Arts

The art of placemaking

As a young man, Lance Chadd never imagined his paintings would hang in galleries and private collections around the world. Nor did he imagine his most iconic image would become the inspiration for the colossal nine-meter-tall sculpture that stands sentinel in the heart of Perth City’s Yagan Square. 

As an artist new to sculpting, Chadd is one of several West Australians benefiting from a principle in urban planning known as placemaking, the process of creating a sense of place and community connectedness through the built environment. The concept is not lost on Chadd as we discuss his seminal work.

Since 2017, Chadd’s sculpture Wiren has stood in the centre of Yagan Square, weathered in rusty hues of orange and brown, spear and mirra in hand. Penetrating deep into the earth, the monolith affirms the enduring connection Indigenous Australians have had with the land for thousands of years.

“It needs to be big because it’s important,” he says. “If it’s small it’s got no power, it needs to be big you know? It’s significant because of its spirituality.”

Statue of Wiren in Yagan Square. Photo: Andrew Chounding.

Chadd’s work is a testament to the role of art in placemaking. In 2019 the City of Perth put in place its Strategic Community Plan outlining how new precincts must be designed to promote a unique sense of place, while acknowledging and engaging with the lands traditional owners, the Whadjuk Nyoongar people.

A celebrated artist of 35 years, Chadd paints under his traditional Nyoongar name Tjyllyungoo, he says it translates to ‘old man.’ Despite his renown as an international artist, Chadd is softly spoken, but not shy. I ask him what the piece means to him and what he hoped others would feel when they see it in Yagan Square.

“I’m very proud of it and I’m proud that it makes a lot of my people strong.

“But more important to me, it’s about people and how other people feel about that sort of thing. I would like people to think that they’re in Australia and they’re on Whadjuk Nyoongar Country, but I would also like them, if it interests them, to have a look at the culture and get to know the culture and get to know the spirit of the culture.”

Artist Lance Chadd. Photo: Supplied.

He was trained as a boy in the distinctive and technically complex Carrolup art style by his uncles Allan Kelly and Reynold Hart, both celebrated artists of the Carrolup Mission in their own right. A 10-year-old Chadd dreamed of being an artist, but admits sculpting has only been a recent endeavour.

“Basically, when I was a boy that was all I wanted to do, to be an artist, a landscape artist. I mean, I’ve been a painter all my life and it’s only in recent times I’ve been looking at 3D work,” he says.

With the cost of installing Wiren at Yagan Square being around $440,000, the commitment of the State Government to involving art and sculptures in the placemaking process is evident.

Infographic: Andrew Chounding.

Dr Mike Mouritz, a senior research fellow at the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute, says the idea of placemaking, and place management has been around for a few decades but there is a greater emphasis now on how it is done.

“Putting installations in that help identify and attract or help give identity to a place is an important thing. Many designers and local authorities are very keen on doing that,”

Mike Mouritz

Mouritz,who works out of the Curtin University campus in the southern Perth suburb of Bentley, explains public spaces are being shaped and made more engaging through the use of objects, murals and artefacts. His own backyard is one such example.

“The Curtin campus has more installations and physical little artefacts and murals on walls than they had say a decade or so ago, and all of those things have been done to try and enhance the character and the interest in a particular place,” he says.

A short walk west of Yagan Square along the Karak thoroughfare leads to Kings Square, a recently developed plaza where new artworks and sculptures are being installed as a placemaking tool.

The Koorden sculptures are six bronze statues at the eastern end of the square. They are the work of Noongar artist Rod Garlett who explains the story behind the design.

“It was an event that took place a long time ago,” he says.

A group of Aboriginal men from neighbouring tribes were called upon to perform a traditional dance for the visiting royal family, a welcome to country. But, when the visitors arrived the ceremony was cancelled, and the men were sent away.

The Koorden Sculptures. Photo: Andrew Chounding.

It’s a sad story and one that clearly resonates with Garlett.

“I was on a team-building exercise in the city, and you had to go and find all the landmarks,” he says.

“Then coming back my friend he said to me, what the long face for? And I said, I’m a Traditional Owner for this place, I’m a First Nations people, and everywhere we walk today, I never saw nothing that told about my people’s story and who we are and our identity.”

The experience was the catalyst that spurred Garlett into action and the inspiration behind what would eventually become the Koorden sculptures. As one of 15 collaborations between First Nations artists and the City of Perth, Garlett’s work forms part of the City’s Cultural Collection Program: one of several initiatives enacted under the city’s Reconciliation Action Plan which aims to achieve reconciliation by sharing the culture, heritage and identity of Perth’s Whadjuk Nyoongar people.

Garlett explains his statues tell a story of shared cultural importance, a story that represent First Nations people welcoming visitors to the space, and onto his Country. He hopes those who visit the square will feel welcome.

“That’s exactly what this ceremony was all about, you know, that’s the normal procedure. Aboriginal people did it for each other for thousands and thousands of years.”

But Garlett is just as happy for people to experience the statues in their own way. 

“I’ve had so many people say I like your statues, but for me it gives me peace of mind, it gives me something that I can relate to, and that’s fine. It doesn’t have to be the story that I’m telling.”

Artist Rod Garlett. Photo: Supplied.

I ask Lance Chadd his thoughts on the role his work has played in creating a sense of identity for those who visit Yagan Square.

“The respect from all the elders and the pride from all the elders and the rest of the Aboriginal community, strengthens people and their pride in their culture, to see it out there in the mainstream. I think it’s really good,” he says.

“It’s the most significant thing that I’ve done. I mean, it’s a lot more than just a painting somewhere. It will be there a long time. It’s a cultural legacy … there needs to be more of that stuff done.”