Arrernte Stories

Kathleen Kemarre Wallace has been the defining artist of the community of Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa) over the two decades that Keringke Artists has been the focus of Eastern Arrernte art production. Towards the end of the new book, 
Listen deeply, let these stories in (IAD Press, 2009), she has co-authored with longtime Keringke art advisor Judy Lovell, she tells this story:

When my grandfather Atyelpe died in 1984, many people were very, very sad. The elders were very sad. They felt his death symbolized the end of our knowledge and our cultural practices. The changes to our culture and our way of life had been happening so fast and Atyelpe was one of the last who represented the old way, one who had held ancient knowledge from the ancestors. The family he left behind was deeply sad and some of them did not want to pass on our cultural knowledge anymore. They didn’t want to teach me or other younger people about the old days, the culture, stories, song or dances. They wanted to forget what we had all lost. There was so much grieving, we were always in sadness thinking about the past (p. 158).

Luckily for the rest of us, Wallace was determined not to submit to that sadness. The severe drought of the early 60s forced her parents to seek their livelihood in Alice Springs, and they left Kathleen in the care of the nuns at the Santa Teresa mission. She knows she was not able to capture much of what her grandparents and her aunties knew about their country and their culture thereafter, but she was determined to maintain what she herself had learned as a young girl growing up in the bush. She pursued the knowledge of her elders, and committed herself to passing along the story of her land and her people to the younger generations. Listen Deeply is one manifestation of that will, and it is a profoundly rewarding experience.

At one level, the book is Wallace’s autobiography, and like other Aboriginal autobiographies it is as much the story of the land as it is of the author’s life. The narrative begins with the Arrernte people and the altyerre (the Arrernte word for what we call the Dreaming). Wallace tells in succeeding chapters of tyenge artweye akerte (“my family, my country”) and apmeraltye (“people of one land”) before closing in on Uyetye, the place where she herself was born. Two more chapters, on water and drought, intervene before what we Westerners would recognize as the autobiographical narrative begins.

Until this point, Wallace is a voice telling a story that moves easily between the altyerre, recent “history,” and her country. With her arrival at the Mission in 1959, she begins to emerge as an individualized character for the first time, a shy young girl overwhelmed by the hard life of learning to speak English, to sew, to behave in a manner that often seems inappropriate and shocking. For example, the nuns’ admonition to “look at me when I speak to you” was deeply shaming. “For me, to look at another person’s eyes was wrong. We were taught by our elders to look away from another person’s face because you could see their spirit in their eyes (p. 99).”

In the next few chapters, Wallace briefly tells of her growth to womanhood, her marriage, the many children she raised in Santa Teresa over the years, all fostered or adopted. Such personal details seem, however, less important than the altyerre stories they serve to introduce, as in the chapter “Growing up a big family,” which concludes with a retelling of the story of tyangkertangkerte, the mother tree.

Similarly, Wallace never speaks about her art or her career as an artist, yet nearly every page of this splendidly produced book glows with reproductions of Wallace’s artwork. And I must confess, this is one of the great joys of the book for me. I have long delighted in the work of Keringke Arts, and been frustrated by the lack of attention it generally has received.

The only other significant publication I am aware of is Keringke: contemporary Eastern Arrernte art (Jukurrpa Books/IAD Press, 1999). A worthy introduction to the art of Ltyentye Apurte, it nonetheless focuses on the early years of painting on silk and paper, and offers besides just a few examples of the brilliant ceramic works the company has produced for many years. Like the batik works made in the 1980s by countrymen farther north in Utopia, these silks and ceramics tended to pigeonhole and devalue Keringke as a producer of Aboriginal crafts. Truth, the artists of Keringke have never been shy about adopting unconventional supports for their painting: hatboxes, chairs, and guitars have all been adorned over the years with their brilliant acrylic stylings. Indeed, a browse of the galleries at Keringke Arts today shows that they are still exercising that inventiveness, with painted heads and hands recycled from mannequins on offer. The explosive primary color palette, the nearly but never quite symmetrical compositions, the guitars and the mannequins’ hands that look like illustrations from a Hindu epic all lend an air of the psychedelic 60s to the company’s productions.

If those associations have led many people to discount Keringke’s work, it is a pity. Happily, Listen Deeply should help to provide a better-informed understanding of this art and lead to a critical re-assessment. All of the artwork included here is Wallace’s, much of it done over the last five years: an astonishing and extravagant productivity. The works have been selected as illustrations of the stories Wallace tells. And while they inform the narratives, the narratives also open up subtleties of meaning in the artwork that are too often overlooked in the spangled designs. Wallace retrieves the art of Keringke from mere decoration, gives it depth and poignancy, and makes it sing.

To round out this collection of Arrernte culture, Wallace has included a CD that contains recordings of her telling seven of the altyerre stories included in the book. Each was recorded at the location where the Dreaming story took place. Wallace has a soft, gentle, and sweet voice that is wonderfully complemented by the natural sounds–mostly a variety of birdcalls that were serendipitously captured during the taping. There’s an hour’s listening here: the stories as recorded are much longer than the summary versions included in Arrernte and English in the printed part of the book. The locales at which these stories took place have been sumptuously photographed, and many times, in addition to Wallace herself, there are pictures of her grandchildren and other youngsters out in the country with her. It’s easy to imagine them clustered around in the share of the ghost-gum women outside the cave at Uyetye, hearing the story of the cruel and selfish awele-awele woman, learning about family and sharing, learning the language of their ancestors, and the lie of the land. Load the CD’s tracks on your iPod, tuck the book under your arm, stretch out in your favorite bush retreat on one of these gloriously sunny equinoctical afternoons, and see if I’m wrong.

Listen deeply, let these stories in is a jewel. Resplendent, moving, and fascinating, it is a perfect beginner’s guide to Arrernte art and culture and a cultural document of unusual breadth at the same time, whether your interest lies in art, history, or linguistics. It is a delight to come across a book that offers you so many reasons to take it home with you, and promises so many varied hours of enjoyment.

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