Megan Cope Discusses Art’s Role in Restoration and Rebirth

Kinyingarra Guwinyanba was created with funding support from Create NSW and the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

Create NSW caught up with Megan Cope to learn more about her practice, how the work has been received and its long-lasting impact.

Your work, Kinyingarra Guwinyanba marries sculpture, Aboriginal aquacultural knowledge and conservation in such a harmonious way – and has inspired people around the world. Its installation on Quandamooka Sea Country is also a point of fascination, situated for an audience living beneath the waves and mangroves. Tell us where the inspiration for the work came from?

My fascination with oyster reefs has been life-long, and culminated in dedicated research starting eight years ago when I began investigating the impact of the early colonial lime burning industry and devastation of both Aboriginal middens and oyster reefs in Quandamooka Sea Country. I also learned a lot from an uncle, an oyster farmer, who brought me to his oyster lease and shared stories of struggle with stressed wild reefs trying to establish themselves. My journey led me to understand the profound importance of oyster reefs, how they form, what conditions they need to thrive and the role they play in balancing the oceans’ ecoystems.

Oyster reefs are ancient underwater cities, built over centuries. The middens (mounds of discarded oyster shells) along the Quandamooka coastline were once enormous architectural-like forms in the landscape, large enough to be significant wayfinding markers for navigation.

British colonisation of the area in the early 1800s sadly saw the destruction of these ancient formations to fuel the demand for colonial buildings. Ancestral shell middens were seen as an easy, ready source of lime, which was burned to make mortar. It took the lime burning industry just seven years to strip these ancient middens from the coastline and empty the waters of oyster reefs, erasing centuries of archaeological, cultural and ecological heritage. While on land, trees were cleared to provide wood to fuel the cement kilns.

After the large Morton Bay Oyster Company left, many aboriginal families took up small leases. But oyster production was a struggle, largely due to mass outbreaks of mud worm pests and disease. The oysters that once thrived in the area and were a rich source of nourishment for countless generations, had no resilience in the stressed-out ecosystem without the protective middens.

I asked myself “could art play a role in addressing this?”

Megan Cope portrait by Zan Wimberley

My first sculptural series, Re Formation Part I and Part II sought to pay homage to these lost natural sculptural forms. Thousands of hand-cast shells were arranged in a bed of ilmenite, mimicking the mounds of discarded organic matter that accumulated in Aboriginal communities. In Part II, beer cans replaced oyster shells to form the middens.

Yet, this series was confined to a gallery presentation space, which contributed to the profound sense of loss and pain. I wanted to create something more hopeful with a tangible impact for Quandamooka Sea Country. An artwork made for Country. I was drawn to the concept of creating a living, breathing work that could become part of saltwater Country.

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