The depth, the wealth, the variety of the material contained in Ngurra Kuju Walyja / One Country One People: stories from the Canning Stock Route (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) are such that I’m almost at a loss to begin describing it all. A single essay from this 411-page behemoth filled with fine print and even finer photographs has already inspired me to write an entire post that sampled just a few of the dozens of videos that were created and have been published as part of the documenting of the Canning Stock Route Project. An entire museum show with a large and splendid catalog was published in 2010; this book is an attempt to record much of what had to be left out of that earlier publication. It’s altogether staggering. Absorbing. Thrilling. Encyclopedic.
Perhaps the best way to start then, is just to begin at the beginning. Multiple endpapers reproduce Alfred Canning’s exquisite map of the stock route from the early twentieth century. A full-page photograph by Tim Acker follows: deep red, identified as “track in the sand,” its subject and agency shrouded: is this track made by a snake or a person? What does it depict? The country, in grains of sand. This portrait is followed by another, of the artist Charlie Wallabi dwarfed as he strides below cliffs near Kaningarra; by a close-up portrait of cheeky old Helicopter Tjungurrayi, another of Annette Williams holding a double handful of bright-green bush tomatoes in front of her flowered frock. Country.
Part One of the book opens with nearly 150 pages of brilliant color photographs, of country and of paintings of country, accompanied by short statements from the traditional owners of the countries traversed by the stock route. These are stories to savor, to absorb without hurrying. They are a sedate, lingering introduction to the shape of the land and its people, a slow, drifting fall into another world. They are also a largely visual documentation of the Canning Stock Route Project with its tracing of families cut asunder and country transformed, now reunited and stitched together once more, traditions revived, given new shape, and transformed again.
The second half of Part One is a series of essays about the Project itself. Carly Davenport offers an overview; Mags Webster discusses the mentoring of a new generation of Indigenous curators over the course of the Project. Tim Acker and John Carty provide reflections on the business of art and the requirements of art history in the context of the CSR work, while Monique LaFontaine covers the varieties of documentary filmmaking that were undertaken to record the return of these people, often after generations, to their traditional lands. Michael Pickering and Susan Freeman talk about the creation of the Yiwarra Kuju exhibition for the National Museum of Australia, and LaFontaine weighs in a second time with a discussion of Indigenous intellectual and cultural property rights.
Part Two opens with another extended photographic and oral history tracing the actual route of the 52 wells that were charted by Alfred Canning. Well by well, from No. 1, North Pool, at the southern terminus to Nyarna near Billiluna and the Balgo Mission at the northern end, the stories associated with each well or soak hole are rehearsed. There are historic photographs of the white explorers and their Indigenous guides, or of families living in the vicinity of the wells around 1929 when, after decades of disuse following Canning’s original survey, the route was reopened to the cattle trade. There are numerous reproductions of paintings of the country. A portrait of young Tjungurrayi and his auntie Kupunyina show them about to board the helicopter that would give the boy the name that has stuck with him since 1957. Portraits of old men and old women accompany their reminiscences and family stories of first contact throughout the twentieth century; other photographs show the dilapidated state of the wooden or iron constructions that Canning’s teams left behind at every stage of the way.
To this point, experiencing this book has been a bit like meditating on a large, high-resolution map of a spiral galaxy. One cannot help but be struck by the beauty of the overall image, by the complexity and age of its constituent elements, be dazzled by the glowing brilliance of the whole. The last section of the book is formed by a series of histories of the Canning Stock Route, and as I relaxed into this final stretch I felt as though my mind’s eye were traveling out into the spiral arms of the galaxy, giving me the chance to examine isolated star stories: still very much part of the whole, of the matter of the larger entity, but now more idiosyncratic, personal, a bit detached.
Emblematic, perhaps, is Bob Tonkinson’s account of several days spent out in Martu country on his first trip out to meet people who had had limited contact with whitefellas. The time was late November 1963, and when the Native Welfare patrol officers who had accompanied Tonkinson to their remote camp left to bring a group of Martu in to the Jigalong Mission to reunite with relatives, the young anthropologist stayed behind to document the daily lives of those who were remaining, for the moment, out in the desert. Awaking late on the night of November 22, he pondered the immensity of the skyscape spread out above him; seeking companionship in that celestial loneliness, he turned on his shortwave radio and heard the news of US President Kennedy’s assassination, and felt intensely both “extreme isolation and … cultural connectedness.” Tonkinson’s memoir forms a nice counterpoint to Peter Johnson and Sue Davenport’s channeling of Martu contact stories (they are two of the authors of Cleared Out, a history of the encounters around the Percival Lakes during the rocket testing of the 1950s). The Martu stories also tell of cultural connectedness amidst extreme isolation, and contrast their conception of a world created by the intersection of ngurra and walyja. And speaking of family, there is another contribution by James Canning, a distant descendant of Alfred’s.
Other essays stretch back in time to before Alfred Canning’s days. Peter Veth and Jo McDonald offer a fascinating look at rock art in the region, while Kim Akerman explores the material culture of the country: shields, sandals, and woomeras. Daniel Vachon’s “A Fold in the Fabric of Another Country” takes a broader view of water resources in the Western Desert than simply the line of wells we associated with the CSR, beautifully illustrated with reproductions of paintings. Paintings were never far from my mind while reading Kim Mahood’s essay on Paruku, the subject of some of the greatest of Boxer Milner’s work. Mahood and Bill Fox offer a fascinating conversation on cross-cultural depictions of the Canning in ink and acrylic; Veth and McDonald return to close the volume with a consideration of the demands of land management in an era of increasing tourism.
The Canning Stock Route Project is unprecedented in scale and scope, certainly in the domain of Aboriginal art history, and in using art to unlock so many other layers of history, geography, social relations, ecology, and law. The only undertaking I can compare it to is The Yirrkala Film Project, in which the clans of eastern Arnhem Land enlisted Ian Dunlop’s support (in advance of the fact) to document how the bauxite mine at Nhulunbuy would transform their story. Both projects took years to achieve, both involved blending Indigenous and non-Indigneous technologies and knowledge to investigate the implications of contact and colonization, and both resulted in a trove of documentation that simultaneously preserves and explicates culture. The art of the desert has long been overdue for this kind of exploration, and Ngurra Kuju Walyja, along with Yiwarra Kuju and the Acker and Carty’s closely related Ngaanyatjarra: Art from the Lands stand as landmarks publications that constitute national treasure.