Jones is a Wirdjuri / Kamilaroi artist and the project, funded as the 32nd Kaldor Public Art project and it tracks the outline, the skeleton of a large building, the Garden Palace that was built in 1879.
Commissioned by Henry Parkes, it was the showcase of the Sydney International Fair designed to highlight the colonies achievements, a determined attempt to step away from Australia’s colonial past. To this end, the building housed items that highlighted the assumed superiority of the Empire – such as wool and textiles – and these were juxtaposed with a large collection of Indigenous artifacts and Indigenous bones and body that were believed to show the inferiority of the native peoples. As Jones says:
“I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have seen your ancestor’s remains on display while the rest of Australia celebrated their prosperity.”
The building burned to the ground three years later, in 1882, taking with it priceless cultural material. And the loss for Aboriginal people was devastating. Jones has meditated on what this loss has meant and his installation consists of shields made from … that represent the … These white shields in some ways resemble the rubble of the burned building but they also symbolize the way in which Aboriginal culture remains resilient. And while the shields are scattered over the ground, it is only when seen from above do they reveal the vastness and shape of the building.
At the centre of the installation, where the dome of the building once was, Jones has been planted kangaroo grass to symbolize the way in which Aboriginal people cultivated their land using sophisticated farming practices. Jones worked with respected Elder Bruce Pascoe whose book, Dark Emu, gives a detailed account of the way in which Aboriginal people fished, farmed, built structures and engaged in aquaculture. The kangaroo grass is another way in which Jones reclaims this space and reprints an Indigenous presence back into the landscape.
"Barrangal dyara means skin and bones in the Gadigal language."
The installation doesn’t just celebrate the technology of Aboriginal societies. An accompanying soundscape is drawn from eight south-eastern Aboriginal languages with each different language group asked to find a way to interact with the artifacts. As Jones notes, we might have lost cultural artifacts but we haven’t lost our ability as Indigenous people to talk about them.
Apart from the stunning visual appeal of the work, and the emotion impact of the Aboriginal artifacts and language dominating the landscape, there is another important theme at the heart of Jones’ work. The building was vast and yet it was quickly lost to popular memory. Jones reflected on the fact that so many Australians forgot that this massive structure existed and he uses that failure to remember as a way of highlighting the way in which they have forgotten other parts of their history - particularly in relation to the treatment of Indigenous people. And he also within this theme, reminds us that aspects of Indigenous culture once thought lost – like language and skills such as possum-coat making – are being revived and reclaimed.
Jones takes a colonial space that was built upon Gadigal land and he reinterprets it in way that brings its Indigenous voice back to life. In doing so, he reminds us that Aboriginal culture is the world’s oldest continuing culture. He takes the languages and technology that colonists once thought symbolized our savagery and uses them to celebrate the resilience and beauty of Indigenous culture.