Why are there filing cabinets in the Brisbane River?

If you’re taking a casual stroll down the boardwalk on the south side of the Brisbane River, you might see something a little out of place; five filing cabinets stand eerily on the bank of the cultural precinct, being revealed and concealed with the tides.

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Warraba Weatherall, Single File (2018) Photograph by Naomi O’Reilly

This is a temporary artwork by Warraba Weatherall entitled ‘Single File’. I was priviledged to lead this project, as BlakLash Projects, and work with Warraba in the realisation of this installation.

Warraba Weatherall is an Aboriginal artist, from the Kamilaroi Nation, of south-west Queensland. He is recognised as a street artist, and more recently broadened his practice by producing sculpture and installations. Warraba is currently completing his honors at Griffith University’s Queensland College of Art.

‘Single File’ is a continuation of his investigation into colonial surveillance and this artwork comments on the role of the archive, in documenting and storing information from the surveillance. Institutions retain data as well as large collections of Indigenous stories, artifacts, and ancestral human remains. Along with the stored information there is also western interpretations of the materials, which attempt to render Indigenous cultures as ‘knowable’ and ‘possessable’. The artwork aims to encourage conversations around cultural repatriation.

The work is extremely complex and has multi-layered meanings.

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Warraba Weatherall, Single File (2018) (detail). Photograph by Naomi O’Reilly.

The really striking element of the work is in a secluded section of the rocks. A single elongated filing cabinet drawer sits on the opposite side of the boardwalk and sometimes missed by audiences. The drawer is labelled “Unknown, Height 165cm, Weight 74kg, Aboriginal”, the measurements of the artist’s body. Inserting himself into the work, Warraba highlights that he, and fellow Aboriginal peoples, are a part of the ongoing colonial rhetoric and systems that often perpetuate structural violence and institutional racism, still to this day.

There are currently 660 human remains in the Queensland Museum and many more held in other institutions across the world. At the opening event, Warraba shared a particularly personal story of being a part of a repatriation process and recalls seeing a number of human skulls sheathed in hessian bags. This is why the artist chose to have drawers removed to allow the viewer to see inside the vessels and sight the hessian within the bottom drawer.

By placing these mundane, and usually uninteresting, filing cabinets into the Brisbane River, it decontextualises our understandings of these objects and brings attention to them. You could draw a parallel to museums taking cultural objects and placing them in display cabinets. Without the items being activated or utilised for their original purpose, they have no context and many people interpret and assert their own meanings to the situation. Viewers are initially confused, but I have overheard many people’s explanations of the filing cabinets in the river, and the meanings they assume, says more about them and less about the artist's intensions. Our culture has been collected and interpreted since colonisation, and we often feel misrepresented within the archives and in institutions.

The site where this artwork is placed, and where GOMA now stands, was originally a sub-tropical rainforest but it was cleared in 1825 to establish the Morton Bay Penal Settlement Farm and to grow crops. Aboriginal people would take the food which led to tensions between Aboriginal people and the white invaders. Interestingly enough, Commandant of the Colony, Captain Patrick Logan, attempted to prevent the raids by setting up an armed watch (surveillance) to protect the crop. It was also around this area that blackfellas were taken to the water’s edge and strung up to a small jetty and they would drown as the tides came up. So the site has relevant historical significance too.

Another interesting insight into the work, is that the filing cabinets were sourced second-hand and the former owners were the Queensland Police. (I’m just gonna leave that one there — no elaboration needed).

I really appreciate the way in which the filing cabinets are aligned and purposefully placed as it resembles a memorial site; in low tide, you can see the rocks are slightly mounded around the base of the cabinets, and before they disappear, there are a line of rectangular blocks, side by side, similar to the headstones of a graveyard. The artwork changes dramatically through the course of the day because of the tides. Finally, at high tide, you can just see the tops that look a bit like stepping stones.

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Warraba Weatherall, Single File (2018) at low tide. Photograph by Nadine McDonald-Dowd.

The artist also uses ‘trying to turn the tide’ in his artist statement to draw attention to the element of water. Warraba states openly that it wasn’t his idea to put the artwork in the river, and that it was a part of the artist brief that he was given, but it really elevates the work. The original brief was actually to have something floating up and down the river, but we changed this at the artist's request. It was one of those situations where everything fell into place and I knew that it was meant to be.

The location is perfect, directly at the bottom of Maiwar Green with great sight lines from the entrance of GOMA, placed in a shallow part of the river that boats are not permitted. I really couldn’t imagine working with a different artist or seeing an alternative artwork on that site. The artwork is so staunch and is strategically placed within Brisbane’s Cultural Precinct, and speaks to demographics that often access library and museum resources, as well as gallery visitors who appreciate art.

‘Single File’ elucidates to the sinister nature of the archives, in representing us — Aboriginal people, and our ever-evolving culture.

Blaklash Projects works with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals and communities, to share our narratives with the wider community. We are really proud of Warraba’s artwork because it is visually and conceptually strong and encourages the general community to think for themselves, question the archives and consider talking to Indigenous people rather than researching us.

This artwork was a part of Co-MMotion, Brisbane City Council’s 2018 Temporary Art Program, produced by people+artist+place and, on this occasion, in partnership with BlakLash Projects.

‘Single File’ will be on display until 23 September. I hope you get to visit the site and experience Warraba Weatherall’s public artwork, first hand.

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