Coomaditchie: The Art of Place

The coastal settlement of Coomaditchie, nestled alongside Coomaditchie Lagoon in the southern suburbs of Wollongong, is a vibrant arts and cultural hub. Works by its artists are found all over the Illawarra, in community spaces, buildings, landscapes, streets and galleries.

Through art, Coomaditchie’s Elders pass knowledge to younger generations and to the broader community, ensuring that the cultural and spiritual understanding of the Illawarra is retained and enriched. For over 30 years, the Coomaditchie United Aboriginal Corporation has been the driving force in this process. Established in the early 1990s, the corporation works to strengthen and unite communities through art, advocacy, culture and environmental projects and programs.

We brought the life of our culture onto canvas through colour

Artist Lorraine Brown, 2024

Of place

The works of the Coomaditchie artists speak of life in and around the settlement of Coomaditchie, its history, ecology and local Dreaming stories. They record the extraordinary arc the artists and community have travelled over more than three decades. The earliest work, Lorraine Brown’s Pelican (1992), was created in the year the artists first formed as an artist collective – a year before they were incorporated as a legal entity during the United Nations International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in 1993. The mission (2007) shows how people lived in and around Coomaditchie Lagoon before the current settlement was built, while the ceramic works, created in 2022, depict contemporary and historical life in and around Coomaditchie and its lagoon.

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The mission, Lorraine Brown, 2007
First Nations

Coomaditchie: Of place

These works record the extraordinary arc the artists of Coomaditchie have travelled over more than three decades

The fight for Coomaditchie

Coomaditchie today is a thriving settlement and cultural centre that is embraced by the people of the Illawarra. Before the settlement was established, many Aboriginal people lived in tin shacks in an area known as the Official Camp. The fight for human rights and housing began in the 1950s, when a group of the camp’s residents, including ancestors of some of the artists and the exhibition’s curator, were in constant communication with consecutive NSW lands ministers asking for housing and demanding their rights to human dignity. In the 1960s, construction finally began on a small number of homes that became the settlement of Coomaditchie.

This fair sunny land of Australia after all is ours by heritage

Jack Tattersall to Mr WM Gollan, NSW Minister for Lands, 30 May 1958

Letter from Jack Tattersall to Mr Roger Nott, NSW Minister for Lands, 2 October 1956

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This is the first letter in a series of letters, now in the State Archives Collection, written by community member and campaigner Jack Tattersall to successive NSW lands ministers. Dating from the mid-1950s, these letters describe conditions at the Official Camp and ask for housing for the camp’s residents. Also included are the ministerial responses. Readings by voice artists Daniel Browning and Russell Stapleton, recorded in 2024.

Response letter from Mr Roger Nott, NSW Minister for Lands, to Jack Tattersall, 3 December 1956 

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Letter from Jack Tattersall to Mr Roger Nott, NSW Minister for Lands, 10 December 1956

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Response letter from Mr Roger Nott, NSW Minister for Lands, to Jack Tattersall, 11 January 1957

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See and hear more letters

A view of the shacks on the Port Kembla end of the Official Camp

The fight for Coomaditchie

Listen to audio recordings and read transcripts of selected letters held in the State Archives Collection

Coomaditchie was like a breath of fresh air … they’d fight for everything

Fred Moore, 2009, quoting Aboriginal rights activist Faith Bandler

By the late 1950s, the NSW Government had granted quarry licences to many firms to remove sand from the sandhills around the Official Camp, to allow ‘for sanitary purposes’; the council intended to build a sewage treatment plant and a rubbish tip in the area. These pages from the State Archives Collection show the Official Camp and the sand mining nearby; the news clippings from The Tribune show the support of trade unions and local women’s organisations for the Coomaditchie community’s campaign for housing.

Lagoon stories

As part of the celebrations to mark the 30th anniversary of Coomaditchie United Aboriginal Corporation, in 2022 Wollongong Art Gallery commissioned the artists to create a series of 25 panels that would each tell an environmental story about Coomaditchie Lagoon.

The panels detail the ecological life in and around the lagoon; some document the damage caused by introduced species to this important ecosystem. They have been created not only by the Coomaditchie artists but also the corporation’s office staff, arts workers, and the children of Coomaditchie.

Our beautiful butterflies congregate around the lagoon, hiding amongst the cumbungi

Artists Kristy Kristy (Lil) Thomas, Selai Storer and Kanisha Storer, 2022

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Dragonflies, Meahala Langlo-Brown, 2022
First Nations

Coomaditchie: Lagoon stories

These panels detail the ecological life in and around Coomaditchie Lagoon

Life by the ocean

These works show the dynamic painting styles of the Coomaditchie artists and record marine life and Dreaming stories of the sea. Some of these works are from Museum of History NSW’s own collection, while others are from private collectors and public institutions in the Illawarra region.

The first three decades

In the three decades since Coomaditchie United Aboriginal Corporation was founded in 1993, it has provided welfare and advocacy services for the people of Coomaditchie and has been the active driver of arts projects, cultural heritage, bush regeneration and community development programs.

These large canvases capture the corporation’s engagement with local organisations and community groups throughout these decades, with each canvas corresponding to a different decade. The organisations and groups were invited to participate in painting workshops held at Coomaditchie, where they were asked to contribute their stories of cultural engagement with the corporation. Some painted their memories of the founding of the corporation, others of attending the educational outreach programs that Coomaditchie provides to surrounding communities and schools, and others still told stories of festivals held at the lagoon. The Coomaditchie artists acknowledged the companies, organisations and educational institutions that help support the corporation’s ongoing commitments to the Illawarra.

Love letters to Coomaditchie

Throughout 2022, a series of plate-painting workshops were held at Wollongong Art Gallery and at the Coomaditchie studio. Participants from the broader Illawarra community were asked to paint their memories of times spent at Coomaditchie art exhibitions, at protests against proposed development of the lagoon, attending festivals, or enjoying the natural environment around the lagoon. Some simply painted the feelings that are evoked whenever they think of Coomaditchie.

The plates were fired by local ceramicist Janette Loughrey and displayed as a ‘wall of love’ in the exhibition to represent the deep affection and respect the residents of the Illawarra feel for the people of Coomaditchie.

Art for everyone

The artists of Coomaditchie have long contributed to public art in the Illawarra region. They have worked in collaboration with many other NSW artists to capture a strong local identity and sense of pride and place across the Illawarra.

Through the art we’ve made big bridges to other communities and cultures.

Artist Lorraine Brown, 2024

The exhibition Coomaditchie: The Art of Place was commissioned by and originally staged at Wollongong Art Gallery in 2023 and then at the Museum of Sydney in 2024 with the generous support of Coomaditchie United Aboriginal Corporation and Wollongong Art Gallery. 

The first three decades (decade 3), Coomaditchie artists and community members, 2022, acrylic on unstretched canvas, 302cm x 213.5 cm. 
Coomaditchie United Aboriginal Corporation
Now showing
Featured exhibition

Coomaditchie: The Art of Place

Experience community life by the ocean through the works of First Nations artists in Coomaditchie: The Art of Place at the Museum of Sydney. These loving and lyrical artworks, which include paintings, ceramics and screen-prints, speak of life in and around the settlement of Coomaditchie, its history, ecology and local Dreaming stories

30 March
Published on 
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.