Strong Law in the Desert

The Bidyadanga painters are in the news again, with Patrick Hutchings’ review of the new show by Weaver Jack and Jan Billycan at William Mora. Hutchings reiterates the stories of the loss of water in the desert that drove the Yulparitja coastwards in the 1960s. A a couple of weeks ago, Nicolas Rothwell had similarly written about Emily Rohr’s search for the stories underlying paintings from Bidyadanga, a subject that I took up in “Matters of Representation.” The stories in both Rothwell’s and Hutchings’ articles brought home to me the extent of the upheavals suffered by people who must, for whatever reason, abandon their homelands, and reminded me of similar stories I had heard about troubles in Pintupi country in the 1980s. These tales offer me an occasion for a meditation on loss.

In his article, Hutchings profiles one of the youngest of the painters from Bidyadanga, Daniel Walbidi, whose recent paintings of the wasp ancestor are also stories of the great drought that beset the Yulparitja in the 1960s. Walbidi is an extraordinarily talented and daring young man who is in his early twenties. He seems intent on exploring as many styles as possible for representing the stories he learned from his grandparents. The variety of his experiments is dazzling; I sometimes wonder if in the very breadth of his stylistic exercises he is trying, almost desperately, to capture the whole spectrum of Yulparitja culture. I have no doubt that, after he burns through this period of apprenticeship he is in midst of, he will emerge as one of the strongest of the Bidyadanga painters. He is also a comfortable speaker of English, and this past August I had the opportunity, with Rohr’s assistance, to explore with him the stories behind several of his paintings. (A solo show of Walbidi’s paintings will open at Mora’s at the end of May.)

One of Walbidi’s paintings, done in the hot desert palette of red, yellow, black and white, shows two human-like figures, a #7 boomerang, and a long, sinuous line that probably represents the country’s sacred watersnakes. Its story concerns an old woman known as Paleny, or “bad woman,” who travelled around the country making trouble, stealing and killing young children, especially young boys. She created an accomplice called Kulpanya, who helped her kill people. Finally all the people in the area got together and made the ground open up. They threw her in the chasm and then quickly closed it up again. As Daniel finished telling the story, Emily remarked that the people had such amazing powers in the old days. Daniel looked up quickly, almost startled, and said, “Still do. Those people down south in the desert got strong power.” Emily asked if Daniel thought he might ever learn to have such power. With a hint of what looked like embarrassment, he replied, “Oh no, we don’t believe in those stories any more, we’re Christians now,” adding that “the old ways hurt people, revenge.” 

The references in Rothwell’s article to the period of “fighting, rivalry, and social disruption” that followed the desiccation of the Yulparitja homelands reminded me of Daniel’s final assessment. The violence and hurt of the separation from country also brought to my mind another set of stories from another part of the desert, related to me by Fred Myers on the occasion of our first meeting a few years back.

In 1984, when the “lost tribe,” the Pintupi mob that included the Tjapaltjarri brothers Warlimpirrnga, Walala, and Thomas, came out of the desert, Fred had been flown in by the Australian government to help mediate the encounter. The government, for its part, was concerned about the physical welfare of the newcomers. Their presence on the edge of the settled desert west of Kiwirrkura and their status as the final holdouts, the last “wild tribe” left in the country without contact with white civilization, was already the subject of much noise in the media. The government wanted to make sure the new mob were given access to proper health care in the wake of being exposed to the coughs and colds (and more) in Kiwirrkura; the Pintupi were mindful of how many new arrivals from the desert had died at Papunya two decades earlier and reluctant to let the white doctors have another go at their people. 

But it wasn’t just the encounter between the lost tribe and the white men that was fraught. The Kiwirrkura mob was decidedly uneasy about the appearance of these relatives whom they hadn’t seen in many years. Both groups were aware of the other’s presence in the general vicinity of Kiwirrkura; there had been smokes and signs for weeks prior to “first contact.” One day, “naked Pintupi” from the desert suddenly appeared near an outstation camp, terrifying its residents. Pinta Pinta Tjapanangka was so unnerved that he let off a shotgun blast into the air, whereupon the new mob disappeared back into the desert for several days.

The Kiwirrkura mob had a number of things to be worried about. For starters, one of the women from the desert mob had been promised as a wife to one of the senior Kiwirrkura men, and he had decided to stake his claim when they showed up. No one knew how this was going to be received. And a long time before, a young woman had left the nomadic group and walked in to Balgo, where she had been residing for over twenty years. Her “desertion” of her family in the desert was likely to provoke an unhappy family reunion.

So the Kiwirrkura mob was uneasy because they suspected (rightly) that the desert mob would be angry at being abandoned by their relatives who had left the desert two decades before and never come back to look for them. Nor had they been back to look after their country far out west. The Kiwirrkura mob knew that their long removal from country had seriously weakened them, and that the desert mob would still be full of strong magic. They feared the consequences of that uneven mastery of power. The reunion, then, was not unalloyed joy; there was a great deal of tension, and a few incidents of violence as well, as claims and counterclaims were negotiated among the relatives so long separated.

The experience of the Pintupi and the Yulparitja offers some striking parallels in their expressions of belief in the in the power that comes from close contact with country, and the sense of loss stronger than a wistful longing that accompanies removal, be it forced or “voluntary.” It is a belief that runs deep. It is a power that commands both respect and fear, and it is directly tied to living on ancestral land and following the old ways. 

Somehow, I had always interpreted Aboriginal sorrow for country as a variety of homesickness, a nostalgia (which is Greek for, roughly, “aching to return”). These stories have added a depth of understanding for me. There is a loss, not just of the familiar, but of some fundamental natural and native force. The old people and the desert mob have a strength that those whose ties to their homelands are severed feel they have lost. They are diminished; it is no wonder that they mourn. I’m not sure even now, mobile American that I am, happily living hundreds of miles from the place I grew up, that I can fully appreciate the loss of self and power these people experience. I don’t think Daniel Walbidi was truly disavowing belief in the power of the old people, but rather in his expectation of ever sharing in it. I can not really comprehend such a loss, and the violence to one’s self that it entails.

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