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DABILBUNG brokenwater: Downstream Conversations with the river

The following is a lightly edited interview between artist Libby Harward, a Ngugi woman from the Quandamooka, and curator Danni Zuvela, regarding and reflecting on Libby’s DABILBUNG project which centres on listening to custodians’ stories. DABILBUNG means ‘broken water’.

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Libby Harward, deadstream_TV, Episode 4: Talking with the River – Aunty Cheryl Moggs, 2020, Goondiwindi, 13 min 34 sec, Images: Lavonne Bobongie. Transcript at the bottom of this page.

Walking in the Barwon River, Walgett. Photo: Lavonne Babongie.
Walking in the Barwon River, Walgett. Photo: Lavonne Babongie.

Danni Zuvela: In 2019, you initiated a major artistic project exploring ideas about water sovereignty and water justice, and you began with a significant field trip across many Indigenous  Nations to witness firsthand the situation of the Baaka and join the Wilcannia corroboree. Can you tell us a little about that process and the communities you visited?

Libby Harward: This is how I describe the process of making DABILBUNG - brokenwater.

The ‘wild’-flower season 2019 began my journey with my two children, through what is known in contemporary western terms as ‘The Murray-Darling Basin’ (The Baaka and The Bidgee), on a project that longs to restore traditional custodianship of our fresh-water-ways: the rivers, creeks, lagoons, channels and wetlands that are currently threatened with imminent extinction. Following the footsteps of my Ancestors, we began this journey on my Ancestral country, beautiful Mulgumpin, in the Quandamooka, spending time with my Ngugi Elder, Gheebelum, Uncle Bob Anderson, listening with my children and reflecting-in fresh-water stories.

In Oct 2019, we took a 2800km, 12-day road trip, crossing at least 10 of the 27 Aboriginal Nations that make up the Murray-Darling Basin, to join the Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree, with Uncle Bruce Shillingsworth. We listened to the fresh-water stories of Traditional Custodians, in order to join the call to reinstate Traditional Custodianship over these hungry water-ways, and help expose the forces that are starving and choking them.

DZ: Why was it important for you to visit these communities as part of your DABILBUNG project?

Because they’re the communities that live off the river and the water systems in what is now known as the ‘Murray-Darling Basin’.

Coincidentally, the Yaama Ngunna  Baaka corroboree was happening at the same time I planned my trip. Because that was led by Uncle Bruce Shillingsworth - that’s his country - it was a no-brainer to join that group. They didn’t have funding either so I was able to give some of my contribution to join the corroboree. That was really good because one of the major things that needs to happen along that river is that blackfellas need to practice culture and sing and dance up country and we got to be a part of that.

I spoke a lot to Zena Cumpston in the initial stages, and also spoke to Virginia Marshall, editor of the book Overturning Aqua Nullius: Securing Aboriginal Water Rights.

Most of the communities ARE the river.

DZ: What do you mean by that?

LH: That’s their life-blood, their source. The Barkandji are ‘the people of the river’.

Some of the other mob are also of the river. I don't know so much about all of them. Their spirit is the river; they ARE the river. The river is called the Baaka and they are the Baakandji.

Everything they do is about that river. Their survival, food, water, learning, fishing, culture.

And they still to this day,  can’t live off the river because it’s all depleted.

By reducing the flow in the river they are choking the river, and choking the people of the river.

DZ: Choking is such a violent word.

LH: What’s happening IS violent.

They’re so depressed.

They’re forced to buy food from the shop instead of getting it themselves, all the food is so expensive - they can only get one day’s worth of food out of a pay check and there’s no work anyway. There’s no tourism because there’s no river.

Being able to fish and collect freshwater mussels is so important to them.

They can’t hunt, because the animals go elsewhere because there’s no water for them to drink or live in.

Whitefellas might think that that’s about living in the past, especially people in the city. But they can’t feed their families because they can’t hunt or fish. The amount of money they have to spend doesn’t sustain them. Because of the food prices they need to be able to supplement with hunting and fishing.

So by depleting the river they are actually starving people. The hungry river makes people go hungry.

Libby Harward in stormwater pipe, taken on road trip back to the east coast from Wilcannia. Photo: Lavonne Babongie. 
Libby Harward in stormwater pipe, taken on road trip back to the east coast from Wilcannia. Photo: Lavonne Babongie.

DZ: So it’s ongoing attempted genocide by colonial Australia, to separate people from their culture and the river they depend on?

LH: Many people  have to be on dialysis for kidney problems because now they’re extracting their water, there’s no fresh water.

The communities are having to take the water from the artesian basin bore and that water is so full of salt and minerals it has to go through the water plant and even then it’s not good for them. There’s signage there about the chemicals used in the water.

The water is really harsh.

If people are already suffering with kidney disease, it’s getting worse. Kids can’t bathe in the water because they get sores.

It’s so DRY out there so there’s no choice.

It’s harming them. It’s literal colonial violence to be forced to use bore water.

The health of the basin affects the whole community.

There’s an artesian basin on our country and it has amazing fresh water, it’s not like the artesian water out there.

DZ: White profit-led activities like fracking and agriculture are polluting the underground water tables.

LH: Nobody knows what’s going to happen. They’ve extracted all the water to make money off it.

But no-one knows what’s happening underground - out of sight, out of mind.

That water’s not going to be endless. Underneath where the pumps are, on top of where the pumps go down, the land is very cracked and falling in - that’s a sign of the sickness of the system because of extraction.

Aunty Cheryl, Libby and Lola Harward at Toobeah. Photo: Lavonne Babongie.
Aunty Cheryl, Libby and Lola Harward at Toobeah. Photo: Lavonne Babongie.

DZ: Can you tell me about the dams you saw on your journey out there?

LH: The dams are damming water. Damming water, holding onto that water and controlling it and deciding where it goes based on profit.

People don’t see the value in allowing the water to flow because it just flows out to sea - no knowledge of natural systems and how fresh and saltwater have worked together to sustain us forever.

Why would we have to hold back the water from flowing out to sea, as though that’s a WASTE, when the water precipitates and that’s how we get rain?

When you’ve got water in dams, that’s a mass concentration of water and it evaporates quicker.  

A lot of dams are stored underground so we can’t see how much water they are holding back.

They’re re-channeling the flow to go under the ground. We don’t even know where they all are.

DZ: This is where floodplain harvesting comes in, isn’t it? Where irrigators ‘harvest’ overland flows after rain, diverting water from the Baaka into irrigation “storage” instead of allowing it to flow gradually to the river or sink into the soil of the plains. They steal the water from the rain and hoard it away in these storage systems. It’s such a metaphor for capitalist accumulation isn’t it? A mean surplus which can then be part of speculation in the trading of water futures. As though water is a commodity.

LH: They’re not thinking about the next millennia, the next thousand years or whatever. They don’t even think about their neighbours.

DZ: Can you tell us about Aunty Cheryl, who is a significant elder in the community, and her role in her community? Why did you want to talk to her for this project?

This came from the Blackfella referral process.

I just started at one end and got one person to tell me who to speak to next.

Buddy Hippi interviewed by Libby Harward at Toomelah. Photo: Lavonne Babongie.
Buddy Hippi interviewed by Libby Harward at Toomelah. Photo: Lavonne Babongie.

DZ: She’s interesting in terms of downstream concept, and you’ve called this work, which is a conversation with her and the river, ‘downstream’.

LH: I already knew Aunty Cheryl, she was one of my starting points.

I’d been to Goondiwindi and met her and she’d met my family people from Quandamooka country.

I met her then got introduced to Buddy Hippi, whose property we stayed at.

Goondiwindi is on the Queensland side - Boggabilla is on the other side of the river and it’s NSW. From there, I knew I was going to meet up with Uncle Bruce.

I had some names and some people and then I went into town and asked one person who to talk to next and just trusted that I would be talking to the right people that I needed to talk to. It wasn't like I sort of ‘directed’ that; that was the blackfella referral process. Following protocol.  

As far as I know they’re not a massive huge mob and she’s from one of the families that grew up on the reserve at Toobeah and she’s the main spokesperson from her family and she’s grown up on the reserve and she does a lot of work for community. She got an OAM, she’s done a lot of work in community. She’s very active.

She’s an amazing artist too. Her art tells a lot of stories about her connection to country and the river.

We just talked about art and culture. We connected on that artistic level. So I’ve learned about her country through her sharing her art. She was the winner of the NAIDOC competition, the women’s one a few years ago - “Because of her, we can”.

I have permission to reproduce the one about the brolgas here. It’s really colourful and beautiful. In my interview with her, she was talking about her art and the brolgas. I talked with her about the use of colour. She took me to the spot that she has painted so colourfully.  

The Dance Returns (A Celebration of Native TItle Determination), painting by Aunty Cheryl Moggs.
The Dance Returns (A Celebration of Native TItle Determination), painting by Aunty Cheryl Moggs.

DZ: The Western/colonial conception of that country is pretty brown and dry and dusty and NOT vibrant or colourful.

LH: Why does she paint it so colourfully? Because that’s how she sees her culture.

DZ: Aunty Cheryl talks about the times when the river was much, much higher than it is today following the theft and over-extraction by irrigators. What does it mean to talk to someone who has that living memory of that place, before the over-extraction and theft?  

LH: The memories go back a long way.

They’re intergenerational memories.

So being able to listen to them is really important.

How she says ‘pour the water on my head’. That comes from memories. I believe it’s about her childhood and her mother’s childhood. Her people since time immemorial and their relation to the river.

Her conversation with the river holds those intergenerational memories.

DZ: It is one of the strongest aspects of the piece, the sense of community memory.

LH: It’s so much older than a single human life is contained and held and shared by a human. It’s such an intimate and detailed knowing of the river.

It’s why I like talking with and through the river.

DZ: What might water sovereignty mean in relation to water right now? How differently would Indigenous governance of water systems operate to current practice?

LH: Well I imagine we would be putting the river first, in its place, which is the priority.

We would be coming up with a realistic plan for the future that can last into the future generations about what sharing actually looks like.

Which I think would be shocking to people who are used to taking more than they deserve and depleting country.

We would need to put the environment and country and people first.

It would end in abundance - but it would be an abundance that would have the future embedded in it.

There needs to be an economic return for Aboriginal people as Virginia Marshall says in her book, Overturning Aqua Nullius: Securing Aboriginal Water Rights.

There needs to be an environmental use of water for everyone. The river system put first. There needs to be economic gain for Aboriginal people - at the moment Indigenous people are missing out.

DZ: But a few very fucking rich people are making billions.

LH: As it is, there is some talking to traditional owners and communities happening. But for us that’s still about having a seat at somebody else's table. We have to always sit at someone else’s table.

In an ideal space we would be able to position the land as the law and then make decisions based around that, rather than decisions based around economy.

DZ: It’s not about individuals amassing ridiculous super-wealth, the idea of economy is fundamentally different when we are talking about Indigenous sovereignty over water management; the idea of economy is collective, is about sharing abundance rather than hoarding it. That brings us to the idea of the ‘river bank’, do you want to talk about that?

LH: That was something that came up and I realised that it’s like the water is a commodity and the river is treated as an economic entity, as pure money.

The next wars will be fought over water.

DZ: The effects of our behaviour are not separate, they don’t exist in isolation - what we do ‘upstream’ affects those ‘downstream’. Does this make us all part of one ‘stream’? Is that the kind of thinking we need?

LH: It was just law that you had to make sure your neighbours were fed and happy and supported because there’s no concept of wealth. There’s a different concept of wealth. There’s no wealth if you’re just having your own family fed, if your neighbours are starving or thirsty.

It’s an economy based on trade. If there are important things our neighbour holds we can trade for them. If we take from our neighbours’ country then we would miss out somehow, because it’s interconnected country - it doesn’t exist in isolation.

Capitalism is completely flawed. Not just in thinking downstream in the literal context. It doesn’t think in terms of what exists in the future for our grandchildren and our grandchildren's children. It’s just hoarding in the here and now. As though it’s some kind of competition.

I don’t think there’s much thought for the future

Maybe it comes from the Christian belief that there’s going to be one day where God stops the world or something.

DZ: A very non-spiritual, non-collective way of thinking isn’t it? The individual is more important than the community. My individual wealth in this earthly lifetime or the big corporation growing profits is what matters, rather than families now and into the future. The future is unable to be mapped into that system.

LH: Very individualist.

DZ:  Which is another word selfish and short-sighted. If your entire ‘nation’ is predicated on a theft and forgetting, then it stands to reason that you don’t want to think about the future.

LH: They cheat their own law - They can’t be honest because their law system is set up to benefit people and benefit cheating and over-taking.

Whereas in our law system the laws don’t change, you can’t shift and change them to suit individuals.

It’s the laws of country and how to live on the land.

You can’t just manipulate laws or hide from them to gain power.

DZ: The land is the law, as Aunty Mary Graham, who is a Kombumerri elder, says. Versus one law for the rich and one for everyone else, etc.

DZ: You’ve described your art practice, in DABILBUNG, as a process of listening to custodian’s stories. You listen to and amplify these stories. This is a sound artwork, not a documentary, even if it has documentary elements. Can we talk about that?

LH: In a conversation with the river.

That’s why I took myself out of the edit. Because a lot of it was stimulated by being on country with Aunty and the river.

Sounds happen in the natural environment.

Some sounds were recorded in situ with field recordings. Other sounds were added later to reflect the knowledges I have in my head - the sucking of the pipes, the sound of water in the pipes - all of that is resonant of the amplification affirmation spirit song, a healing aspect of this project.

So whenever I’m playing those sounds back in a sovereign context, it always goes back to the idea of playing with the tools of the coloniser in the healing process.

Sound stimulates the quality of knowledge. It’s another form of memory. The industrial sounds of the water sucking up in the pipes is very deliberate in the work. At times, I even wondered if it was too much… I remember when we were making it, the sound sounded alien or futuristic - not non-human but inhuman.

Around about when she’s talking about TOs being prevented from practising culture and their activities being controlled, the water sounds get distorted. That’s the amplification I’m talking about.

She talks about access a lot. It’s because it is private land, so you can’t access where we would have ceremony because it’s private land.

Also it’s about not having a say politically in how the water is used and where it’s allocated.

When I listen to her speak, I’m constantly reminded of the extractivist nature of capitalism and that it’s completely unrealistic. It’s unable to sustain our ecosystem and sustain country. Our water-ways.

We’re so far from sitting at an equal table. Because the amount of water we’ve got to work with - cultural flows or environmental flows - is already substantially too low.

That’s due to the position of where country sits in the priority list of the colonisers, with money and influence at the top,

I think actually that part of it could be the Aussie philosophy of a ‘fair go’ - “They’re just trying to make a living in this harsh landscape”. That’s been translated into completely depleted form.

That’s just a smoke cloak for multinational companies over-taking and extracting the water. Push the farmers forward as though it’s just a bunch of people trying to get a ‘fair go’.

There’s something you said earlier, about things being watered-down. That seems to me to relate to this situation - they’re trying to get legislation ‘watered-down’. All while starving the river.

That also makes me think about mining and gas and fracking. Fracking is literal gaslighting - we’ve been gaslighted in Australia. Manipulated and coerced. Gaslighting is one of the key tools of colonial Australia.

This is an artwork. Everything is deliberate in that interview, in how it’s been presented. It’s all chosen.

DZ: You’re a visual and sound artist and you’re also an artist who is very meticulous in the words you use. It’s very important that you are involved in the editing of your words. You deliberately insert a dash between ‘water’ and ‘ways’ so that it’s ‘water-ways’. Can we talk about that?

Our water-ways are our ways of being with water.

We always hear ‘waterways’ meaning rivers and streams, and rain - systems that can be dominated by colonial mapping with that kind of aerial mapping that creates white maps.

Whereas our kind of mapping is much more layered, so when we think about our waterways we also think about our ways of being with water.

So whenever I write water-ways I put that dash between the words to make the point that it’s not the white ‘waterways’ I’m talking about, but our ‘water-ways’.

Even if my own language wasn’t taken away from us and  I could speak my  language, Gowar from the Quandamooka fluently, I’d still want to use this word this way. I like to use English in a way that reflects my culture more. Also this reflects tinkering with colonial tools as an act of resistance. It’s re-claiming by estranging - reconstructing the alien invader language. A reminder that it’s a light layer on top of something much older. White language is not capable of describing our Indigenous cultures and country.  

DZ: How is this project continuing or extending?

LH: I’m now working on the country that I reside on, Yugambeh Country on the Gold Coast In another iteration of the work. I have been listening to the country and its stories of extraction and how the natural water-ways have been dramatically changed through what they call re-claiming land, which is another really interesting choice of language. Maybe there’s a chance to mention the water being re-channelled and extractivism on this country. That’s changed the water-ways and access to water.

The work is ongoing.


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