UA15 CHATS: Danièle Hromek x Eliza Sarlos
Covered by Concrete is an artwork by Hromek, Hromek & Hromek – three siblings of the Budawang tribe of the Yuin nation. In their artwork, the artists look at the hidden histories of places, and attempt to engage with these obscured stories on Cockatoo Island. The following is a conversation between Danièle Hromek and Artistic Director of Underbelly Arts, Eliza Sarlos.
“Then there was this burning desire to talk about this topic; what’s beneath our cities, what’s beneath our roads, what’s still there, can we feel it?”
Tell me a bit about Covered by Concrete, and some of what you’ve found through developing the work.
We interviewed three Elders or Aboriginal people who work with Country, or who are strongly connected to Country, all in very different ways.
We were asking them: how do they experience that connection to Country, how does it come out in their everyday lives, how do they reconnect to Country? And what happens to Country where there’s a disconnect, especially for sacred-like spaces.
How do those disconnections affect Aboriginal people? And by disconnections I mean; when a road is built through a sacred space, or a mountainside is blown off of a sacred mountain, or people are pushed off their land.
Those conversations have enriched what we have already felt, which is: there is a different connection to Country between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people. Putting your feet on that place and being there seems to give Aboriginal people a real reenergisation. And that is kept alive not only by being there and by being on that place, but by telling the stories of that place.
That disconnect continues today – it’s still happening – despite growing knowledge of how wrong it is. When have you encountered that disconnection?
My Country is Yuin Country on the South Coast, and I also feel the South Coast – it’s a very different feeling, it’s a sacred feeling for me, it’s a spiritual feeling. I’m not a very spiritual person in a typical sense but I do feel that spirituality when I’m there. And I also grew up on the North Coast, in Bundjalung Country, and when I’m there there’s more of a nurturing feeling.
My family had a disconnection to our Country 100 or so years ago. Our people were chased off Yuin Country or felt they had to leave Yuin Country, which I think was a fairly major decision, looking back, just to not be harassed any more and they thought they’d have a better life up further North near Kempsey in Browns Crossing, which is named after my family. That disconnection to our Country, Yuin Country, runs through our family.
That doesn’t mean that we haven’t connected with other places – but we’ve lost our language, we’ve lost our culture, we’ve lost our connection to our people there.
We’ve been colonised, I guess you could say. But we are rebuilding those connections quite actively.
One Elder has told me they feel that desecration really strongly, and the way they rebuild is to sing the Country, retell the stories, make sure people are aware of it.
As you probably will see if you come and see the artwork, and particularly in regards to the interviews we’ve done, they’ll talk about the desecrations and how they rebuild them through song, dance, story and being on Country.
It’s never the same, I don’t think, when a place is desecrated. I certainly – and I can’t explain why – have strong feelings about the desecration of Sydney. It’s one of those things – it can’t be rebuilt because places have been flattened. They’ve been covered by manmade materials that weren’t here, that shouldn’t be here.
Where there has been that desecration, how important is it for you to counter that through the work that you do or the art that you make?
I don’t know that we’re able to counter it with our art – it isn’t our role, in a way. What we’re trying to do is bring awareness and to talk about it, to make people aware that this place has a story that’s beyond 200 years.
That story might not have been written down but the stories are still carried through in different ways. They’re still there, and it’s important that that acknowledgement happens.
Is your artistic practice for you to start that conversation?
My art practice is one of the ways that I’m talking about it – I’m also writing a thesis where I’m talking about it. My sister and brother talk about it in their own way. For us it was a way to begin expressing those feelings or those thoughts to people we would never have conversations with otherwise. It’s one way to talk about it – but it’s not the only way.
Art, at least, gives people the opportunity to talk.
Because I’m not standing there saying it in your face, it gives you the chance to bring your own interpretations and thoughts and ideas to it. Art allows people to come to the issue in a less confrontational way.
They arrive at that conclusion themselves?
Or they may not. They may look at it and say “I don’t get it” and that’s their level of comprehension at that time, and that’s okay. It may also give them the opportunity to encounter Aboriginal culture in a different way, in a more modern way – because we’re not doing a traditional artwork by any means.
We’re talking about topics which are close to our hearts. I think it gives people a chance to at least encounter Aboriginal culture, which I expect most Australians don’t get the chance to do. Maybe they encounter it and understand, and maybe they don’t. They get to listen to some Elders, and people connected to Country, talking about these topics in better ways than I ever could say to their face.
Why do you think that you and your brother and sister have all been drawn to space in your professional lives?
We were in very different areas before and our parents – our father’s a doctor and mum works in schools – very clever people but aren’t related to what we’ve ended up talking about at all. It’s a really curious thing that we’ve all ended up, in our own ways, curious in these spatial questions.
Can you tell me a bit about what has brought you, Sian and Michael together for this project?
We all ended up being educated in design-based topics or subjects – Michael is Architecture, Sian is Environmental and landscape design, and I’ve done spatial design. As a result of those three areas merging we’ve talked– sometimes half jokingly – about having Hromek, Hromek and Hromek doing projects together.
Then there was this burning desire to talk about this topic; what’s beneath our cities, what’s beneath our roads, what’s still there, can we feel it?