8 June 2024

Art symbolising first act of reconciliation returned to Cape York

| Chisa Hasegawa
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Artist with turtle painting

The turtle pieces created for the Captain Cook exhibition in Canberra have been returned to where reconciliation began. Photo: Supplied.

Turtle paintings representing the first act of reconciliation have been returned to Cape York after being displayed at the National Museum of Australia since 2019.

The pieces, created by artists in Hope Vale, now hang proudly at the Waalmbal Birri Heritage and Culture Centre (WBHCC) in Cooktown for all to remember the country’s history and the significance of turtles in its reconciliation journey.

Sea turtles were at the heart of a conflict between Captain Cook and the local Guugu Yimithirr people when Cook’s crew broke protocol around catching turtles from sacred breeding grounds.

A disagreement followed, and the Guugu Yimithirr set the grasslands around the crew’s campsite on fire to cleanse the sacred land.

Cook fired his musket and hit one of the Guugu Yimithirr people, which was a further violation of shedding blood on the neutral land.

At the location now known as Reconciliation Rocks, a group of granite boulders on the banks of what is now known as the Endeavour River (Waalumbaal Birri) in Cooktown, a Guugu Yimithirr Elder symbolically held out a spear with a broken tip as a symbol of peace and formalised the ritual by blowing sweat as a gesture of friendship.

WBHCC vice-president Alberta Hornsby said the turtle paintings were created at the Hope Vale Arts and Culture Centre through an initiative by the National Museum of Australia, adding it was an honour to have the artworks displayed where the history of reconciliation began.

“The National Museum offered them to the Waalmbal Birri Heritage and Culture Centre because they wanted to return them here,” she said.

“We asked the artists who created them if we could have them and display them at the centre, and they were really happy to have their creations exhibited in such a wonderful way.

“The sad thing for us is since the exhibition, two of the artists have passed away, so it’s a wonderful memory of them as well.”

Ms Hornsby explained that the paintings were returned last year, but they had not figured out how to mount them until recently, just in time for Reconciliation Week.

“We wanted to find the space and give them the best visibility possible,” she said.

“I think everyone should come in and see them, because it’s through the incident that happened over the turtles that we have this evidence of reconciliation dictated by cultural governance.

“Our warriors at any time could have speared Cook’s men and speared Cook himself, because they had the element of surprise, but they didn’t; they were respectful of their own laws that they did not spill blood on their own Country, and that is very important to remember.”

Turtles displayed at the Waalmbal Birri Heritage and Culture Centre

The turtles were showcased at the centre in time for Reconciliation Week. Photo: Supplied.

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