Content warning: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Prominent First Nations artists Patrick Freddy Puruntatameri, Timothy Cook and Mabel Juli will be presented alongside other contemporary creatives at the One Foot on the Ground, One Foot in the Water exhibition.  

Featuring paintings, sculptures, installations, sound works and other thought-provoking mediums, the exhibition will explore our relationship with death, mourning and loss across a broad spectrum of cultures.

Curated by Travis Curtin from Koorie Heritage Trust, the first iteration of the exhibition was shown at the La Trobe Art Institute at the end of 2020.

It’s now set to take place at Bunjil Place before moving onwards to Museum of Art and Culture Lake Macquarie, Pinnacles Gallery, Tweed Regional Gallery before finishing off in November of 2023 at the Burnie Regional Gallery.

“We’ve tried to present perspectives by Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists,” Curtin said. 

“As a curator I’m always working with other people’s culture, and I think it’s so important to try to present and bring together as many diverse perspectives as I can.

“Artwork can somehow represent in a tangible way, the intangible experience of losing someone.”

“The grief process is very complex, and regardless of our cultural backgrounds, we come together as communities. So the exhibition has tried to capture a range of those experiences.”

The artists on show include Catherine Bell, Timothy Cook, French & Mottershead, Mabel Juli, Richard Lewer, Sara Morawetz, Michael Needham, Nell, Patrick Freddy Puruntatameri, Nawurapu Wunuŋmurra.

Drawing inspiration from his own personal experience with mourning the loss of his partner, Curtin feels that loss has been a very ‘potent and artistic influence’ for him over the last decade.

“Over that time, I really developed an interest in artists who found solace in artwork and music that artists had explored around the experiences of death, dying and loss,” he said.

Making art is a very powerful way for us to kind of face death and dying collectively and individually, I think it speaks to us on a universal level. We all go through it. We’re all going to lose people.”

For Gija woman Mabel Juli who was interviewed in a piece for the exhibition called Garn’giny, death and rebirth, death is a natural part of life and her culture.

When asked what happens in Gija culture when people die, she says “When they die, they come back, they come back to other people, they are reborn. ‘Jarriny’ is the spirit that is reborn.

“Yes you come back as a reborn spirit with another mother. They have the same skin name when they are reborn. Like my son [Leo Juli]. My young son passed away. And now he is Michael Malgil. Michael Malgil is my son who came back.”

For Tiwi man Pedro Wonaeamirri, death signifies the start of a time called ‘Pukumani’. 

“At the start there is a smoking ceremony to cleanse areas where the person lived and worked; the funeral when the body is buried; then after some time a small ceremony to start the making of the tutini (Pukumani poles); and finally the main Pukumani ceremony where the spirit is put to rest. 

“Six months or a year after a person passes, the family of the deceased begin to organise the Pukumani ceremony.

“During Pukumani, we do not use this person’s name, even people who hold that name are called by their middle name.

“The Pukumani ceremony marks the end of this time, six months or a year after the funeral. After the main ceremony the name comes back and Pukumani for that person is over,” he wrote.

Curtin hopes visitors are brought together by One Foot on the Ground, One Foot in the Water. 

“I hope it makes us talk more freely about death and dying and losing loved ones. For people to see art as a useful grieving process as well as for processing loss. 

“It invites you to be with your grief. To consider your mortal condition, it’s a really powerful experience,” Curtin said.

For those looking to experience their own mortality, the exhibition opens its doors on February 19th at Bunjil Place. 

By Imogen Kars