IT WAS the lotus that caught my eye, a circle of long-stemmed lotus near the Brisbane Magistrates Court in Roma Street.
Curious, but more research was needed and that’s when I stumbled across the story that makes this art installation very special indeed.
As it turns out the three components make up “Witnessing to Silence” which has are two interpretations – an official version and the real version – but really, it’s all about one woman’s triumph over officialdom.
It’s the work of Fiona Foley, an indigenous artist who grew up on Fraser Island, and won the commission to create the work for the front of the new Brisbane Magistrates Court in 2004.
The official story relates to the land and includes Australian botanical and historical references:
“Witnessing to Silence focuses on the eternal forces of nature, change and regeneration. It reminds us that nature is a dominant force that can govern people’s lives. The columns of ash and place names refer to the extremes of fire and flood experienced in the Australian bush. The sacred lotus lilies symbolize enlightenment and provide a space for contemplation and regeneration.”
And that’s the story Foley pitched to the commissioning panel – bushfires and floods. A winner.
She well knew that there was no way that what she really wanted to say would be accepted, especially not for the front of the Brisbane Magistrate’s Court.
But there’s more than one way to skin a cat, fair means or foul and all that, and while she fronted up to the corporates on the commissioning panel, she kept her own story safe.
She would create the first public artwork to acknowledge Queensland’s hidden history – right on the doorstep of the court.
She kept to her story through the planning and building phases but once the work was in done, installed and secure, revealed that it was actually a memorial to the many massacres of Aboriginal people which had taken place during the colonial settlement and expansion of Queensland in the early 19th century.
A nearby plaque now tells the real story:
“Witnessing to Silence takes as its subject matter the history of frontier conflict between the indigenous community and white settlement in Queensland, the first public artwork to tackle this hidden territory on a state wide basis.
“It comprises three elements. A group of bronze lotus lilies on long stems are surrounded by a white granite circle with a misting device originally intended to spray the lilies every 15 minutes.
“Some metres away stainless steel columns are encased by glass laminated with ash. The columns are also surrounded by a white circle. The water and ash reference the two ways in which bodies were disposed of following massacres – mass burning or dumping in local waterways.
“Paving stones throughout the installation, available as a public walkway, are inscribed with place names like grave stones. These list the 94 sites of indigenous massacres since the settlement of Queensland – a sombre and powerful accompaniment to the installation. It provides a potent reminder that we walk on Aboriginal soil and that we know not on what we walk.”