We are saddened to learn of the passing of Aboriginal community leader Sam Watson (16 November 1952 - 27 November 2019), whose strong leadership and work as a writer, filmmaker, academic and political activist has had a significant and lasting impact on the advancement of Indigenous rights in Australia. In tribute to Watson, art historian and regular Eyeline contributor Rex Butler has written the following piece reflecting on his contribution to the CityCat Project, an influential work of public art performed on Maiwar (the Brisbane River), which is a place of deeply-held meaning for Indigenous peoples in and around Brisbane.
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article contains an image of a deceased person.
Vale Sam Watson
I had the great fortune to meet Sam Watson several times, thanks to my part-time job as an art critic.
In 2006, the Brisbane gallerist David Pestorius put on a show entitled Turrbal-Jagera at the University of Queensland, where I worked as an art historian. The exhibition sought to take up aspects of the history and geography of Brisbane – its title came from the two Indigenous groups that lived either side of the Brisbane River – and involved not only local but also international artists.
For the show, Pestorius brought out the American artist Dave Hullfish Bailey, who had previously become known for a series of works involving the celebrated Schindler House in Los Angeles. During an initial research trip in 2003, Bailey had become fascinated with Maiwar (the Brisbane River), and back home an idea began to form. It had something to do with the flow of the river and the way it might be interrupted, but he figured he needed a collaborator, especially if he was going to address the history of the occupation of the area and what the river meant to the Indigenous people who had lived around it for millennia before European colonisation.
Enter Sam Watson, coming out of a long history of Indigenous activism, community outreach and with blood-ties to the Jagera. Pestorius somehow had the intuition that Watson was the right person for Bailey to work with, and he was right. Communicating via fax and telephone, the two cooked up one of the most extraordinary – and potentially far-reaching – pieces of public art I have ever seen.
On a warm summer day in early December 2006, the CityCat Project came to pass. Unsuspecting passengers on the ferries that now plied the river would occasionally be taken off their route and for just a moment they would slow down and face the shore where a group of Indigenous actors, on sites of historical European-Indigenous interaction, would greet them, before they headed off again.
It was just the briefest pause in life’s journey, a momentary encounter in which locals and tourists confronted, however briefly, the history of the place where they lived or were visiting.
Actors were placed, for instance, in New Farm Park and at the river end of Boundary Street in West End, which once designated the literal boundary of a space Indigenous people were not allowed to remain in after dark (and this all the way up to the Second World War when the American Army occupied the city).
It was seamless coming together of Bailey’s Conceptualism and Watson’s activism to produce a work of art that ever so slightly stopped the endless flow of time, opened up a small ripple or turbulence in the water, maybe even when the ferries headed back towards the shore, reversed history for a moment.
The work has been repeated at regular intervals ever since, always with interested onlookers and Indigenous community members joining Watson at various locations along the river and greeting the unsuspecting passengers. (And, of course, the work is a beautiful test case of how a public space shared between white and Indigenous peoples might be negotiated.)
By now the Brisbane City Council – one can only imagine the protracted negotiations involved in the first performance of the work and the terrible risk the Council must have felt it was taking – looks forward to the occasion. And, apparently, the ferry drivers themselves both appreciate the meaning of what they are doing and enjoy the small technical difficulty of keeping the ferries still for a moment in the flowing water.
Watson always commenced proceedings with a welcome to Country. I’ve heard it a thousand times, as I’m sure most of us have, and it always strikes me, unfortunately, as a token ceremony, precisely an unspoken admission that whites are never actually going to hand the land back. But hearing Watson perform it one evening at Pestorius’s gallery, I was reduced to tears at the thought of what had happened, and the unimaginable miracle that Watson could still feel such a connection to the Land that he walked on and the river that flowed through it. (And, of course, the whole work is testament to Watson’s generosity in both his willingness to collaborate with Bailey and his preparedness to share his knowledge.)
When I asked him about what he’d done, Watson always spoke to me with patience, good will and a certain restrained pride. It was a great gift, for which I will always be grateful.
For my part, I remember telling Sam that the CityCat Project should go to every city with a harbour in Australia, and the ferries could stop every year at places of significance to Indigenous people. One day in the future I think Bailey and Watson’s ferry work will be our new Australia Day celebration.
Rex Butler is the editor of Dave Hullfish Bailey, Sam Watson: CityCat Project 2006-2016, Sternberg Books, 2017.
Sam Watson and Dave Hullfish Bailey, The CityCat Project, 2006 – ongoing.