FOR YUENDUMU: BUSH MECHANICS, THE VEXATIONS OF TRUCKS, AND THE CELEBRATION OF WARLPIRI HISTORY

I’ve been thinking about Yuendumu this week, wishing that I could be there for the opening of the new Arts Centre. If my memory serves me, Warlukurlangu was perhaps the first Art Centre to have a website, way back in 1999. From my perch over here in America, the opportunity to deal directly and digitally with a community was an amazing step into the future. We were able for the first time to actually commission a work, a lovely old-fashioned Janganpa Jukurrpa from Paddy Stewart. And 2005 had already been a pretty amazing year before October 15, with the retrospective exhibition of the Warlukurlangu Collection and Jukurrpa Wiri marking 20 years of painting at Yuendumu and the offer of Paddy Stewart’s suite from the Yuendumu Doors at Sotheby’s in July, both of which I was fortunate to see. But now I’m back on my Stateside perch, and so I’d like to offer my congratulations digitally (again) and say I hope it was a heckuva celebration this weekend. If anyone was there and would like to share stories, I’d love to hear them, and with permission, share them. Photos welcome, too, and anonymity provided on request!

I wasn’t actually thinking about Yuendumu when I started thinking about trucks. I’ve been trying to organize photos and reread notes from my summer’s journal. Looking back at photos of Kantjupayi Benson at the Art Award started the reflections on trucks and their vexations in Aboriginal Australia. I’m not sure any other single material commodity has been so often discussed. Probably the first “joke” I heard years and years about Aboriginal people was something about a Toyota Dreaming. Fred Myers published a brilliant essay called “Burning the Truck and Holding the Country: property, time, and the negotiation of identity among Pintupi Aborigines” in a collection entitled Hunters and Gatherers 2: property, power and ideology (Oxford, 1988). And of course, there’s this year’s prize-winning Tjanpi Toyota Dreaming. And although Aboriginal communities are (in)famous for their graveyards of rusted, abandoned vehicles, Yuendumu is justly famous for its Bush Mechanics.

Yuendumu was the second community in the Western Desert to begin painting in acrylics, after the Papunya/Kintore model, in 1983 with the project now known as the Yuendumu Doors. Like the work at Papunya, a group of old men painted traditional designs on the community school. Unlike Papunya, the dot painting style was bright, colorful, and loose.

The development of local video production came not long afterwards, in 1984 or 1985. It was at first a somewhat makeshift operation employing a couple of slightly worn video cameras to document local events like football games and the famous Yuendumu Sports Weekend, which draws competitors from around the region. By 1985, the Australian government was beginning to consider ways of sending television signals into remote areas and the men at Yuendumu were discovering ways to produce indigenous programming in language. Thus was “pirate television” born in the Desert.

The early history of video production at Yuendumu is chronicled in a series of essays by the late anthropologist Eric Michaels, published almost cotemporaneously in 1987 and later collected in Bad Aboriginal Art: tradition, media, and technological horizons (University of Minnesota Press, 1994). These essays are an amazing mixture of outrage, irreverence, respect, post-modernist theory, insight, and humor, worthy of a place on the shelf of Warlpiri studies next to Meggitt’s Desert People and Munn’s Warlpiri Iconography

The first of these essays was “Hundreds Shot at Aboriginal Community: ABC Makes TV Documentary at Yuendumu.” The title deliberately evokes memories of the Coniston Massacre and imitates the sensationalist headline style of television news. It tells the story of the production of an ABC documentary (released as “Fight Fire with Fire”) that was originally meant to describe the early attempts at indigenous video production. Michaels, living in Yuendumu at the time, also hoped that it would provide the local film makers with the opportunity to work on both sides of the camera: to participate in the production of the documentary as well as being its subject. Although many of the ABC crew involved were sympathetic to the Warlpiri aspirations, in the end the bureaucracy of ABC came to dominate. The Aboriginal people had no part in the either production or post-production operations and eventually had to threaten a lawsuit against ABC to win the right of community review of the program before it aired.

All this took place at a time when the community was trying not just to create is own programming but more importantly, in doing so, to establish a position on what kind of programming should be brought to desert communities. Michaels’ despair and outrage stems from the irony of the ABC spending well over $40,000 to make this video and refusing to commit any funds at all to enhancing local production of programming. 

A second essay, “Hollywood Iconography: a Warlpiri Reading,” takes as its starting point the communicative functions of Warlpiri graphical systems (essentially, a review of Munn’s work) and compares and contrasts how Warlpiri construct meaning in that traditional environment with how they adapt those “reading” skills to the viewing of Hollywood genre films. 

The third essay in this series, “For a Cultural Future: Francis Jupurrula Kelly makes TV at Yuendumu” describes in some detail the making of two projects by the Warlpiri Media Association under the direction of Francis Jupurrula Kelly, who would go on a decade later to create Bush Mechanics. Michaels’ text is not simply a reconstruction of the events of the filmmaking, but an attempt to show how fundamental cultural values inform the way that Warlpiri videos is created.

One example of this translation from traditional “story-telling” practice to the medium of video production is telling in its simplicity and starkness. In traditional ritual practice, there exists the well-known division between kirda (owner or “boss” of the story) and kurdungurlu (manager or “policeman”). Kirda performs the ritual; kurdungurlu is responsible for preparing the ground where the ritual takes place and painting the kirda who dance. When Jupurrula set out to create a Warlpiri account of the Coniston Story (as the film was called), the story was retold, at and near sites associated with the massacre, by an old Japangardi man who was a witness and survivor of the events in 1928. Jupurrula Kelly, who would stand in ritual relationship of kurdungurlu to Japangardi, was behind the camera, filming and giving direction.

Michaels also tells of the 28 Warlpiri people who comprised the filmmaking party out to Coniston from Yuendumu. He speaks of how whitefellas have characterized this as “kinship riding,” the manner in which any organized expedition seems to grow well beyond the number of participants required for the ostensible purpose of the outing. Michaels explains:

Anthropologists have computed that the number of people making up the nomadic collective among the Warlpiri is about thirty, in times of adequate resources…. This number is not arbitrary, nor is it based on mere ecological calculation is regard to work force and resource exploitation. It may also be an ideological consequence of Warlpiri kinship reckoning, which requires certain identified relations to be ritually articulated in act of cultural reproduction. Although very few of these people would be participating directly in the videotaping, either in front of or behind the camera, everyone had to be present to authorize the product. From another but related perspective, everyone had rights to both the story and the land in which–of which–it speaks. (Michaels, 112)

The conclusion, then, is that the “process of cultural reproduction” is critical to the maintenance of Warlpiri culture in this (or any) contemporary endeavor. The point is not simply to preserve the static anthropological or ethnographic experience of culture, but to recognize and respect the inherited tradition in the present moment in time. Michaels concludes that Jupurrula’s “tapes and broadcasts reach forward and backward … and attempt to bridge the Dreaming and the historical.” While I would argue with the implicit opposition Michaels sets up here with its implication of the Dreaming as ahistorical, I think he has captured something essential about Jupurrula’s creative process.

Bush Mechanics started life as a project of Francis Jupurrula Kelly and the Warlpiri Media Association over a decade after the writing of these essays, in 1998. (It’s one of the lovely ironies of anthropological history that in an appendix to his essay on Jupurrula’s work Michaels notes that the community had been critical of his pessimism about the future of Warlpiri video.) Kelly and Simba Nelson developed the original feature about the ingenuity of a group of Jupurullas plagued with bad-luck vehicles from an idea by Kumanjayi (Tom) Kantor. The film won an Australian Film Institute award and spawned a four-episode ABC/Film Australia television series co-directed by Kelly, and later a web site featuring an interactive, animated video game. (On the basis of my hours spent playing said game, I can confidently assert that I personally will never hold the title of bush mechanic, though I had a lot of fun trying.)

As I began thinking about this essay and re-reading Michaels, I also decided to take another look at the videos. Unfortunately, our copy of the original program has gone missing for the moment, but a viewing of the series episodes in light of Michaels’ essays proved quite interesting nonetheless. I have to say that I initially approached them with some skepticism, as they are ABC productions, and not the work of the Warlpiri Media Association, but I think Jupurrula Kelly’s guiding hand is clearly in evidence even in the series.

The first three episodes of the series share a common format and structure: a group of Jupurrula’s need to get from one place to another, and require a vehicle to cross the distance. The vehicles they can afford are invariably “finished up,” or nearly so, and need to be repaired several times in the course of the journey. These repairs form the narrative highlights of each episode, displaying with humor and surprise the adaptability and skills of the Jupurrula mob in their country. I will treat the first episode here as representative of all three. Bear with me while I retell some of the story in a bit of detail.

Motorcar Ngutju (good motorcar) begins with an elder, played by Jack Jakamarra Ross, recounting his youthful encounters with whitefellas out in the bush. Dressed in flannels and a bush hat, he is the contemporary embodiment of the “old fella,” the initiated man of the Law, as he tells his story.

In a flashback, we next meet Jakamarra as a young bush aborigine (played on camera by Jupurrula Kelly himself) out hunting goanna with his spears and his hairstring belt for carrying home his catch. He spots two whitefellas standing out in the bush and approaches them. He’s clearly never seen anything like them before, and asks what’s all that on their skin–clothing, of course. One of the whitefellas offers him a mug of tea. He lifts it to his lips, then cries out in pain, scalded by the hot tea. He tosses the tea away, but figures he’ll keep the mug itself, and tucks it into his belt. This small bit of comic business (and it is played for laughs) sets up the opposition between bush ways and whitefella ways, but also displays Jakamarra’s canny appreciation of a small piece of technology (the mug) that may prove useful to him. This slight incident prefigures the theme of adaptation and adoption of technology that is central to Bush Mechanics.

Just beyond the two white men stands their truck. This Jakamarra can only interpret as a monster, and he runs away before it causes him trouble. In another sequence shortly afterwards, he approaches another truck, and with more curiosity this time, pokes it to see if it will react. He spears one of the tires, causing it to blow out. “It farted!” he cries, and runs off again. Once more, the comic element deflates the seriousness of the moment of culture contact.

The scene then shifts to present-day Yuendumu, where the Jupurrula mob is practicing their electric rock ‘n’ roll. An older man, Bandy, approaches them and offers $500 to play a gig at Willowra. They’re eager to do it, but how to get there? 

Cut away again to Jakamarra in the bush, waking up beside his fire. Must have been asleep a long time, he muses. Time now to go over to the other side. And quick as a flash, his bush gear is transformed into a pair of mechanic’s grease-stained coveralls.

Back at Yuendumu, the Jupurrula boys have gone to a junkyard to try to get themselves a vehicle for the trip to Willowra. They spot grandfather’s old blue Holden, but it’s missing a wheel, a distributor cap, a battery….. Suddenly, Jakamarra appears and leads the boys on a scavenger hunt, and in no time at all they are loading drums and guitars into the Holden and heading out for Willowra. These and following scenes in which the young Jakamarra-as-bush-mechanic appears are shot in a jerky, sped-up style that brings to mind old silent comedies. But it also serves as a means of visually distinguishing (if I may) “Jakamarra-time” from Jupurrula, or modern time. In much the way that ritual occupies a different (i.e. sacred) time from daily (profane) time, the camera alerts us to a qualitative difference here.

Somewhere down the road trouble strikes when the rough road shakes bolts loose and the crossbar falls off. The Jupurrulas are stuck, and they sit down to wait for help to come by. They pull out a tin of meat, but the key is missing. One of them pulls the tab open with his teeth. The mob can make do, but they’re hardly technologically adept. They pass around the food and wait for help.

Help appears with an audible boinngg! in the form of Jakamarra in his coveralls. He sets to directing the boys to gather what they need to fix the car from the bush. Chop a tree about this long, he says. A discarded wheel rim is pressed into service as a makeshift jack. The boys cut holes in the floor of the Holden with their axe, and a scavenged length of wire is used to secure the slim tree trunk in place of the crossbar. Soon the mob is off for Willowra again. Again, time speeds up while Jakamarra is around.

They have more misadventures: the roof collapses under the weight of the amplifiers, it grows too dark too see where they’re driving. In the first instance, they again use the axe to cut the roof away from the body of the Holden, flip it over, tie it to the rear of the car, and use it as a sled. When it grows dark, they scavenge a headlight from the bush and wire it up to the battery. Significantly, on neither occasion does Jakamarra make an appearance.

There’s plenty of humor in the presentation of the story, and the ad hoc solutions to the problems of broken vehicles are meant to both amuse and amaze. But there’s a serious subtext embedded in the comedy. Jakamarra is the representative of tradition and the Law, and to paraphrase Michaels, he reaches forward and backward in time, both a young and an old man. It is he who teaches the hapless Jupurrulas the skills they need to keep their Holden on the road and who makes it possible to reach the end of their journey, to earn their $500, and to fulfill their commitment to the kids who have been waiting all day for the band to arrive and perform for them. 

This is something of an existential DIY manual we are watching. The wisdom of the old man guides them. What they need is all around them, scattered in the bush. Jupurrula Kelly manages to turn the whole convention of broken, discarded cars on its head, not just through the ingenuity of Jakamarra and his proteges, but by having them literally collect what they need from the land, just as their grandfathers did before white men arrived in the Tanami. White man’s technology can be used to make culture strong.

The interweaving of whitefella law (technology) and blackfella law (rainmaking) becomes the entire premise of the final episode in the series, The Rainmakers. The episode opens with a television weatherman predicting more dry weather and bemoaning the lack of rain.

Out at Yuendumu, Jangala Rice is painting a car with an elaborate water dreaming design. When he’s finished it, he summons the Jupurrula mob and tells them they must drive the car to Broome, and trade it there for pearl shells that Jangala can use to make rain. And so once again the boys take off on an adventure: this time, it’s a three day drive to Broome in the car with the sacred designs.

By comparison with earlier episodes, their travels seem almost charmed. There’s only one mishap–a smashed windshield, and when they set out to repair it, they locate a replacement that is in perfect shape and is a perfect fit. Jangala has also loaded the car up with boomerangs and paintings that the mob uses to barter for gas and clothing along the way. In the store at Fitzroy crossing where they outfit themselves in elaborate cowboy duds, the white owner is happy to trade his stock for “good paintings.” 

Finally the mob makes it to Broome, where they drive out to the beach and find the rainmaker sitting under a lean-to. They park the car on the beach next to the lean-to, and the old man wordlessly hands them the pearl shell, without being asked why they have come and what it is they want. Soon lightning is flashing over the desert at Yuendumu, and Jangala smiles. On the television, the weather forecaster who opened the episode reports that rain is general all over Australia–perhaps too much rain, and now it’s time for some fine weather again.

The comedy that characterizes the earlier episodes is almost entirely absent from this final one. This is serious business that boys are involved in now. The trading of pearl shells from the coast to regions as far away as the Central Desert is well documented by modern ethnographies. We are seeing the enactment of ritual exchanges that have gone on for a long time, perhaps centuries and most certainly dating to pre-contact days. The is Aboriginal business here, despite the motorcar. Perhaps I shouldn’t say “despite.” The motorcar is today’s embodiment of value in the exchange network. Jupurrula is telling a true story.

The genius of Bush Mechanics is that it succeeds on so many levels. It is Warlpiri culture presented without apologies. It celebrates the ingenuity of the bush, and it celebrates the pratfall as well. It tackles one of the most prevalent negative images of today’s Aboriginal settlements and repudiates it. And in the end, in The Rainmakers, it presents serious matters of cultural history in a respectful manner. Having gotten our attention and satisfied our desire for entertainment and amusement, Jupurrula Kelly manages to teach us Warlpiri history. 

In his essay on “Hollywood Iconography” Michaels speculates about the appropriateness of video as a means of contemporary cultural production for a society that has oral, rather than literary, traditions. Failing to understand that oral tradition has caused whitefellas to consign Aboriginal people to the realm of “pre-history” at best. Our refusal to elucidate, understand, and value oral tradition and the history it contains is the foundation of terra nullius and more. By documenting the exchange network between the desert and the coast, Jupurrula Kelly strikes a blow against this refusal. Here, in a form that can endure, in a medium that the whitefella can understand, in Warlpiri video, is Warlpiri history and culture. 

And now, with the opening of the new Arts Centre, we can celebrate another vibrant chapter in that history. Yuwa! 


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4 Responses to FOR YUENDUMU: BUSH MECHANICS, THE VEXATIONS OF TRUCKS, AND THE CELEBRATION OF WARLPIRI HISTORY

  1. Peter35 says:

    We loved these videos! Only wish there were more, well done boys! Pete, BC Canada

  2. Pingback: Coniston | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

  3. Pingback: It’s Da Bomb | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

  4. Can’t Show Us Lanq Old Community Of Yuendumu Football Player Lanq Lawa Nyan

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