Lardil Culture from Mornington Island

Several weeks ago, I posted a note about a wonderful show of art from Mornington Island. I heard in response from Brett Evans, the Art Centre Co-ordinator, with the news that a new and improved website would soon be in production. Well, I visited the site last night and all I can say is that it is probably the best community website I’ve ever seen. The production is beautiful, the information it imparts is thorough; I’m not even disappointed that there’s not yet any artwork for sale…although I understand that’s soon to come. I was happy to hear that the piece by Emily Evans that was in the Art Award is being acquired by the Queensland Art Gallery, and I’m looking forward to the day when there’s more work available. 

The site has separate sections for the Mornington Island Dancers and the MI Arts & Crafts Centre, and they are both amazing, if I may repeat myself. Both feature beautiful and informative photographs of the dancers and artists at work, and Dancers section also offers a brief history of Mornington Island.

The section for the Arts Centre includes profiles of eighteen artists, along with examples of their works. The “Traditional Crafts” area has examples of carvings, dance paraphernalia, hunting implements, and weavings that are for sale. Under “Exhibitions” there are fabulous photographs of the opening of Jidmaa Thuwathu – Rainbow Serpent Rising at Woolloongaaba Art Gallery last June, along with a brief history of painting on the island. A PDF of the exhibition catalog, itself a handsome production, is available under the “Publications” section.

But the stand-out features are the videos that are viewable directly as streaming media from the website (no fussing with Windows Media player or other cranky software, although sometimes if the net connection is slow and the buffering can’t keep up there can be unwelcome pauses in the action). 

The twelve-minute “Primary School Performance Presentation” of the MI Dancers offers high-quality video, superbly photographed and edited, with an interesting commentary, showing the Dancers performing at a Townsville schools, interacting with the young children (who are clearly delighted by it all), and explaining their culture. The dancers, for example, introduce themselves with both English and tribal names, and explain to the children what the tribal names mean–literally, in translation, and metaphorically, in their connection to nature. If you miss hearing them, they’re offered in the credits in the end as well. That’s a good if minor example of the thoroughness and thoughtfulness that’s gone into the preparation of every aspect of the site. The dances themselves are exciting and great fun to watch, and the information provided about the body painting designs help interpret some of the paintings shown elsewhere on the site.

The video on the Art Centre section of the site is a knockout–no other word for it. It’s over thirty minutes long, for starters. Although the quality of the image isn’t as good as the Dancers video, the quality of the information presented and the pacing of the presentation is among the best I’ve ever seen. 

The video is called “Preparing for the Corroboree” and features a few clips of dances that are Dick Roughsey paintings come to life. It’s a production by the Australian Museum and the Aboriginal Arts Board, filmed by Howard Hughes. Throughout its length, music plays in the background–singing, clapsticks, didgeridu–that’s a lesson in Lardil culture in itself. But the bulk of the video shows elders, among them Gully and Cora Peters, making the decorations used in the dances–body painting, armbands and headbands, pubic tassels, and even the construction of the characteristic conical hat, the kajawor. If you’ve ever watched Ian Dunlop’s monumental films from the 1960’s, People of the Australian Western Desert , you know something of what to expect, but you’re also in for a real treat. There’s the same level of ethnographic detail, the careful step-by-step narration, but the overall effect is frankly, far more entertaining. And given that the narration is done by a Lardil man, Jackson Jacob (Thunalgunaldin), there are nuggets of history and culture that appear along the way, like the the story of the arrival of the first missionaries on Mornington Island. The sheet density of information contained and conveyed in half an hour is astounding. It is really worth watching more than once.

One technical note about viewing the videos that it took me a while to discover: below the image area there’s a light green “progress bar” that shows how much of the film has elapsed. If you run our mouse over that bar, the video controls—volume, rewind, pause/play buttons appear.

The history of Mornington Island in the 20th century has often been a unhappy one. On a small island, all the problems that have beset Aboriginal communities since the arrival of Europeans seem to have been concentrated: the phrase “contents under pressrure” comes to mind. Intertribal violence, an imposed and unwelcome form of “local governement,” severe problems with the grog, suicide….it’s a sad story, documented in the the ethnographic works of David McKnight. There is, therefore, all the more reason to rejoice in this revitalization of culture and the hope that it promises. The Woomera Aboriginal Corporation has created a marvelous embassy of Lardil (and indeed Aboriginal) culture here, and they deserve our congratulations as well as our gratitude for that. 

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