In Langscape Magazine Articles

The Oyster Picnic

May 31, 2023
A designer takes responsibility to learn about the landscape and the Aboriginal languages that describe it.

WORDS AND ART Kathryn Morgan

Oysters and Rushes

“Oysters and Rushes,” cyanotype and mixed media collage. Beginning to explore the flora of Blackwattle Bay.
An oyster shell sleeps as Sydney is built around her. Protective casuarina trees are cleared, and the water turns red with animal blood. Trendy new cultivars of banksia appear. The artwork I present here speaks of the trouble with drawing a landscape without cultural and linguistic context.


In this body of work, I explore the role language can play in honoring lives of the past and the present-day sovereignty of First Nations people. I’m trying to learn about the precolonial landscape and the languages that have described it longer than English. From my right to exist in this place comes my responsibility to listen to it.

I’m a landscape architecture student at the University of Technology, Sydney, and a student landscape architect at Taylor Brammer Landscape Architects. I study and practice on stolen, unceded Aboriginal land of the Gadigal and Dharawal nations. As a visitor and non-Indigenous person on-site on Eora, or Sydney’s Blackwattle Bay, attempting to draw the landscape for a project, I noted a lack of reference to Aboriginal existence in the bay’s infrastructure and design.

Blackwattle Bay is just around the bend from Sydney Cove, where England invaded and settled this land in 1778. Throughout the process of making these artworks, I fantasized that my own White ancestor, Jane — an impoverished and trafficked fourteen-year-old convict girl from London — met the First People and shared a meal of oysters with them here in Blackwattle Bay. Of course, this did not happen. But Jane and a local Aboriginal boy who became known as Musquito did share a unique journey: both were transported from Sydney to Norfolk Island, where they were probably forced to strip the reefs of oyster shells that were used to make lime mortar for construction, and then transported again to Lutruwita / Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen’s Land).

        From my right to exist in this place comes my responsibility to listen to it.

I believe that as settler designers our responsibility is to interrogate these absences. My project became more and more about the problem of representing a landscape where violent erasure of Indigenous culture and people has occurred and continues to occur. In researching the history and culture of the Gadigal, the traditional owners of this part of Sydney, as well as early contact literature, I came across a plea from author Jakelin Troy (Ngamitji clan of the Ngarigu people) to “speak so that Country can hear” — to use the language of the country we’re on — and this shone a new light on my task and on the landscape itself. (This plea is featured in Georgina Reid’s journal Wonderground, a new and important Sydney-based ecological landscape publication.)

In my research, I became fascinated by contradictory Western and Aboriginal poetics of the guman (casuarina tree), badangi (Sydney rock oyster), and various other natural elements in the landscape. The guman was haunting and uncanny to the colonizers, but to Aboriginal people it often represents protection and safety, particularly of children. Badangi was a cheap building material for colonizers but a rich (and once abundant) source of nutrition and enjoyment for coastal Aboriginal people. Exploring with and through the Gadigal language documented by Jakelin Troy stretched the scope of place, time, and being.

Non-Indigenous designers in Australia have a responsibility to learn from and amplify the work of Indigenous activists and workers who are pushing against so much protracted and continuing genocide, to help bring “sleeping” languages back. In my field, at the most basic level this means seeking out local Aboriginal language to name plants and places. It means genuine collaboration with Aboriginal people and promoting their leadership in design. It means actively supporting Aboriginal sovereignty.

Man under Casuarina

“Man under Casuarina,” mixed media on board. Considering plants as witnesses to the history of a landscape.


Jane and Musquito

“Jane and Musquito,” oil on board. An imagined meeting.


“Oyster Picnic” (#1), oil on canvas. An imagined feast of oysters shared by Jane and Musquito in a secret cove.


Oyster Picnic

“Oyster Picnic” (#2), oil on canvas. Again, imagining the picnic.


“Picnickers,” mixed media collage. Colonialists pick over the landscape for resources.


Reef Stripping

“Reef Stripping,” mixed media collage on board. Sydney’s first colonial buildings were made with lime from oyster shells stripped from reefs and sometimes looted from Aboriginal middens.


Casuarina Seeds

“Casuarina Seeds,” ink and watercolor. Aboriginal children were given casuarina seed pods to occupy them while their families gathered resources. I like to think of them as precolonial game devices!


“Blackwattle Bay,” mixed media collage on board. Pleasure grounds and intentional erasure.



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Kathryn Morgan.

Kathryn Morgan is an educator, designer, and speaker of Bahasa Indonesia and Tetun, languages that she studied while working with artists in Indonesia and Timor-Leste (East Timor). She believes language learning and sharing are critical to intercultural collaboration.


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