Once upon a time, there was Bennelong Point, where they put an Opera House to make Sydney famous around the world. Indeed, the world has responded by making the building (not the Point) a World Heritage site.
Somewhat later, the comparable Point at the end of the Hungry Mile, which joins Darling Harbour to the Parramatta River, needed a name. Bennelong’s wife was, belatedly, the obvious choice, though few knew much about Barangaroo. Fortunately, Grace Karskens, Professor of History and Philosophy at UNSW, has written about Barangaroo and the Eora fisherwomen. And she was able to justify her importance as a hunter and provider of food for the Cammeraygal clan men with fish caught in and around the harbour, caught from a simple black wooden canoe known as a Nawi.
Unlike the settlers, Barangaroo would only ever catch enough fish for her people’s immediate needs. So when she witnessed a trawl of some 4,000 salmon – more fish than the settlers or the local clan could possibly eat – she was outraged. This fiercely independent woman could probably see the end of her traditional way of life.
Barangaroo also refused to wear European clothes or drink their wine and was one of only a few women who had a pierced septum (pace Emily Kngwarreye). When she visited the colonialists with Bennelong she was ‘dressed up’ with a bone through her nose, painted with white clay – a proud statement of her spirituality and culture.
In 1791, Barangaroo, in her 40s, died shortly after giving birth to Bennelong’s child. After a traditional cremation ceremony with her fishing gear, Bennelong spread his wife’s ashes in Governor Phillip’s garden, the present day Circular Quay.
However, it’s at Barangaroo itself, along the sea-shore Wulugul Walk, where you’ll find photographer Brenda Croft’s tribute to the Cammeraygal lady. It’s called ‘Naabami (thou shall/will see): Barnagaroo (army of me)’, and consists of 60 contemporary images of Aboriginal women spread across 8 sites along the Walk, from Dickson Road to Packer’s Pecker.
“Barangaroo is the starting point and each of the women and girls that are photographed are representations of Barangaroo, but not literally,” Croft told the Sydney Morning Herald. “I like to think that two centuries after she lived and died, they stand as her sovereign avatars and soldiers carrying on her spirit.”
The portraits were made using a 19th-century process of wet plate collodion, digitally scanned and then printed on metal. They’re sited surrounded by sandstone remnants that came from Sydney’s colonial buildings, with the assistance of sponsors Lend Lease.
Croft photographed some famous characters such as Canberra’s community leader Matilda House, curator Hetti Perkins, visual artist Leanne Tobin, musician Marlene Cummins, Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Council’s Ann Weldon and La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council’s Noeleen Timbrey. But there are plenty of feisty, unknown characters as well, including the child (pictured above, with Darling Harbour reflected in her image) who will certainly have been selected with the political imperative of proving that Barangaroo’s inheritors don’t have to be full-blood to stand as “her sovereign avatars and soldiers carrying on her spirit”.
“Barangaroo is always pushing back”, Croft continued in the SMH. “I’m not going to put a feminist lens on that time, but she stands her ground, she knows her Country. She is at the interface of irreversible change. She can’t stop it, but she is doing everything she can to make her presence felt and, for me, it was about honouring this person”.
The printing on metal has a disadvantage in full sunlight that the black-on-black images lack some clarity. Perhaps the solar-panel charged lights will improve the situation at night? Or there’s always a much grander version of this series, which is being projected on to the walls of Old Government House in Parramatta as part of the Dharug women’s celebrations there over the weekend 19th to 22nd January from 8pm. Both are part of the Sydney Festival.