Charcoal exhibition united through art-making

Charcoal symbolises renewal, and a new exhibition explores the medium for Reconciliation Week.
Hands of First Nations person holding charcoal against background of tree. Yarrabah

Charcoal is a material that is both everyday and utilitarian, and yet it symbolically embodies notions of renewal and a cultural life cycle for many First Nations people.

Simone Arnol, Manager of the Yarrabah Arts and Cultural Precinct, tells ArtsHub, ‘Charcoal is truly a cornerstone of our identity.’

Yarrabah/Gunggandji Country is a coastal region 51 kilometres south-west of Cairns. It became an Anglican Mission in 1893, with many people from the surrounding homelands settling in Yarrabah. Today it is home to around 2500 people.

Arnol continues, ‘Charcoal is such a versatile source and it’s also about regrowth as well, and I think that really plays an important part in how everything is happening and around Australia at the moment.’

Charcoal is the theme of a new exhibition curated by Peggy Kasabad Lane, and presented at Court House Gallery in Cairns. It will open during Reconciliation Week.

Why charcoal?

sculpture of a shell, photographed in bush setting. Salome Yeatman.
Salome Yeatman, ‘Wirral Shell’, in ‘Charcoal’ an exhibition by Yarrabah Arts and Cultural Precinct at Court House Gallery, Cairns. Photo: Supplied.

Arnol says the aim of the exhibition was to shine a light on the ways that charcoal has shaped and enriched culture. ‘From burning and caring for Country to cooking traditional foods, promoting health, dental hygiene, dancing and creating stunning works of art – each artwork tells a story of resilience, connection and survival.’

That sense of continuing tradition is a key part of the exhibition – looking both forward and to past traditions.

One of the artists, Aunty Philomena Yeatman, honours the old people who survived ‘that dark history of the Stolen Generation’.

‘In the olden days, when they used to grab our children, the Ancestors [would] rub charcoal on them fair skin kids to make them darker, so they’re not taken,’ she explains.

Aunty Philomena has created breastplates from charcoal for the exhibition, which ‘will be a bang in your face,’ says Arnol. Accompanying the breastplates will be photographic works by Arnol and paintings by Elverina Johnson.

‘For me it is a very sad story, and it brings back memories we don’t talk about,’ adds Aunty Philomena, noting that the timing for Reconciliation Week reminds us to remember.

‘Making our artwork, our stories come to life, and more important is that transfer of knowledge – having the kids come and be part of it,’ Arnol adds. ‘For me, charcoal does that – from the Gunggandji-Mandingalbay Yidinji Rangers burning on Country and the role that charcoal plays in regrowth, to the Gurriny Yealamucka Women’s Group showcasing charcoal for cleaning teeth, and the Buri Guman Irribamu Dance Group (One Fire from Yarrabah), who have worked with the schoolchildren from Yarrabah Secondary School, led by Nathan Schrieber, on a collaborative piece dancing around the fire – charcoal. [These all] bring everyone together,’ explains Arnol.

Collaborative exhibition making

For anyone visiting Yarrabah Arts and Culture Precinct, on any day it will be abuzz with activity from the printmaking press to the pottery wheel and the chatter of a weaving circle. It is an enlivened and engaged artist community.

‘A lot of older people across the Country – from the Stolen Generation – now call Yarrabah home, and it is a hub where they can make it a second home and continue their stories here, and they can become one,’ Arnol tells ArtsHub.

‘Together, we are weaving a vibrant tapestry of culture and creativity,’ says Arnol, adding that the aim of the exhibition was ‘to strengthen and build on partnerships with different organisations’.

A great example is the work of the Gunggandji Mandingabay-Yidinji Rangers, who have collected materials from a burn on Country to present in the gallery alongside traditional fire sticks crafted by artist Garth Murgha.

Similarly, working across generations are master potter Uncle Chris Harris and Aunty Michelle Yeatman, whose signature ceramic works both explore the use of charcoal for cooking.

‘Uncle Chris has been working on the wheel for 50 years, so we are very lucky he has joined Yarrabah and is included in this exhibition,’ says Arnol. He will present his signature wheel-thrown cups and bowls, perfectly formed from years of skills, while Aunty Michelle’s hand-built ceramic balls will emulate fire.

Emerging artist Salome Yeatman similarly picks up the importance of fire and charcoal for cooking in her sculpture of the Wirral Shell, a scallop collected from the mudflats that is a beautiful expression of smoke and life cycles.

The exhibition will launch with a celebration on Saturday 25 May at 11am, with a performance by Uncle David Mundraby’s Dabul Dancers and the Buri Guman Irribamu (One Fire) dancers.

Charcoal: Embracing Tradition, Celebrating Resilience is on show at Court House Gallery, Cairns from 25 May through to 13 July.

Artists: Philomena Yeatman, Michelle Yeatman, Christopher Harris, Elverina Johnson, Simone Arnol, Garth Murgha, Salome Yeatman, Gunggandji-Mandingalbay Yidinji Rangers, Gurriny Yealamucka Women’s Group, and Buri Guman Irribamu Dance Group (One Fire from Yarrabah).

The exhibition has been supported by Arts Queensland and Cairns Regional Council. To learn more about Yarrabah Arts and Cultural Precinct

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina