Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s recent solo exhibition, ‘Narrbong-galang’, at Roslyn Oxley9 in Sydney, Australia, comprised 100 colossal bags that the artist created from found materials such as rusty tin and fencing wire, which she sourced from rubbish dumps and farms along her tribal boundaries. For the past 19 years, Connelly-Northey has been refashioning debris into objects that recall those used by traditional Aboriginal Australians. Her work addresses issues of history and race, and the importance of safeguarding traditional knowledge.
Claudia Arozqueta In your work and life, your heritage plays a key role. You even changed your name from Connelly to Connelly-Northey in order to acknowledge your background. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Lorraine Connelly-Northey I was born and raised in Swan Hill in Victoria. I am of mixed heritage: a descendent of the Waradgerie (Wiradjuri)* people. Exposed to racism for being an Aboriginal Australian, it was weird and frustrating that people were not interested in my non-Aboriginal heritage when I started to do pretty good as an Aboriginal artist. So, I decided that I would do something about it. I changed my name to point out my various heritages and cultures. Connelly is Irish, and I added Northey, which is English. These two are the obvious ones, but I also have Scottish and French ancestry. Everything has been always black and white in Australia, so I changed my name to include my black and white heritage.
CA What is the translation and meaning of ‘Narrbong-galang’, the title of your recent show at Roslyn Oxley9?
LC-N It’s composed of two words in Waradgerie: Narrbong, which means bag, and galang, which is the plural. So, the title means many, many bags. Narrbong has another old connotation; it also means a pouch of a marsupial, a bag or vessel that contains something. This use implies the use of the whole animal; it is not a recycling, but rather the continuation of life.
CA This continuation of life applies to your use of discarded materials. What prompted you to start working with them?
LC-N Years ago, I retired from my career as a public servant and I went back to my parental home with my son. I was a single mother and people were horrified that I was leaving a reliable career. But I returned to Swan Hill to learn about plants and fibres that are used for weaving objects in traditional Aboriginal society. For five years, I basically went out every day of the week with my retired dad to rediscover my childhood environments and to look at plant materials to use in a weave. It was not my idea to reinvent the wheel: we already have magical weavers who make magical stuff. How could mine stand out? When we were kids, my dad used to take us to an old dump to find materials to fix things. He told me that my work would stand out if I introduced discarded materials into it. One day, he got a long piece of rusted corrugated iron, a material he was very familiar with and fond of, and he said, ‘why don’t you make something out of that?’. I took it home to please him and knocked it around with a rusty axe head and realized I had made the shape of a bowl. I asked my mum what she reckoned it could be, and she answered ‘a coolamon [a shallow vessel] of course’. I was pretty excited and I decided to be a sculptor.
CA What is your work process?
LC-N The scouting begins when I get a commission for an exhibition. We Aboriginal people only take what we need when we need it. I do a lot of traveling to spot something and it can take up a lot of time. On one occasion, it took me two years to find the owners of a farm to take two rolls of wire. It is not easy, but well, it is about earning what you get. Before I had a driving licence I had to rely on other people. It is still hard to know how much I need, so I tend to get a bit too much. But the beauty of that is that I always work from leftovers and if I don’t use a material, I take it back. Also, in the sculpting process, I try to not alter the material too much.
CA There is a sense of balance in your work, in terms of heritage and materials.
LC-N Yes, absolutely. I want to be fair to my parents, no matter what their heritage. And I try to balance the wire and the mesh, the tin and steel. Talking about colonization, I love how some writers respond to me picking up rubbish in a humorous manner by saying it’s a way to clean up Australia. But more seriously, for me it’s about taking back country that was taken from my people. My work deals with the racism that was put on our lives and goes on. We have been harassed and chased. Our life has been about injustice, about not being treated equally. It is about the colonization of Australia, about where are we now.
CA Your use of discarded industrial materials is very symbolic: you create beauty by acknowledging a history that has been neglected
LC-N Yes, totally, it’s about bringing back the form an object used to be and to continue that historical power. While the bags are beautiful objects, when you learn what they are about, they make you angry. I look at my bags as vessels, or holders of knowledge. When you walk into the exhibition, I wanted to show that there are many bags and that the weight of them contains knowledge. And I want to question what we’re doing with that knowledge in Aboriginal and non-aboriginal Australia, what is happening to it? How we are doing with knowledge sharing? We should be utilizing that knowledge. It is a sad loss that we haven’t handed it down.
CA It hurts.
LC-N Yes, and the bags are purposely designed to continue to cause pain. Any edge in those bags will bite and it’s the roughness, the unevenness, that bites you. And by doing so, it reminds you that we have been hurt and hurt, over and over, and you will too, and this bite will piss you off. I designed the bags to keep biting because things haven’t been sorted in Australia. We are not settled, and there is a long way to go for Aboriginal Australia.
Lorraine Connelly-Northey is an artist who lives and works in Waradgerie (Wiradjuri) Country, Australia. Her solo exhibition ‘Narrbong-galang’ was at Roslyn Oxley9, Sydney, Australia, earlier this year.
Main image: Lorraine Connelly-Northey, exhibition view, 2019. Courtesy: Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney