One of Yorta Yorta artist Lin Onus’ best known works is Barmah Forest (1994), an eerily serene scene of Biyala (river red gums) immersed and reflected in water, not unlike the later Floodwater ‘Wooroong Nucko’ (1995) that explicitly represents the Dungala (Murray River) in flood. In Barmah Forest, what might at first appear a realist rendering in the European landscape tradition is disrupted by trompe l’oeil effects that suggest the painting is in fact an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, missing or ill-fitting pieces littering its surface. With this simple device, Onus evokes the inextricability of nature and culture and the challenge to recover both from the ongoing violence of colonisation.
These works were shown in Lin Onus: The Land Within, one of the exhibitions that marked the 2021 re-opening of the Shepparton Art Museum in its new building in the heart of Yorta Yorta country. They represent floodwater as life-giving and majestic, honouring Dungala’s central role. By contrast, a smaller and undated painting, Jumping Puddles, depicts a river almost run dry, its dregs good only for a child’s game.