Linking art and ancestry through First Nations design

One of the ways through which architecture can contribute to reconciliation is through the visible and meaningful integration of First Nations culture in our built environment.

“What Becomes of the Clouds”, by Megan Cope in Heritage Lanes. Lighting design by Carl Grey.

For centuries, Aboriginal art has played a central role in chronicling stories and knowledge of the land, from documenting water sources and bushtucker to telling creation stories of the Spirit Ancestors. For as long as 60,000 years, art has served to help remember and reflect, preserving moral teachings and storylines across generations.

From ochre cave paintings to contemporary murals on building facades, the rich tradition of Aboriginal storytelling through art continues today.

First Nations-led public art programs are just one of the ways through which we can embed a First Nations perspective in architectural projects. In this listicle, we highlight the projects that have been significantly enriched through their First Nations art programs.

Namatjira’s distinctive palette informed the interior design of the Journey Beyond carriages. Pictured: Palm Valley by Albert Namatjira, watercolour, 1940. Courtesy: Art Gallery NSW

In its redesign of Journey Beyond’s Gold Premium carriages, Woods Bagot took reference from the richness of Australian culture and country, looking to the landscape paintings of Arrente painter Albert Namatjira (1902-1959) for reference.

The design team was inspired by Namatjira ’s depictions of the Central Australian landscape, from his vivid portrayal of the colours of the outback to the majesty and reverence in his representations of ghost gums and undulating terrain.

The palette of the train cars responds to Namatjira’s works, from the silver of the eucalyptus to the red tones of the earth, his unique use of light and shadow influencing the bespoke carpeting melded with the lighter paperbark tones of the plush seats.

Aboriginal prints are woven to the upholstery, with Durrmu “Terra” by Kathleen Korda – a ceremonial dot-paint design – incorporated in the lounge banquettes and restaurant seating.

Read more about Journey Beyond’s Gold Premium cars.

“What Becomes of the Clouds”, by Megan Cope. Left photography and lighting design by Carl Grey.

Quandamooka artist Megan Cope draws on archives and historical maps to create public documents of Indigenous knowledge. Photo by Trevor Mein.

In the ground-floor laneway of Heritage Lanes at 80 Ann Street, Brisbane, Quandamooka artist Megan Cope draws on archives and historical maps to create public documents of Indigenous knowledge.

Her work for Heritage Lanes remembers the creek that formerly ran through the site, which now directs the public through the laneway while a glass and light sculpture flows above on the ceiling.

“What Becomes of the Clouds” highlights the power of water through a glass and light sculpture undulating from the ceiling. On the ground, a meandering brass thread outlines the creek on a lithograph map of Brisbane from 1863, directing the public’s movement through the laneway.

Cope’s artwork often investigates issues relating to identity, geography and language, drawing upon historical sources including colonial maps of Australia.

The piece incorporates digital prints that showcases Cope’s hand-painted watercolour washes.

This particular work serves as a public document that is inclusive of Indigenous ways of seeing and relating to the environment.

Read more about Heritage Lanes.

Central Station artwork on right track

Dr Bancroft’s work is a contemporary representation of connection to Country, symbolic of the many creation stories that have been handed down over generations.

Central Station artwork on right track

At Sydney’s Central Station, a major transport project by Woods Bagot, a substantial brick artwork by Bundjalung artist Dr Bronwyn Bancroft adorns the face of two buildings on Platform 14.

The largescale piece is called “Time Travellers”, depicting serpent-like imagery, symbolic of one of the many creation stories handed down over time.

“My vision is to honour the fallen who have returned to the earth, and the layers of ancestors that lie under the contemporary world of Sydney,” Dr Bancroft explained in her artwork statement.

“To visualise tribes and clans of people from the Gadigal area paddling their canoes across the corridors of time is an epic image. Acknowledgement of that time in our shared history has been paramount to me in creating this work.”

Central Station project leader and Woods Bagot Principal John Prentice says the artwork is integrated into the fabric of the architecture and helps relate the station to its historical and cultural context.

Dr Bancroft explained her concept emerged from a “lifetime of investigating the layers of human existence and the molecular component of the DNA of ancient Aboriginal Australia”.

“The corridors and platforms of Central Railway Station are shared spaces, amongst many different people, from many different countries,” she wrote.

“The spiritual concept for Time Travellers is that I believe our old people are our guides and will offer smooth transitions when respect is acknowledged.

“The tunnelling and excavation of the country needs to celebrate the unseen of the city, which is Aboriginal Australia.”

Read more about Dr. Bancroft’s art commission for Central Station.

A series of graphically overlaid skylights will be featured at each of the five stations by Marcia McGuire and Penelope Forlano.

Twelve local and Noongar artists have been commissioned to create 19 public art pieces across the five new stations on the METRONET Morley-Ellenbrook line. All five stations have been designed by Woods Bagot, and once completed, the project will be the the largest art collection commissioned on a METRONET project to date.

The public art strategy aims to celebrate the unique environment of each station, as well as showcase Noongar culture and connection to Country.

At each of the five stations, skylights by Marcia McGuire and Penelope Forlano will be overlaid with graphics, unique to the concepts of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal identity of each location.

Read more about the public art program at Morley Ellenbrook.

Entitled “ALWAYS”, this 2m x 8m mural has the hidden text of its title worked into the composition.

Woods Bagot completed a workplace fitout for Gilbert + Tobin’s Melbourne office in 2020.

The client has long supported excellence and innovation of contemporary Indigenous artists through the business’s corporate art collection, focusing on the works of emerging Indigenous artists from across all of Australia and the Torres Strait Islands.

For the Melbourne workplace fitout, client and architect commissioned interdisciplinary Kamilaroi artist Reko Renni to create an artwork for the main reception area. The mural is the centrepiece of the reception space, with the interior design responding to the artwork by introducing some of the colourways into the upholstery fabric. 

Renni’s work explores personal and political narratives through the lens of his Aboriginal heritage, alongside broader cultural themes of power, identity, memory and history.

Rennie’s distinctive visual language negotiates a hybrid form of contested binaries ­– visible and invisible, public and private, urban and traditional – to provoke discussion of cultural and social visibility in a contemporary environment.

“Camouflage exploits the vulnerability of visual perception and its subjective relationship with meaning. It usually attempts to render the visible invisible by disorienting our eyes and employing the art of disguise,” says Rennie.

“The work plays with layers of patterning, colour blending and contrasting areas of intensity and flatness in order to turn the traditional role of camouflage on its head. My use of camouflage aims to amplify, rather than conceal my identity, and to stake my claim to a luminous, commanding form of cultural visibility.”

Read more about Gilbert + Tobin workplace.

Potini and Ngatai’s pou (columns) stand in the external atrium and at other prominent locations within Te Hāpua Lanes.

Woods Bagot is designing an over-station development and urban regeneration project above Auckland’s Te Waihorotiu / City Rail Link station.

Driving the cultural narrative for the site, the project team has engaged three Māori artists to situate the Symphony Centre in its specific cultural context.   

“Throughout the process of the design, we’ve attended several hui (meetings), meeting with iwi (Māori groups/tribes) on the project,” says Woods Bagot Associate Joseph Crowe. “In partnership with Mana Whenua (local cultural governance group), the project has appointed Māori artists who will be contributing works to the building and the public realm.” 

The Waitāheke/Symphony Centre building façade will be made from glass-reinforced concrete in hues that reference local Waitematā sandstone. A poutama pattern – a stepped embossed pattern designed by local artist Graham Tipene – will be cut into vertical fins on the building façade. The embossed façade is designed to produce varied celestial patterns throughout the day.

Tipene is also working with LandLAB in the public realm with fellow artists Maaka Potini and Ted Ngataki, integrating a telling of the Māori creation story, and referencing the site’s precolonial history as a wetland for the Tāmaki Makaurau people. 

Read more about the Symphony Centre. 

Graham Tipene’s poutama pattern will be cut into the vertical fins of the building facade.

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