by Jonathan Jones
One ongoing research project involves the investigation of south-east shields; this has included action-based research and the development of cultural revival programs. As I have lived and worked much of my life on Gadigal country, showing my respect to and supporting the local community is important. Several years ago I started a dialogue with Uncle Chicka Madden about Gadigal shields. A leading elder from Gadigal country, Uncle Chicka has lived and worked in and around Redfern and the inner city most of his life. As a trained ceramicist, his pots have been gifted and collected nationally and internationally.
Through a process of our conversations, archival investigation and action-based research, and through Uncle Chicka’s artistic vision, he has started to make Gadigal shields for the first time in recorded history. Key influential images include the etchings of the Yoo-long erah-ba-diang, or initiation, ceremony, which took place in 1795 at present-day Farm Cove in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens and was documented by Judge Advocate David Collins in his 1798 publication An account of the English colony in New South Wales. These images give the impression of an extremely significant cultural event and hint at the complexity of Aboriginal knowledge. Taking a key role in the ceremony is the unique elliptically shaped e-le-moong, or bark broad shield. In one image from the ceremony a lone man can be seen holding his e-le-moong in the middle of an arc of men also similarly holding their e-le-moong. As the central figure moves through the group, the other men seem to touch this significant object with their spear. In another picture, a central songman uses his e-le-moong as a drum, keeping the beat with his club to a striking row of male dancers. These objects are clearly not just ‘shields’ but important cultural objects.
Witnessing the importance of shields in these significant images, and the desire to not lose them from cultural memory, inspired the initial conversations with Uncle Chicka to make these unique objects again. The creative process involves long and ongoing consultations with Uncle Chicka. After collecting a piece of stringybark on country, the shield was then prepared and shaped; this involved peeling off the outer layers of bark to reveal the inner layer, carving out the shape and fitting a vine/cane handle. At each stage I took the shield to Uncle Chicka for approval and feedback. Together we worked through the construction details over many months. Then, with a combination of ochre and acrylic paint, Uncle Chicka painted the surface of the shield with an iconic Sydney design: a central line running from tip to tip, intersected by one or more horizontal lines. The result is a series of beautiful artworks that have re-awakened Gadigal practices of shield-making for the first time in generations.
The first shield was acquired by the Australian Museum and is currently displayed in their Gadiexhibition. Uncle Chicka’s second shield, made with the same process, was also purchased by the Australian Museum. Following this, a set of three were made and are currently part of the exhibition Weapons for the soldierat Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre. Developed during the ANZAC Centenary, the exhibition fosters dialogue around multi-geographical and multi-generational fights for land, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, as well as the Indigenous experience in Australian military history.
Weapons for the soldier is on display at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre, Sydney, over 11 November 2018 – 3 February 2019. Admission is free.