Exploring climate and disconnect, Boroondara Arts’ new exhibition You Are Here captures the relationship between photography and truth-telling.

You Are Here comes as part of the inaugural photography biennale, PHOTO2020, which hosts a range of exhibitions and displays across 40 cultural institutions throughout Victoria.

With a focus on traditional landscape photography, You Are Here explores connection and disconnection with Country in the current ecological and political climate.

A seasoned photographer exhibiting since 1998, proud Barkindji woman Nici Cumpston has two works featured in You Are Here.

Ringbarked II and Oh my Murray Darling capture the devastation being wreaked in the Murray Darling water system.

In Ringbarked II, viewers see some of Cumpston’s trademark style shine through – her use of watercolour and pencil over black and white film photographs.

“I started hand colouring back in the 1980s when I was first at arts school,” Cumpston said.

“It’s a way for me to reconnect with that place … it gives me a chance to think more clearly about what it was that I saw and thought and felt while I was there.”

“It’s a very meditative way of working and I really love being able to put my own hand within that image … it’s a little bit of me going into that [artwork].”

Cumpston said Ringbarked II came as a result of the Federal Government cutting off the freshwater flow to Lake Bonney some years ago.

“The original waterline of that lake was exposed, which exposed all sorts of different evidence for us [as Barkindji people].

“That lake was originally much smaller than it became in the 1900s when they put in irrigation channels … it flooded all of the trees, which is why there are so many dead trees in the water.

“Two different stories are being told. You’ve got the devastation that’s created as a result of the freshwater not flowing into the lake, the water receding, and the stink of sulphuric acid rising.”

Ringbarked II by Nici Cumpston. Photo supplied.

Although the lake’s stench became a sore point for nearby businesses, causing some to close, a positive arose for Traditional Owners.

“It revealed all of these sites to us as Aboriginal people. We were able to walk along that shoreline … see what was in the ground, what scars were in the trees. Previously we could only get to those places by boat.

“Even though it was a disaster, it actually did help us to see … that deep ongoing connection to that place.”

Ringbarked II shows a tree exposed, its root systems washed away.

“It’s like it’s kind of dancing in that landscape,” Cumpston said.


Documenting devastation

Previously working as a dark room technician for South Australia Police’s forensics department, Cumpston said she became very proficient at developing film, despite the disturbing content she was exposed to daily.

“That imagery that I was witness to was deeply disturbing, it took a while for me to work out how to process that information.

“All I had was … the names of the victims, police officers attending and the dates. At night in my dreams I was making up all of the stories behind those images … which was, of course, nothing to do with reality.”

Although a difficult task at times, Cumpston said that experience helped develop her arts practice.

“When I’m on Country I’m walking, I’m looking, I’m feeling, I’m thinking, and I’m taking in what it is I’m seeing,” she said.

“More than likely, that knowledge I gained through looking at that type of documentary photography … has [stayed] with me.”

“I’m constantly looking for signs of Aboriginal occupation … in the landscape, of where people have gathered, where there’s evidence of people coming together.”

In a way, Cumpston uses her lens to document evidence of her ancestors as the police force would document evidence of a crime scene.

“It’s helped me to learn about the pathways that Barkindji people have walked and the great distances that Barkindji people travelled.”

The photography veteran’s other featured work in You Are Here, simply yet powerfully depicts the destruction wrought by climate change on the Murray Darling.

Oh my Murray Darling by Nici Cumpston. Photo supplied.

Cumpston said Oh my Murray Darling is talking about the waterway and how it’s been increasingly commodified over time.

“It’s also an image that’s quite calming … yet there’s an underlying story which is by no means a calming story.

“That water is not the water of the rivers anymore. It is owned by people … there’s a monetary figure put on that water … that water is a commodity now.”

For Cumpston, it’s about honouring the importance of the Barka (Darling River).

“[With] the dual name of the river … [it’s important] for us to humanise our waterways,” she said.

“It’s the lifeblood of Barkindji people … the Barka is our mother. Without our mother we are floundering.”


Opening eyes

In a time of unprecedented climate crisis, Cumpston uses her unique skillset to share stories with the public.

“This is an ecological disaster, and it is affecting people’s livelihoods and … all of our food sources,” Cumpston said.

“Without those waterways … there is a big situation that is very problematic for us as a nation.”

The Barkindji photographer hopes those who visit the exhibition see the importance she and others place on the way Country is being treated.

“[I hope people see] that we as human beings are people who deeply care about the decisions being made by government, that we have a voice … we need to stick together to share our concerns and stick up for [Country].”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, You Are Here has been postponed to April, 2020 at Town Hall Gallery in Hawthorn, Victoria.

By Hannah Cross