Indigenous Totem Art graces new molecular science institute

Posted on October 16, 2013

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Ancient shapes for new science: Artist Reko Rennie, left, and La Trobe Museum of Art  Director Dr Vincent Alessi at the unveiling ceremony of 'Murri Totems'.

Ancient shapes for new science: artist Reko Rennie, left, and La Trobe Museum of Art Director Dr Vincent Alessi at the unveiling ceremony of ‘Murri Totems’.

The first large-scale public sculpture commissioned by the University from an Indigenous artist was unveiled on La Trobe’s Melbourne campus in October.

Titled Murri Totems, the sculpture is by Reko Rennie, an interdisciplinary artist whose work on Indigenous culture and identity in modern urban environments has been shown internationally including Paris, New York, Berlin and Shanghai.

Murri Totems graces the forecourt of the new La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS), a $100 million education and research facility opened earlier this year. It comprises four brightly coloured multi-faceted columns combining traditional Aboriginal ceremonial poles with geometric shapes found in nature and science.

A 'bold and exciting entrance' to stimulate inquiry and thought

A ‘bold and exciting entrance’ to stimulate inquiry and thought

Deeper understanding of top-ranking science

Vice-Chancellor John Dewar said LIMS was a magnificent piece of architecture.

Research at LIMS ‘will deepen our understanding of the science of biochemistry, cell biology and molecular science, and apply it to develop new vaccines, drugs, biotechnology products, sensors and environmental solutions for government and industry,’ Professor Dewar said.

With La Trobe’s Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) ranking last year as equal top university nationally for Biochemistry and Cell Biology and rating  ‘well above world standard’ for these disciplines, Professor Dewar said it was ‘only fitting that we have the best possible facilities for research in these areas.’

Symbolic fusion

‘A building such as this deserves a bold and exciting entrance. We are therefore extremely fortunate that Reko Rennie has created this for us in his Murri Totems.’ Professor Dewar said Murri Totems was highly relevant in the way it symbolically combined Western science and philosophy with Indigenous history and knowledge.

‘Each pole has been designed using the five platonic solids – icosahedron, octahedron, star tetrahedron, hexahedron and dodecahedron – considered to be the building blocks of nature within the canon of Western science and philosophy,’ he said.

‘They have been painted with the Murri design, a traditional Indigenous diamond-shaped pattern, handed down to Reko Rennie by his father and grandfather – hence the work brings together the Western world’s understanding of the building blocks of nature with those of the Indigenous world.’

Celebrating a fantastic art work: Vice-Chancellor Dewar, right, with Mr Rennie.

Wider commitment to art

In celebrating this ‘fantastic artwork’, Professor Dewar said the University also acknowledged its wider commitment to art.

This includes the new La Trobe Institute of Art, based in Bendigo, through which he said the University ‘aspires to be the premier regional art school in Australia, capturing both international thinking and a regional approach to the arts.’

La Trobe is also the Learning Partner for the Melbourne Now exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in November, which also features the work of Reko Rennie.

Acting Executive Dean of Science Technology and Engineering, Dr Elizabeth Johnson, said with its ultra-modern design ‘the LIMS building was constructed to invite people in, to look through the glass windows at science in action.

‘It invites inquiry and thought. And now we have the Murri Totems which also invite discussion and thought by bringing together contemporary and traditional themes. I’m sure they will be a stimulus for creativity amongst the staff and students.’

Amazing collaboration

Mr Rennie said creating the sculpture was an ‘amazing collaborative project’ working with University art staff and architects. He said he began by looking at Plato’s theory and platonic solids and shapes, some of which were diamonds and similar shapes.

For his family and the Kamilaroi people the diamond was one of eight shapes symbolising males and females. It was used to denote kinship systems and marriage, as well as flora and fauna, and represented something akin to a family crest.

‘Traditionally in the Kamilaroi area there was a lot of line work and tree carving,’ he said. So in Murri Totems he ‘re-unfolds’ some of those platonic solids, changes their shapes and formations and combines them with Kamilaroi iconography to create ‘a kind of totem pole, which is what you see here,’ he said.

What would he like viewers to take from the sculpture?

‘I hope it’s a dialogue and shows the diversity of Aboriginal Australia.

‘A lot of times there is this romanticised notion of Aboriginality; someone who is jet-black walking around the desert, uneducated, painting dots and living on the fringes of society when that’s not the case.

‘There are more than 300 different language groups in Australia and only a few of those use dot art forms, so it’s about breaking down romanticised notions of Aboriginality and stereotypes.’

Watch the video, including an interview with Reko Rennie 

Sculpture Park

Murri Totems is also the first major sculptural commission on the Melbourne campus since the mid-1980s, making it an important addition to the University’s Art Collection and Sculpture Park.

Artistic Director of La Trobe’s Museum of Art, Dr Vincent Alessi, says there have been three other major large-scale public artwork commissions in the University’s history – the Allen David glass screen in front of the Library, Inge King’s Dialogue of Circles near the Moat Theatre and Leonard French’s stained glass Four Seasons in front of the David Myers Building.

Learn more about  La Trobe’s Melbourne Campus Sculpture Park and the La Trobe University Museum of Art

Also Listen to Dr Alessi discuss the La Trobe University art collection

Read more: Brushstrokes before bricks  and Van Gogh gold