Type to search

Art amplifies Indigenous cultural heritage at Australia’s newest rail stations

Art amplifies Indigenous cultural heritage at Australia’s newest rail stations


Australia’s newest rail stations are using art to connect the millions of people travelling on public transport every year with First Nations heritage and culture. Acknowledging Indigenous cultural heritage in the built environment is an important part of reconciling Australia’s past and present. Renowned Indigenous artists have been commissioned to create work in and around the country’s expanding rail infrastructure network.

Artist Nicole Monks at Waterloo Station in front of her artwork of local dancer Roscoe, in collaboration with Wayne Quilliam, Jodie Choolburra-Welsh and local community dancers. Photography: Rusty Goat Media.
Continuing custodians leave an indelible mark 

A striking example is the new Sydney Metro Waterloo Station, due to open in August. When train passengers alight on Waterloo’s subterranean platform, a local Aboriginal boy will be smiling down at them from the concourse above. The boy, a dancer named Roscoe, is a 9.7 metre high artwork by Indigenous artist Nicole Monks, of public art company mili mili. It was developed collaboratively with photographer Wayne Quilliam, Jodie Choolburra-Welsh of Brolga Dance Academy and the local Redfern/Waterloo dance mob. 

Roscoe’s beaming, welcoming smile makes the daily commute that much more enjoyable. Photography: Peter Bennetts.

The artwork is one of three wall-mounted sculptures at Waterloo collectively titled  ‘Footprints on Gadigal Nura’, developed by Monks with the continuing Custodians and Aboriginal community who live, work and visit the local area. The word ‘Nura’ refers to Country in the book ‘The Sydney Language’ by Jakelin Troy.

A second artwork by Monks is embedded on the escalator walls, where hundreds of community members’ footprints, cast in electroplated aluminium, form a sparkling map. 

Monk’s community footprint artwork makes a powerful and dramatic impact. Photography: Peter Bennetts.

Artistically and philosophically, Monks combines the past, present and future in all her work. “Gadigal mob have walked this Country since the beginning of time and their footprints continue to walk this Country today and into the future,” Monks says. “It is so important for us all to know about the places and space that we work, live and play, and the stories that have been connected to this place since the beginning of time.”

Connecting to place and looking to a bright collaborative future

The artworks are integral to the station’s design. Architects John McAslan + Partners undertook extensive work to give the new station a strong connection to place. John McAslan + Partners’ Sydney director Troy Uleman says consultation with Indigenous advisors Yerrabingin was a starting point.

“Through Yerrabingin we learnt the phrase ‘the past is in the earth and the future is in the sky’ and that became our conceptual framework,” says Uleman. “Across three levels, passengers are taken on a journey from the ancient to the modern.” 

When train passengers alight on Sydney Metro Waterloo Station’s subterranean platform, Roscoe smiles down at them from the concourse above. Photography: Peter Bennetts.

The design team layered Waterloo’s heritage into the architecture through materials and subtle patterns that reference the site’s evolution from marshland to inner-city suburb. Art adds meaning and plays a major role in creating an uplifting station experience, says Uleman.

“I cannot imagine Waterloo’s concourse without that great, smiling, friendly boy, telling us the future is bright,” he says.

Inspiring curiosity and reflection on your daily commute 

Further north, Brisbane’s new Cross River Rail network, designed by Hassell is under construction. Four underground stations will feature 14 artworks by 13 of Queensland’s most highly regarded Indigenous artists. The public transport infrastructure will become an ‘art trail’, viewed daily by thousands of commuters and visitors alike. 

The works at Boggo Road, Woolloongabba, Albert Street and Roma Street stations will be seen in external public spaces, and inside on walls and along the length of the platform screen doors. Diverse in style and scale, they tell stories that connect people across time, culture and geography, and inspire curiosity and reflection. 

The first completed work is by Quandamooka (Ngugi people) artist Elisa Jane Carmichael. Titled “plants, waters, gathering time”, the large-scale piece has been installed on the escalator wall at Woolloongabba Station and is a vibrant blue cyanotype, a photographic process that uses ultraviolet light from the sun. 

Elisa Jane Carmichael’s work ‘plants, waters, gathering time’ at Cross River Rail’s Woolloongabba Station evokes the importance of Woolloongabba as a meeting place of great spiritual significance to First Nations peoples. Photography: Cross River Rail.

“It’s an honour to join so many other respected senior First Nations artists to help tell the stories of the rich cultural heritage where these new stations are being built,” says Carmichael. “What I’ve created for Woolloongabba is all about acknowledging the area as a meeting place of great spiritual significance to First Nations peoples. 

“While it is exciting to think of what the new stations mean for the city, it’s important we also acknowledge and honour the past.”

Sharing stories through encounters with art

Art advisor Barbara Flynn has been involved in the Cross River Rail project since its inception. Flynn says a panel of expert curators and cultural advisors ensured that emerging, mid-career and senior artists were all represented, intentionally crossing generations. 

“The range of ideas that the project allowed artists to come up with is terrific. It’s not just visual – some of them are tactile and three-dimensional. The project is a picture of the really extraordinary calibre of artists in Queensland and puts it out there in a very accessible way,” Flynn says.

Many of the exterior works are interactive and can be touched or sat on, and Flynn is excited that rail users will be able to familiarise themselves with the work of several Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists on a single train journey.

Uleman praises the sensitive integration of Indigenous art into rail infrastructure as a great contribution to the urban environment and a shared sense of identity. “The incorporation of Indigenous themes, in collaboration with artists and design consultants, grounds stations in deep history while symbolising a robust future for First Nations peoples and their living culture.”

Read more about the design story of Sydney Metro Waterloo Station

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *