Cultural Significance of Water

| James Howey


The QAGOMA’s 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT10) looks at the future of art in the environment we live. It draws together cultural experiences of the many societies that inhabit the Asia Pacific region. APT10 has 69 projects with artists coming from 30 different countries. It is a huge effort considering the scale of the exhibition and that it was all put together in the middle of a pandemic. It's a must-see if you're in the Brisbane region before 25 April.


Water, being one of the elements essential for life, is culturally important and was integral to a number of exhibits. A particularly powerful work was an installation by Hawaiian artist Kaili Chun which honoured the Hawaiian proverb: UWĒ KA LANI, OLA KA HONUA, which translates to WHEN THE HEAVENS WEEP, THE EARTH LIVES. In this piece, she recognises how water is essential to life and treasured by first nations people. She invited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants to reflect on the significance of bodies and sources of water belonging to the lands over which they have custodianship. Samples of water were collected in canisters sent to the artist along with the story. The canisters have been suspended by steel wires, floor to ceiling, in a stunning display. It is possible to look up the story of each of the canisters at the exhibition on terminal.


The result was powerful, not done justice by my photography. Some samples were clear, others turbid and others containing algae or vegetation. Strikingly some were empty! Each canister representing the water important to a first nations people and seeing the difference in quality and scarcity of that water made me consider how close we are to achieving SDG 6 in Australia. Target number 6.1 being By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all. There is still so much to do in our own country. Although in achieving this great consideration needs to be taken regarding the cultural significance of water bodies to first nations people.

One of the stories from the canisters is as follows "This beautiful river has historical & cultural significance for our family as Yorta Yorta people as well as being a favourite place for our family gatherings where the broken river runs at the back of my sister & brother-in-law's home. It's a peaceful location where our family loves to spend time together on Country with all our generations keeping our stories, culture & identity alive & strong like the beautiful broken river & the continuum of cultural water flows." Details of the water samples and associated stories can be found here.