Remembering the Empty Coolamons

A reflection from Libby Byrne and Angela Morgan:

Last weekend, as part of National Reconciliation Week 2017, Australians reflected on two significant anniversaries in our reconciliation journey – 50 years since the 1967 referendum, and 25 years since the historic Mabo decision. On Saturday we each found our way independently of one another to The Atrium in Federation Square, Melbourne to remember the empty coolamons with artist Robyne Latham.

Wooden container from the Darling River area of NSW. Photographer: Stuart Humphreys © Australian Museum

The Coolamon is a wooden vessel used throughout Australia by Aboriginal men and women to collect fruit, nuts and grain, and to cradle newborn babies. Robyne Latham sat silently in the Atrium within a red, black, white and yellow delineated ‘sacred space’, making small clay coolamons. Each of the coolamons was comprised of 5 elements, each representing a member of the Stolen Generations. The Coolamon, ’empty of baby’ stood in silent witness to the trans-generational loss and grief suffered by the Stolen Generations of Australia. The very generous gift of this work was that Robyne invited us not only to witness but to participate in her work. Alongside the sacred space were tables with materials and people who were willing to talk to anyone who wanted to be involved, helping us to understand what was happening and how to make our own Coolamon.

The conversation that unfolded at the table was an opportunity for people to learn about the Stolen Generations and to ask questions. Within this open and extended conversation there was the possibility that we might cause offence with words or actions that were flippant or misspoken but within those who were facilitating there was a willingness to take that risk. The work we were doing in coming together to acknowledge this loss was so important that it was worth taking the risk of causing offence or being offended in the service of growing something new.


Once we had made a Coolamon we were invited to give it to Robyne, who without speaking offered a generous acknowledgement of thanks and included it within the sacred space. There was something about the work we made being received and woven together with others, that was an incredibly inclusive experience. Robyne’s willingness to include our limited attempts to understand the gravity of this experience for her was transformative for us. After receiving our clay coolamons she placed them within the larger work and selected coloured sand to decorate each work individually. This was an acknowledgement of presence and grace which integrated our individual responses into something much larger. What a gift…


4 thoughts on “Remembering the Empty Coolamons

  1. Hi Libby What a wonderful and deeply meaningful project to be a part of. It is great to see more of these collaborative and creative approaches to tackling such important issues. Best wishes Monique

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed Monique. It was a really important opportunity for the idea of reconciliation to take root deeply in our lived experience. These things stay with us and continue to resonate as we move forward. Libby

      Liked by 2 people

  2. What a gift indeed. Even in reading I can sense the deep hospitality to one another and to one’s inner experience this would open. How much stronger the experience of being there in body. And what will resonate in the world, even hiddenly, from this gathering.

    Liked by 1 person

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