Did you know that today is an official public holiday in Australia? It commemorates the day the British flag was first hoisted in the country. On January 26th, 1778 British Admiral Arthur Philip sailed into Sydney Cove with a fleet of ships filled mostly with convicts and planted the Union Jack.
An interactive exhibit created by artists Fiona Foley and Janet Laurence outside the Sydney Museum helps people imagine what that moment was like for both the newly arrived colonizers and the Indigenous people who watched them land.
Edge of the Trees has twenty-nine huge pillars made of wood, steel and sandstone. They represent the twenty-nine original Indigenous clans in the Sydney area and create a kind of forest just outside the Sydney Museum.
The name of the artwork Edge of the Trees comes from a historical essay by Rhys Jones describing the moment the newly landed folks from England came ashore. ” the ‘discoverers’ struggling through the surf were met on the beaches by other people looking at them from the edge of the trees. Thus the same landscape perceived by the newcomers as alien, hostile, or having no coherent form, was to the indigenous people their home, a familiar place, the inspiration of dreams.……”
Organic materials like ashes, bones, hair, shells and feathers are installed in some of the wooden pillars in Edge of the Trees and can be observed through windows. They remind viewers of a prior way of life for Indigenous people.
One pillar features the signatures of First Fleeters, the people who arrived on the original fleet of eleven ships that came to Australia. Most of them were prisoners convicted of petty crimes and sent to penal colonies that were established in Australia.
When we visited we were encouraged to walk among the pillars so we could hear Indigenous voices reciting the names of ancient communities in the Sydney region and run our fingers over the engraved names.
Janet Laurence one of the artists who created Edge of the Trees says it provides a glimpse of a moment when two cultures and communities looked at each other for the first time.
Would they eventually be able to weave a positive future together?