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Trepang art exhibition brings celebration of Australia-China relationship to Melbourne


Trepang: China & the story of Macassan-Aboriginal trade opens this Saturday at Melbourne Museum, showcasing the first recorded history of trade relations between China and Australia.

Macassan traders developed relationships with Aboriginal clans on the north Australian coastline, obtaining permission to harvest trepang or bêche-de-mer - a dried or smoked sea cucumber, and process it for the lucrative Chinese market. Trepang is a delicacy used in traditional cooking and was thought to be an aphrodisiac and contain medicinal qualities. All this occurred long before the British arrived in Australia.

Historical artefacts, paintings, maps and photographs sit alongside contemporary works in the exhibition to tell the fascinating tale of Aboriginal and Asian exchange that centred on the trepang trade from the early 18th century to the early 20th century.

The exhibition is founded on a longstanding friendship between classically trained Chinese artist Zhou Xiaoping and highly respected Indigenous artist, the late John Bulunbulun. After years of collaboration, dating back to 1988, these two artists; inheritors of ancient traditions, bring together their understanding of historical events that entangled their ancestors across cultures and the seas and archipelagos between China and the northern coast of Australia more than two centuries ago.

Anthropologist and Chair of Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, Marcia Langton, contributed the catalogue essay.

“The story of these events is told through artworks, such as paintings and hollow log coffin designs, ground sculptures, song cycles and sacred design,” Professor Langton said.

“Once you are told of their significance and the hidden history of these objects, a myriad of parts of the story unfold. In our exhibition style and representation of this period of history, we’ve tried to capture the Yolngu style of revealing these historical gems.”

Rio Tinto, the principal partner of the exhibition, acknowledges the vast personal contribution of Professor Marcia Langton in bringing this story to life, and the support of its exhibition partners, including the University of Melbourne and Melbourne Museum.

Rio Tinto Australia Managing Director David Peever said "Rio Tinto is proud to support the Trepang exhibition. The history of trade relations between China and Australia is fascinating to a company like Rio Tinto as we continue to build a strong working relationship with China.

“Rio Tinto respects the significance of cultural heritage in the areas where we operate and is committed to working with the local communities to preserve local history and traditions, such as those which are on display in this exhibition.”

Director, Collections, Research and Exhibitions at Museum Victoria Dr Robin Hirst said “We are delighted to host an exhibition of such great cultural significance at Melbourne Museum. It is wonderful to see Museum Victoria’s important collection objects displayed alongside contemporary works to tell the story of the trading relationship between the Yolgnu people, the Macassans and the Chinese.”

The exhibition was launched at the Capital Museum in Beijing earlier this year and is part of Experience China - The Year of Chinese Culture in Australia, an initiative of the Chinese Government which offers a series of cultural events for Australians to “experience China”. The experiences are aimed at strengthening relations between Australia and China and promoting a mutual understanding of the two cultures

Of the 92 pieces in the exhibition, 18 are contemporary works by Zhou Xiaoping and John Bulunbulun including seven collaborative works of traditional Chinese and Australian designs. Many of the joint works were produced while Zhou Xiaoping was living in Indigenous communities in Northern Australia.

The exhibition is open to the public at Melbourne Museum from 23 July 2011 until 17 October 2011. For more information on the exhibition please visit:

Exhibition background

During the early 18th Century the Macassans of the Kingdom of Gowa travelled along the northern coast of Australia where they harvested and cured trepang. Extending for several months at a time, these visits helped foster enduring relationships with the local Indigenous people. The Yolngu of Arnhem Land welcomed the Macassans and commemorate their visits to this day. The Macassans then transported their harvest to China where trepang was a prized delicacy.

Historians estimate the trepang trade started between 1720 and 1750. The trade ended in 1907 when the Australian Government ceased issuing licenses to the trepangers, forcing them to abandon their annual visits to Australia.

More information and historical background on the exhibition can be found at:

About Rio Tinto

Rio Tinto is a leading international mining group headquartered in the UK, combining Rio Tinto plc, a London and NYSE listed company, and Rio Tinto Limited, which is listed on the Australian Securities Exchange.

Rio Tinto’s business is finding, mining, and processing mineral resources. Major products are aluminium, copper, diamonds, energy (coal and uranium), gold, industrial minerals (borax, titanium dioxide, salt, talc) and iron ore. Activities span the world but are strongly represented in Australia and North America with significant businesses in South America, Asia, Europe and southern Africa.

About Melbourne Museum

Melbourne Museum offers a rich insight into Victoria’s fascinating natural environment, culture and history. Using state-of-the-art technology and interpretative techniques, the museum’s eight galleries cover the natural and physical sciences, history and technology, and Indigenous cultures in new and captivating ways. Melbourne Museum is home to the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, empowering Aboriginal people to interpret their own cultural heritage. The award-winning Melbourne Museum is the largest museum complex in the southern hemisphere.

About the University of Melbourne

Established in 1853, the University of Melbourne is a public-spirited institution that makes distinctive contributions to society in research, teaching and engagement.

Melbourne is a leading research university, widely renowned for its teaching, research achievements and social and economic contributions. The University’s performance in international rankings puts it at the forefront of higher education in the Asia-Pacific and beyond.


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