IIn early 2020, academic, artist and artistic director Brook Andrew traveled to the small town of Collarenebri in northwest New South Wales to show the local community of Kamilaroi shocking images that he had found and that he wanted to present as part of the 2020 Sydney Biennale.
Shot in 1949, it showed wealthy Adelaide collector and businessman Harry Balfour supervising a team of woodworkers as they fell dozens of trees.
The trees, some of which could be as old as 800 years old, were covered with detailed carvings and sacred to the Kamilaroi First Nations people. Using circular saws to separate the large carved sections of the trunks, they were loaded onto trucks, transported by rail, and stacked on ships for distribution around the world.
The carved trees of Banarway Bora had played a central role in Aboriginal knowledge systems for centuries, but only a handful remained in the land of Collarenebri, 75 km northeast of Walgett. More than 50 had been removed in the 1940s and are now housed in public museums and private collections around the world.
Most of the city’s 650 residents gathered to view the footage.
âPeople were crying, others were shocked. Only a few people knew of the existence of these trees, âAndrew recalls. âThere were a lot of people who were quite upset. “
Now, in an effort to bring the trees home, students at Collarenebri Central School have become global advocates, presenting a short but moving documentary titled Gaaguuwiya Dhawunga (Bringing Home), which was screened for the first time at an international conference at the MusÃ©e d’ethnographie de GenÃ¨ve late last month and has since been posted on YouTube.
Rather paradoxically, two of the sculpted trees have been traced back to the collection of the Geneva museum.
Another tree was located at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, while the Melbourne Museum was already known to have two. The community wants them back.
Andrew, a descendant of the Wiradjuri people of central New South Wales, discovered the 1949 images in 2019 while conducting research with Brian Martin, another scholar at Monash University, on artifacts made in from trees in south-eastern Australia.
The project has so far uncovered tens of thousands of artefacts spread across more than 200 Australian and foreign museums, with over 30,000 artefacts found in UK institutions alone.
“There is still a lot of healing to be done”
Kamilaroi elder Ros McGregor has brought First Nations cultural knowledge to Collarenebri students over the past 15 years, including knowledge of the Banarway Bora trees that are still in the country.
Four years ago, McGregor and Sydney artists Sam Newstead and Liz O’Reilly supervised the students in creating a mural celebrating the trees that was painted outside the community hall in the ‘school. McGregor explains that returning trees is vital for healing and teaching the local Kamilaroi culture.
âSculpted trees have a spirit that is past, present and future,â she says. âFeedback from others will allow us to connect to our own knowledge system and continue to learn from the very first Bora.
âWe will never be able to go back to the time and way of life we ââhad when the trees were carved, but the images and patterns on the trees speak directly to us as the Kamilaroi people. “
McGregor says the brutality of the footage Andrew showed was deeply disturbing.
âThe size of that sawâ¦ what they were doing to our living trees that our people took so long to create. There is still a lot of healing to be done. “
The Kamilaroi people and Monash University are currently in advanced negotiations with Museums Victoria for the repatriation of the trees.
A spokesperson for the museum said in a statement: âMuseums Victoria’s strategy for First Peoples is committed to bringing collections to the country, giving self-determination for the material in our custody to First Peoples and to establish ethical and reciprocal partnerships between Museums Victoria and the communities.
“The Victoria Museums are committed to repatriating the carved trees to the traditional owners and to working with the community where these trees come from.”
Brian Martin, who is a descendant of the Muruwari, Bundjalung and Kamilaroi peoples of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland and the associate dean of Monash University Art Design & Architecture, Indigenous, says the tone of the negotiations between the museum and the people of Collarenebri was what decolonized was everything.
âIt’s about this idea that taking them was a violent act, but we don’t react in a violent way by simply demanding their return,â he says.
âOf course it is very important to get them back. But we also want to do it through a healing process, and to do it in a way that is beneficial for us, but also beneficial for the institution. “