Maar Nation Gallery at the Warrnambool Art Gallery has received state-wide recognition for its commitment to promoting and acknowledging First Nations history and culture.
The 2021 Australian Museums and Galleries Association Victorian Awards named the WAG Maar Nation Gallery and Aboriginal-led Legacy Initiative as the winner of its Archival Survival Award for Small Museums and Galleries earlier this week.
Keerray Woorroong artist Sherry Johnstone was appointed to the Gallery’s Cultural Engagement Curator Position in late 2019 and has been working under the guidance of a committee of seven Elders and Cultural Leaders.
Aunty Bronwyn Razem, Uncle Rob Lowe Snr, Aunty Vicki Couzens, Uncle Locky Eccles, Aunty Christina Saunders, Alice Ugle and Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation’s John Clarke sit on the committee.
Ms Johnstone said Maar Nation Gallery was providing First Nations people of South West Victoria with a central place for the interpretation of history and culture through exhibition.
“Once I started my role, I realised my goal was to create a comfortable and safe space for First Nations people to walk through the door – a space they could connect, be proud of, be comfortable and be respected,” she said.
She said education, passing on knowledge, sharing stories and showing contemporary culture to many young people and the greater community were key aspects of the gallery.
“It has really become about creating a better understanding and awareness of Maar Nation people and our culture,” she said.
“It was honouring our ancestors and keeping their stories alive through this space and really opening up people’s minds about how they perceive Aboriginal art.
“It’s so beautiful in my role to be able to go to our collection and see the incredibly artefacts made from our ancestors. A lot of our ancestors didn’t get to tell their stories because their lives were cut short.”
Her role was to develop a program of Aboriginal-led activities, exhibitions and outreach programs to help understand, preserve and share the Maar Nation culture, and strengthen identity, cultural tourism and employment for local Aboriginal youth.
Steering Committee Member and Peek Whurrong elder Uncle Rob Lowe Snr said the award was a significant achievement for First Nations people who worked hard to invigorate the gallery space.
“For us to be acknowledged for a little side room in the Warrnambool Art Gallery – I don’t know if I can put words to it,” he said.
“The art gallery has really opened a lot of people’s eyes with what they have done to acknowledge Indigenous people.”
Uncle Rob highlighted Traditional Owners’ representation in the gallery significantly improved since the formation of the steering committee and the dedicated gallery space.
He said when he was growing up in the Warrnambool area, First Nations people were denied access to viewing or learning about artefacts from their ancestors.
“We were denied a lot of artefacts you see in the gallery now because it was locked away and we were told they didn’t exist – our history, culture and artefacts weren’t acknowledged,” he said.
“Now we feel comfortable going to the art gallery with Maar Nation gallery. Our history has been reborn, and people are proud to go and see it.
“They can see the true history of our people that have lived here for more than 60,000 years.”
The Warrnambool Art Gallery (the WAG) is planning its long-term future. The Business Plan for the development of a new WAG will explore a co-designed and dedicated Maar Nation Gallery that will dramatically strengthen the region’s capability to celebrate Aboriginal culture & heritage in the South West – from ancient times to now.
For further information, please contact Dylan De Jong at: email@example.com
Image: Possum Stole by Tarryn Love, part of the Warrnambool Art Gallery Collection. Pictured left to right: Asha Roche, Mel Steffensen, Charmaine Clarke, Laura Thompson and Clothing the Gaps assistant, Sherry Johnstone, Cody Chatfield.