A few months back, David Nash sent me a copy of Warlukulangu Artists of Yuendumu, a thirty-minute video he’d obtained from the art centre. Made in 1991 by Warlukurlangu Artists in conjunction with Desert Pictures from Alice Springs, the film is a marvelous look at the production of art in Yuendumu, but more than that it is now, nearly twenty years later, a moving record of the artists and the community, full of historical wonders.
The film opens with a series of short takes that establish the scene: the pinnacles at Juka Juka, trucks swirling through the dusty streets, children sheltering from the desert heat under tin roofs.
The scene shifts to a group of women, seated on the ground, painting designs in red ochre and white clay on each other’s arms and breasts. They glisten with oily fat; the ochre is rough and pebbly against their skins. As they paint, they sing. Finally the voice of Dolly Nampijinpa Daniels comes in, telling the story of Warlukurlangu, the bush fire dreaming that took the lives of two Jangala brothers. She traces out the story in the lines on her chest and upper arms: the decorations become narratives. The scene cuts quickly to a familiar old face as Darby Jampijinpa Ross stands in front of his enormous canvas of the Ngapa Jukurrpa, the water dreaming and tells its story.
A quick cut away to the Yuendumu Women’s Museum, where Christine Lennard, the art centre coordinator in the early 90’s, helps to bring out the first paintings on board done by the women of Yuendumu, large works, some nearly two meters high. They were done to raise money to buy a Toyota so that the women could travel back out to care for their country.
The voice of Paddy Japaljarri Sims describes the making of paintings meant to pass along his stories to a younger generation. “Don’t forget these when I am gone,” he says. What makes the scene so incredible is that the paintings that he is talking about are the historic Yuendumu School Doors. They were, in 1991, still in place there at the school, some looking as fresh as the day they were painted, others scrawled with graffiti, another pair shielded behind a top loading washing machine.
While Paddy is being interviewed by Lennard, a truck pulls up outside and two whitefellas climb out. They are Bernard Luthi and Ulrich Krempel, come to Yuendumu to work on preparations for the 1993 European exhibition Aratjara: art of the first Australians. Luthi talks about the centrality of the work of the Yuendumu artists to the upcoming show, and the importance of the massive ground painting the artists made in Paris two years earlier for Magiciens de la terre at the Pompidou Centre in La Villette. Again, it’s extraordinary to watch actual footage of that painting being created in situ in Paris, clouds of white dust rising from the plant fiber as it’s chopped up with a fireman’s ax, black paint glistening on the floor as Francis Jupurrula Kelly touches up the main body of the design.
Back in Warlpiri country, Maggie Napangardi Watson leads a group of women across the land she painted in a Karntakurlangu canvas. Then we see Bessie Nakamarra Sims telling the story of two women who rest from their hunting activities to eat bush carrots. Bessie sits in front of two of her canvases that tell thisNgalajiyi Jukurrpa story. More hunting stories are told by a group of women gathered together, children on their laps. They illustrate the story first with eucalyptus leaves that they “walk” across the ground, much like a Western child might tell a story with her doll. Then they sweep the ground smooth and continue drawing with their palms and their fingers, inscribing the kuruwarri designs in the dirt in the same way they might lay out the story with acrylics on canvas. I’d read about these story-telling and mark-making techniques in Nuncy Munn’s Walbiri Iconography: graphic representation and cultural symbolism in a Central Australian society (Cornell University Press, 1973), but it’s quite something else to see them enacted. As the story of the Jakamarra man’s hunt for kangaroo concludes, one of the women stands up and moves off from the circle to turn the carcass of a roo roasting on the nearby fire.
Finally, we are returned to the rituals of painting and singing and dancing. The women dance the story of the Jangala brothers, resplendent in their bushfire dreaming designs and black skirts, their headbands and armbands flashing with white cockatoo feathers. Then we see the men again, led by Darby Ross, constructing a ground painting of the water dreaming as heavy grey clouds hang overhead and the breeze begins to ruffle the feathers in their headdresses. In the film’s last shot, the rituals completed, two men are busy with a garden rake, scooping up the material that had been the ngapa jukurrpa painting.
All in all, Warlukulangu Artists of Yuendumu is an extraordinary collection of vignettes, a living history lesson.
At about the same time that David sent me this video, a new website went online out of Yuendumu. PAW Media and Communications (formerly known as the Warlpiri Media Association, the initialism stands for Pintupi-Anmatjerre-Warlpiri) launched Yapa Beats: from the desert to support new music coming out of the country. Yapa Beats is also the title of the CD that was released in time for the Yuendumu sports weekend back in August. It features the familiar Yuemdumu mix of desert reggae, rock, gospel and R&B. Two selections can be previewed on the website. Caleb Hargraves’s “Be With You” features a spooky synthesizer introduction, and makes good use of the electronics to give the tune a different slant on the genre. “Lonely” by the Desert Mulga Band is more conventional desert reggae, an upbeat, bouncing mix of fairground keyboards and fuzz guitar that won’t let you sit still.
Now a new collection, Popportunity, has just been released. If you can pick up PAW Radio, you might hear some tracks. Otherwise, contact the CAAMA Store in Alice Springs, or check out the shop at PAW Media. And while you’re there, pop into the viewing rooms to catch some video and audio clips of PAW productions. My personal favorite is the trailer for Mangarri Panu (The Warlpiri Cooking Show), which has a great theme song featuring steel drum reggae and promises to teach your kids all they need to know about cooking quick, healthy, tasty bush tucker. All eight episodes are available from the PAW Media shop.