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Kathryn Powley
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An important new exhibition celebrates 65,000 years of Indigenous Australian healing practices through contemporary art.

The art of healing: Australian Indigenous bush medicine will be launched tomorrow at the University of Melbourne’s Medical History Museum and follows the premise of Tjukurpa (Dreaming) and traditional Indigenous healing practice past, present and future.

The exhibition presents healing practices and bush medicine from Indigenous communities across Australia through contemporary art and objects. All works are linked by the strong connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to Country, and the passing down of cultural knowledge to the next generation.

Some of the works were directly commissioned for the exhibition, while others are from existing projects. They use a range of techniques and media, including painting in ochre and acrylic, printmaking, weaving and ceramics. The diversity of styles and materials echoes regional diversity.

Aboriginal writer, artist, mentor and consultant Kat Clarke learned about bush remedies from her grandmothers while growing up in Wotjobaluk country in Victoria’s western districts. Now an Indigenous Student Support Officer in the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences Learning and Teaching Unit, Ms Clarke produced five paintings for the exhibition.

They depict gum trees (Eucalyptus), bracken fern (Pteridium esculentum), Australian blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon), kangaroo apple (Solanum aviculare) and old man weed (Centipeda cunninghamii).

Ms Clarke said some traditional remedies had been studied and incorporated into modern medicine, including kangaroo apple, which had ingredients that acted as a female contraceptive. Ms Clarke said Indigenous women who did not want to get pregnant used to drink a potion derived from the boiled, unripe fruit.

She said Eucalyptus leaves were boiled to create an oil to treat bruises and cuts, or infused and inhaled to help alleviate symptoms of asthma, body aches, chills and fever, while the treated bark soothed inflamed limbs.

Ms Clarke said such remedies were still used in Aboriginal communities, which had learned over many generations which plants had health properties and which ones were toxic.

“Many Koori communities are transferring this knowledge to the men and our younger generation who have shown interest in learning about distinguishing medicinal plant sources and the practice of growing, nurturing and preserving medicine for healing on a physical, mental and spiritual level,” she said.

University of Melbourne Medical History Museum and Henry Forman Atkinson Dental Museum Senior Curator Jacqueline Healy said the museum was privileged that these individuals and communities had chosen to share “this rich repository of healing and knowledge with us through their art”.

“They also remind us of the importance of cultural and social frameworks for the wellbeing of all communities,” Dr Healy said.

“For 65,000 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have occupied the lands, with distinct cultural boundaries defined by intimate relationships with Country.”

University of Melbourne Associate Dean (Indigenous) Professor Sandra Eades will open The Art of Healing: Australian Indigenous bush medicine on Tuesday, 15 May at the University of Melbourne’s Medical History Museum from 6-8pm.The exhibition runs until 29 September.