The Oxley Creek Bark Canoe

I was watching Cormorants fishing at the point where muddy Oxley Creek meets the muddy Brisbane River in Queensland, Australia, when I came across a strange sculpture.

Canoe 1

Oxley Creek, near the junction with the Brisbane river.

Canoe 2

The Oxley Creek Bark Canoe.

This is a bronze which apparently is a facsimile of an Aboriginal, bark canoe that was built to ‘acknowledge the Jagara people‘s  use of Oxley Creek’ as part of the ‘First Oxley Creek Water Festival’ in 1997. Brisbane City Council then commissioned sculptor Sean Tapner to create the Bronze at lifesize.

I felt it, tapped it and looked at it. The second thought I had, after one of admiration for the sculptor’s skill, was that if this were in the UK it would have been stolen at worst or vandalised at best. In fact it would not even have been placed in a small, suburban park on a riverbank like this for those reasons. But here it was, sixteen years on, untouched and flawless.

Canoe 3

… and in the canoe!

The canoe’s edges curl inward and I imagined how precarious I would feel sitting in it. I imagined those edges cutting into my bare skin as I paddled. I imagined the smell of fresh fish, mud and sweat; for lying in the bottom of the canoe, as if the Jagara had just hauled it up the muddy bank, is the catch of Mullet and a Blue Swimming Crab, a woven basket, a fish spear and a decorated paddle. And that’s it. Simply a realistic rendering of everyday objects. A still life? No obvious message or meaning. A council funded sculpture surrounded by Council barbecue points and some children’s swings to commemorate, in some way, a Council funded festival. But this thing was speaking to me. It forced its way into my consciousness demanding me to think deeply about it.

This canoe and its contents were resonating with rythms of an unchanging lifestyle from thousands of years ago. It spoke also of white, European, national guilt and the hypocrisy of those who believe that an ‘acknowledgement’ is atonement enough for Manifest Destiny, whilst Aboriginal peoples still suffer the legacy of it. These were natural objects because they were from a time and a culture that did not separate Man from the ‘Natural World’. Their ‘beauty’ was in their efficient functionality. Handmade, utilitarian objects, their meaning and their use the difference between life and death. No wonder it resonated.

It was only when I recognised the effect that the bronze had on me that I thought it might be a suitable subject for Talking Beautiful Stuff.

3 thoughts on “The Oxley Creek Bark Canoe

  1. Dear Garth,

    Thank you for this beautiful article.
    I’ve been trying to find photos of this but have really struggled.

    It was my father who was tasked with putting together this gorgeous piece in 1997. My Poppy, my Dad, mum and I all went out one day, and they stripped a tree and began their project. I was only a bubbah at the time, but looking back on photos and having mum tell me stories is precious. The only photo I have is a very dark photo of when my father tested it out on the water. You can only just make it out.

    My father recently passed away back in May of this year, so this was truly precious to come across.

    Thank you, Garth.

    • Thank you Neenah for writing. I am sorry to hear of your Father’s death. I am so pleased that you have found my article and gained pleasure from it. My best wishes to you. Garth

      • Hello Neenah and Garth and thanks for your Beautiful Words.
        I’m Sean Tapner, the guy that cast the sculpture and I have a few more photos including one of the canoe being made by the owners. I’m sure Neenah would like a copy. Please let me know if you would like them.

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