Canoe keeps Aboriginal traditions afloat

20 June, 2012

man in bark canoe
An image from the exhibition of Steaphan Paton
Image: Cameron Cope

A story of cultural pride and intergenerational knowledge opens at Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre during NAIDOC Week on 6 July 2012.

Boorun’s Canoe is an exhibition telling the story of how Senior Gunai/Kurnai Elder Uncle Albert Mullett taught his grandson, Steaphan Paton, and other young men in his family, to build a bark canoe. Through objects, photography and film, the exhibition shows an age-old tradition that has been practiced for many years by the Gunai/Kurnai people of Gippsland.

Boorun’s Canoe demonstrates that Victorian Aboriginal culture is alive and strong today”, said Caroline Martin, Bunjilaka Manager. “This exhibition is the outcome of a significant project.  It shows the strength and pride in cultural knowledge being passed through the generations in south-eastern Australia, along with the importance of maintaining and teaching culture within the community”.

Artist Steaphan Paton was inspired to begin the project to help ensure that the knowledge and tradition of canoe-making was not lost to the younger generations of his family. “Canoe making with my Pop is something that I wanted all my family to experience”, said Steaphan. “It is knowledge that was passed on to my Pop in the traditional way and Boorun’s Canoe is a project that helped to pass on that knowledge”.

“Capturing this experience and sharing it through Boorun’s Canoe, now gives those outside our community an opportunity to join us in celebrating its importance”.

Bark canoes are important for fishing and travelling around the lakes and rivers that are abundant in the Gippsland country. “Boorun the Pelican, our Gunai ancestor, came to Gippsland carrying a bark canoe on his head”, explains Steaphan. “Canoes are part of our story of who we are and where we come from. I want to respect my ancestors by continuing the tradition of canoe-making and safeguard it for future generations”.

Under the guidance of Elder Uncle Albert, Steaphan and his family spent time planning to find a suitable tree, the right time of year and an appropriate place, which he feels was a learning experience for everyone. “My family all have an understanding and a knack for using wood and natural material, but the knowledge an Elder gives by hands-on creation of a canoe – from a tree to floating a working canoe – is everlasting”, said Steaphan.

The exhibition will feature the canoe as well as a series of powerful images by Gippsland photographic artist Cameron Cope that capture the canoe’s creation and floating by Steaphan and his family. Also part of the exhibition is a short film featuring the first floating of the canoe and the Gunai/Kurnai creation story of Boorun and Tuk, as told by Uncle Albert and his family in the heart of Gunai/Kurnai bushland near Lake Tyers.

The canoe featured in this exhibition has been acquired by Museum Victoria as part of the Indigenous Cultures collection and it will feature in the new, long-term Bunjilaka exhibition First Peoples, currently being developed and opening in mid 2013.

Boorun’s Canoe is a collaborative arts project between Steaphan Paton and Cameron Cope.

Boorun’s Canoe
Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Melbourne Museum
Nicholson Street, Carlton
6 July to 4 November 2012
Adults $10, children and concessions FREE

For further media information, interviews or images, please contact:
Amanda Linardon on 03 9927 2737, 0400 130 307 or