Dancing between, connecting all

Artist Emmy Webbers was excited to present 'Dancing Between the Echoes'. Picture : STEWART CHAMBERS

By Tanya Steele

Displaying a profound connection to the land, spirituality, and community renowned First Nations Artist Emmy Webbers (also known as Wurruck Yambo) spoke with journalist TANYA STEELE about the process behind curating the exhibition ‘Dancing Between the Echoes’ and generating a sense of community from interactive art pieces that tell a collective story.

Emmy Webbers is a Proud Gunai/Kurnai person living on Wurundjeri Cuntry and was thrilled to present the exhibition of canvas, murals and hand-cut and painted wooden sculptures, along with some interactive exhibits to the Cardinia Shire community.

Responses has been positive so far and Webbers said there’s a been a really beautiful genuine interest in the exhibition.

“It’s nice to kind of get that feedback,” they said.

Opening on Reconciliation week 28 May at the Hills Hub Emerald, Webbers presented ‘Dancing Between the Echoes’ as well as a variety of activities for community members to explore.

“There are things within culture that we do routinely week in week out that is stunning and there’s an entire culture and group of people that stand behind me that influence so much of what I do,” they said.

“Sometimes it’s very, very obvious in your face, like the power community idea. And sometimes it’s a bit more subtle,” they said.

The public was invited to participate in colouring, early style weaving, gum nut and leaf decorating activities, and viewing the art exhibit upstairs.

Presenting a ‘whole story’ within the exhibition Emmy Webbers has delivered a fresh perspective on life and culture as a First Nations person and said they went in with very specific aims for the curation.

The exhibit was designed specifically to launch with the commencement of National Reconciliation Week and run right through to Naidoc Week in 2024.

The theme for Reconciliation this year is ‘Now, More Than Ever’ and Webbers said that every piece they create is inspired by their culture in some way, either from being on Country and the incredible visuals and feelings it creates, or through their own children.

“I refer to all my art as First Nations because it is all very much inspired in some way by my culture,” they said.

When approached to commission the exhibition Webbers said they wanted to present something ‘very real and tangible.’

A blend of Webbers works are playfully juxtaposed with interactive pieces designed specifically for the exhibition, presenting a celebration of rich cultural heritage blended with contemporary expression.

“I knew immediately that while it would be predominantly my own work, it would be really important to me to include pieces that are from community groups,” they said.

Several of the pieces were created by local First Nations women’s group and include weavings created during Covid lockdowns.

“If we were going to have something that spoke to people, it needed to be a whole story – and not just me and my work, but also stuff that’s very real and tangible from community,” they said.

Webbers hand-painted a mural directly onto the gallery wall for ‘Dancing Between the Echoes’ and said that playing with live and temporary artworks is a lot of fun.

“I love the idea of having live pieces and this mural will only exist for the sake of this and I think there’s always something that’s quite special about that,” they said.

The mural includes three gathering circles – building back to the idea of how people come together as a community.

There are deliberate colour and theme choices within the mural to symbolise the connection to the land and the ground.

“It has these kinds of circular shapes to represent footprints,” they said.

Physical sculptures and artefacts made by First Nations women’s groups and traditional artefacts in the form of weavings and shields form the cornerstones of the ‘Dancing Between the Echoes’ exhibit.

“It has this overarching theme of protection,” Webbers said.

The artefacts include a coolamon – which is used in a myriad of ways within Aboriginal culture from traditional smoking ceremonies to baby business.

Coolamons feature in a number of traditional gatherings and also link to shields and scar trees, reflecting protection, culture and practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

“So all of my babies have been in coolamons, I have always really loved them – we have always gathered around our young ones, so it has that multi-dimensional element,” they said.

The gallery invites a wandering eye to view the coolamons inside the space and they are represented both in a sculpture and painted format.

The exhibit features shields and weaving and Webbers said that there is also a larger coolamon and shield that other women’s groups made to reflect their practices.

“It felt very well-rounded to me,” they said.

The gallery has an interactive exhibit as well which Emmy said it was really special to include.

A sand space set centrally invites people to kick off their shoes and stand or dance in the middle of the exhibit.

“I really wanted it to feel like a community space,” they said.

“When I go to community, when we dance and when we gather it is on a circle.”

“The sand space in the middle – that is so special to me and my family because it is how we dance.”

The sand space includes a photograph of Webber’s children dancing on Country and invites people to ‘Stand, Dance and Be Free (Barefoot is best)’.

“We dance in circles, the gathering circles are a part of all the really wholesome moments that happen when we come together with community – that’s the space we’re in,” Webbers said.

The artist said they wanted people to explore feeling the earth between their feet and connect to Country.

“The sand space has dried gum leaves and emulates a ‘real moment’ in time – it’s meant to feel real and invite the participant to touch the ground,” they said.

Webbers said that also they wanted it to feel a little less like a standard gallery space and more like something you could experience in multiple ways, especially if you had children with you.

“ I often go to galleries with my kids – and so just having something that also they can experience differently too, you just understand it a bit differently.”

The artist said they were a little concerned about whether people would engage with the piece.

“For me, this feels really beautiful and special – But I can understand people coming through and maybe saying no thank you,” they said.

At the opening shoes were kicked off and many people young and old got their feet into the sand space.

“At the launch, it was so great to people engaging with it, I saw adults getting in it as well,” Webbers said.

“The feeling I was trying emulate was coming out,’ they said.

‘Dancing Between the Echoes’ features a special print called ‘Power of Community’ that won the Metro Tunnel Creative Program 2D Award in the 2022 Koorie Art Show.

The piece was featured in Scott Alley, Melbourne from June to August in 2023.

“I love that piece – in a lot of ways, it looks really powerful, which I think is beautiful,” Webbers said.

“I wanted to include that because that piece has done so much,” they said.

The print was blown up to a three-metre by three-metre display and has a strong activism theme.

“It looks like a bunch of protesters, basically all layered on top of each other and it is also just another way our community gather now,” they said.

“In it, I can see people that I deeply care about, doing amazing work coming together as communities,” they said.

Webbers said that ‘Power of Community’ was inspired by the 2022 NAIDOC theme ‘Get up, Stand up, Show up’.

The piece is a relatable and powerful addition to the exhibition and Webbers said that these powerful demonstrating moments are also community gatherings within themselves.

“I have drawn so many inspirations from people in my life, it looks in parts to me like a child on top of a person’s shoulders,” they said.

Webbers has always been interested in art and mostly did it for themselves and said they have only professionally emerged in the last five years or so.

“I have always enjoyed art, but as a younger person I spent a lot of time doing it just for me,” they said.

Holding a Bachelor’s in Indigenous studies Webbers has a passion for their culture and sharing it to create a safe space for understanding and learning for everyone.

The artist works in covering canvas, digital mediums, murals and hand-cut and painted wooden sculptures.

Webbers loves the hills is a parent to four and said their whole life is up in the Yarra Ranges, with their children attending schools in the area.

Their work will continue to feature throughout Melbourne, with future sculpture works going into a group exhibition in Collingwood by the end of August this year.

Webbers also recently created a piece for the Cardinia Cultural Centre called ‘Now More Than Ever’ and is an artwork created in response to National Reconciliation Week.

Handprints featured in this artwork are done by children from local schools, reiterating the importance of young people in the recognition of, and engagement with, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.

‘Now More Than Ever’ will also be on display until 28 June at the Cardinia Cultural Centre.

The ‘Dancing Between the Echoes’ exhibition will feature at the Emerald Hills Hub until Friday 12 July 2024, at the end of NAIDOC Week.

“It’s nice to see it come to fruition and I have thoroughly enjoyed the community’s reaction to it in a lot of ways,” Webbers said.