With generous support from Bendigo Community Bank, BMCAN’s Wild Mountain Collective, together with Gallery H and Monkey Creek Café, held their annual Encountering the Wild multi-arts event on the edge of the spectacular Monkey Creek escarpment between Bell and Lithgow, on Saturday 30 November.

Peter Carroll, Chair of the Bendigo Sponsorship Committee: The Board of Katoomba and Upper Blue Mountains Bendigo Community Bank appreciates the communication and intellectual benefits your event will bring to our community with its focus on indigenous knowledge systems and considerations of the impact of climate change, and in addition promoting local artists and musicians and inspiring communal spirit and connectedness on the many issues that face us.”

The reverberating sounds of 25 Rhythmstix Drummers from Blackheath opened the event in the Gallery H Basement, surrounded by sculptures by Henryk Topolnicki, Philip Hay, Scott Leonard, Ludwig Micek, Mark Hayens and Philip Spark. Along the wall were paintings by Rick Slaven, Leanne Tobin, Darug artist and winner of the acquisitive Liverpool City Council’s Mayor’s Choice Award at the 28th Annual Mil-Pra AECG Exhibition Casula Powerhouse, Papua New Guinea artist, Manfred Wkeng, and a collaborative work with Leanne Tobin, Leanne Watson and Chris Tobin. Upstairs visitors to Encountering the Wild explored the rich variety of exhibits in Gallery H, including a new exhibition of gorgeous jewellery from Sondi and her students of Sondi Studio.

A highlight of the event was a community conversation with Darug educator and artist, Leanne Tobin, and anthropologist Inge Riebe, facilitated by Wild Mountain Collective co-ordinator, Barbara Lepani.

Barbara Lepani: The Wild Mountain Collective is inspired by the way in which the 65,000+ year Songlines that crisscross Australia deeply embedded a profound eco-consciousness, through art—song, dance, story telling, rock art, sand painting in Aboriginal culture. How, in this age of climate crisis, in the spirit of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, can we embrace this heritage in the role of the arts in our society as core to our national identity?

Leanne Tobin: I grew ignorant of my Aboriginal heritage, but something took me as a young teacher to work among Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, where I worked with kids from all walks of life—miners’ kids, mining executives’ kids, government employee’s kids and remote Aboriginal kids who were learning how to write and read English for the first time. An old Aboriginal woman helping at a reading circle told me “you’re not all white” which proved to be a pivotal moment as it was shortly after that a family member contacted me and informed me of my Aboriginal heritage.

Unmitigating circumstances brought me back to Sydney where upon meeting Aunty Pearl Wymarra, she connected with my story. Pearl was working in the Aboriginal Education unit at Western Sydney University and had recently received a Teacher of Excellence Award and with some of the stipend she was able to open a position for me, encouraging me to research my family history further. This led me to explore my connection as a direct descendent of Yaramundi, a Karadji/cleverman and tribal Elder of the Buruburongal people of the Hawkesbury region, a clan group of the Darug nation.

Through an arrangement between Governor Macquarie and Yarramundi, his daughter Maria became the first enrolment at the Parramatta Native Institute, formed by Governor Macquarie at the time. She graduated as one of the few success stories from that place, topping a colonial wide examination. Maria then went on to marry an illiterate English convict, Robert Lock, who was indentured to her as part of a marriage portion promised by the government. Consequently, she became one of the first indigenous landholders in colonial Australia.

My Aboriginal ancestry made sense of something that was always in me and I learned to trust the old ways of ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ the world as my understanding of my indigenous cultural heritage deepened. I have learned to ‘listen’ to the natural world around me and look for signs that present themselves to me in the birds, trees and landscape. Understanding my connections to the natural world has gifted me with a deeper language of spirit connection. I have learned how to listen to my country and feel its power and spirit.

Inge Riebe: I grew up in a unionist and communist family in 1940s Berlin, coming to Australia as a teenager. I have always tended to identify with those who were outside the mainstream. As an anthropologist, I went to Papua New Guinea where I lived among the Kalam people of the Bismark Schraeder Ranges in the Madang Province. Manfred Wkeng, whose art you see here, worked with me since 1965 and we are now ‘family’. Returning to Australia in the 1980’s I settled in Bundjalung country in Northern NSW and worked on Heritage and Native Title matters. Subsequently I worked on some other Native Title cases. At first I was heartbroken at what I saw as the loss of land, culture and language amongst Aboriginal people here, compared to the Kalam. But as I got to know Bundjalung elders and lived with Bundjalung families I began to understand how resilient and embedded Aboriginal culture is and how the tie to the land is not breakable by European ‘ownership’. Our European way of looking at the world is imbued with the idea of the rational individual mind cognizing the external world. In the Aboriginal cultures I have experienced, people, landforms, spirits, animals are held in a web of interdepencence. Meaning and understanding is informed by ‘listening’ to those relationships. Despite all the problems that beset Aboriginal people through dispossession and racism, this worldview continues to give a grounding in this land and with that resilience, strength and humour.

Anthropologists have long sought to understand cultures other than their own, and we have struggled to step outside our own dominant intellectual tradition, that are valued and rewarded within academic disciplines. While it is a mainstay of anthropological method to understand other cultures from their own side; it is a challenge not to privilege our own systems of knowing and our own views of the world, with their valuing of individualism, logic and rationality. My own research into witchcraft among the Kalam inspired me to enter into a different way of knowing and understanding the world and our place in it. Witchcraft is particularly challenging in that western culture has its own beliefs and construction of what it is, a construction that is very different to the Kalam concept and how it operates in their culture.

We don’t have to abandon our own intellectual traditions and worldview in order to enter into another way of seeing. Ideally we can expand our worldview to allow for other ways of knowing and interpreting the world and, by seeing them as also valid. We can learn to think differently about things, rather than just having different things to think about. It is not easy, because we are used to thinking that the way we see the world is reality, just how things are, but it is a very rewarding journey.

As Inge and Leanne spoke from their own experiences, a wild wind blew in from the southwest, as if the elements of the Earth were adding their voice.

Barbara Lepani: To be really Australian is to realise that our national identity is shaped by the extraordinarily deep time of our indigenous cultural heritage, the mere 230 years of British colonial settlement that created our institutions of government and economy, and the 70 years of post WWII multiculturalism through immigration from all corners of the world. The real import of the Uluru Statement from the Heart is to embrace this truth about what makes us Australian.

Leanne Tobin: This is what Aboriginal people mean by truth telling in the Uluru Statement. There is also a lot of pain and suffering of Aboriginal people in our history, which we need to acknowledge, so that we can move forward as one nation, together.Other musical items that wrapped around this conversation included folk music from Lithgow’s Goats Can Eat Anything, Jacinta Tobin on guitar, the voices of the 15 strong members of Heathen Choir and the beautiful instrumental sounds of Wombats Crossing.