Flying low over the area surrounding the Great Australian Bight, I could appreciate for the first time in my life how the Australian landscape appeared from an aerial perspective.
The shades of ochre and blue not so much ran into each other as graduated, creating layers of hue. From that bird’s eye view, I traded the sideways outlook that often dominates landscape perspectives, for one which appreciated the topography from above; the rounded tips of the trees, the low-lying squat shrubs, the tracks etched by the wind, the gem-like lakes and waterholes.
If a person had been sitting cross-legged below the plane it would have been their scalp, shoulders, inside thighs, and angular knee joints that could have been observed.
At the age of fourteen, it was the first time I had seen our country from what, it occurred to me, might map more closely to an indigenous perspective than a western one. At that moment, I began to understand the manner in which an indigenous artist’s imagination might be said to “hover” over that beloved landscape, caressing the individual entities and framing their relationships with a god-like omniscience. I’m no expert in indigenous art, but it seems to me that the translation of the landscape that characterises many western representations of Australia, and the pantoscopic interpretation coming through indigenous art that embraces and “sings” the land, are as divergent as night and day. It’s the difference between an artist painting a human subject they find attractive, and an artist painting their lover to whom they are intimately and irrevocably connected.
At the University of Notre Dame, where I’m currently employed, the buildings are replete with exquisite examples of indigenous art. Some pieces have a religious flavour in keeping with the campus’ Catholic traditions; others are non-religious in that sense, yet nevertheless deeply spiritual, bringing an air of transcendence to the business of the University conducted in spaces filled with indigenous art and artefacts. It is a reminder of and testament to the Nyungar history that runs deep below the foundations of the University and indeed under all of Fremantle. Like history, art provides connectivity. It links moments, ideas, places, people, cultures to one another, constructing meaning.
As I take a breather from office duties to stretch my legs and my mind, I find myself musing on this very topic as I walk a lap from High Street to Cicerello’s, along the railway line and up behind the Round House. It’s a route I’ve taken many times before, but somehow missed the link in the chain that brings history and art together in this place called Manjaree.
Manjaree stretches out along the trail from Kidogo Arthouse to the rear of the Round House. The signs that mark the extent of the area are dotted along this path.
Bathers’ Beach on Arthur’s Head Reserve, where the northern and southern trails converge, are sporadically marked out as Manjaree. Judging by an article in the Perth Gazette from April 1833, this area has been known almost since the settlement of Fremantle to be of special significance to the indigenous peoples of the area.
For Manjaree is a meeting place; a place of celebration, of coming of age, meeting and greeting, courtship and betrothal.*
Where the sea meets the land, the future of the Nyoongar people and their culture was perpetuated. It was a place of hope and aspiration, meeting together and moving forward, much as Fremantle came to be for the white settlers and future immigrants stepping off from Manjaree into the unknown.
Why as a Fremantle woman, born and bred, have I never previously noticed the connection? I’ve walked this path so many times, my footprints are part of the landscape. How long have the signposts been there, literally and figuratively, indicating that this place was special to Aboriginal peoples and that art sprung from this sacredness? How have I been aware all my life of the name “Bathers’ Beach”, signifier of summer enjoyment and a description of its contemporary purpose, yet never been introduced to Manjaree, its forebear, signifying gathering, celebration and continuity?
Connectivity is one reason “Manjaree” on the previously “invisible” signposts has penetrated my consciousness and typically, given the way I conceptualise my internal world, art has supplied that link.
Manjaree, the mural in the room
Recently the artist in residence at Notre Dame, along with a group of dedicated students and staff, created a mural. This mural (one in a planned set of two) appears in a designated campus space also called Manjaree. When the room was dedicated, the mural had not yet been painted so although we were aware of the name of the space and the sense of it being a “meeting place” where all cultures were welcomed together, the connection of that space with the area along Bathers’ Beach was either elided or unmade. Perhaps everyone knew, except me. The unveiling of the mural was a chance to return, to witness the evolution of that interior, but moreover finally to come to understand what Manjaree might mean for Fremantle, and for those of us who came as outsiders to this place.
Nyoongar artist Neta Knapp worked with Aboriginal students on the Manjaree mural at Notre Dame University. Photo by Molly Schmidt (courtesy of heraldonlinejournal)
The mural in Manjaree (the room) seems to reflect back to its namesake, weaving its spirit beyond streets and buildings, reaching back to the dunes and the sea that hold onto time immemorial. One place connects to the other, but I didn’t realise this until the day the story of the mural was told by its creators. It was so moving being suddenly flooded with that great sense of understanding that sometimes accompanies a personal revelation. It served as a reminder that connections enrich and empower our lives, and that individual journeys (as captured in the mural) weave a community. The foreground of the mural is predominantly blue, sliced through with yellow. We are after all, sea people and as Robert Drewe would have it, “sand people” too.** It is loaded with the movement, some might say restlessness, of turtles and footprints, animal tracks and tools. But it also rests in the narrative moments of campfires and corrobboree, of a father and son yarning, of Dreamtime. The mural captures personal stories of displacement, resolution, excursion, and loss. It speaks of arrival, creation, foundations, and celebration. It is the artistic embodiment of the stories typified in a physical place known to them as Manjaree, a place of meeting and sharing, and celebrating the future.
The mural captures what I had not before synthesised; that Fremantle built on the threshold of Manjaree, holds for we who came later a purpose very similar to that of its ancient custodians. Manjaree is a place where weary voyagers can rest, be reunited with their kin, celebrate new possibilities, and head into the future with hope. Manjaree, where the sea of forever meets the shores of today, is for me now, synonymous with reconciliation.
** Robert Drewe, The Shark Net (Penguin, 2000).