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Great Eora fisherwomen remembered in ‘bara’ artwork

The women were a common sight around Port Jackson for generations, singing as they rowed and fished.

A major new artwork overlooking Sydney Harbour above Dubbagullee (Bennelong Point) will honour the clans of the Eora nation and the skills of Eora women.

bara by Aboriginal artist Judy Watson is modelled after the crescent shapes of bara – traditional fish hooks crafted and used by local women for thousands of years.

Eora women were the main food providers for their families, and the new artwork recognises this huge responsibility. Women fished from their bark canoes (nowie or nawi) with lines and hooks, while men stood along the shoreline with fish gigs.

Embedded content: https://cityofsydney.wistia.com/medias/2761lm2lek

Artist impression of ‘bara’ by Judy Watson. Image courtesy of the artist and UAP.

Eora fisherwomen

Fish was a staple food for people along the coast and harbour. Women made their fishing lines (carr-e-jun) by twisting together 2 strands of fibre from kurrajong trees, cabbage trees or flax plants. Sometimes animal fur or grass was used.

Bara, or fish-hooks, made from turban shell. Image: Paul Ovenden, Australian Museum

The distinctively crescent-shaped fish hooks, called burra or bara, were honed from the broadest part of the turban shell. The pearly reflection of the hook would have acted as a lure.

The women did not use bait but spat chewed shellfish on the surface of the water.

The greatest ingenuity

European naval officers admired the technical accomplishment required for these essential tools. First Fleet surgeon George Worgan thought they showed ‘the greatest ingenuity’ of all the Eora implements.

Fish hooks of NSW, detail from plate in John White’s Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, 1790. Image: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (MRB/ Q991/ 2A2)

The skill of the women in catching the fish and navigating the changeable harbour conditions in their modest nawi was also greatly admired.

Their skills were described in detail in journals and captured through multiple watercolours. These artworks show Eora fisherwomen in nawi with fires going, fishing, minding and feeding their small children.

Aboriginal woman with her baby, in a canoe fishing with a line, c1805. Image: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (PXB 513)

The fisherwomen were a common sight around Port Jackson for generations, singing as they rowed and fished.

They dominated the waters of the harbours, coves and bays, and the coastlines in between.

The bara and lines were sometimes worn by Eora fisherwomen around their necks like a necklace. Although the hooks were beautiful, pearly and finely made, they weren’t worn as a frivolous piece of jewellery, but rather an essential working implement.

They were also a symbol of women’s identity, power and status in the community.

Originally written by Lisa Murray, City historian and published on the Dictionary of Sydney.

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