Interview with Megan Cope: On the role of art in restoration, reclamation and rebirth


Megan Cope, a multidisciplinary Quandamooka artist, has breathed new life into her practice and revealed the healing power of art, by harnessing her family’s Aboriginal knowledge, community action and a deep love of Country. Transcending the boundaries of contemporary visual art and habitat conversation, her hand built sculptural work Kinyingarra Guwinyanba (2022) has piqued major interest around the world and sparked conversations about the role of art in restoring natural habitats and cultural practice.

Created to be living, generative land and sea artwork situated on the intertidal zone near Myora, Kinyingarra Guwinyanba (which means ‘place of oyster rocks’ in Jandai and Gowar language) was planted as a sea garden, from which a new generation of baby oysters will grow on the Kinyingarra shell. The project builds on the legacy of Cope’s ancestors, interrupted by colonisation, that demonstrates the power of art to physically heal country through the practice of ecologically restorative and ancestral processes.

Kinyingarra Guwinyanba by Megan Cope Photo by Cian Saunders

Kinyingarra Guwinyanba was created with funding support from Create NSW and the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

Create NSW caught up with Megan Cope to learn more about her practice, how the work has been received and its long-lasting impact.

Your work, Kinyingarra Guwinyanba marries sculpture, Aboriginal aquacultural knowledge and conservation in such a harmonious way – and has inspired people around the world. Its installation on Quandamooka Sea Country is also a point of fascination, situated for an audience living beneath the waves and mangroves. Tell us where the inspiration for the work came from?

My fascination with oyster reefs has been life-long, and culminated in dedicated research starting eight years ago when I began investigating the impact of the early colonial lime burning industry and devastation of both Aboriginal middens and oyster reefs in Quandamooka Sea Country. I also learned a lot from an uncle, an oyster farmer, who brought me to his oyster lease and shared stories of struggle with stressed wild reefs trying to establish themselves. My journey led me to understand the profound importance of oyster reefs, how they form, what conditions they need to thrive and the role they play in balancing the oceans’ ecoystems.

Oyster reefs are ancient underwater cities, built over centuries. The middens (mounds of discarded oyster shells) along the Quandamooka coastline were once enormous architectural-like forms in the landscape, large enough to be significant wayfinding markers for navigation.

British colonisation of the area in the early 1800s sadly saw the destruction of these ancient formations to fuel the demand for colonial buildings. Ancestral shell middens were seen as an easy, ready source of lime, which was burned to make mortar. It took the lime burning industry just seven years to strip these ancient middens from the coastline and empty the waters of oyster reefs, erasing centuries of archaeological, cultural and ecological heritage. While on land, trees were cleared to provide wood to fuel the cement kilns.

After the large Morton Bay Oyster Company left, many aboriginal families took up small leases. But oyster production was a struggle, largely due to mass outbreaks of mud worm pests and disease. The oysters that once thrived in the area and were a rich source of nourishment for countless generations, had no resilience in the stressed-out ecosystem without the protective middens.

I asked myself “could art play a role in addressing this?”

Megan Cope portrait by Zan Wimberley

My first sculptural series, Re Formation Part I and Part II sought to pay homage to these lost natural sculptural forms. Thousands of hand-cast shells were arranged in a bed of ilmenite, mimicking the mounds of discarded organic matter that accumulated in Aboriginal communities. In Part II, beer cans replaced oyster shells to form the middens.

Yet, this series was confined to a gallery presentation space, which contributed to the profound sense of loss and pain. I wanted to create something more hopeful with a tangible impact for Quandamooka Sea Country. An artwork made for Country. I was drawn to the concept of creating a living, breathing work that could become part of saltwater Country.

How did the work come together?

The enormous scale and complexity of the project, working with heavy cypress pine timber and hundreds of oyster shells, as well as the remoteness of the site, meant I needed support and a team to bring it to life.

With the help of funding from Create NSW I was able to assemble a team of fellow artists in Lismore, and with the support of local Northern Rivers businesses we set about making the objects. We constructed timber poles, which mimicked the original timber racks used by farmers before the introduction of plastic oyster baskets. This medium also served another important role – as timber was a material that could be legally planted. Local restaurants in Lennox Head and Byron Bay collected and donated thousands of oyster shells, which were cleaned and attached to the poles, to become habitats for baby oysters to grow. The design was carefully considered, as it was important that the oyster shells had 70cm clearance once planted, to protect from encroaching mud after rain.

“It’s been a truly remarkable journey which has opened up conversations and invigorated many people. That’s what I loved. It’s sparked lots of inspiration, inclusion and cultural pride, especially for my relatives, by doing something just for the love of Country.” ~ Megan Cope

Megan Cope, artist planting timber poles

Once we had a good number of objects, we set up a studio and residency on North Stradbroke Island and made a further 100 poles in two weeks. Then it came to the day of planting, 4am on January 26, 2022. We had to tune in to Country, working in harmony with the rhythms of the tide, the cool pre-dawn temperature and early morning light. It was a ceremonial experience, really moving and uplifting, from the moment we set out, until watching the sun rise and illuminate the work while we ate oysters for breakfast!

artists installing the sculpture

“It’s remarkable to think something so simple, especially a project that involved so much messy, dirty work, rescuing oyster shells from kitchen waste and landfill, resulted in something so beautiful that reached the core of humanity.”

From art galleries to oyster farmers and scientific institutions, your project sparked interest on a global scale. Tell us about the response you’ve received and how this work has forged connections here in Australia and around the world.

It’s been a truly remarkable journey which has opened up conversations and invigorated many people. That’s what I loved. It’s sparked lots of inspiration, inclusion and cultural pride, especially for my relatives, by doing something just for the love of Country.

The work has been met with so much support here in Australia and abroad. I never expected it to be so far-reaching. I’ve had hundreds of emails from all over Australia, from people who are passionate about oyster farming and oyster reefs and felt really positive and inspired by the project. I met marine biologists with decades of experience who were stunned by what we were doing, and enlivened by the prospect of this artwork doing what large scientific institutions couldn’t!

For people who couldn’t travel to the site, I created an installation that premiered in 2022 as part of my solo show Low Pressure (2022) at Milani Gallery, Brisbane and then it travelled to Busan Biennale 2022, South Korea. The timber and oyster poles are suspended as stakes, signifying reclamation.

Following the presentation of Kinyingarra Guwinyanba (2022) and Low Pressure (2022), I was commissioned by the Sydney Opera House to create an installation for the 50th anniversary celebrations, in October 2023. Whispers transformed the northern boardwalk of the Opera House with 200 timber Kinyingarra Guwinyanba poles covered with oyster shells standing as symbols of ecological rebirth and ancestral homage.

Whispers connected a huge community in its creation. More than 3,000 volunteers took part in over 100 workshops where they worked together to clean, polish, drill and thread 85,000 shells by hand. This monumental public artwork transformed the humble oyster shell into a symbol of a community, heritage and Country.

Whispers Megan Cope Sydney Opera House Credit Daniel Boud

I was also invited to speak at the Climate Museum in New York with Kanienʼkehá꞉ka Artist Alan Michelson, who is a New York-based artist, curator, writer, lecturer, and Mohawk member of the Six Nations of the Grand River. The conversation centred around art, colonial legacies, and the climate crisis, and Michelson’s stories of the Mohawk middens in Manhattan and North America sadly mirrored the experience of middens in Quandamooka around North Stradbroke Island. I also travelled to the Tate Modern in London, to be part of for the opening weekend for fellow Australian artist, Richard Bell’s show Embassy.

It’s remarkable to think something so simple, especially a project that involved so much messy, dirty work, rescuing oyster shells from kitchen waste and landfill, resulted in something so beautiful that reached the core of humanity. The project taught us all how we could work together and do something meaningful to care for Country. Animals and Country have agency. As artists, we have a unique opportunity to amplify the voices of the land and sea and care for Country.

Aerial view of Kinyingarra Guwinyanba by Megan Cope

What did the work mean for you personally?

It’s been a remarkable journey, and it’s had a much bigger impact on me as an artist than I ever expected. Before I embarked on this project, I had a growing sense of feeling unfulfilled as an artist. The support from Create NSW really made an impact. This project was an opportunity for me to be an agent of real change and gave me a renewed sense of purpose as an artist.

I was impacted by the Lismore floods in 2022, where I lost my studio and about 80 per cent of its contents, which were mostly uninsured, archival and sentimental things. Even with this set back, I have felt so supported in my practice.

Megan’s new work “After The Flood IIII, 2024” is currently on display at UNSW Galleries as part of the 24th Biennale of Sydney: Ten Thousand Suns. Returning to her After The Flood series, Megan created a map to share the location of Quandamooka Country and many place names over a future depiction of country with a 7-metre sea level rise.

Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney and the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain.

9 March – 10 June, 2024

Learn more about Create NSW Arts and Cultural Funding Program

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