Our Waters Our Country 

Background to the brief

The brief from the State Library of South Australia is to curate an exhibition based on, or around,  the archival images from their extensive Harry Godson Collection. This Collection primarily consists of images of river boats, river people and the river trade along the Murray and the Darling rivers in the first half of the 20th century.  There are some landscape images and portraits of indigenous Australians. 

How this brief was to be done in terms of curated exhibition(s) was left to the curator(s).  However, there were two requirements from the State Library: one was that the exhibition(s)  is/are a response to the photos in the Godson Collection,  and the second is that the exhibition(s)  needed to have a strong  public educational theme. 

There is a historical context of past exhibitions of photographic and artistic depictions of the Murray River that have held at Swan Hill, Tandanya, the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia and the Art Gallery of South Australia, among other places, over the last twenty years. This photographic project would link back to the 2013 One River project (which was a part of Canberra’’s Centenary) and Same River Twice in 2015 (that was curated by Melinda Rankin and Fulvia Mantelli, which was a partnership between the Murray Bridge Regional Gallery and the Australian Experimental Art  Foundation).  

It is envisaged that there would be two types of projects. The first would be an exhibition of indigenous artworks (paintings, drawings, sculptures,  photographs etc) that would be organized by an independent indigenous curator. This could link to previous exhibitions designed to put Ngarrindjeri arts and culture on the map—eg., the Ngarrindjeri Yunnan Yarluwar Ruwe – Ngarrindjeri Speaking For Sea-Country at the Murray Bridge Regional Gallery in 2017. This exhibition emerged from a community arts partnership between Ngarrindjeri and Change Media.

The second project would be a photographic one consisting of a group of photographers who respond to specific images in the Godson Collection in different ways through an ongoing series of  exhibitions that highlight different aspects of our waters our country.  

The following outline of the exhibition concept and art/curatorial rationale refers to the photographic project. 

 History/public education 

It is envisaged that the public eduction theme would be structured around a history of water and land use in the Murray-Darling Basin. It would be along the following lines.

According to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the advance and retreat of glaciers between 100,000 and 10,000 years ago helped shape the basin’s dunes, alluvial plains, and rivers by carrying vast amounts of water to the area. Today, the Murray and the Darling rivers run for almost 5500 kilometres and are  the ”lifeblood” of the continent. 

The Basin spans four states and covers more than 1 million square kilometres between the country’s two longest rivers (the Murray and the Darling). The river basin covers a seventh of Australia and is its agricultural engine room; from Toowoomba to Broken Hill, from Murray Bridge to the Snowy Mountains. The Murray-Darling Basin has been called the country’s food bowl. 

Its ecosystem is in damaged because of long droughts, low river flows and extraction of water for irrigation. This damaged condition is of concern for regional communities along the Basin’s  rivers because of the six inhabited continents on Earth, Australia is the driest; its water resources are scarce, and climate change is compounding the basin’s ill-health. The future of the Basin is projected to be one where droughts in the Basin will be more frequent and prolonged. This is  due to a decrease in rainfall in the southern Basin and that means  less runoff and reduced river flow.  

The ecological history prior to the river  images in the Godson Collection is one where in pre-colonial times  under the stewardship of the Indigenous people,  there was a healthy river system and vegetation cover that ensured a healthy land. Caring for the basin’s rivers and country provided physical and spiritual sustenance to the indigenous people who lived along its banks. 

The British colonisation  in the 19th century were premised on the conquest of the indigenous people and their dispossession from their land. In the 20th century the land, biodiversity   and  the health of the rivers in the basin was increasingly undermined by the extraction of water by irrigated agriculture. The basin has been managed to transform the Basin’s rivers into working rivers and, after the Snowy Mountain Scheme (1949-74) the management of the Murray-Darling Basin transformed the Basin’s landscape to support irrigated agriculture.  

It was realized by the end of the 20th century that the mis-management of the basin had resulted in the over-allocation of  water for irrigation. The Millennium drought saw the closure of the Murray mouth and need for dredging, and it highlighted the widespread degradation of wetlands, floodplain forests, the decimation of native fish and waterbirds populations across the Basin, rising salt loads and soil degradation. 

In the early decades of the 21st century the management of the basin endeavoured to improve the health of the Basin’s rivers with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (2012).  This Plan aimed to claw  back some 2,750 GL of water (plus an extra 450 GL by 2024) from consumptive use to give back to the river system by 2019 to ensure minimal environmental flows for the rivers. This premise of the Basin Plan was that the Basin’s rivers and their ecology had intrinsic value. 

The history since the Basin Plan has been one recovery through water buybacks and increased irrigator efficiency and hence the condition of the Lower Lakes has improved, though the Coorong is still in a poor condition.  However, there has also been water theft; secretive agreement; misuse of scientific evidence to justify pre-determined political outcomes; the failure of the Commonwealth to intervene when the states acted to undermine the plan; and the failure to manage for climate change. This undermining  results in a scenario of reduced water recovery targets, (around 2136 GL ); reduced inundation across the wetlands; reduced end of system flows  for the Ramsar-listed Riverland and the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth; and reduced water quality. 

In the light of this history of mismanaging water reform the Ngarrindjeri’s Sea Country Plan (2007) speaks clearly and simply. It is premised on the concept of our waters  and our land, sustainable living and that our lands and waters must be managed according to make them healthy once again. It also states  this can redone through Ngarrindjeri Laws,  that the Ngarrindjeri people have a sovereign right to make their living from the lands and waters in a respectful and sustainable way; and it asks that non-Indigenous people respect Ngarrindjeri traditions, and their rights and responsibilities according to Ngarrindjeri laws.

Exhibition concept 

The concepts behind the proposed project and exhibitions are those to be found in the Ngarrindjeri’s  Sea Country Plan (2007):  our waters and our land, how the land and water  are interconnected,  and our shared history as river people. This is interpreted to mean that the rivers and their ecology belong to the people of Australia and that, as a result of the Basin’s mismanaged past history, the Basin’s rivers and waters need to be helped to become ecologically healthy within the context of climate change.  

To achieve this ecological health  our rivers and country need to be healed;  managed in terms of the ethos of caring for/ looking after country; and ensuring  the appropriate Aboriginal involvement in the governance and day to day management of our rivers and country.  

Given these concepts the project brings the different interpretations of the history of the use of the land and rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin into an ongoing conversation about our waters our land. It accepts that that there are different perspectives with “our  rivers our country” and that  these different perspective usually become explicit around issues such as the impact of different forms of land use, water reform and its impact on different regional communities,  and aboriginal land rights. 

It is envisaged that this conversation could be achieved through the different photographers being given a  particular wall or space to exhibit their photos. The series of works in the different spaces in the exhibition would be curated to constitute a conversation from different perspectives. It could be the case that one wall could consist of selected images  from the Godson  Collection.   

Curatoral Rationale 

The projects approach to addressing the different perspectives with respect to the impact of water reform on different regional communities is based on a recognition that our contemporary understanding of river health and caring for country in the 20th century can only be interpreted from where we are situated in the present.   

The exhibition’s rationale is that rivers die from the bottom up (ie., the Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray Mouth); the Basin can’t have viable regional communities with healthy rivers;  and that both healthy rivers and regional communities should be  front and centre in water reform and the Basin Plan.  

Some suggestions  for the different perspectives on the shared past and present of our waters our country are addressed in the exhibition in the following way: 

  1. the colonial past consists of 19th century photos from the Godson collection and other relevant colonial images of the interrelationship between settlers and indigenous people; 
  1. a re-photography component of selected Godson images to shown then and now: eg., Devils Elbow, Nine Mile Point in the Coorong; the dry dock at Mannum, and Pt Mcleay/Rakkaun;  
  1. photographic images of the Basin’s rivers (eg., the Murrumbidgee and the Murray) and land in recent past (the Millennium drought) and in the present;
  1. different ways of mapping the Basin topography: eg., NASA satellite images, abstractions,  indigenous paintings;
  1. an exploration of the history of the interrelationship between settlers and indigenous people;
  1. a touch screen based on the work of the Wentworth Group of Scientists that would help people to explore, understand and analyse the complexities of our waters our land the Murray-Darling Basin. 

The above 6 points are suggestions,  since what will eventuate will depend on the photographers involved in the project. Since our waters our country re the Murray-Darling Basin is a very large and complex subject it may be advisable to think in terms of a project, rather than a single exhibition.   

One suggestion to deal with this complexity is for the project to be open ended: it could, for instance, evolve over several years, involving different exhibitions with the same or different photographers, including artists.   All of these different exhibitions would be unified through being a visual response to a particular aspect or region of the Godson Collection. 

One suggestion is that the initial exhibition could consists of say six photographers responding to six images they have selected from the Godson Collection. There would be 12 photos in all,  and the work could be exhibited during South Australia’s History Festival in order to highlight the  historical dimension of our river our country. 

The second exhibition, say a year latter,  could emphasize Godson’s photos of a particular region, say the Coorong or the Riverland. This could be exhibited in  the appropriate regional gallery. 

The duration of the project in terms of time and exhibitions would depend on commitment, funding and energy of those involved.  


If there is funding the information and interpretation in the touch screen would primarily be based on the best available scientific research underpinning the  review of national water reform by the Wentworth Group of Scientists. 

The touch screen could show:

  1. the complexity of the river flows and hydrology in the Basin with a special emphasis on the Coorong lagoons and the Lower Lakes; 
  2. a history of basin management by the states and the commonwealth;
  3. the successes and failures of the Basin Plan  to recover water  for the river system to ensure a healthy river and end system (Lower Lakes and Coorong), to meet the Ramsar obligations and to sure the salt and other pollutants are discharged through the mouth; 
  4. the CSIRO’s latest projections of the impact of climate change on the Basin and the end of the river system, given increased evaporation, reduced river flows and rising sea levels of the Southern Ocean. These indicate that the end of the river system is vulnerable to future climate change. 

If there is no funding for the touch screen option, then school children from a regional school could be invited to become involved in the project through photographing their mode of being  in our water our country. They would be encouraged to explore and to encounter something different from what they already know and to express a sensitivity to otherness. 

The emphasis would be on a shared inquiry  rather than just keeping an open mind of what others are expressing through their images.  This implies a care for  what others have to say. 

The project ethos

The exhibition(s) within the photographic project are designed to do the following:  

Firstly,   to bring together an understanding of a shared history of our rivers and our country based on art and science. We need both if we are are to heal the river system in a future world under climate change, where there are hotter temperatures, water becomes scarcer, and that the environment bears a greater burden than irrigators of the subsequent reduced river flows.  

Secondly,  to open up a conversation about how regional communities can live sustainably in a future world of climate change. 

Thirdly,  to bring indigenous perspectives and voices into the centre of this conversation about our future that depends on protecting and securing minimum environmental flows and care for country to keep the Lower Lakes and Coorong healthy. A lot of the research on the socio-economic effects of water reform has historically focused on agricultural communities (eg., Deniliquin, Shepparton, Renmark, Griffith and Moree), and it has overlooked the needs and perspectives of  the indigenous river communities. 

Fourthly, regional  perspectives and voices need to be part of this conversation about our waters and our country.  One reason is that a possible future for the end of the system (the Lower Lakes and Coorong) in a warmer world and climate change may well be a transition to a more open estuary state  without the Goolwa barrages. Another reason is that a warmer world with less water would represent a massive ecological and social challenge to all the river communities. 

Fifthly,  to ensure an ethics of conversation in which the situatedness and embeddedness of  the participants require and openness to the other; that otherness is paramount in prompting and expanding our understanding; and that the dialogic understanding stipulates an equal and mutual relationship between the dialogue partners in the exhibition.  


This above  outline of the exhibitions concepts and project rationale is a skeletal mapping.  It has to be since the way the project/exhibitions will evolve does depend on the particular photographers participating in the exhibition(s),  and on the way that they respond to the Godson Collection.  This is unknown at this stage. What is known is that the various interpretations of the images in the Godson Collection  and our understandings of our water our country are always framed within, and conditioned by our historicity and tradition. 

 What is known is that the brief given to the photographers by the curator is consistent: they must respond in some way to the photos in the Godson Collection and how they do so is up to them. The ethics of the conversation is that individuals seek to understand the complexity of our water our country within the interplay of the perspectives present in the exhibition(s).  The exhibition(s)  can then be understood as an encounter between the different perspectives that are shaped by different histories, cultures, cultures, traditions  and experiences.  

The subsequent photos in the exhibition(s) would then be organized by the curator(s)  to highlight ongoing conversation from diverse perspectives. The emphasis is on the openness of the dialogic interpretations. 

What is also known is the importance of the Ngarrindjeri’s  Sea Country Plan (2007), to the project as it underpins, and provides the overall framework  for the the project’s/exhibition(s) approach to our waters our country.