. Jones sought permission from Gadigal elders to bring the Wiradjuri-area stones to the site.
“All too often – although we’re getting better – in older history books, Aboriginal history stops in 1788 and colonial history begins,” says Jones, 41. “There’s a real break, when in fact we know they’re completely enmeshed.”
Many families have Indigenous and non-Indigenous histories entwined, says Jones, who adds the installation can be interpreted in different ways. “The artwork is also designed to wake people up, because there was a general perception that there were no Aboriginal stories here. Maybe by shaking things up and looking at them differently, you can start to see there are some other narratives here, and other ways of understanding Aboriginal histories.”
The new work evokes the method of Jones’s 2016 Kaldor art project barrangal dyara – Gadigal for skin and bones – in which the artist laid 15,000 newly made broad shields, in four of the shapes used by south-east Australian tribes, on the nearby grounds of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden, around the site of the former Garden Palace, which burned down in 1882.
The fire destroyed a vast collection of Aboriginal artefacts, including body parts, stolen by anthropologists from the disarmed and disenfranchised first Australians. In 1798, judge advocate Colonel David Collins wrote of witnessing an initiation ceremony at that Garden Palace site, in which boys had teeth removed as a rite of manhood. This was written evidence of cultural practices the Gadigal still carried out in Sydney even after the First Fleet had arrived.
As a teenage art student, Jones went to the Australia Museum to research the origins of his people, the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi, only to discover cultural material had been destroyed. Today, however, following the 2019 United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, there has been a renaissance in learning Aboriginal customs and tongues, and Jones has been improving his own Wiradjuri grammar and syntax with the help of Uncle Stan Grant Sr, who co-wrote a Wiradjuri dictionary.
While the broad shields were cleared away from that earlier project, the white and red stones will remain on the Hyde Park barracks site – but the emu footprint/broad arrow design will be worn away within weeks, as the public walks on the stones. The artwork’s disintegration is part of the plan.
“The way we understand history and culture and present it within historical institutions is often very static,” Jones says. “The building is perceived through an almost ordained notion of preservation and heritage through the Unesco listing.
“You could argue in this day and age, when we have the internet and this extraordinary bank of memory that we place in archives and online, that the more we invest in that, the less good we get at remembering those things for ourselves.”
Jones is hoping this fleeting visual memory will embed itself in the public consciousness, carried through an Indigenous-style oral tradition of communication. “When I go to Aboriginal communities and yarn with elders, they’re historians,” he says. “They don’t miss a trick.”
• untitled (maraong manaóuwi) will be accompanied by a public programs of talks, performances and workshops at Hyde Park barracks from 21 February to 15 March.