In a small upstairs gallery in Sydney’s Macquarie Street, banks of TV screens line the walls emitting a soft jumble of overlapping voices, like chattering birds on a distant riverbank. Approaching the first screen, the sounds cohere, as visitors are welcomed via video recording to this multimedia exhibition on Dyarubbin, the Hawkesbury River.

In a series of video installations, Darug knowledge-holders Leanne Watson, Jasmine Seymour, Erin Wilkins and Rhiannon Wright share stories of Dyarubbin and surrounding country, punctuated by photographs, paintings and historical documents.

Exhibition curator Marika Duczynski, of Gamilaraay and Mandandanji descent, says the Hawkesbury is one of Australia’s most well-known rivers.

“It was one of the earliest places in Australia to be colonised, but a lot of people don’t really know it’s true history. The Darug women wanted to redress that and share some of their culture and stories,” she says.

There is a deep sense of peace and wonder here, as images of scarred melaleuca trees and the majestic winding body of the river interweave with the women’s voices telling us of sites still used for firestick farming, dance and cultural practice, and the paperbark trees, Warrigal greens and native raspberries that provide food and medicine.

The opening of the Dyarubbin exhibition in late March coincided with the worst flooding of the Hawkesbury in more than 30 years, which forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes. For the Darug people it speaks of the flood power of Gurangatty, the Great Eel ancestor spirit, who created the rivers and valleys of the area, and who resides in the deepest parts of the river. Engravings of Gurangatty can be found all through the sandstone of this country.

Yarramundi, where the three rivers – Dyarubbin, Grose and Nepean – meet, was an important place for toolmaking, trading and ceremony. It was also a major site of resistance to the colonising settlers. Duczynski notes that the region is the site of one of the longest running frontier wars in the history of invasion and colonisation on this continent.

Celebrated colonist Andrew Thompson – convict, magistrate, businessman and so-called ‘founding father’ of Windsor – is a major presence in the district, with the town square and streets bearing his name. The settlement of Windsor effectively blocked the local Aboriginal people’s access to the river, leading to starvation and struggles for survival. Thomson led one well-known massacre in 1805 and during his administration settlers were able to engage in violent acts against Aboriginal people with impunity. Recounting this history in one of the videos, two of the Darug women note ruefully that they grew up on, and one still lives on, Andrew Thompson Drive. But where are the monuments or markers to the Darug?

Darug people are still here, living on the river and practicing culture, and Darug people are still strong.

Black and white photographs tell the story of the Sackville Reserve, where the Darug people were rounded up and taken and made to pay board. From time to time, they would be taken to perform for the settlers in the colony. A poignant photo in the collection shows an Aboriginal family dressed in suits, white colonial dresses and bonnets. Juxtaposed against the natural, wild beauty of their country, the humiliation and domination is devastating.

This exhibition reminds that, in Duczynski’s words, “Darug people are still here, living on the river and practicing culture, and Darug people are still strong.”

To take in the video stories, images and artefacts of the Dyarubbin exhibition is to lose yourself, momentarily, in that other Australia, still mostly hidden, but whose heartbeat persists steadily behind the façade of settler stories. The Australia whose stories wind all around us, if we come in close enough to listen.

The Dyarubbin exhibition runs until 13 March 2022 at the State Library of NSW. Admission is free.

Main image is of (l-r) Rhiannon Wright, Leanne Watson and Jasmine Seymour at the Canoelands rock art shelter. Photo: Courtesy of Joy Lai, State Library of NSW