Intercultural Affairs: News on the Web

Ochre and Rust

The net has recently brought me the news that Philip Jones’s Ochre and Rust: artefacts and encounters on Australian frontiers (Wakefield Press, 2007) had won the inauguralPrime Minister’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction. Jones is a curator and historian at the South Australian Museum and Ochre and Rust employs objects from the Museum’s collections as the basis for historical meditations that are often insightful and imaginative. Jane Simpson has examined his use of linguistic materials in a post on Transient Languages and Cultures that gives a good glimpse into the delights of this book.

I carried the volume around Australia with me on my 2007 tour of the Outback, and having read it serially and discontinuously, before, during, and after the trip, I never got around to writing it up myself, despite having greatly admired it at the time. It’s the kind of book whose premise could have led the author into disaster by attempting to build a significant edifice on the flimsy foundation of, for instance, a string bag. This is precisely where he starts the essay “Spearing Bennett” that Simpson explores in her post. As she notes, the trail leads from that bag, to word lists and place-names, among other things. Ultimately, the essay becomes the story of John Bennett’s friendship with the denizens of the country we call Darwin, and how that friendship precipitated his death. In the course of doing so, Jones manages to write one of the best essays on cultural difference that I have ever read, one that is sympathetic and unsentimental and therefore all the more illuminating.

Another attraction of this book–in truth, there are many, but the one that captured me immediately–was Jones’s reconsideration of the mysterious toas that were collected by the Rev. Johann Reuther in the early years of the 20th century. Artefacts, art works, sign posts, repositories of mystery, the toas are quite unlike anything else in Aboriginal material culture. Howard Morphy selected them as the subject for his Master’s thesis, and Jones and Peter Sutton organized a major exhibition and publication on them twenty years ago, Art and Land: Aboriginal sculptures of the Lake Eyre region (South Australian Museum, 1986). Originally understood to be markers by which the nomads of the Lake Eyre region indicated their direction of travel or their projected destinations, the toas never quite lived up to any interpretation that was made of them. Despite their understandable desire to provide definitive answers, Jones and Sutton were ultimately unable to commit to an explication of these “works of great beauty and variety” (Art and Land, p. 77).

In Ochre and Rust, Jones returns to ponder the toas at length in a superb chapter entitled “Unearthing the Toas.” Here too, his theme is that of intercultural understanding and his argument that the toas represent one of the earliest recorded forms of Western aesthetics influencing Indigenous artistic creation–there are obvious if largely unspoken parallels to contemporary practice in acrylic and canvas–is both surprising and satisfying. Reading Jones’s peregrinations with the meanings of the toas brought to mind a wonderful bit of anthropological wit, the title the journal Ethnos’s 1999 special issue Objects on the Loose: ethnographic encounters with unruly artefacts

In other essays Jones explores the human face of “professional savages” and looks at Albert Namatjira and Daisy Bates through physical traces they have left behind. Widely reviewed at the time of its publication, Ochre and Rust deserves to be put back in the spotlight by the Prime Minister’s selection: perhaps it can serve to illuminate the search for intercultural understanding that we need so desperately to succeed at today.

Twelve Canoes

At the start of the same week during which the award for Ochre and Rust was announced came the official debut of the Twelve Canoes website, an equally wonderful intercultural encounter. Bringing the world of the Yolngu from Ramingining to life through video, art, and music, the website follows from the experiences of the community in making the film Ten Canoes. According to director Rolf de Heer,

… in 2003, while collaborating with the Indigenous Yolngu people of Ramingining to devise a story line for the film “Ten Canoes”, a lot of material, of greatly varied subject matter, was brought in for discussion, with the individual Yolngu contributors each very keen to have their ideas incorporated, and that the film in some way should reflect the entirety of their lives, culture and history…. There was soon general recognition that no film could achieve all that, and the idea of a website was born (“12 Canoes Online Today,” World Film Festivals, September 8, 2008).

The website has three major components, the briefest of which is “About Us.” This offers a glossary, a connection to Google’s map of the Glyde River and Arafura Swamp region (zoom in to see the streets of Ramingining itself), and the promise of a study guide (still under construction) that will benefit educators. (There’s an excellent study guide for the film Ten Canoes available from Screen Education.) The majority of the site’s content lies under the rubrics of the “Gallery” and “Twelve Canoes.”

The “Twelve Canoes” comprise a dozen subjects for which films and slide shows detail aspects of Yolngu life, history, and culture in the Ramingining region. Among these topics are “Language,” “The Macassans,” “The Swamp,” “Kinship,” and “Ceremony.” Many of the segments are narrated by a man who recalls in tone and style David Gulpilil’s narration of Ten Canoes, although the stories offered here are obviously much smaller in scope. And in some ways, they are more uncompromising in their presentation of Yolngu world views than the film, more apt to puzzle. On viewing these short films, one is less likely to think, “Ah, the Yolngu are just like me.” As a result, the Twelve Canoessite invites us further into the world of the Yolngu, ancient and modern, but it is also more opaque.

For example, among the twelve features, there is one called “Creation.” In scenes made up of landscapes and bark paintings, it tells the story of two wangarr, or creation beings, the dog and the flying fox. The narrative is brief and enigmatic: the dog chases the flying foxes out of a cave, and creates three streams. The one that flows inside the cave is sacred and its waters restricted to initiated men. The dog leaves the cave and travels north where he meets the female dog, and ultimately enters the sea to travel to an offshore island. The flying foxes turn themselves into men through the practice of circumcision. Connections among these narrative threads remains unspoken, shrouded, pregnant.

Most of the “canoes” carry “extras.” In the case of “Creation” there are two very short films in which a Ganalbilngu elder acts as guide to a striking rock formation. In the first, “Dawurra,” the rock that marks where the Creation started, the cameraman is invited to photograph this totemic marker of the black-headed python and to share it with family back in his own country as proof that the Yolngu have given permission for the visitor to “have a good look.” At the second site, “Poison Rock,” we are shown a rock whose two eyes are the eyes of the creator serpent Gunungurr. It is a special place that only people with gray hair are allowed to visit, and only with the permission of the site’s custodian, Peter Minygululu. So why reveal this site? I think we are being invited to puzzle over what we are shown, prompted to ask more. It takes only a little surfing to discover the Gunungurr is indeed the name of the black-headed python and so to understand that the two sites are related. More research will be needed to explain the differences between the apparently public Dawurra and the restricted Poison Rock–whose name in Ganalbingu is not revealed.

There is more information in the “Gallery,” but still only tantalizing glimpses into this world. The Gallery itself has three sections: “Art,” “Music,” and “People and Place.” I went looking through the paintings reproduced in the art section for more information. There are dozens of paintings reproduced here, with short annotations of the story and an accompanying biographical notes about the artists. I found several representations of Gunungurr among the paintings in the Gallery, although many, interestingly, had scant information given. One, by George Jnr Pascoe, is entitled Moitjwakangalal; the artist said only that it was a special place for him, although the association with Gunungurr is clear.

Another painting, by Roy Burnyila, is called Nyalyindi (Dog Story). Two snakes occupy the central panel, with rarrk-patterned objects between them, and flying foxes above and below. Burnyila’s story, quite brief, states this:

Those two snakes are Gunungurr. Those are the rocks between the snakes, where the streams came from. And the warrnyu (flying foxes) top and bottom. But it is the dog story.

So here we have a clear connection between Gunungurr and the wangarr beings whose story is told in the “Creation canoe,” the story of the streams that the dog created at the cave he chased the flying foxes from. The first film made no reference to the serpent, but by digging a little deeper in the material provided on the site, one begins to appreciate the complexities, the interrelatedness. But unambiguous meaning remains elusive.

The “People and Place” section of the Gallery provides another dimension, unfortunately not so well documented, offering dozens of photographs of the countryside: are those mangrove beaches the spot where the dog entered the sea? There are also wonderful photographs of the people of Ramingining, their homes and stores, the school, and most of all, the children. The “Music” section offers not just the didjeridu, but clapsticks and vocal music as well.

Apart from the richness of its content, the Twelve Canoes website is beautifully composed. Floating icon windows reveal their titles on mouse-over; artworks and thumbnails for photos and musical pieces swim enticingly across the screen. Short animation loops trick the eye into thinking that background images of the swamp are ruffled by the wind and soundtrack loops of bird calls and geese honking, barely audible in the background, lend another layer to the sense of place that the website evokes to such good effect.

One word of technical advice: there’s a choice of video settings, low or high. I can’t vouch for how they behave in Australia, but overseas, the high-speed connection isn’t workable at all. The good news is that the low-speed connection is more than adequate; in fact I’m puzzled as to why the designers opted for a choice at all. The designers themselves remain anonymous; there are no credits given, although a list of partners is accessible from a link at the lower left of the screen. (The lack of credits prevents me from identifying the narrators: Gulpilil may indeed be responsible for the voice-overs in some of the films, but the narrator of the segment “Thomson Time” refers to Raiwalla as his father and says that as a young man he knew Thomson. My thanks to Kim Christen for pointing out the Partners link.) 

Twelve Canoes is as delightful and intriguing as a video game, as serious a site about Aboriginal culture as any that I’ve seen. There’s a one-minute long teaser on YouTube that unfortunately doesn’t nearly do justice to the site’s appeal. Luckily, every story on Twelve Canoes has a link that allows you to share it via email. Your friends will receive a link to whichever story you choose to share along with this message: “Passing a story from one person to the next plays an important part in keeping the Yolgnu culture alive. We encourage you to visit the 12 Canoes website and actively participate in the storytelling process.” 

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