The Art of Reconciliation: Adnate and a wall that tells a story

By Dorothy Henderson

Photographs by Dorothy Henderson and Esperance Community Arts


In the south east of Western Australia a bland brick wall has been transformed into a significant work of art during a process intentionally designed to heal and reconcile, using story and imagery to bind Indigenous and non-Indigenous people as they live together in one country.

Esperance has become the latest regional Australian community to provide a canvas and subject for the work of internationally acclaimed street artist, Matt Adnate. Adnate’s work has transformed other structures, in his home town of Melbourne, Sydney and in Singapore and New York.

His Esperance work is part of a big picture project, the Wanju Nyungar Boodja - Welcome to Country Mural Project, facilitated by the Esperance Community Arts (ECA) group in partnership with Esperance Seawater Families and Escare Incorporated and supported by Esperance Tjlatjraak Aboriginal Native Tittle Corporation. It changed the Dempster Hair and Beauty external eastern wall from just another brick wall to one which grabs attention and elicits admiration.


But the creativity abounding in Esperance during the last month was not restricted to Adnate alone. Artists from the area have taken part, inspired and led by Athleen Woods and Valma Schultz, as they used paint and brushes to transform the west red-brick wall of the Esperance Red Cross building in to an amazing display of local wildlife; sea and land animals abound.

The project has drawn together the young and old, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, in the way it was intended.

The Adnate “Welcome to Country” mural is a portrait of the late Nyungar elder Tom Bullen, one of the applicants who, in 1996, lodged a Native Title Claim over a portion of the region. Accepted for registration in 1999 the claim was finally recognised on March 14 2014, paving the way for the Esperance Nyungars to embrace more fully the land they have always held dear.


The Federal Court of Australia’s recognition of the Esperance Nyungars claim led to the establishment of the Esperance Tjaltjraak (pronounced Dul-u-rak) Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, a body which has since set about reconnecting Indigenous people in the area with their land, art and culture.

Together with ECA project coordinator Jennell Reynolds and executive officer Jane Mulcock, community elders have mentored and encouraged involvement in the project, one which was designed to instil a sense of belonging; to remind the community of the presence of Indigenous people in the past and currently in their midst, and honour the memory of the elders involved in those crucial early days of the reconciliation process.


Ms Reynolds said that there was a lot of consultation with the Nyungar community associated with the selection of Mr Bullen’s image for the portrait, and for the other components of the Welcome to Country Mural.

“The clear preference was to include an elder, landscape imagery, ocean colours, language and an animal,” she said.

Ms Reynolds said that it was important to include the sea eagle as a reference to the Mandaboornap Dreaming story, a tale highly significant for the Nyungar families in the region and an important symbol of people’s connection to Country.

Furthering the work’s direct reference to country and community, it subtly incorporates references to the regions first families

“Julie Walker’s artwork has been reproduced along the edges of the mural, representative of the Dabb family,” Ms Reynolds said.

The words on the mural translate as Welcome (Wanju) to Esperance (Kepa Kurl) Country (Boodja).

“The Nyungar community hopes that the inclusion of words in the local Wandjuk dialect, and the images on the mural will help to stimulate conversations about Nyungar cultural heritage,” Ms Reynolds said.

Speaking after the unveiling of the giant portrait, Nyungar Heritage Advisor Doc Reynolds reflected on the role Mr Bullen had played in registering the Native Title Claim that now gives the Esperance Nyungar community hope and the chance to continue their connection with country.

His positive response to the project was indicative of the feelings of all involved. People spoke of pride and optimism, of sharing stories and community: all generated by artworks that proudly stated the presence of Indigenous people in a rural area where they are often almost invisible, despite the fact they are so connected to the country engulfing the whole community.

The fact that Matt Adnate was the visiting artist involved in the project is hardly surprising, given his background in working with Indigenous communities throughout Australia. On his website, he talks of the impact his work with Indigenous communities has had on him,

“Being given the opportunity to paint indigenous culture has completely changed my life. I hope through my work, it challenges the cultures of racism and ignorance that are so ingrained in people’s lives. Once a person starts to see these traits in themselves and makes a change, it creates a ripple effect on the people around them. I want to achieve this on a mass level and scale. I know it’s worked with people I’ve personally met over the years, often seeing the impact my art has had on others. For indigenous people, I feel it’s important to communicate their history of struggle, but just as important to represent their people in a positive and beautiful light. The experiences I’ve had witnessing communities being brought to tears of joy and happiness inspire me to continue my practice for as long as possible.” 

The mural project was delivered in partnership with Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, Seawater Families and Escare Incorporated, with funding from the Australian Government’s Indigenous Languages and Arts Program and the Regional Arts Fund.