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The Bara sculpture in Sydney, Australia, which looks out at the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge, celebrates the country’s Aboriginal history. Photo: Joseph Mayers

Australia’s Aboriginal history celebrated in stunning new Sydney monument overlooking the opera house

  • Called Bara, the 6m-tall public art project is a mark of respect for the Gadigal clan of the Eora Nation, the traditional owners of Sydney
  • Creator Judy Watson hopes it will act as a modern version of the ancient gathering places alongside the harbour where Gadigal people sat to eat and socialise

Although the iconic Sydney Opera House now dominates Bennelong Point, a new monument highlights the ingenuity of the Aboriginal Australians who lived on this land for thousands of years before it was appropriated by the British.

Placed on a prestigious spot on Sydney Cove overlooking the opera house and Sydney Harbour Bridge, the city’s freshest attraction is a stunning, six-metre-tall, crescent-shaped hook: a sculpture that celebrates the ancient fishing skills of Aboriginal Australians, one of the world’s oldest civilisations.

The harbourside location attracts droves of tourists yet many of the Aboriginal stories that unfolded here are unknown to most visitors, foreign or local. This monument, which was unveiled on May 28, aims to change that.

Called Bara, the Aboriginal name for the shell fishing hook, the monument is a mark of respect for the Gadigal clan of the Eora Nation, the traditional owners of Sydney.

People visit the Bara sculpture at its unveiling on May 28. Photo: Joseph Mayers

The Eora Nation embraces the city’s 29 Aboriginal clan groups. Before the British brutally colonised Australia in the late 1700s, the Gadigal owned the territory that stretches from the southern coastal edge of Sydney Harbour inland to the suburb now called Petersham. These days this swathe of land is home to Sydney’s downtown area and many of its key attractions, including the opera house, harbour bridge, Art Gallery of New South Wales and Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.

Also here is the Australian Museum, which recently underwent a A$57.5 million (US$40.4 million) renovation and is a fine place for tourists to learn about the city’s Aboriginal heritage. Established nearly 200 years ago, the museum possesses a huge collection of Aboriginal artefacts from Sydney, including fishing lines, spears and hooks, such as the bara.

The Australian Museum in Sydney. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

Typically created from sturdy Turban shells, bara had a pearly sheen that helped lure fish. For thousands of years these hooks were crafted by Eora women, who cut the shells and then filed and ground them down.

The creator of the Bara artwork, Aboriginal artist Judy Watson, says that by using these hooks and kurrajong lines to fish from bark canoes, called nowie, the Eora women were the chief providers for their communities.

“The women of the Eora nation fed the colony as well as their families. My work aims to redress the erasure of memory of the past and put these fisherwomen and their stories at the forefront of this place: Warrane,” says Watson, referring to the Aboriginal name for Sydney Cove.

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She also hopes her monument will act as a modern version of the ancient gathering places alongside the harbour where Gadigal people would sit to eat and socialise.

The artwork stands on land named after an extraordinary Aboriginal man, Woollarawarre Bennelong, who represents one of Sydney’s many underappreciated strands of indigenous history.

Bennelong was Australia’s first diplomat and in the fledgling days of colonial Australia, this brave warrior built bridges between the Aboriginals and the British.

An information board about Woollarawarre Bennelong at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

After being abducted by the British in the late 1700s, Bennelong learned to speak English. He travelled to Europe to build relationships with the colonisers, and forged truces that saved many lives.

Despite his valuable efforts, Bennelong ended his life in limbo. He was never fully accepted by the British and was viewed as a turncoat by some of his own people. His is a story that highlights the way Aboriginal Australians have long had to straddle two conflicting spheres: their own culture and modern Australian society, which was constructed to suit Europeans.

Australia pays insufficient respect to its Aboriginal heritage. Bennelong’s Sydney grave, for example, was unmarked for about 200 years. But tourists to Sydney can now follow his trail across this city by visiting Bara, the Australian Museum and the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, which has a series of information boards about Bennelong and the Gadigal people.

A monument in Sydney dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service men and women. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

Bara is the fourth Aboriginal public artwork unveiled in recent years as part of a project by City of Sydney, the local government authority, called Eora Journey.

“This stunning artwork is about recognising the destructive impact of invasion on the Gadigal people, honouring Sydney’s first inhabitants and their descendants, and promoting respect for the Aboriginal people that make this city what it is today,” said Clover Moore, lord mayor of Sydney, at the unveiling.

“This artwork goes some way to answering the clear call from the community for meaningful recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ identities and cultures in this city’s public spaces.”

The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, located alongside the Bara monument, has deep connections to the Gadigal people. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

Located on the Tarpeian Precinct Lawn, next to the main path that connects the opera house with the Sydney CBD, Bara could scarcely command a more prominent spot. More than 200 years since they were violently run off this land by the British, the Gadigal clan of the Eora Nation have an inspiring new marker on Bennelong Point.