Local Lens on Sydney: Tasteful Art, Queer Pride and Aboriginal Heritage

Four Sydney residents allow a peek into the distinct Australian way of life of their respective neighbourhoods, their characters as colourful as the suburbs that make up the city.

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The Gadigal people of Eora nation are the traditional custodians of modern-day Sydney. The six-hectare Barangaroo Reserve doubles as a cultural space for Aboriginal ceremonies and performances. Photo courtesy: Destination NSW

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The Story of Sydney

The Rocks

“Now I’m a bit rusty, but it’ll be fine,” Lindsay Williams’ voice is raspy from a long night at a karaoke bar, but my guide’s tone is padded with remarkable aplomb. The 50-something, who likes to project his age greater than it really is to induce an element of awe, has been a tour guide with Dreamtime SouthernX Pty Ltd, an Aboriginal-owned tour company, for the last five years. His black fedora gives him a Carlos Santana edge, perhaps a tip of the hat to his two-decade artistic stint in theatres in Melbourne and Sydney before rerouting his career to local tourism.

We’re at The Rocks—arguably one of the oldest suburbs in Sydney—home of the First Nations people and the site where European settlers stepped ashore in 1788. The Harbour Bridge frames a dominating view to my left, and the Sydney Opera House sits gracefully across the Sydney Harbour to my right. The precinct’s history lies right underneath its cosmopolitan flair and Williams is about to help me scratch the surface.

Modern-day Sydney stands on the traditional Gadi land of Eora Nation, whose original inhabitants include the Gadigal people among other ethnic groups. “In Aboriginal culture, people don’t create languages. The land does,” Williams’ announcement is laced with a hint of native pride as he leads an Aboriginal tour of the neighbourhood. More than 500 different languages, including sign languages, were documented during colonisation, and are believed to have prevailed for tens of thousands of years, he continues. When he converses in his father’s tongue, Gumbaynggirr, a language that honours his saltwater heritage, and his mother’s tongue, Wiradjuri, a language that traces his freshwater heritage, he is speaking with the land and its elements.

He plucks a strand of lomandra—a native Australian grass—and hands it to me, asking me to chew off the white stalk base. Curious, I oblige, and discover that it has no flavour, but is succulent. In pre-colonial times, the shoot was often used as a source of fresh water, and the demonstration was a show of how people stayed hydrated through the day. Williams reveals that this plant and the adjacent bush of bright red grevillea, locally called gurugu, are common totems.

“Traditionally, when an individual is born in a clan, they’re assigned several totems based on plants, animals, seasons, tribes, families, and gender, which are emblematic of their ancestry,” he explains, disclosing one of his totems: the shark. If an individual is delegated a personal totem at birth, they become tethered to it for life. From that moment on, they must amass all the knowledge about it, care for it like a sibling and ensure that it thrives in its environs. Everything connected to the totem invariably becomes an extended family. The system regulated different elements in the ecosystem and ensured they flourished at all times. The restoration of balance brought on by the sustainable method is partly why the region evaded the clutches of famine. “The only catch is people sharing the same totem are not allowed to marry each other,” he grins.

***

Local Lens On Sydney: Tasteful Art, Queer Pride And Aboriginal Heritage

Lindsay Williams (left) holds a hunting boomerang in his right hand and a returning boomerang in left; Lemon myrtle (right) is commonly featured in native cooking. Photos by: Pooja Naik

A short walk around the corner brings us face-to-face with Saltwater Harbour, where water the colour of ink stretches to the horizon. In the distance, Williams points at Baramada—the place of the eels—where freshwater meets saltwater. Culturally, clans are divided into two subdivisions owing to the land’s proximity to the coast and the river. “This region was ground zero of colonisation,” he grows serious. When the British came, they compartmentalised the Aboriginal people as nomadic. “We were being classified by those who came from the other side of the planet. What then is the definition of nomadic?”

The site of the Sydney Opera House was once a tram shed, and in pre-colonial times, it was occupied by middens—a mountain of oyster shells discarded by the original custodians of the land that later served as an architectural inspiration for the iconic monument. The natives took turns to sample different seafood and left behind fish bones and shells for the next family that stopped by in order to avoid the troubles of overfishing. The purpose of the middens was defeated when the colonisers consumed mud oysters into extinction.

“Rock oysters can still be found in the region today and no, they’re not a band”; Williams’ light-heartedness prompts a round of chuckles from his audience. I peer closely and see them glued to the rocky surface in the waters below. It turns out the colonists also needed lime to bind together bricks and stones into structures. So, they crushed the middens from around the Harbour and mixed the remnants with water to make a lime slurry. Today, modern Sydney and Aboriginal Sydney coexist in the architecture, with middens protruding from the brick walls of old buildings lining the stretch of The Rocks Market.

Following another bend in the road, we walk under a canopy of lights strung between souvenir shops and arty cafés, arriving at a mural painted upon The Observer Hotel. Artist Michael Lynn’s attempts at tracing the timeline of Australia’s “modernisation”, which is made evident in his work only post 1788, after the arrival of the Europeans, has garnered polarised emotions and views. “He may not have intended it, but it is a fine example of colonialism hiding in plain sight.”

***

Local Lens On Sydney: Tasteful Art, Queer Pride And Aboriginal Heritage

Clockwise from left: The Rocks Market is popular among diners and shoppers; The neighbourhood’s architectural details hark back to the Sydney of yore; “One Big Backyard”—a 3D projection—is one amongst many light installations that illuminated The Rocks during the recent Vivid Sydney festival. Photos by: SHELLS1/ISTOCK (architectural ruins), IMAMEMBER/ISTOCK (market); Photo Courtesy: Destination NSW (3D projection)

 

According to the ancient philosophy of the Aboriginal people, everything in the world has a place and purpose. Even the criss-cross-patterned bark of the bawlgowli, or cabbage palm trees, which dot the lanes leading to the Harbour Bridge, inspired the design of the region’s traditional hat weaving. “The motif is part of their signature style. My niece is very good at making them,” states Williams. Similarly, wood from the fig tree was used to make fishing spears, while wood from ironbark, dogwood, and Australian hardwood was carved to make kangaroo spears.

“While we’re on the subject of tools, I have something for you,” he says, pulling out a pair of boomerangs from his backpack. The first one I hold is the hunting boomerang, rudimentary but weighty, followed by the easier to recognise ‘returning’ boomerang—flat on the bottom and curved on top like an airplane wing—used to frighten birds. It’d zip past the prey, belying the sound of the wind, and cast a shadow that resembled an eagle’s, freezing the birds in terror, buying the hunter just enough time to hurtle the hunting boomerang. He then hands out a batch of lemon myrtle. When out hunting, men would rub the leaf over their bodies to camouflage their human scent.

I wonder how many generations have come and gone, each honing and passing down their skills to the next in an attempt to save a part of their heritage from extinction. I glance at Williams, who is busy adjusting his hat. Storytelling is as much tact as it is a tradition. And only some know it best.

To know more: bookings@dreamtimesouthernx.com.au; www.dreamtimesouthernx.com.au; The tour typically lasts 90 minutes.

 

Barangaroo, the Woman Who Ruled

Barangaroo Reserve

A flock of fairy wren tweet and flit about in the trees. I park myself on a bench, soaking up the toasty sun and people-watch as joggers and cyclists dart past me in their morning routine. Barangaroo Reserve—Sydney’s newest Harbour foreshore park—is wide awake.

“I just saw some wren and I couldn’t have made that up even if I tried,” my guide Sophie Campbell greets me with a smile. The wren isn’t elusive in the six-hectare headland, but in Campbell’s spiritual culture, “it’s a sign that you’re in company of people with good hearts.”

Before we explore the length of the park, Campbell invites me to join her at the waterfront, where grasslands meet stepped sandstones before rolling into the shore. Her time growing up in Macquarie Marshes and working as a culture guide in Toronga Zoo Sydney, in Mosman, and the heritage-listed Australian Museum, in Darlinghurst, has equipped the 32-year-old with a deep understanding of the region’s past: part glorious and part gutting. “I’m going to tell you some hard truths because that’s what I do, but I’m also going to tell you some beautiful stories,” she gestures at our surroundings. The landscape—studded with 75,000 native Australian trees and shrubs, and ochre sandstones formed over millions of years—is a representation of what the city might have looked like 300 years ago. The place was once a women’s playground and the land’s spirit was a matriarch named Barangaroo, whose bone-pierced nose was a nod to her depth of wisdom and her dexterity with a club.

“They spent most of their nights fishing with abalone shells under a dimly lit, clay-plated fire,” she says, pointing at the harbour. I’m informed they used a special kind of soap to paralyse the fish to check for roe. If the mother fish was taken away, that would spell the end for an entire generation of fish, so they were released back into the water. “But when the white fellas came here, they would scoop the sea with trawlers and turn up at the doorsteps of the natives with 40 kilos, thinking they were bringing them gifts,” Campbell shakes her head. “Barangaroo absolutely lost it!”

England upheld patriarchy. When the men bestowed ‘presents’ upon Woollarawarre Bennelong, Barangaroo’s husband, who began to develop a palate for perquisite, it created a power imbalance in the society. A dinner invitation to the then-governor’s house demanded that the couple dress in Western-appropriate clothes, but only Bennelong obliged. “Barangaroo shimmied in there in all her womanly glory wearing her traditional attire: a grass skirt, ”Campbell lets the sentence sink in. She was humiliated and turned away, while her husband relished the soiree. She returned later that night with Bennelong’s fishing spear in hand, looked him in the eye, and snapped it over her leg before leaving again. The story stuck and a public emasculation of her husband’s ego gained her a staunch reputation.

 

Local Lens On Sydney: Tasteful Art, Queer Pride And Aboriginal Heritage

Clockwise from left: Sophie Campbell displays an abalone shell that was used as a fishing hook by Aboriginal women; The landscape—studded with 75,000 native Australian trees and shrubs, and ochre sandstones formed over millions of years—is a representation of what the city might have looked like 300 years ago; The six-hectare headland’s native plant species possess medicinal properties. Photos by: Pooja Naik (Sophie & herbs), ADRIAN WOJCIK/ISTOCK (sandstones)

Barangaroo was also one of the last knowledge holders of her society, as it is believed that Australia lost nearly 80 per cent of its Aboriginal population (almost 70 percent to small pox) during colonisation. If the natives came forward with their identity, they were snatched from their families and sent to England. Thus, resulting in what came to be known as the “stolen generation”. Meanwhile, the epidemic spread like wildfire in April 1789, 15 months after the First Fleet arrived to establish a penal colony in New South Wales, resulting in a devastating blow to the First Nations’ population, most of whom succumbed to the infection. Campbell alleges that the English unleashed a chemical warfare on the locals by handing them blankets that were exposed to patients who had contracted the disease.

“It is only when you can acknowledge the bad that you can see how far the Aboriginal people have come.”

Campbell’s ancestry can be traced back to the Tuba-Gah people from Australia and partly to the Sami people from Norway. She also has ancestors from Sydney, but does not know their whereabouts because they belonged to the hidden generation.

“Even my Mum’s generation would have been stolen from their parents if they’d acknowledged who they were. Light-skinned folks from the East Coast would often get away by claiming Mediterranean lineage,” she says as she moves a strand of hair the shade of fire from her face. Although the world has come a long way since, a sense of trepidation still looms among those who claim their Aboriginal identity because of inter-generational trauma. “I tell people all the time that you don’t have to be an Aboriginal to have a connection to Country. You just have to love the land you live in,” Campbell’s words are like balm to a wounded soul.

***

The reserve is home to myriad native medicinal plants, which I discover as Campbell and I walk its stretch. She draws my attention to the Happy Wanderer, which possesses anti-inflammatory properties and relieves stomach cramps. I learn a cup of tea made from its leaves tastes like unsweetened root beer and is sometimes served to discipline disobedient children. My eyes settle on the towering shiok tree (balawi in Wiradjuri),which Campbell nicknames “nature’s babysitter”. Women leave their kids to play under the shade of this tree while they go about their tasks. The branches fan out in perfect circles and are wide enough to block predatory birds from catching aerial glimpses of the ground, while the needle-like shrub—called pig’s face—mushrooming at the base, is known to release natural insecticides, warding off insects and reptiles from lurking too close. “In our culture, we believe that when old weaving ladies pass away, they turn into this tree and oversee our young ones. We sometimes refer to them as the grandmother,” Campbell smiles as she finishes introducing me to her totem.

As we bend along the curve of the Nawi Cove, skyscrapers from the business avenue rear their head. Suits dash past us, espresso in one hand and phone in the other. The frame mirrors life’s staccato rhythm back home, or for that matter, any metropolis. I slow down and memorise the uneven tidal layers on the sandstones, blotched purple from an ancient flower, which cover the sides of the track. I graze my hands over spiny-headed mat-rush, or basket grass, that is woven to trap fish without even being uprooted from the ground. I study the acacia leucophloea—a plant whose blooms correspond with the migration pattern of the whale. But it is the legend of the dianella, or blueberry lily, that I immediately take to. “Remember those fairy wrens we’d spotted at the start?” Campbell jogs my memory. “The reason we say they appear when you meet a kind-hearted soul is because its creation story is rooted in a tale of domestic violence.”

A great warrior helped a widow regain her livelihood after the tragic death of her husband. In return, he asked for the hand of her daughter in marriage. So when blue-eyed Polkabin, her first-born and the fairest maiden in the land, came of age, the relict mother kept her promise and bound the two in matrimonial union. However, their happiness was short-lived as the warrior became possessed by an evil spirit. He took Polkabin away from her loved ones, isolated her in the middle of nowhere and often assaulted her.

It broke her heart and she withdrew into a shell, spending all her time gathering flowers and fruits in her backyard. That is when the fairy wren befriended her and a smile returned to her face. She feigned grief around her husband to hold on to an ounce of merriment. He caught wind of it anyway and grew increasingly suspicious. So, he snuck up on her one day and found her laughing and singing. Overcome with murderous rage, he beat her to death. The birds that had been hiding in Polkabin’s dark cascading hair, pecked and fatally wounded him in vengeance. As blood dripped from his skin, the evil spirit left his body and his heart was rid of impurity. They died in each other’s arms and the wrens buried them in dianella leaves. “The grey strands on the plant are the ol’ warrior’s beard,” Campbell motions to the pointy grass. “And although they bear purple flowers, they produce bright blue berries. Those are Polkabin’s eyes.”

To know more: www.barangaroo.com/whats-on/tours/aboriginal-cultural-tours; The tour typically lasts 90 minutes. 

 

Of Art and Artists

Chippendale

I’m at a party at artist Gareth Ernst’s home of 26 years. The scene in his living room is almost hypnotic. People are dancing in circles: some semi-clothed and some with animal face masks on. I can’t hear the music, but I can feel it. Amidst the chaos, someone scatters stardust on the dance floor; except, it’s not stardust, but ashes. And it isn’t just another party. It’s a funeral commemoration for one of Ernst’s dear friends, who saw life as a reason to celebrate. The setting isn’t unfolding in real time. It is coming to life on a colossal canvas that hangs on the wall of Ernst’s home-cum-art studio in Chippendale—and I can’t look away.

Eventually, I shift my focus to Ernst’s work on the adjacent wall, a painting of a draped dress titled “Echo.” It is an artistic interpretation of a Greek tale about a forlorn nymph, who faded into oblivion as a repercussion of unrequited love. “The only thing that was left of her was her voice,” he says, outlining the attire. I peer closer, noticing the barely visible silhouette of a woman. There are two other paintings: one with fleshy flowers for a man’s head and another with branches for a woman’s arms. “Both indicate how change can be painful, but you can come out more beautiful at the end.” As we tour his home, I realise that the space is an extension of Ernst’s philosophy. Blots of paint smear the floor, artsy posters line his bedroom walls, a lampshade made of metal scrap dangles in his kitchen and dancing men on canvases for curtains flap through the windows. “Art shouldn’t always only be in galleries. It can be anywhere,” he smiles.

 

Local Lens On Sydney: Tasteful Art, Queer Pride And Aboriginal Heritage

Artist and Chippendale resident Gareth Ernst (left) with an artwork; Gentrification has truly transformed the neighbourhood (right) from a grimy industrial zone notorious for crime, to an upscale artistic haven boasting art galleries, cafés and shops. Photos by: Pooja Naik (Ernst), KATHARINA13/ISTOCK (neighbourhood)

***

It’s late in the afternoon and Myrtle Street is having a siesta. Water gardens, trees the size of towers, graffiti-coated walls, and rows of houses with bright doors and lace-iron balconies sit on either side of the lane ideal for pedestrians and cyclists. Dried maple leaves scrunch under my foot as autumn makes its presence known.

When Ernst first moved into Chippendale in the 1990s, it was a grimy industrial neighbourhood notorious for crime. Buses were lit on fire and drug deals gone awry even led to murders. Gentrification truly transformed the neighbourhood and Judith Neilson had a huge part to play. The philanthropist inherited a billion dollars in alimony and pumped the money into beautifying the suburb. In 2009, she founded the White Rabbit Gallery; the establishment showcases one of the world’s largest collections of contemporary Chinese art from the 21st century.

I tour the exhibit with Ernst, dabbling in an interactive video game, poring over Xu Zhen’s “Hello”—a monumental snake that symbolises the cornerstone of Western civilisation—and taking in Han Qingzhen’s “Night Wanderer” series, which illustrates a fantastical realm where nocturnal lifeform of plant, animal and human merge together. But there is one particular installation that catches my artist friend’s fancy: Lin Yan’s “Sky 2”: a monochrome Xuan ink and paper cloudscape that injects a sense of fragility and impermanence, mirroring the eradication of China’s rich heritage that has fallen prey to urbanisation. Instinctively, he whips out his sketchbook and water colours and lets his genius steer the course. It isn’t the last time I see him unfold the act. Outside, he lets me peek at his sketchpad and I see pages dripping with his expressions: a gradient green matcha rose cheesecake from a local café, a friend’s barbecue dinner, a lemon cocktail, a wheelchair, and a mask.

“People think art is about ego, but it’s quite the opposite,” he runs a hand over a blank page. “You have to be humble to be a good artist.” Ernst then discloses that he was diagnosed with brain tumour 14 years ago. He not only lost his vision and sensation up his arms, but also lost touch with the one thing he’d held close to his heart: art. Drawing mapped his road to recovery as it helped him see and feel again. “When you get so close to death, you learn to appreciate life a little more,” his words are loaded with gratitude. It’s hard not to feel inspired in his presence.

To know more: www.localtravelplanner.com; www.sydneybespoketours.com.au; www.garethernst.com

 

The Fabulous Life of Wander Mama

Oxford Street

Oxford Street is drizzle-drenched and the clouds are ominously grey. Come February, next year, a two-kilometre stretch extending up to The Domain (34 hectares of parkland) will be red-carpeted in eye-popping exuberance. The preparations for Sydney World Pride 2023, the first global queer jamboree in the Southern Hemisphere, is well underway.

Local Lens On Sydney: Tasteful Art, Queer Pride And Aboriginal Heritage

The Fabulous Wonder Mama as seen in her element at the pedestrian rainbow crossing in Taylor Square. Photo by: Pooja Naik

I’m in the heart of Sydney’s LGBTQIA+ district, standing outside House Of Priscilla, a one-stop costume destination. Passersby are quick to snap a picture in my direction. But I’m not their muse. It is my companion, The Fabulous Wonder Mama, a former drag queen performer, who is now leading a tour of the neighbourhood. Her outfit is a distractingly glamorous play on Wonder Woman, complete with red-rimmed sunnies, a purse, and a pair of gloves and boots. I can’t help but admire her star-studded navy blue dress complimenting a gold-sequin shrug. I learn that the self-proclaimed “super-hero adventuress and glambassador of peace, love, and equality” was a graphic designer for 25 years in another life. She has now found middle ground running a drink-and-draw class.

“It’s actually a very significant year for us as we commemorate 45 years of Mardi Gras and five years of marriage equality in Australia,” says Wonder Mama, further emphasising on how the same-sex marriage law came about after a very controversial public vote opposed by a strong ‘No Campaign’. “But luckily we won with a 61 percent majority.”

The clicking of her heels is audible as we stroll past neon signage and rainbow flags that festoon the pubs and stores lining the street. The area is also known for its drag shows and pub-culture reputation. Over the years, Sydney introduced lockdown laws in order to curb alcohol-fuelled bar brawls that discourage people from staying out past three in the morning. Financial ramifications led to the shuttering of many iconic joints, while some underwent a revamp. A classic example is The Midnight Shift—a crowd-favourite drag n’ dine nightclub and bar that was active from the 1980s until 2017, and has now made way for the hip Universal bar.

The zone has also borne witness to an audience of almost 5,00,000 allies and participants of the parade every year. Most clubs in the district even host viewing parties for spectators. However, the pride was less a parade and more an assembly contained inside the boundaries of the Sydney Cricket Ground for the last two years owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its restrictive capacity and short duration left attendees with a divided opinion. Next year is anticipated to be a mammoth affair.

***

An elderly gentleman with a walking stick stops us in our tracks and asks for a picture with Wonder Mama. “Oh my gosh! You don’t know who we have here!” her eyes light up as she introduces me to Craig “Polly” Petrie, one of Sydney’s most iconic, and perhaps the Southern Hemisphere’s longest-reigning drag queen, who started out at the famous (now closed) Albury Hotel in the early 1990s: a respected tenure for her show called Polly’s Follies. The two chat animatedly, catching up like long lost friends who’ve just been reunited. Craig tells me about the time they had attended the New York World Pride 2019 and how he had made the front page of the local papers. He pulls up a link on his phone and the woman in the picture staring back at me, with a big bright smile and even brighter clothes, is colourfully unrecognisable. “Gosh, what an icon!” Wonder Mama gushes.

Our exchange is brief and Wonder Mama ushers me to Taylor Square near Darlinghurst, another hip, gay-friendly neighbourhood. The major road junction, where Oxford Street meets Flinders Street, is monikered The Media Moment. “This is the brightest part of the parade. They tell you to look your best because this is where everything gets televised,” she points at the road where cars and buses move along.

A brick-walled structure with a circular roof sits to our left, down the lane from the legendary Oxford Hotel. “You see that old police building?” she teases before breaking the news to me. “That’s going to be turned into Sydney’s new LGBTQ+ museum.” The story that follows traces the grim history of the queer community and their relationship with the city. “Controversially, when the raids took place during the first Mardi Gras in 1978, the gays, the lesbians, and the trans people were locked up in the same police station between 24-48 hours.” The event harks back to memories of the Stonewall riots in New York, which had unfolded only a decade prior.

 

Local Lens On Sydney: Tasteful Art, Queer Pride And Aboriginal Heritage

Costumes from House Of Priscilla (left) have featured in drag shows, pride parades and reality television; Craig “Polly” Petrie (right), one of Australia’s most iconic drag queens, is all smiles for the camera. Photos by: Pooja Naik

 

Vivid imageries of activists peacefully marching down the street with trucks and speakers jump to life as Wonder Mama continues. “Many members of the same-sex community were still in the closet due to fear of hate crime. When the marchers were stopped by the police in Hyde Park, the group rerouted to Kings Cross, where they were met with a bunch of paddy wagons and policemen, despite having secured permissions. That’s where the riots took place.” To make matters worse, The Sydney Morning Herald got hold of the names of the people that had been arrested and outed them publicly in the newspaper. Many were disowned by their families, thrown out of their jobs, and even lost their homes.

In recent years, the police have atoned for their wrongdoings and have even been seen participating in the parade. But there is still a section of the community that feels vulnerable and does not want them around in the event.

Before we move to the rainbow crossing in Darlinghurst, Wonder Mama steals another glimpse of the upcoming queer museum. “There better be a section or at least a plaque of me in there.” The gloomy sky can do nothing to rain on her colourful parade.

To know more: fabulouswondermama.com.au; The tour typically lasts 2.5 hours and includes a drink.

 

Also Read | An Art Trail Through Melbourne

 

This story originally appeared in the July-August (2022) issue of National Geographic Traveller India.

To read more stories on travel, cities, food, nature, and adventure, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.

Essentials

The frequency of direct flights between India and Australia is low. Most flights from Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata require one or more layovers in a Southeast Asian gateway city like Singapore—including ones offered by Singapore Airlines.

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  • Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.

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