Property Australia

Songlines and storytelling

PROPERTY AUSTRALIA November 24, 2020

First Australians tell the stories of place and people through artwork. How can we honour those stories in our building projects and use artwork as a bridge to reconciliation? SMEC shares some tips.

“Artwork provides a visible and tangible connection between SMEC and the land on which we operate.”

Trevor Sullivan, Group Director of Infrastructure, SMEC

With origins that stretch back to 1949 and the start of the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme, SMEC commemorated its 70th anniversary last year.

To celebrate the occasion, SMEC commissioned a piece from Wiradjuri artist Narelle Urquhart. The painting, which now hangs in SMEC’s Brisbane office foyer, “is not just a piece of artwork, it’s a piece of storytelling,” explains SMEC’s group director of infrastructure, Trevor Sullivan.

“Narelle talks about our 70-year history through songlines and care for country. She shares the triumphs of the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme and relates it back to the human.”

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, artwork isn’t simply a painting to hang on a wall. Art tells the story of connection to land and country, sharing knowledge that has been passed on for generations.

“Art gives us a voice and brings recognition to First Nations people in every landscape,” Urquhart explains.

Procuring First Nations’ artwork may appear a bridge to reconciliation, but it demands sensitivity, transparency and “genuine commitment,” Sullivan adds.

“When you look at Australia, everything is blanketed and built on traditional lands – to recognise First Nations people is a respect, an honour and essentially a blessing of place.”

Narelle Urquhart, artist

Urquhart’s painting recognises SMEC’s history through songlines – the archive of powerful knowledge encoded through song, story, dance, art and ceremony – that stretch back 60,000 years.

Deconstructing the painting demonstrates the depth of storytelling captured within the canvas. Each panel illustrates parts of SMEC’s story. Twenty-five stars remind us of a visionary project that took a quarter of a century to complete. Depictions of fire, wind and rain convey the harsh conditions endured by the 100,000-plus workers. The artwork honours immigrants from more than 30 countries who arrived “bearing good fruit by bringing their knowledge,” Urquhart explains, while the travelling tracks represent First Nations’ “care of the land”.

Urquhart describes the painting as an “inclusive story of cross-cultural knowing”. The artist’s story becomes part of the viewer’s story and “their story is a part of our story”.


How do you make sure your art is the real deal?

The Arts Law Centre of Australia, which is behind the ‘Fake art harms culture’ campaign, estimates that around 80 per cent of the art and products sold in Australian shops is inauthentic.

Buying ethically and authentically protects Indigenous artists and communities and pays respects to the world’s oldest living culture. The Indigenous Art Code was established to ensure artists are paid fairly and that purchasers can have confidence in authenticity and ethical practices.

SMEC has commissioned artwork for other offices and ordered lanyards, designed by a Tiwi artist from the Munupi Arts Centre, to commemorate National Reconciliation Week in 2018. Supply Nation helped SMEC source an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-owned company to create 70-year anniversary polos in 2019. Most recently, SMEC’s Newcastle office engaged Indigenous clothing company Bundarra to design the office’s COVID-19 masks, with the proceeds used to support Indigenous employment and training.

Sullivan, who chairs SMEC’s RAP committee, says “artwork is a visible and tangible way that people can engage with and relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture”.

“We are focused on establishing relationships that are not supplementary or extra, but integral to the way we go about our business,” Sullivan adds. “Our partnerships need to be transparent and genuine, with the intent embedded in the values of our company to ensure sustainability and longevity.”

Urquhart has a simple message for Australia’s property industry: “Our future has to be walked out together.” Understanding local people and their traditional stories “lays a good foundation” for future development. “When you look at Australia, everything is blanketed and built on traditional lands – to recognise First Nations people is a respect, an honour and essentially a blessing of place.”