When the sails of the Sydney Opera House were illuminated with First Nations art for the first time, audiences were transfixed. The event was Songlines – named after the spiritual paths that snake across Australia in Indigenous lore – and materialised in spiralling colours and vibrant symbolism on the sails of the Opera House during Vivid LIVE 2016. The projections ran for barely a month, disappearing as quickly as they emerged.
It was to the relief of viewers everywhere when Songlines was born again the following year as Badu Gili, this time a nightly year-round sunset projection viewed by more than 160,000 visitors in person visitors, and another 620,000 online in its debut year. Launched with new artwork in July 2018 and animated in collaboration with Yakkazoo, Badu Gili has given First Nations artists the opportunity to present their stories to an unprecedented international audience. We talked to three of this year’s artists about those stories, and what inspires them to create.
Meet this year's artists
Penny Evans, Gamilaraay
It’s hard not to be struck by the sheer materiality of Penny Evans’ work. Deep, coloured incisions carve their way through ceramics like scars, crafting detailed patterns that reference the terrain of her ancestral lands in Northern NSW.
“It comes down to the landscape…an observance of my landscape out there on country,” says Evans. “The ground, the cracked mud of our waterholes, the coolamons, the trees.”
She’s honed her distinctive style over 35 years with countless exhibitions and awards, but Badu Gili is the first time her pieces have been digitised. For an artist whose work is so tangible, the transformation from original ceramics to light projections isn’t so much a direct facsimile, but rather a reinterpretation. But the results are equally as striking: bold colours that almost float across the sails, repeated patterns that expand into infinity.
Evans’ ceramics are as much objects of beauty as they are a reminder of colonisation. Her work is inextricably tied to the ongoing process of understanding her Gamilaraay heritage – a heritage that, for too long, has been omitted from Australian history.
“For me, it’s been an investigation of my personal story through to my mother’s story, my grandmother’s, my great-grandmother’s,” she says. “When I grew up in the ‘70s, we knew nothing. We weren’t told anything about anything. We were all in the same boat – blackfellas, whitefellas, everyone was in the same boat around the history of what had taken place."
“There isn't one right way to do an opera. Every work is completely different, it's a journey into the world the composer has created.”
Her work is the product of these ancestral ties: the preservation of Gamilaraay culture for generations to come. The techniques that Evans employs in her ceramics are reminiscent of those used by her ancestors (“they were very enthusiastic carvers,” she says) and by immortalising their ancient lore on the sails of the Opera House, Evans aims to inspire others to seek out the stories hidden in their lineage.
“Hopefully people will look at what I do and they can start to unpack their own histories as well. My opinion is that if we don’t all go and seek understanding and knowledge of ourselves, who we are, where we come from, and connect it to what’s happening in Australia, then we’re just doomed.”
She hopes that Badu Gili will facilitate a renewed understanding of First Nations art and its diversity for a broader audience.
“I want them to see that Aboriginal art isn’t just one thing,” she says. “There’s no one stereotype of art that is Aboriginal. That needs to be thrown out…that just confines Aboriginal people.