The once rich and thriving environment of the Murray and Darling River system with its clear waterways, lush flora and abundant fauna was home to the Barkindji, Muthi Muthi and Nyampa peoples.
The shallow Nookamka Lake (Lake Bonney), which connects to the Murray River in South Australia, is the subject of Nici Cumpston’s recent photographic series. However, the series is not of a lush utopia but of the degradation and erosion that has consumed the lake since the forced irrigation flooding of the waterways in the early 1900s.
When damming ceased in 2007, the water began to subside, slowly revealing the original landscape and the history of human occupation. Cumpston beautifully documents this stark landscape and the demise that salinisation and destructive water management practices have wrought on the people and their lands.
Today, the landscape is desolate, scattered with twisted and broken trees stripped of their foliage like majestic sentinels in deathly poses. The trees still bare the scars—although obscured by dark tidelines—where canoes, containers and shields were cut from their trunks.
Cumpston highlights these clues to the area’s original inhabitants through the delicate and precise hand-watercolouring of the printed black-and-white photographs on canvas. She does not aim to replicate the original colours of the landscape, as a colour photograph would, but to interpret it, re-introducing the Aboriginal presence within the landscape—a subtle reconnection to Country and reminder of past cultural practices and knowledge. As the artist says, ‘I am finding ways to talk about connections to country and to allow people to understand the ongoing connections that Aboriginal people maintain with their traditional lands’.
This is the first work by Nici Cumpston acquired by the Gallery and will feature alongside the work of 19 other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in the next National Indigenous Art Triennial to open in May 2012.
Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art
in artonview, issue 67, spring 2011