Facing up to the consequences of our actions is not an easy thing to do, but it’s especially challenging when we only understand half the story. Artist-curator Emily McDaniel is asking us to confront the impact of European settlement on the environment and on history in an ambitious, amphibious new project at Barangaroo this summer.
The name 'Four Thousand Fish' comes from a 1790 diary entry written by the founding lieutenant-governor, David Collins, who describes a haul of 4,000 ‘salmon’ from Sydney Harbour – a moment in history that simultaneously disrupted the ecosystem, created unnecessary waste and undermined the role of the Eora women who’d maintained fishing in these waters for thousands of years.
“When the British invaded and colonised this place I believe they viewed it through their patriarchal lenses,” says McDaniel, a Wiradjuri woman from Liverpool. “In that moment they failed to recognise the resilience and strength of Aboriginal women in Sydney. They failed to recognise the important role Eora woman had to this place, as the providers for family.”
The 29-year-old artist tells us that every day women would go out on Warrane (Sydney Harbour) in their nawi – bark canoes with a clay pit fire in the middle. “They might have two kids; breastfeeding one, fishing with the other, on that insanely choppy harbour we know so well.”
To retell the lost stories of Barangaroo and the fisherwomen, McDaniel has worked with a team of artists to create a floating pontoon, a steel nawi and hundreds of East Australian salmon moulds for a world premiere art installation, open every weekend in January.
“Every day, we’ll return the 4,000 fish back to the ocean that never should have been taken in the first place,” says McDaniel.
Visitors will fill a bucket with saltwater from Nawi Cove, slosh that bucket over to the Cutaway, where they’ll hear the voice of Gadigal woman Lille Madden singing in Sydney language. They’ll use the water to fill fish moulds, which will be transported to industrial-sized fridges to slowly freeze overnight. They’ll pick up a frozen fish from the previous day’s haul, walk it back to the canoe, and watch as the icy sculptures melt back into the ocean.
“I really wanted to expose the audience to the elements here,” she says. Bidjigal artist Steven Russell designed the steel nawi, and Phyllis Stewart, who has connections to the Dharwal and Yuin communities, created the symbolic coolamon and banksia (a traditional tinder for the fire). Every day at 7pm there’ll be a flame that grows and grows, lining up with the sunset. “It’s an incredible moment in this spot. We’re completely exposed to the western sun. It’s dazzling, moving, and I think it locates us. It remind us where we are.”
McDaniel also worked with artist and Yuwaalaraay woman Lucy Simpson to create the fish moulds, reimagined as East Australian salmon – using the notes from lieutenant David Collins. “He refers to these fish as ‘salmon’. It’s quite possible that that was just a throwaway word, a fish that he knew, that he projected. As we got further into the project I started to feel that it didn’t really matter what that fish was – it was a metaphor for so many things.”
If there’s one message she hopes people take home from participating in the work, it is to know Cammeraygal woman Barangaroo as “an incredible woman” first, a place name second.
“She was recorded as this tempestuous, unruly woman and her actions were seen to be over-exaggerated and quite violent. But smallpox had just ripped through that community, taking away so many of the senior Eora members. She was quite likely to have been one of the eldest in the community. She’d seen her world changing, and she’d stood up for what she believed in. I think she was an environmentalist, not an unruly woman. Never just an unruly woman.”
Four Thousand Fish takes place every weekend during January. 4-9pm. Free.