RMIT students have worked with the Wilcannia community and the Barkandji people in the development of a new cultural centre in regional New South Wales.
The students met with community leaders and Aboriginal elders from organisations including the Mutawintji Aboriginal Land Council and the Murdi Paaki Regional Enterprise Corporation to better understand the deep relationships between culture, landscape and people that constitute the Aboriginal understanding of Country.
Barkandji artist, educator and elder, Uncle William ‘Badger’ Bates recently expressed the importance of the NSW Darling River to his people saying: “The river is everything. It’s my life, my culture.”
Landscape Architecture Lecturer and field trip leader Jock Gilbert said that for the Barkandji people, “the river informs life in a deep spiritual sense and the degradation of the river has significantly damaged this cultural connection, especially in the town of Wilcannia, NSW”.
“With this knowledge students undertook and tested field-based participatory design methods built on principles of respect and reciprocity.
“They have the opportunity to expand on relationships established through similar trips over the last four years.”
The design students used the knowledge they gained to inform a series of design proposals exploring the reconnection of the community with the river.
The importance of learning this way – "on Country" – was confirmed by Uncle Badger who encouraged students to capture "the spirit of the Country, the trees, the rocks, the river – to let them speak" through their drawings.
These understandings informed a series of design proposals produced by students, which will be exhibited in Wilcannia’s Queens Head Gallery.
The proposals explore opportunities for the community to collaborate in the redevelopment of a former shop site into a cultural centre and thus forging renewed connections to the river.
Barkandji poet, artist and linguist, Murray Butcher, encouraged students to incorporate multiple "voices" into their design proposals, reflecting a shared history and vision of the future for the community.
In a community review of the proposals in Wilcannia, the chair of Baaka Cultural Centre Inc., Bob Constantine, congratulated students on their ability to quickly develop a series of culturally aware proposals that responded to the brief and captured a range of community concerns and views.
Maddi Collins, a third year landscape architecture student, felt the “trip was an incredible experience. I felt so welcome and involved in the community of Wilcannia and the Barkandji people’s culture.
“I never expected such openness towards us as strangers in the town. It was also an amazing opportunity to visit the breathtaking landscapes of Mutawintji National Park.”
The "Working the Ground" Landscape Architecture studios form part of a body of research into negotiated approaches to remote and regional landscape architectural practice led by Jock Gilbert.