Article: Caring for Indigenous Cultural Philosophies
A new spatial justice and cultural right
In this article architect and director of Custom Mad Claire McCaughan spoke to Yuwaalaraay woman, artist and designer Lucy Simpson about her connection to country and duty of care to place.
Let’s consider that precursory to the NSW Architects Code of Professional Conduct, an architect could carry a duty of care to place; an obligation to be in tune with the long-term impacts of our profession, practice and production. Let’s also consider that this duty of care could be nurtured from an understanding and respect for Indigenous cultural philosophies.
It is this interwoven cultural philosophy and design approach that provides insight into how architects could strengthen our duty of care to place. Yuwaalaraay woman, artist and designer, Lucy Simpson’s consideration of contemporary cultural continuities and the needs of Country could galvanise architects to let go of site analysis, and truly care for culture and the interconnected systems of life. We would simply need to imbue First Nations culture in every aspect of our processes – we would need to commence a new spatial justice and cultural right.
Thank you for having me in your studio today and your generosity in sharing your lived experience. I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal, the Traditional Owners of the land and pay my respect to Elders past, present and emerging. I recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were the first sovereign Nations of Australia and this sovereignty has never been ceded. Today, let’s consider together an urgent duty of care to Country.
It is true to say I feel a deep sense of responsibility. It stems from my belonging as a freshwater woman and comes at a moment of great global environmental and cultural crisis. I have seen first-hand, the trauma that our Country is in and the impact this is having on people. Unfortunately, it is something that we are now experiencing in full effect worldwide. I have an opportunity to draw from my own cultural heritage and lived experience to create work that nurtures and heals.
Can you tell us about the significance of your connection to the places you live and work?
I am a Yuwaalaraay woman, freshwater woman, designer, mother and maker. I was born and have grown up in Sydney’s inner-west. I have strong ties to my home in Sydney through my mother and honour the unbroken connections to the rivers and lakes of our Ngurrambaa (family lands) inherited through my father in the north-west of NSW, the country to which I belong.
Our family is Biiwii / Dhinawan dhinggaa – sand goanna and emu (meat totems), Mirriyah burrah (people of the lignum bush), and many of our childhood memories were born from time spent on the banks of our rivers and lakes. Whether fishing or exploring, sharing stories or sitting around the fire – the relationships centred along the river form a central part of who I am. These connections are passed through my family and I have a responsibility to pass on these relationships, to keep them alive and strong.
Living in Marrickville, I have enjoyed the evolving relationship I also share with the Cooks River and the Gadigal and Wangal ecologies and I understand deeply the healing properties of water. The recent work revitalising and healing the mangroves of the Cooks River has had a profound effect on me. While there is still much work to be done, I find that being able to immerse myself in the energy of that landscape is so important in my own wellbeing.
These are the connections I strive to embody and share through my artistic practice. As we care and advocate for the natural environment, it in turn cares for us. Our life lessons exist within those systems.
One of the first life lessons, Birralii, speaks of resilience and seems to be a source of Giidjuugiidjuu (that which is constant or ongoing) is that right?
Yes, that’s right, its very transference ensures its continuity. Birralii (baby), refers to the first ceremony or song, and is a cultural practice that is built for that very reason, a lullaby to instil the pillars or very foundations of Yuwaalaraay philosophy and moral lore – kindness, generosity and strength – from first breath. We think about ceremony as a formal practice, but Birralii is essentially mother and grandmother singing to a new baby. People from every culture can relate to that. The beauty and the power of that song lies in its existence as a carrier of information, knowledge and transfer. We think of ritual and ceremony as being things that are sacred or deeply spiritual – if we look inside that we understand why, through the practical lessons of survival over generations.
Exchange, connection and cultural continuities – Giidjuugiidjuu – envelopes all your lived experiences. Could you share with us how Giidjuugiidjuu manifests in your design process?
One of the most recent projects that I’ve worked on is Gunghandi. It relates to one of our stories of Burruguu (time of creation). There are many levels of meaning and lessons held within Gunghandi, and one of them tells the creation stories of Dharriwaa (Narran Lakes) – our ngurrambaa (special place, ceremonial grounds), telling specifically of the first time humans broke lore and how these actions changed Country forever.
It is a well-known story for us and was one that I have thought a lot about recently. I had just come back to Sydney from Walgett and Lightning Ridge with my older sister Nardi, where we had seen the rivers dry for the first time. We went to a well-known spot where we had been many times and we walked the riverbed. It was completely dry. We went around the bend of the river, in what would’ve been the deepest part, it was littered with rubbish and waste: toys, cans, plastic. It was hard. The biggest dhanggal river mussels you had ever seen, maybe 60 years old or more, intermittently dispersed through generations – and here they lay – dried and broken. A little further down, partially submerged in the riverbank was an enormous wire fish trap. The rope was severed and it would have been at the bottom of the river for a long time. I thought to myself, ‘I wonder how many fish died needlessly in here?’ At first, I was angry, my heart ached. I thought it was a black and white thing because we were always taught to only take what was needed, enough to feed the family. I thought about the repercussions of this greed. We were tripping over outstretched roots seeking water trying to hold the riverbank together, clinging to the ash that was once fertile black soil. I was starting to see the bare bones of country, they were brittle, fragile.
At the same time I had been approached to create a work centred around women, water and weaving practices, and I reflected on what weaving and fibre practice represented for me, about knowledge and responsibility that surrounds that practice, about continuities and about seasons and story – all interwoven and interconnected. I thought about the wives of Baayami who were swallowed by Garriya the crocodile as punishment for their actions. I thought about the wire trap that was so big I myself could get stuck inside just like those ancient women.
Somewhere in this process, I found I was able to not only recognise, but process grief. I began grieving the loss of our beautiful freshwater rivers, our very being. The murky water that holds so much of our identity was gone. I could see things that I wasn’t meant to see. I also saw the lessons of my unwell Country, lying exposed at the bottom of the river.
On the drive back to Sydney, I watched as we passed enormous tangled bundles of wire fences, rusted and bulldozed into mounds to make room for new wire and more cleared land. I was thinking about the memory held within place, and of needless waste and turned my hand to harvesting the wire. I got back to my studio and began to fashion a crocodile. The chicken wire was reminiscent of the looped and knotted weaving techniques of the area, and I had also collected old fishing lines from that trip so I began to experiment with these techniques to sculpt and bind the materials into that story, into the shape of old Garriya to hold the memory. This later of course became my lesson and from it a reminder of my responsibility.
Working with the wire was painful. I was getting cut, I had scratches and experienced pain – all this kind of physical manifestation of those very strong emotional feelings. There is a need of these things in growth and transition and in healing I feel. It was also all unfurling during COVID-19 and lockdown. In that time of separation, where I was unable to go back to Country, I found a way, through cultural practice and story, to connect to place, to technique, and play my role in the ongoing transfer of knowledge and experience.
The Yuwaalaraay word Baayangali describes the connected systems in nature and I presume, also gives a way to describe impact and responsibility. I can see how Giidjuugiidjuu and Baayangali interconnect. In your making process, how do you negotiate these cultural philosophies with the almost contradictory design considerations of fabrication methods, budget, aesthetics and functionality?
It’s an interesting time for me in navigating intentional design. Everything we do from now on needs to undo what has become our convenient norm. Particularly as designers we can start to act to reverse the impact of terrible detrimental decisions. Understanding the power of our design decisions is a wonderful start. Perhaps we can spend more time considering our work not as standalone projects that exist in this isolated notion of space and time, but as continuities, connecting one point of a story to another. Maybe in this way we can begin to un-train our minds and direct our thoughts towards what will benefit futures.
A First Nations process of placemaking seems to describe Winangay – to understand, know, remember, think, love / Winangali – hear, listen – would you agree?
First Nations peoples define, adapt, and sustain place through story, thinking and working almost as an extension of Country itself. We belong to place – we are of place.
I can think of an example of when we were kids and being noisy. When you’re on the river the sound carries and is just amplified, and at that time, and full of energy we weren’t really interested in the actual fishing, just exploring and yelling and fighting and laughing and making a lot of noise really as kids do. Dad would often just sing out down the river ‘You kids, be quiet, you’re going to scare all the fish away’ (our dinner). His words would slice through Country along the surface of the water, and in the quietness that followed, a whole other world would open itself up to us, our senses became heightened to what existed beyond ourselves and we were acutely aware of the impact of our actions. I think about Winangay, the connections between listening and understanding, of hearing, thinking and knowing. It’s something that takes time, it’s about observing, it’s about watching, it’s about being and responding. If you sit quietly in the bush long enough, you will start to recognise things and in that observation you’ll see how Country holds life. This is the way we understand our place within those systems rather than in dominance of them.
In one part of your research you focus on placemaking and holding ground. Is holding ground a similar concept to holding life?
One of the key features of Aboriginal design I feel is that nothing is meant to last forever – a way of thinking and doing that in contrast actually ensured everything would or could. It is highly functional, it carries a story, transfers experience, is of place and also a tool for survival. Essentially though it was always created to one day return to the earth so that the cycle could continue and lessons of experience flow on. You might think of a scar tree, or a seasonal camp. The impact was minimal yet incredibly vast. Country had a chance to regenerate and heal in your absence, the marks and scars left behind, as in the objects, carried those lessons, reminders of balance, and the importance of continuity and relationships.
Recently I visited an old birthing site in Yuwaalaraay Country with my sisters. And I think about that as a black fullas version of placemaking. There were practical reasons why this particular area of country was for women to give birth – because there was a small clearing, it was next to water, on higher ground, the trees were suitable to give shade and cut guliman to carry the baby, and because it was far away enough for women to have privacy and to carry out ceremony, our special trees once grew in abundance there. By its very definition, Country nurtured and supported life.
I think of holding ground as a temporary thing or the actions that support conversation with and connections to place, to hold a moment of convergence, to exchange, to remember, and connect. There are things that you bring and things you take away, not things that are built and last forever, just the stories and lessons held and embedded within that. We contribute and continue to tell and pass on through our experience and action, the legacy of what was, is and can continue to be.
Lucy Simpson is a Yuwaalaraay woman, artist and designer working across a range of mediums to communicate experiences of Country. Simpson is the founder of Gaawaa Miyay (river daughter designs) and her artistic practice has been showcased at the Powerhouse Museum, Carriageworks and Museum of Contemporary Art. Recently Simpson has been developing large-scale placemaking projects which evoke the dhuwi (inner essence) of place alongside research which examines how cultural philosophies can inform a design approach. Gunghandi is also currently showing as part of long water:fibre stories at Milingimbi Art Centre from 1 to 15 May 2021.
Claire McCaughan is a registered architect, Co-Director of Archrival and Director at Custom Mad. She is a highly motivated practitioner and practices architecture alongside an expansive portfolio of public art, exhibition design and architectural installation projects. Claire’s extensive portfolio was established with Sam Crawford Architects where she was an Associate from 2007 to 2013 and influenced again by her role as Head of Programs at the Australian Design Centre from 2014 to 2016, where she met Lucy Simpson.
First published in Architecture Bulletin (May 2021) by The Australian Institute of Architects.
Images: River roots | Narran | Yuwaalaraay Country and Tangled bundles of wire fences, Photos: Lucy Simpson.