Story About Holding

Tjala Tjukurpa, Amata

Tjala Tjukurpa, Amata

Today I want to offer up a story, or a parable.  I suppose one could say “inspired by true events.”  Some characters may bear an intentional resemblance to people I have met, and certainly some of the incidents I describe actually happened.  But I want to say up front that what I make of them comes purely out of my imagination.  I don’t know if the conclusions I draw are justified, either in the particular or the general.  But they’ve been on my mind for a couple of weeks now.  I want to put them out there for your consideration, knowing as always, that there are things I do not and perhaps cannot know.  Forgive me my trespasses and my overreaching.

I met Hector for the first time in 2007 on a brief visit to Amata.  The art centre there had been begun by the women in the community and its name (minymaku) indicated that it belonged to the women.  Hector was one of the senior men in the community, and he knew that there were stories that belonged to the men that needed to be passed down effectively to younger generations.  With this in mind, he established a separate men’s painting shed off to the side of the building where the women painted and from which the community sold its canvases.

Although our mixed gender group was welcomed in both spaces, it was clear that a division existed, and perhaps not surprisingly, after the initial round of examining the works for sale was done and the slow business of recording selections, making payments, and arranging for shipping went on, there was indeed a shift as the men in our group gravitated towards the men’s painting shed and the women stayed behind in the building that housed the art centre proper.

It was a slightly chilly day in late autumn, with large clouds that occasionally blocked the sun drifting over the ranges to the north that were the physical incarnation of the honey-ant ancestors who would give their name, tjala, to the new, men’s and women’s, art centre.  In the new painting shed, three men were hunched over canvases, slowly applying brilliant daubs of color.  Hector sat in the corner farthest from the door.  When we entered, silent nods of recognition greeted us.  Hector invited us to take seats, and began to engage his old friend and our guide, John, in conversation.  Hector’s English was good, but a little difficult for my untutored ears to understand.  John, sensing this, helped to facilitate the interchange, asking questions and clarifying Hector’s answers so that we could follow the stories he was telling.

What Hector chose to talk about was not the painting activities we were watching, nor the tjkurpa stories they showed forth, but his career with the Ernabella Choir.  Not fully appreciating then how intertwined the two communities were, I was a little puzzled, but accepted the fact that Hector had been around for a long time, had had a rich and varied life, and was obviously quite proud of the experiences that being a member of the choir had offered him.  Soon enough it was time for us to say our farewells.  The two younger men who had been in the shed with us had not spoken.

This year I had the opportunity to meet Hector once again, and although once more our conversation was limited, those who knew him and his accomplishments made a point of stressing to me not only how important his contributions were to opening up the art centre to men’s painting, but how he continued to build on them.  Of late, he has redoubled his efforts to bring an even younger generation of men into the orbit of the painting shed, to teach them the stories they must hold and pass on, and to encourage the continuity of the Anangu traditions that were the bedrock of Hector’s life experience.  I thought of the title of Fred Myers’ doctoral thesis “To Have and To Hold.” I daydreamed that if Anangu were to have, in the European sense, an escutcheon emblazoned with a motto that served both as their statement of purpose and a tutelary message to the future, that phrase, locally expressed by the word “kanyini” would be most appopriate.

As always, I returned from Australia with a few dozen new books to occupy my time reading and studying for many months to come.  Among these was a new collection of essays, Growing Up in Central Australia: new anthropological studies of Aboriginal childhood and adolescence (Berghahn Books, 2011), edited by Ute Eickelkamp.  The second chapter of this excellent compendium, “Envisioning Lives at Ernabella,” by Katrina Tjitayi and Sandra Lewis, discusses various ways in which social activities in the community build a sense of identity in young children, in part by providing them with a vision of how lives can and should be lived: creating a future in which the developing child’s consciousness can find a place.

In a note at the end of the chapter, the authors make passing reference to the Ernabella Choir, which has been a significant vehicle for providing a structured space in which children can be instructed and socialized, and one that has filled that role for many decades now.  (The Choir was founded in the 1940s, but the Children’s Choir, I discovered while doing some more research for this post, dates back to only a year before my visit to Amata.)

After reading that chapter and its footnotes, I began to wonder if, behind Hector’s talk of his work with the Choir, there was really an assertion of his identity and his role in the community that was larger and far more meaningful than I had grasped that day in Amata four years ago.  Was this a classic example of indirection in speech?  Not simply a recounting of one episode in a life that was obviously full of achievement, but a manifesto of sorts on Hector’s part.  Could his talk of the Choir have been his way of telling us about his commitment to holding the young people, and especially the young men of his community?  And in so doing, alerting us to his intentions about the work he was undertaking in instituting a program of painting among the men.  Was his story a commentary on the tableau of silent, focused energy we saw in the men’s shed that day?

I expect that I’ll never know the answer to those questions.  But the speculation has deepened my respect for the old man and the arc of his life’s story.  It has made me remember once again that I should be alert to nuance and to context.  It has reminded me, like Frank Young’s recently published essay on Anangu painting, that there is much that is not revealed, and that what is not said is usually more important than what is overtly expressed.  It is the story, not the marks on canvas, that is most meaningful.  The surface is just that: a surface.  Behind it stands the truth.

The Ernabella Children’s Choir

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