In another essay exploring the boundaries of traditional beliefs and the modern world, Nicolas Rothwell has written an epitaph of mystery and magic for Yulparija artist Spider Kalbybidi, who took up the brush in Bidyadanga a few years ago to paint for Emily Rohr (“In the Shadow of Modernity,” The Australian, December 13, 2008). Kalbybidi was a maparn, a “clever man” who was in touch with the spirits that stalked the ancestral country of the Yulparija. Despite having left that land decades ago, the Yulparija have not lost their fundamental beliefs and their connection to the animating force of the landscape (see my post, “Strong Law in the Desert,” April 16, 2006).
Eight months ago, Kalbybidi disappeared from Bidyadanga without apparent warning. His tracks and those of his two dogs petered out quickly, and there was much consternation about what might have happened to the old man. Our western sensibilities would worry about an old man subject to exposure in the harshness of the desert, but the Yulparija had other concerns. Rothwell’s recounting of the tale is a fine exposition of the physical and metaphysical search for Spider’s fate, compounded of equal parts of Indigenous logic and Rothwellian romanticism.
The story of the Yilparija’s exile and return to their country around the Perceval Lakes was exquisitely documented recently in the film Desert Heart (Rebel Films, 2007), which premiered on ABC in March, 2008. Like Painting Country, the 2000 documentary about the return of artists from Balgo to country they had not seen for many years, Desert Heartrecords an extraordinarily emotional odyssey. What gives Desert Heart extra poignancy is the fact that the journey was organized and the film is narrated by the equally extraordinary young painter Daniel Walbidi: the desert heart of the title is not simply that of the Great Sandy; it is also Walbidi’s.
Walbidi was born in coastal Bidyadanga many years after the old people walked away from the desert to settle in the LaGrange Catholic mission. Having learned the stories of his country from these old people, he became determined to preserve them and thus took himself to Broome and to Rohr’s Short St Gallery, ushering in a new school of Aboriginal artwork, unique in its visual imagery that combines the stories of the desert with a saltwater aesthetic (see “Matters of Representation“, April 2, 2006). But Walbidi had never seen the country himself, and painted it only from hearing the stories the oldies told him.
The old people themselves, including Kalbybidi and the more well known women painters like Weaver Jack and Alma Webou, had spent forty years in LaGrange, not knowing what had become of the land the drought forced them away from. For them, knowing that their fathers were gone, never to return, the sense of time slipping away was acute, a compounding sense of loss and sorrow.
So when the caravan of vehicles sets out from Bidyandanga for the four-day journey back to Wirnpa, the ladies are glowing with excitement, especially after they reach Punmu and take on Mukki and Wooka Taylor, the last two old men who lived at Wirnpa, who can now guide the party past the end of the road to the waterholes where these artists played as children.
The arrival at Wirnpa is a marvelous homecoming. The artists cut branches to help them announce their approach to the waterhole where Wirnpa, the great snake, still lives. Striding single file across the grassy landscape, they arrive at the waterhole itself, sheltering under a copse. There is great agitation as the women sit at the edges of the depression in the ground, softly keening and wiping away their tears. One of the Taylor brothers walks down into the waterhole and confirms that Wirnpa is still there. “He’s woken up,” the old man reports, “Wirnpa stuck his head up, he’s crying.” Weaver Jack replies, “My country. I have come back here alive.” It’s an exquisite moment.
After their first day in country, and after overcoming the strong emotions of the return, the artists sit down to paint, and the black-primed canvases are soon a riot of color, dominated now by the white of the salt lakes. But soon another expedition is launched, as a helicopter arrives to take Weaver Jack and her son Wokka and grandson Terence out to Lungarung. They walk through the scrub, near the edge of a large saltpan, until Weaver is overcome and sits down, weeping. “I’ve been worried about this water of mine.” Back at Wirnpa and at work on another painting of the lake at Lungarung she judges “Now I’m happy, no more worrying about these waterholes. I’ve got to sit down now. That’s good I saw it, all the jila. … I’ve become satisfied for all my countries.” And though it is a moment of peace, resolution, and some joy, there is also an inescapable undercurrent of sadness, of finality, of a life and a work completed.
Apart from this extraordinary exercise in storytelling, the DVD of Desert Heart features a gallery of extras that is actually worth watching. Still photographs of the journey itself and a gallery of paintings by all the artists involved (including Walbidi’s spectacular new works based on his first-hand encounter with the country) are fine additions to the feature. Emily Rohr speaks briefly in an on-camera interview about the artists and their work, but the two most moving extras provide a fascinating historical perspective.
“Contact Stories (Before Whitefellas)” offers a blend of archival footage from Film Australia with first person reminiscences, largely by Mukki and Wooka Taylor. The stories are somewhat familiar–the first encounter with airplanes, the lure of the mission and the fear of being trapped there–but the subtle warmth of the storytellers makes them engaging, and the the archival footage in skillfully integrated. Towards the end of “Contact Stories” Margaret Baker is introduced.
Baker was a nurse who worked at Bidyadanga for over a decade, starting in 1963 at around the time the Yulparija walked in from the desert. It is she who narrates the second historical short, “Mission Life.” Her delight in having worked at the mission, her obvious affection for the people she met as they came out of the desert, and her good, common sense are a winning combination that effectively complements the story the Taylors tell.
Desert Heart brings a freshness, immediacy, and vigor to a story that has been told many times in many ways in recent years as filmmakers have attempted to peer into the origins and meaning of Aboriginal art. What makes this film unique is its narration by one of the artists: Walbidi’s gentle, understated voice gives the film its sense of authenticity and sincerity. Walbidi has been an ardent and articulate spokesman for his people for nearly a decade now. In one of the central scenes of the film, there is a young boy who is perhaps eight years old painting with all the other artists in the camp at Wirnpa following their encounter with the old snake. With luck Walbidi will be the link between the old people of this film and those, like that young boy, who can carry the tradition forward.