Reclaim the Void seeks to install a major artwork on mining-affected country with rag rugs made into dot artwork. Image credit: Nic Duncan
The vast desert of Western Australia is pockmarked with holes from mine shafts that are no longer in use. One local project is working to change that equation.
Mining has been a part of the Australian landscape for centuries. But it is a finite practice, and once a site has been depleted of its resources, it must be rehabilitated.
But before stringent regulations for an out-of-use site were in place, it was not uncommon for these sites to be left the way they were mined, with large holes scarring the natural landscape.
This is an especially prevalent situation in Western Australia, where large swathes of desert prove to be a calling-card for those looking for resources.
When Vivienne Robertson travelled through Leonora, a town in the Goldfields-Esperance region of WA, in 2013, she saw first-hand the amount of mining holes that had been left in the land.
“While in Leonora, I asked the question (of Indigenous communities), ‘what is your deepest pain?’”, Robertson told Australian Mining.
“And one of the aunties said that it was all of the gaping mining holes left all over our country. The whole room just went silent and into this real gravitas of sobriety. You could just feel everyone nodding and agreeing.”
In that moment, Robertson knew she wanted to help alleviate some of that pain.
“Suddenly I just saw this vision of covering one of the holes with an artwork that tells the story of country,” she said.
And, in that moment, Reclaim the Void was born.
One of the people in the room when Robertson came up with her idea was Kado Muir, Ngalia Custodian and co-founder of the Ngalia Heritage Research Council (Aboriginal Corporation) (NHRC).
Muir has worked with his Elders through the NHRC in Aboriginal heritage, language preservation and traditional ecological knowledge, and has since transitioned into an Aboriginal cultural and community leader.
It was Muir who came up with the material that would create the artwork for the project – using hand-woven rag rugs sewn together.
“Kado and I were co-leading a retreat on country when an attendee quite innocently pulled out a rag rug from her bag and Kado nudged me and he said, ‘that’s it, that’s what we’ll use’,” Robertson said.
“We decided to use rugs as the dots and to make the artwork a huge dot painting made out of rugs. And that’s when it really took off.”
For Muir, Reclaim the Void is a way to draw attention to the impact of abandoned mining holes.
“It is a way to reclaim it in a way that speaks to the heart and the spirit,” he said. “The rugs take time to weave. Time is one of those things that we have so little of, yet we waste indiscriminately, and here’s an opportunity to invest time in such a way that we build connections within ourselves and also with others.
“As each rug is being woven, we’re weaving together a community of people. And in some way that then goes back to not only healing of the land but also of people – both First Nations and settler society people – who can jointly participate in a process of healing land through art and sharing that as a common experience.”
In an effort to get as many people as possible involved, Reclaim the Void runs different initiatives throughout the year, including rug-making camps, rug hubs and pop-up exhibitions at institutions such as the WA Museum.
A rug hub is a space where people regularly come together to talk and weave rugs for country.
These spaces open up a wealth of conversation, which Robertson described as an integral part of the project.
“It’s a space where stories emerge, some of which have never been told before,” Robertson said. “It’s a safe space.
“It’s one of the beautiful things about when people get together and do something that’s rhythmic and relaxing, it gets you out of your mind and you become more connected.
“That atmosphere allows for conversations that are harder, and lets people express things that they may not express in other situations.”
The concept image for the project was born from Muir’s late mother’s paintings. A Ngalia elder, Dolly Walker was a renowned Aboriginal artist whose dot paintings sell for upwards of $7000 apiece.
“(Kado and I) looked through his mother’s paintings and, with his permission, I had a square painting digitally turned into a circle and placed on a picture of a mine hole on the land,” Robertson said. “It was a way for our vision to come to life.”
With the concept image as an inspiration, participants are asked to weave their rugs using sheets of one colour so that, when all the rugs are placed together, it will create a dot artwork similar to Walker’s. The final artwork used will be guided by Kado in relation to the site chosen.
“Sheets are the most practical material to use, because you can make them into such big, long strips,” Robertson said. “But there are stories in that, too.
“One woman brought sheets that her mother had died in to weave a rug with, and that was such a precious gift because it was like she was giving her mother back to country.”
The other reason for using sheets is because they are so prevalent in landfill; Australians dump over 500,000 tonnes of fabric and clothing each year.
Recycling the sheets is another way for people to give back to country and ensure they don’t end up dumped.
Robertson isn’t sure how many rugs will be needed to create the artwork, but estimates it could be 3000 – 5000.
“We’ve just hit the 1000 mark for rugs made,” she said. “So it’s really amazing to see how many people we’ve touched with this project.
“What we’re offering them is a way to give back in a modest way. And it won’t come together through just one person making one rug – we’re giving thousands of people the opportunity to connect with country and give back.”
While there is no official site picked for the installation, Robertson and Muir are currently in talks with a number of mining companies in the state.
“One of the main questions that has been raised is if the installation will be permanent,” Robertson said. “But we’re leaning more toward a temporary installation that will come down in three to five years.
“The decision to take it down will be based on cultural, artistic and environmental grounds – the latter determined by our environmental advisor, Professor Kingsley Dixon.”
During the time the artwork is installed, Robertson hopes to document the natural fading and degradation of the rugs.
“All I know is that it is my responsibility to usher this project through to its completion to the best of my ability, and that completion is not necessarily in my hands,” she said.
For Robertson and Muir, the project is less about the finished piece and more about the journey.
“There are so many multiple layers and levels that we’re bringing in: clothing, sitting on country together, building a community of people who are weaving their stories, investing their time into contributing to an artwork that aims to make a statement about reclaiming the spirit of earth, the spirit of community,” Muir said.
“As each rug is being woven, we’re weaving together a community of people.
“And in some way that then goes back to not only healing of the land but also of people, both First Nations and settler society people, who can jointly participate in a process of healing land through art and sharing that as a common experience.”
For more information, or to get involved, visit the Reclaim the Void website.
This feature appeared in the April 2023 issue of Australian Mining.
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