The Stories of Aurukun

The art of Aurukun has fascinated me ever since I brought home the catalog from the Dreamings exhibition more than twenty years ago and discovered, in the opening chapter by Peter Sutton, two pages of color plates reproducing hieratic-looking sculptures of Sarra the Seagull Hero, the Bonefish Man, the Apalach Brothers, and the Crippled Boy of Thaaa’punt.  I have no memory at all of having seen the sculptures themselves in the exhibition; perhaps I was suffering from sensory overload, perhaps crowds had distracted my attention.  Perhaps they were just so different from the blazing acrylic paintings that had captivated my eye and shocked me with a promise of new forms of abstraction that they simply didn’t register.  But if I missed them at the Asia Society, I was captivated once I found them in the catalog.

Certainly, I didn’t see their like again for many years, in part because, as Sutton related in the text, “Although the ochred figures are used only in ceremonies and have never been made for sale, some small unpainted figures of totemic animals were being made for the craft market in 1987” (Dreamings, p. 23).  Collections of the ritual figures were made between 1949 and 1958 by JB McCarthy and William MacKenzie for the University of Queensland’s Anthropology Museum.  Another collection, held by the National Museum of Australia, was built by Frederick McCarthy in 1962.  But for the next forty years, the tradition seems to have gone underground until it burst out in the Queensland Art Gallery’s astonishing 2003 exhibition Story Place: Indigenous Art of Cape York and the Rainforest.

Late in 2010, the University of Queensland Art Museum re-united the two ends of this Dreaming track with Before Time Today: reinventing tradition in Aurukun Aboriginal art.  The catalog for this show, edited by curator Sally Butler for the University of Queensland Press, examines the history of this remarkable artistic tradition and places it in the context of the long and tangled history of the community.

In some ways, it is astonishing that this tradition has survived at all.  The missionary MacKenzie who ruled Aurukun for nearly half a century, was a brutal overseer whose regime horrified Donald Thomson when he visited the community in the early 1930s.   And yet MacKenzie never suppressed the rituals that are the wellspring of Aurukun sculpture, and the transition from early clay modeling to carving in wood that we know today flourished during his tenure at Aurukun.

MacKenzie was still in charge of the mission when Frederick McCarthy arrived with filmmaker Ian Dunlop in 1962.  The collection of ritual sculptures that emerged from that visit is documented in the remarkable Dances at Aurukun, a brief, thirty-minute documentary of the rituals relating to the bonefish, shark, wallaby, taipan, and blue-tongued lizard ancestors, among others.  (A DVD of the film is available from Screen Australia.)

In recent years, Aurkun has become notorious for the dissolution of the community in the wake of the introduction of alcohol sales.  Peter Sutton, who helped to curate Dreamings and edit its catalog, has argued passionately about the evils of both alcohol and self-determination for a decade now.  The publication of his book The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus in 2009 cemented a vision of a society drowning in its own violence and despair that had made international headlines when riots broke out in Aurukun in January, in September, and in December of 2007.  In the months after the Northern Territory Emergency response was declared,  the Queensland community somehow became emblematic of the widespread dysfunction in remote Australia

I’m not naive enough to deny the troubles.  Even those who love the place dearly confess to its impossible politics, as Paula Shaw did in her memoir of being a teacher in the community, Seven Seasons in Aurukun: my unforgettable time at a remote Aboriginal school (Allen & Unwin, 2009).  But we should not forget that Aurukun was at the center of Wik Peoples v The State of Queensland, in which a 1996 decision by the High Court found that “the statutory pastoral leases under consideration by the court did not bestow rights of exclusive possession on the leaseholder.”  I would like to consider that the stories that are expressed in the sculptures and paintings that have survived the continued brutalization of the Wik not only offer hope, but document an indominatable spirit that is at least as worthy of headlines as the violence that never quite overwhelms them.

Arthur Pambegan, Bonefish Story Place, 2004

All of this history and more finds expression in the pages of the excellent catalog for Before Time Today.  The catalog boasts a set of stellar essays.  Peter Sutton himself examines the cultural history of Aurukun and its art, while editor Sally Butler discusses the persistence of tradition and the process of change and adaptation in Aurukun art.  The famous sculptures, well documented in reproductions, have grown in size since the 1960s.  Watching Dances at Aurukun I was struck that the early versions of the Bonefish Story known to contmeporary museum goers through Arthur Pambegan Jr’s recent interpretations, which stand two meters tall, were formerly barely knee-high.  And yet apart from the scale and the depredations of time on the fragile ochre paints, it is difficult to tell apart works produced at a temporal distance of fifty years from one another.

History and politics permeate these essays as well.  David Martin discusses “The Art of Wik Politics and the Politics of Wik Art,” rehearsing the implications of the Wik land rights movement and the expressions of native title found in the clan sculptures.  One of the delightful ironies that Martin brings out in his essay is the story of Craig Koomeeta’s work with Urban Art Projects in 2002 to produce aluminim castings of his fierce crocodiles: the mining of bauxite on the Cape York Peninsula represents the most intrusive threat to Wik sovereignty in recent years.  (Tangentially, the mining at nearby Weipa and the destruction of the community of Mapoon to the north of Wik lands was the inspiration for Midnight Oil’s “Beds are Burning.”)

Historically, the first Europeans to explore the reaches of the Archer River and environs were the Dutch, whose early presence persists in place names like Cape Keerweer.  (Angus Nampoman’s sculpture The Two Young Women of Cape Keerweer, from 1987, was one of the first “modern” Aurukun sculptures to be acquired by an Australian museum, the South Australian, in Adelaide.)  The historic seventeenth-century invasion of Wik country was the focus of a reconciliation ceremony in 2007 in which two sets of law poles were presented to the Netherlands by the Wik.  This story is told in the catalog’s final essay by Georges Petitjean, curator of the Aboriginal Art Museum of Utrecht (AAMU), where the poles, by sculptors Ron Yunkaporta and Joel Ngallametta, are housed today.

Joe Ngallametta, Kugu Law Pole Design, 2004

The catalog also documents newer forms of art pioneered in Aurukun in the last decade.  Painting on canvas made its first appearance in 2004 with Joe Ngallametta’s Pole Design paintings, intense, spare transcriptions of sculptural design traditions into two dimensions.  Arthur Pambegan’s collaborations with his son Alair were featured in the National Indigenous Art Triennial: Culture Warriors (as well as on the cover of the current catalog).  And a flourishing achool of painting among Wik women led by Mavis Ngallametta has developed, marrying the traditional designs derived in part from the magnificent coastal cliffs that rear red above the white sands of the beaches with a more colorful, floral set of inventions that seem to owe something to the Kaiadilt painters from Mornington Island.  (The interlinking of traditions around the rim of the Gulf of Carpentaria, including Torres Strait Islander costume and dance, echoes through the pages of the catalog and the supporting documentation for the exhibition.)

And finally there are the lovely, gracile new sculptures, often painted in brilliant pastels and the equally colorful “ghost net” woven sculptures that represent new strains of creativity in Aurukun art.  The latter are variously baskets, mats, or human forms woven out of derelict fishing nets that have broken loose from sea-going vessels and washed up on the shores of Cape York.  At once reassertions of traditional forms and contemporary commentaries on the ecological degradations of Wik country, they represent the continuing vitality of artistic traditions at Aurukun.

The video below offers glimpses of much of this material: the sculpture and paintings, as well as the dances from Aurukun, performed now on the grounds and in the galleries of the University of Queensland Art Museum, that look unchanged from those photographed by Ian Dunlop in 1962.  There is a a brief interview with Aurkun’s mayor, Neville Pootchemunka , discussing the gift of the law poles to the Netherlands.  Craig Koomeeta talks about his life as a sculptor and there are interviews with two other artists, Stanley Kalkeeyorta and Mavis Ngallametta.  These latter two also contributed their stories and perspectives to a catalog essay, “Conversations with Artists.”  A third conversation in that essay was penned by the young Indigenous Brisbane artist Tony Albert, who meditates on his friendship with Arthur Pambegan Jr.  The young man’s story ranges from watching Kevin Rudd’s Apology on television with Arthur to collaborations that hint how tradition can vault generations and dissimilar cultural backgrounds.

At the video’s end, Sally Butler sums it all up for me: “You can’t look at these [figures] and not be curious and want to find out more.”  Even today, after years of exposure to these works, I remain fascinated by their power and simplicity and, indeed, by their mystery.

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