More Readings from the Far North: Art and Adventure

Another month has gone by since my last post on various books that have absorbed me lately, and so I offer my adventures for May, or as friend Jonathan characterizes them, “Books Bought, Borrowed, Bestowed, or Read.”


Another month has gone by since my last post on various books that have absorbed me lately, and so I offer my adventures for May, or as friend Jonathan characterizes them, “Books Bought, Borrowed, Bestowed, or Read.”

April’s armchair travels through Queensland with Dick Roughsey and Percy Trezise kept me in that part of the country a little longer. Thanks to the Queensland Art Gallery’sonline bookshop, I obtained the catalog from the Xstrata Coal Emerging Art Award 2006 exhibition. Xstrata Coal has been receiving some bad press in the southern parts of Queensland over explorations that may endanger sacred sites, but they’ve done nicely by the QAG, agreeing to fund an annual $30,000 prize (plus an additional $50,000 for acquisition of works by indigenous artists) for the next three years. 

Ten artists were selected for this year’s competition, and based on the works reproduced in the catalog, the selection was very satisfying, if somewhat idiosyncratic. I would have characterized Timothy Cook and Raelene Kerinauia from the Tiwi community at Milikapiti as well established artists in 2006, and Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s solo shows at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi have brought her into a national spotlight. Most of the other artists, apart from South Australia’s Nici Cumpston, who began exhibiting her work eight years ago, have only been active for three years at best. Roma Butler and Mignonette Jamin’s works have been on my radar for most of that time, but that may be just my idiosyncratic taste showing through. Emily Evans and Sally Gabori from Mornington Island are certainly emerging on the national scene (Emily represented Woomera Arts in the Telstra show last year); and this exhibition gave me a first look at the work of Minnie Lumai and the winner, Jonathan Jones.

All of the work reproduced in the catalog is first rate (I reserve judgment on Sally Gabori, the latest in the line of old ladies, but I seem to be alone in my lack of enthusiasm for her work, so I’ll say no more), and the book itself has been produced with great care and a good deal of concern for its own aesthetics. The heavy, textured cover, the clever use of a detail from Jones’ Lumination fall wall weave as endpaper, and quality reproductions of selected works all contribute to its appeal. There are brief essays accompanying each reproduction, artist’s biographies, and a comprehensive, detailed list of the works exhibited. At $17.95, it’s a steal.

While browsing through the online shop at QAG, I also picked up a copy of Carved from the Cape: indigenous sculpture from the Cape York Peninsula, Queensland Australia, which features the work of sculptors from Aurukun and Lockhart River. Also included is work by Melbourne artist Mike Nichols, who conducted carving workshops at Lockhart River between 2003 and 2005, inspiring the work presented here by Silas Hobson and Phillip Sandy. I’ve always enjoyed the whimsy of Hobson’s work and the spookiness of his attenuated sprit figures. So I was quite unprepared for Crocodile Man, a two-meter, upright, hulking, mass of carved, assembled, and painted milkwood, its snout thrown up as though roaring at the sky. The word that comes to mind is “robust.” Phillip Sandy is represented here in his first exhibition by two pieces, a 1.2 meter cassowary whose painting is quite accomplished, and a marvelous, very rough, half-meter wallaby/dugong mix. According to a story told in the Lockhart region, a wallaby surprised a sleeping dugong by stealing his tail, exchanging it for his own. The dugong was angry at first, but grew to like it, and that explains how each has that tail we see today. 

The works from Aurukun won’t be surprising to those who’ve seen the QAG’s Story Place exhibition, with a single exception. Arthur Pambegan’s Bone Fish and Flying Foxsculptures are now being made with milled pine supports, which have the advantage of being sturdier that the milkwood saplings he’s used in the past (the latter tended to crack under the weight of the hanging elements). The appeal of the Aurukun sculptors for me has always been their roughness; the work that’s been produced in the last few years could in many cases be interchanged with the pieces produced for Ian Dunlop’s 1962 documentary Dances at Aurukun. The remainder of the work is fascinating as usual, and includes a work apparently left unfinished by Old Man Wolmby on his death in November 2005 as well as a spectacular set of fifteen law poles (thuuth thaa’ munth) by Ron Yunkaporta. (These are the magnificent works that were featured on the cover of the catalog for Story Place).

Ceremonial dancers from Aurukun adorn the cover of the paperback first edition of Aurukun Diary: forty years with the Aborigines (Aldersgate Press, 1981) by Geraldine MacKenzie, who stood by her husband’s side as an emissary of Presbyterian Church in Cape York from 1925 until 1965–a truly remarkable tenure. Sadly, “remarkable” is not a word that can be applied to this memoir, and the cover photograph might be the most vivid realization of the indigenous people to found in the book.

The story starts off promisingly, as the MacKenzies, in the company of the anthropologist Ursula McConnel, set off through the bush to survey the country south from Aurukun to the Kendall River (a distance of 80-100 km as the crow flies) and to meet the souls to whom they will minister. But the story of these two chapters is more about geography and the travails of crossing rivers than it is about the people whose homelands the missionaries are traversing. Even McConnel is a cipher in terms of anthropology, a minor character on the pilgrims’ progress.

The remainder of the book is loosely organized, more thematic than chronological in its progression, with a great deal of the narrative taken up by stories of the war years, when the white presence in the area was augmented by men of the RAAF and diminished by Bill MacKenzie’s prolonged absence in the service of his church and country. The book’s composition seems to have proceeded by the author dipping into her diaries at random and thinking, “Ah, here’s a choice bit.” She details the work of building the mission settlement, and of planting trees and vegetable crops. There are sections devoted to the epidemics of whooping cough and measles that swept through the Cape towards the middle of her years there, and of the almost blind luck which saved the native population from decimation. But there’s little insight into the reactions of the people themselves to this devastation. As for the ceremonial life that had beckoned from the cover, there are frequent mentions of the corroborees that the natives delight in presenting for the missionaries and the airmen, but no details of the content or style of the performances at all.

The haphazard quality of MacKenzie’s reconstruction of history in this slim book struck me most forcefully in a short chapter entitled “Incident in 1935.” In February of that year a constable from Coen in the company of a native tracker appeared at Aurukun to investigate the death of a man named Paddy, who had been reported killed and eaten. Paddy’s two wives had come in to the mission at Aurukun in 1934 with news of his death from “a severe illness.” The constable interviewed the two women, concluded that no foul play had occurred, and set off in the heavy rain to return to Coen. A month later a constable (it’s not clear whether it was the same one) returned to Aurukun with several men whom an inquiry had revealed were implicated in Paddy’s murder. (MacKenzie offers no explanation for the reversal of the decision, happening as it must have away from the mission itself.) This time, one of the widows confronts one of the accused with charges of cannibalism, or as the mission log recorded it “a frank admission of murder and an orgy of eating human flesh.” She notes that seven men were removed to Palm Island as a result.

This bizarre episode invokes for Mrs Mackenzie another reminiscence, this time of a confession of murder. The accused woman was taken to Cairns, but “had to be returned to the Director of Native Affairs to be dealt with, as she flatly refused to plead ‘Not guilty of wilful murder’. ‘I did it! I did it!’ she reiterated stubbornly.” MacKenzie notes that the “direct down-to-earth mind of the Aborigine” has little patience with the convolutions of the English legal system, in which justice is confused with or by “legalistic quibbling.” Her description of the whole business ends with a pair of paragraphs recounting their own brush with an incident involving cannibalism a few years earlier, a reference to Daisy Bates’s evidence of the same practice, and the notice that “certain folk who lived north of the River Tweed” in England “relished a slice of the female breast,” thus generously suggesting that we are all descendants of cannibals.

This encounter with justice seems to come straight from the pages of Lewis Carroll. I was stunned, therefore, when next picking up Donald Thompson in Arnhem Land(Miegunyah Press, revised edition, 2003) to read the following paragraph from Nicolas Peterson’s introductory chapter, “A Biographical Sketch of Donald Thompson,” which describes events in Thomson’s life during a period in 1932 spent in the vicinity of Aurukun.

For many years, indeed into the 1960s, Aurukun was controlled with a rod of iron by a superintendent of long standing. Under his regime and by his hand Aboriginal people were summarily punished by complete or partial head shaving, flogging, chaining, and imprisonment. The prison was a galvanized iron building, seven by twelve feet, divided into two compartments and containing as many a six adult prisoners at one time. For such a trivial offence as late delivery of the milk to the white staff’s holiday camp on Archer Bay, miles from the mission, an Aboriginal man, Billy Blowhard, was threatened with goal. Worst of all, in Thomson’s eyes, was the power of the superintendent to have people exiled for life to Palm Island simply on his own word, and without any trial. On Sunday 11 December 1932, police troopers arrived from Laura to remove two women and three men forever to Palm Island. Not even waiting to conduct the afternoon service, the superintendent seized a rifle and led the police party up river in the mission launch to capture the five people. They were eventually caught. Back at the mission there was not even the pretence of a trial. On Thursday 15 December, the three men, each carrying a blanket, were chained neck to neck and, although the police had packhorses, were dragged off on a 240-mile walk to Laura at the height of the tropical midsummer. The previous year, when another party had been taken away by the police, one man died on the road from cruelty and privations.

This story, extracted from private papers now held by Thomson’s family, is based on notes taken by Thomson to accompany a photograph that was published in the MelbourneHerald in 1947. The photograph, showing the five prisoners and their mounted police escort, is reproduced in Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land and captioned with an additional quote from Thomson: “Terrible though this picture is, it gives no idea of the misery of the scene, with the relatives of the prisoners wailing and weeping and screaming good bye to their kin who they know from long experience they will never see again.”

Small wonder that the logic of English justice escaped the people of Western Cape York in 1930s.

Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land, edited by Peterson, is another superb production from the Miegunyah Press imprint of Melbourne University Press. It is printed on heavy, glossy Euro Matt Art paper, superbly bound, and copiously illustrated with photographs by Thomson, including the famous shot of ten canoes of goose-egg hunters that inspired both Milpurrurru’s famous painting now in the Australian National Gallery and deHeer’s new film. Line drawings by Thomson’s secretary Joan Clark add to the illustrative distinction of the presentation. The photographs alone are worth the price of the book; there are far more included here than in the original edition of 1983. They are remarkable in particular for the detailed information they provide about Yolngu technology: fish traps, net and basket weaving, shelters, weapons, and apparel are all finely documented in the images included in the book. Likewise, the pictures of ceremony, the crisp details of body painting, and the almost casual documentation of ornaments all add great depth to the narrative. 

One picture stands out especially in my mind. It shows a young girl seated on a beach. She is the daughter of Makarrwala, the man who was Lloyd Warner’s chief informant for the research conducted in the 1920s that is contained in the monumental work A Black Civilization: a social study of an Australian tribe (Harper and Bros., 1937; note that the revised edition of 1958 is unfortunately abridged, though much easier to find in the secondary market now). In the photograph the young girl is playing at being a mother. She has a pair of molded mud breasts–each of the pair is attached to one end of a string looped over her neck–and she cradles a mud-brick “baby” on a sheet of paperbark in her lap. She wears an armlet wrapped a dozen times about her left arm, just above the elbow. Her limbs, her hands, her fingers seem impossibly long and attenuated. It’s a picture that amazes with its simplicity of narrative, its complexity of backstory: the manufacture of the accoutrements of motherhood amaze and the embodiment of the aspirations of a young girl on an Arnhem Land beach is haunting.

A number of these photographs were also published in Judith Proctor Wiseman’s Thomson Time: Arnhem Land in the 1930s: a photographic essay (Museum of Victoria, 1996). I can’t say who was actually responsible for the design of that book, so I won’t recommend that they be shot, but I will say they did a disservice to the material. Instead of clean white pages, many are black or orange with contrasting text boxes. The photographs themselves all have a sepia-like tinge to them that makes them hard to read, despite often being lager in size than the copies represented in the Miegunyah Press volume. The latter are far preferable to my eye, and are enhanced by being placed in conjunction with relevant parts of the narrative, thus effectively illustrating Thomson’s story and at the same time being illuminated by it.

The text is largely unchanged except in details from the 1983 edition. It’s something of a hybrid, if not to say a bastard, text. Thomson did not publish extensively during his lifetime, and much of the extensive body of field notes he left behind remains in private hands or in the collection of Museum Victoria. Nicolas Peterson has taken material from all these sources and woven it together in a narrative that sounds like a continuous memoir in Thomson’s voice. This has obviously required him to take certain liberties with the original texts but compensates by making the resulting story readable and cohesive. Most of the story takes place during Thomson’s expedition across Arnhem Land between 1935 and 1937, undertaken to calm the troubles that had arisen after the Caledon Bay and Woodah Island killings of the years immediately preceding. A final chapter tells the story of the Northern Territory Coastal Patrol and the Special Reconnaissance Unit organized and captained by Thomson among the Yolngu during 1941-43. Again, the original report, held in the Australian War Memorial Archives, has been considerably reworked for narrative purposes here.

From all accounts Thomson was a difficult man who held an extraordinarily high opinion of himself and his abilities. He was also, like many of the great Australian explorers, a man of enormous physical stamina and determination, and his adventures are gripping and cinematic in the telling. Unlike many of the earlier explorers, he possessed an equally extraordinary degree of sympathy for his Aboriginal fellows, and a firm belief in the necessity of allowing them to remain undisturbed, at least until they could recover in numbers–thus avoiding physical extinction–from initial contacts with Europeans. Like many others, he seems to have felt that some form of cultural assimilation was inevitable over time. But given that his recommendations were at the time largely ignored by the Government, he effectively withdrew from the public sphere. After the war he undertook field work among the Pintupi in the Great Sandy Desert. He chronicled these expeditions in Bindibu Country (Thomas Nelson, 1975) which, like so much of his other work, did not see publication until after his death in 1970.

There’s more to come in book news, but I’ll pause here before heading into the deserts for the next installment.

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