How to weave an opera house

Inspired by a stunning shellworked model of the Sydney Opera House by Bidjigal artist Esme Timbery, First Nations curator Tess Allas commissioned a woven model of the iconic building from master weavers Steven Russell and Phyllis Stewart.

The Sydney Opera House draws visitors from around the world to the city, keen to see this architectural wonder for themselves. It’s no surprise that local Aboriginal people too have taken a keen interest in this structure, an interest that stems from the perspectives of Aboriginal people who have worked on or been inspired by the construction, engineering and architecture of this extraordinary building, and the excavation of Country that created its solid foundations.

We can’t forget the old people … we always put something in that references [them].

master weaver Phyllis Stewart, 2023

Art in the family

Esme Timbery (1931-2023), a Bidjigal shellworker from La Perouse in Sydney’s south-east, long celebrated another Sydney icon, the Harbour Bridge, in her work. She began shellworking as a very young girl, learning the craft from her mother, aunts and grandmother. Her work has been collected by many cultural institutions, including the Art Gallery of NSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), the National Gallery of Australia, University of Wollongong Art Collection and Wollongong Art Gallery. As part of its 2002 Message Sticks program, curated by Wiradyuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones, the Opera House commissioned Timbery to shellwork large sculptural models of three Sydney landmarks: Centrepoint Tower, the Harbour Bridge, and of course the Opera House itself. This same shellworked Opera House was selected for display in MHNSW’s exhibition The People’s House: Sydney Opera House at 50.

Knowing that we had secured Timbery’s incredible shellwork for the exhibition, I conceived of the idea of commissioning a response to this work. I consulted with Timbery’s son, Steve Russell, and his partner, Phyllis Stewart. Russell and Stewart are both master weavers who have contributed greatly to the renaissance of traditional Aboriginal weaving practices across NSW over the past 20 years. They have exhibited their work at institutions such as the MCA, the Museum of Sydney and Wollongong Art Gallery, and have also created public artworks in and around Sydney and the Illawarra region.

Re-creating an icon

It was agreed that once the good folk at Pink Cactus Props in Sydney had fabricated a skeletal frame for the work, Russell and Stewart would weave an opera house into existence.

The frame was delivered to Russell and Stewart’s home in Gerringong, on the south coast of NSW, and the artists sat with it for a week, allowing it to speak to them about how they were indeed going to weave such a beast into being. They decided to weave the platform using dyed lomandra grasses they had previously harvested, stripped and dried in anticipation of this project. The dyes represent the colours of the large granite tiles that form the platform on which the Opera House sits at Tubowgule/Bennelong Point. Turning the frame upside down, Russell and Stewart began the backbreaking month-long task of loop-weaving the base and coil-weaving the walls of the harbour.

The sculpture was then turned right side up. Together, the artists considered how to weave the shells of the Opera House and what materials they would use. After some reflection, they agreed that macramé rope would be the best way to visually represent the building. The artists chose two colours for this rope – white and a muted beige – to represent the tiles that cover the building and the effect as clouds pass overhead and the tiles appear to shift from brilliant to off-white.

The building’s monumental steps are defined by a looping twine, as if making a fish net, secured to the frame. Stewart also created footprints, sewn onto the steps, to evoke both the contemporary visitors to this building as well as the traditional owners who once visited this site to fish, eat, and perform ceremonies. To the building model’s eastern side lie two broken spears fashioned from painted bamboo skewers. Russell explains that these represent Bennelong’s spears, which his wife, Barangaroo, snapped in anger at his ongoing close association with the colonists.

The whole sculpture sits on a bed of shell grit. This material gives the nod back to the traditional use of the land and the shell midden that once formed the Country of Tubowgule, and also alludes to Esme Timbery’s shellwork model. The silver glitter sprinkled over the whole sculpture also honours Timbery’s work. Silver glitter is synonymous with all of Timbery’s works, as a final flourish that marks the completion of each of her shellworked objects.

Displayed in adjacent gallery spaces at the Museum of Sydney, both these works provide a First Nations perspective on the traditional importance of the site on which the Opera House now sits, as well as paying homage to Jørn Utzon, the visionary architect of one of the world’s most recognisable and beloved buildings.

Russell and Stewart’s work, Woven Opera House, 2023, now proudly forms part of the permanent collection of Museums of History NSW.

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Tess Allas

Tess Allas

First Nations Curator

Tess Allas is a Wiradjuri curator and has strong links to Tharawal country in Wollongong. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Arts from the University of Wollongong and a Masters of Curation from the University of Sydney. For the past three decades Tess has curated many exhibitions of First Nations contemporary art in both Australia and Internationally for organisations including Wollongong Art Gallery, Carriageworks, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney Opera House, Art Gallery of South Australia, Murray Art Museum Albury, Gorman Museum (University of California), the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection (University of Virginia). In 2021 Tess wrote the Museum of Sydney’s Indigenous Contemporary Art Acquisition Strategy. Tess firmly believes in the power of contemporary art in having the ability to correct history and uncover hidden truths.

Past exhibition

The People’s House: Sydney Opera House at 50

Celebrating five decades of extraordinary performances and unforgettable moments from the Sydney Opera House

Harold Blair sings at a piano played by Marjorie Lawrence

Paving the way ... Harold Blair: The first Aboriginal opera singer

A short documentary that offers a glimpse into the life of Harold Blair, a world-renowned tenor, family man and political campaigner who sought social justice and human rights for Australia’s First Nations people

Todd Duncan (baritone) with Harold Blair, c.1950s

Harold Blair, trailblazer

Wulli Wulli tenor Harold Blair AM was Australia’s first professionally trained Aboriginal opera singer