A year of work collecting and cleaning 85 thousand oyster shells has come to completion for Quandamooka artist Megan Cope – with the opening of her public artwork installation at the Sydney Opera House as part of its 50th birthday celebrations.

The new monumental public artwork called Whispers features more than 85 thousand oyster shells blending First Nations history and environmental consciousness.

The oyster shells on 200 timber poles stretch across the Sydney Opera House precinct, connecting to a 14 metre wall of shells that frame the western side of the building. 

The installation evokes ancestral midden sites at Tubowgule – now known as Bennelong Point, which were used for Aboriginal celebrations there for thousands of years. 

Ms Cope says her installation artwork provides hope that with care and respect for culture, the oysters will return.

“We’ve been on the ground sourcing, cleaning, drilling, assembling for the past six months – 85,000 kinyingarra (oyster in Jandai language) shells,” Ms Cope says.

“Somebody told me, they sent me a message, they live in Manly, and they could see the poles from the water, so they have a real presence. I’m so so proud of them. 

“And they’re not dwarfed by the building. It’s really remarkable. They connect into the water, so you can see it from the front coming in, and if you dock in Warrang Circular Quay, you’ll be able to see the midden from there as well. It’s quite small, but it has a presence.”

More than 3000 volunteers took part in 100 workshops in three key sites – the Opera House Forecourt, Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville and at her studio in Brisbane to bring her vision to fruition.

Together the volunteers created a rich tapestry of shared narratives and kinships, elevating the oyster shell into a symbol of community, heritage and land.

It’s also a continuation of the artwork Ms Cope started at Minjerribah or North Stradbroke Island.

She says the shared history of both sites was a rich source of inspiration for this work, where oyster middens were devastated by colonialisation.

“That’s the story of saltwater country that has been colonised,” she says.

“So the poles, I’ve called Kinyingarra Guwinyanba. I’ve brought Kinyingarra poles down as the third addition to the sculptural forms, and I’ve done that because I think for a lot of people, they’ll be learning about this place and learning about middens for the first time and seeing this incredible building through our eyes for the first time. And it’s quite sad. 

“I think a lot of people do feel sad about the loss when they think about it. So I wanted to bring the poles in around the front of the building on the water side as a bit of a gesture offering of hope, a bit of a call to action what we need to do, because a lot of people say, we need to have middens again. Well, we need to have healthy oyster reefs before we have lots of middens again. So it’s that kind of connection to the full cycle, I think that the work is discussing.

“We share that pain in what’s been taken from it, and we also share the sense of responsibility to fix it and to look after it and to see things perhaps like our great aunties and uncles see it. 

“I hear so many stories from what it used to be like, and yeah, I want to see it return to that, not get worse.

“It’s not going to happen itself. That is our responsibility, isn’t it, as humans to look after country.”

She says being asked to make the installation as part of the Sydney Opera House’s 50th birthday celebrations still feels surreal.

“Oh, look, it’s just an absolute honour. I can’t believe it,” Ms Cope says.

“It just feels really, really special and a real privilege to be able to have these conversations here and to be so supported. It’s kind of interesting because it’s a real celebration.

“It’s the largest thing I’ve ever done in my life, mainly because the Opera House itself is so enormous – right? So I really was so honoured to receive the invitation to come up with an idea, and I knew straight away that I wanted to make a form that remembers the ancestors and acknowledges country in that way.”

Whispers will be on display Tubowgule, or Bennelong Point, at the Sydney Opera House forecourt until  October 31.

(Images: Daniel Boud)