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First Nations artist explores French connection to Sydney

Eelemarni Close-Brown -

An artist's work looking at cultural objects and plants taken by a French expedition has seeded a connection between migrant women and Aboriginal Elders in Sydney.

Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi contemporary artist Jonathan Jones' practice often reframes historical and colonial narratives.

His latest work, untitled (transcriptions of country), is a large-scale installation that will be the inaugural exhibition at the newly-refurbished Artspace in Woolloomooloo.|

The project examines Aboriginal materials and native plants taken to Europe in the 1800s.

The project examines the French expedition that came to Australia from 1801-1803 and the large collection of Aboriginal materials and native plants they took back to Europe.

"The French did these extraordinary portraits, they recorded the first corroboree with musical annotations, they sort of came with a different eye and ear," Jones said.

"In that process, they recorded things and did things that the British never would never have done."

Jones researched the project with support of elders Aunty Julie Freeman and Uncle Charles Madden.

He said the work was about the process of how First Nations people reclaim these histories, reincorporate them and bring them home to Australia, and what they mean today.

The French made significant collections of Aboriginal cultural objects and living materials including plants and animals that they took back with them.

On the expedition's return to France, many of the plants were for the first time cultivated outside of Australia, catalogued within the western taxonomy of science and distributed around the world.

Some of the plants were propagated and grown overseas like the Sydney paper daisy, which is now found all over the world.

The French made significant collections of Aboriginal cultural objects.

"What we have done through this project is go back through those archives and try to reclaim those plants and we did that through a process of collaborating with migrant women in Western Sydney," Jones said.

The women were connected with local elders, who told them stories about why these plants are important and their different uses for medicine, food and reading the seasons.

After this process, the women hand-embroidered each one of those specimens.

"The women were able to learn about Aboriginal history in a different way and connect with Australia and find new roots," Jones said.

"They learnt new ways of understanding and being in a new home through these plants."

The exhibition premiered at Palais de Tokyo, Paris in November 2021, and will be presented at Artspace from December 15 to February 11, before it tours nationally.

"It is a really big project that is trying to think about Australia's history, in terms of trying to understand those early explorers and people who were coming to Australia," Jones said.

Eelemarni Close-Brown - AAP

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