An inscription on the facade of the Optus Stadium at the Eastern Entrance reads: “Our old people rise from graves of ash, they delight again in contest and in challenge/Shoulder to shoulder we stand, the ancestors and us; We stamp our feet, we beat our palms, we voice a sound that lives; a crowd, reborn. You are welcome on Whadjuk country.” It’s the translated poem titled Kaya, penned by aboriginal poet Kim Scott, and the original in Noongar language is inscribed right beside it.
Around the stadium, there are as many as 17 poems in Noongar and their English translation beside them. The poems, as such, are not rebellious in nature, but rather depict the Whadjuk tribe’s deep attachment to their land and the steadfastness to their culture and rituals. It is, according to Nick Mathews, a member of the Whadjuk Working Party, “an expression of their cultural identity.” Several other sculptures and artefacts that reveal the city’s deep aboriginal connection are scattered around it. “The outsider might not realise the significance of it, but there are deep symbols for piece of artwork in the stadium.”
For instance, the archway to the stadium has perforated metal shapes suspended from arches, like pieces of folded paper. It symbolises stars, who the Whadjuk worshipped and whose alignments they carefully studied. There are eight bronze long-necked turtle sculptures in different parts of the stadium. They call it yaargan and used to worship it. There are models of their mud-thatched temporary houses, which they call mia-mia. “We’re a dwindling tribe, so we need to project ourselves and make us known to the world. The Optus Stadium in that regard has been a great project in showcasing out culture to the world,” Mathews says.
There are roughly 35,000 Noongar people today, according to the Noongar Boodjar Language Centre, making it one of the largest Indigenous groups in Australia. For thousands of years, they’ve lived on Noongar boodjar (Noongar country), what is now known as the southwestern corner of Western Australia and includes the capital city, Perth. Artefacts likely carried by early Noongar ancestors have been dated as far back as 30,000 years.
But once the colonials came from England and other countries, they gradually migrated to deep interiors of the state. Not out of force like in Asia or Africa, but out of an obligation to protect their culture. “It’s like what happens in any civilisation. We had our own cultures and social mores, and to protect them, we wandered into the bushes, coming to the cities only when it’s necessary.” The area around the stadium was once their habitat, but when the city expanded, they were rehabilitated further away. “Where the Optus Stadium is now was one of our nearest settlements to the city. I remember my grandmother telling me stories of this land, and where her family stayed. We are quite sentimental to our land,” Mathews says.
The pedestrian bridge that links the Optus and the WACA, christened the Matagarup Bridge, is also an acknowledgement to their culture: “Matagarup is the name given by traditional landowners to the area around Heirisson Island, meaning a place where the river is only leg deep, allowing it to be crossed,” he explains. The soon-to-be-opened Yagan Square in Perth’s CBD is another major metropolitan area project given an Aboriginal name, paying tribute to Noongar leader Yagan.
Their culture is not only splashed in the exteriors of the stadium, but also on the corridors of the stadium, thanks to the tribe’s contribution to Australian Rules Football. Pictures and short-profiles of several players of aboriginal descent don the walls, from Jimmy Melbourne, the first aboriginal player from Western Australia, to Nicky Winmar. The installation of the latter’s statue at the Optus Stadium has been widely debated. The statue, based on a famous photograph in which Winmar is lifting his footy jumper to point to his skin in response to racist abuse, was long commissioned and completed, but it’s now lying in the attic of Melbourne sculptor Louis Laumen’s house.
The common argument is that there were several other big footie names, also of aboriginal heritage, from Western Australia, though the cultural and racial symbolism Winmar presents is deeply poignant, changing the cultural contours of the game. Some, though, reckon the white, cricket-watching patrons of the stadium don’t fancy this idea. Some others feel his statue should be ideally installed at Victoria Park, where Winmar played the day he struck the pose.
Mathews has firm convictions: “There might be aboriginal players with better records and numbers, but what he had done to out community no one has. He’s the reason our players are not abused, why we get paid as much as the others, we are not discriminated against. He was the voice of our emancipation, and his statue deserves to be put in Optus, for he’s from here.” That would go perfectly with Scott’s lines: “Shoulder to shoulder we stand, the ancestors and us; We stamp our feet, we beat our palms, we voice a sound that lives; a crowd, reborn.”