Desert Mob 2014: A Photographic Gallery

Lots of people wait all year to go to Alice Springs for Desert Mob.  I, sadly must rely on the kindness of–well not strangers–but rather old friends who bring Desert Mob to me.  Thanks to their generosity, I can now bring a taste of Desert Mob to you.

I’ve known Stephen Williamson and Sam Togni from ancient days in Darwin when Stephen was working for Framed.  We’ve remained close in the days since then that have taken him to posts all across Australia, and I was delighted when I learned that he had gone to Alice Springs to work at the Araluen Arts Centre.  I was even more delighted to learn that he would be responsible for the hang each year of the big Desert Mob show.  I’ve always admired Stephen’s eye and always appreciated his advice about artists to follow.  Now I have the chance to admire his skills as a curator each year.  I’m grateful to him for sharing these stunning photos of Desert Mob again this year, and hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I have, whether you’re experiencing the show for the first time now, or remembering it fondly.

Each of the images below is linked to a larger version; just click to enjoy the splendor in full.  Details of individual works can be seen at the Desert Mob 2014 website.










































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Salon des Refusés Returns

salon-14-thumbIt’s festival season in Darwin again.  Gallerists Matt Ward (Outstation Gallery) and Paul Johnstone (Paul Johnstone Gallery, formerly known as CCAE) have brought back the Salon des Refusés for a second season.  What could be more festive?

Reacting last year to the reduced size of the final hang for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, Ward and Johnstone elected to invite those who didn’t make the cut at NATSIAA to participate in their alternative celebration.  The result was a sprightly collection of familiar masterpieces and intriguing new work, a total of 40 canvases, sculpture, and works on paper.

For the 2014 edition of the Salon, Ward and Johnstone have increased their won hang by over 50%, with 64 works included the time.  Seven bark paintings extend the scope of the selection as well, a welcome addition to the show’s diversity.  All in all (although I obviously haven’t seen the roster of the NATSIAA at the time of this writing), the Salon looks to be a fair challenge, almost equal in size to the canonical show, and certain to be its equal in quality.


As is true of the NATSIAA, some artists are making an encore appearance.  Repeaters from the first Salon this year include Sandy Brumby, Roy Burnyila, Nyarapayi Giles, Ishmael Marika, Yukultji Napangati, Eve Nargoodah, Rosie Tasman, and the Spinifex Women with another collaborative canvas.  Last year’s overall winners at the NATSIAA, Jenni Kemarre Martinello, is represented in the Salon this time with another blown-glass work, an eel trap that brings to mind the seminal weaving work of Yvonne Koolmatrie.  Among those revisiting the Salon, Sandy Brumby’s rough “Victory Downs” is one of the strongest works I’ve seen from this artist;  and Roy Burnyila’s “Freshwater Story” is packed with energy.  The ever-inventive Ishmael Marika scores a hit with his spooky but humorous digital photographic print “Galka with the Artworks.”  A galka is a “dark heart person” and this particular one, with eyes straight out of “Children of the Damned,” has found his way into heart of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre and stands, wearing a bright red “Gove NT” t-shirt, amidst a forest of larrakitj ready for sale.

As always, I have my favorites among the entries.  Perhaps the stand-out for me is Mark Nodea’s “Lost Souls,” a stunning work from this Warmun artist in black, brown and bluish-gray ochres that recalls some of Rover Thomas’s masterpieces, infused in spirit with a bit of Dante’s Inferno, and executed with washes of great delicacy.  I’ve always been impressed with Nodea’s command of color within a restricted palette, but he’s quite outdone himself this time.  It’s terrestrial and celestial at the same time.

Mark Nodea, "Lost Souls," ochre on canvas, 2014 80 x 100 cm

Mark Nodea, “Lost Souls,” ochre on canvas, 2014 80 x 100 cm

Nancy McDinny’s history painting, “War at Blackfella Spring,” is a tour-de-force of allover composition whose clever use of color is an outstanding achievement.  The painting depicts the incursion of dozens of policemen into a camp in the bush of the Barkley Tableland.  In the foreground a few white humpies grouped around fire testify to the presence of blackfellas and are balanced in the composition by a screen of white clouds that stretches across the top edge of the canvas.  In between, amidst the variegated greens of the forest land, blue-jacketed policemen spread out in search of the blackfellas.  The policemen’s white hats create a visual bridge between the humpies and the clouds; scattered amongst them tiny white dots show the presence of blackfellas hidden in the bush, ready to defend their country against the invaders’ incursion.

Color is key to Jayaku Biljabu’s “Wikirri” from Martumili Artists.  Color also provides the strength in the design of “Warlutu” by Tjarlili Art’s Bob Gibson, with intense red, white, and blue swirling in the shape representing Lake Hopkins in Western Australia.  Another strong work from Tjarlili in reds and blues is Valmayi Nampitjinpa’s “Karrkurunkintja,” a retelling of the wati kutjara and liru kutjara (two men and two snakes) story from the Kintore region.  Tommy May uses a similar palette to quite different effect in his depiction of the “Seven Sisters” story from Wangkajungka country, courtesy of Mangkaja Arts; the composition in some ways recalls Lisa Uhl’s paintings of trees from a different country.  And perhaps proving that the desert is indeed a country for old men, strong works from Harry Tjutjuna, Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula, and Roy Underwood bring a muscular strength to the painting section of the Salon.

In the category of works on paper, Injalak Arts is well represented by two members of Waud Namok’s family.  Grandson Maath Maralngurra’s “Lambalk” (sugar glider) is full of grace and movement, while granddaughter Lorraine Kabbindi White’s “Guardians” is full of female water spirits swirling above a lily-encrested Rainbow Serpent.  The old man has surely left his tradition is good hands.  From Yirrkala, Munuy’ngu Marika, one of the stars of the Yuta (new) screeprint collection that debuted at Garma in 2010, has contributed a charming new work, “Dhapirrk Girri,” a self-portrait in a flowing pink-and-green flowered print skirt on the beach near her home.

The passing on of traditions finds a place in the barks section as well, with Antonia Pascoe contributing her version of “Fresh Water Mussels” (ngangi), a motif developed in Maningrida a decade ago by her father, Michael Gadjawala.  Similarly, Fiona Mason carries on in the tradition of Tommy Gondorra Steele with a lovely and delicate rendering of  the “Jima Jima (Waterlily)” motif.

And finally in the 3-D category comes the other work along with Nodea’s painting that thrills me deeply.  Andrew Lunguy, from Mardbalk Arts and Culture on Goulburn Island, has contributed a sculpture

Andrew Lunguy, "Marlajak (Freshwater Prawn)," blackwattle carving, 2014, 14 x 45 x 7 cm

Andrew Lunguy, “Marlajak (Freshwater Prawn),” blackwattle carving, 2014, 14 x 45 x 7 cm

executed in carved blackwattle wood, that is simply breathtaking.  The delicacy of the creature’s limbs, eyestalks, and feelers conveys a visceral sense of their movement, swaying in its watery habitat; the rounded bulk of its body, with marks of the workman’s rasp clearly visible, gleams with a polished light that seems the very refraction of light on the water.  Not quite two feet long from its tip to its tail, it fairly delights the eye with grace and vigor.

Once again, my hat is off to Ward and Johnstone for bringing together this extraordinary show.  But I would be remiss not to mention Nicole Vandersteegen of Niva Design, who has produced the catalogue for this year’s exhibition.  It’s a work of stunning design that enhances the beauty of the artworks themselves and provides (in PDF format) easy navigation through the selections.  All around, the Salon des Refusés once more proves itself to be a class act, and I am sure that it will be a major draw during the Darwin Festival.  The Salon will be showing 9-24 August on the Stokes Hill Wharf; don’t miss it when you’re in town.

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Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht


Note: We recently spent a few weeks in Europe and finally had the chance to visit the Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht.  What follows is a preview of a piece that I wrote for publication elsewhere, so it’s a little more general in nature than things I’ve posted here in the past, but I wanted to share our impressions of this fabulous museum and the generosity with which we were welcomed by the staff.  

On a day that threatened (and finally delivered) rain, we rode the tram up to Amsterdam Centraal to catch the train 40 mms southeast to the medieval and modern city of Utrecht.  A university town of about 300,000 inhabitants, the site of the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht that ended the Wars of Spanish Succession 401 years ago, Utrecht is in some ways a smaller, quieter version of Amsterdam.  Laced with canals, full of centuries-old buildings that sport upscale boutiques and excellent, tiny restaurants, it’s a charming city,   once you get your bearings.  The train station seemed larger than Amsterdam’s and it disgorged into a leviathan of a shopping mall.  Our destination was little more than ten minutes walk away, but we wandered, not quite lost, for nearly an hour before arriving there.

We were on our way to visit the Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht (AAMU), the only museum in Europe dedicated entirely to the contemporary art of the Indigenous people of Australia. Over the last 40+ years, a transformation of traditional iconography and artistic practice from impermanent, ceremonial creations into durable expression in acrylic painting, sculpture, photography, and even a new form of traditional use of earth pigments on the flattened bark of eucalyptus trees has blossomed into what the late critic Robert Hughes described as “the last great art movement of the twentieth century.”  An expression of the Indigenous people’s enduring connection to the land they belong to, contemporary Aboriginal art is most often recognized in a format in which thousands of colorful tiny dots create seemingly abstract patterns of startling geometric design and intensity.  Starting in 1988, the bicentennial year of Australian settlement by the British, and accelerating through the 2001 Sydney Olympics, Australia has adopted (and co-opted) this art form as a badge of national identity.  Sadly, Australia’s long history of mistreatment of its tiny percentage of Aboriginal people (roughly 2% of the population of  23 million) has not been materially altered by their recognition of this unique and vibrant aesthetic culture.

aamu-interiorThat culture has inspired international partisans, and there are numerous large and important collections of Aboriginal art worldwide, including several in the Netherlands.  Some of these have found a permanent or long-term, loan-based home at the AAMU, which lies in the city center on the picturesque Oudegracht.  We had met the Museum’s curator Georges Petitjean at the 2006 opening of the Musée du quay Branly in Paris, where a significant public art commission incorporates the work of eight prominent Aboriginal artists in the architectural design of its administrative and curatorial headquarters building.  We have been eager to visit Utrecht and the AAMU ever since, and we were not disappointed when we finally arrived there.

Georges and Director Mike Anderson were our hosts for the day and they gave us a comprehensive tour of the museum.  The major exhibition of the moment, Country to Coast, focuses on art from the Kimberley region in Australia’s vast and sparsely populated northwest corner.  It is an area where mining dominates, whence iron ore and uranium feeds the wealth of the nation via exports to Asia.  And apart from the tiny concentrated settlements that serve the mining industry, it is largely populated by Aboriginal people, who in their turn primarily use ocher pigments extracted from the earth to create their depictions of ancestral creation myths and continuing contemporary connections to the land.

Paddy Bedford, Camel Creek, 2005

Paddy Bedford, Camel Creek, 2005

Is is an art as diverse as the country from which it springs.  Paddy Bedford and Queenie MacKenzie are among its most famous practitioners, with major canvases by the late Bedford often selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the secondary auction market.  Camel Creek, from 2005, is typical of the master’s late period, in which features of the landscape—hills, desert tracks, waterholes that provide sustenance in the often forbidding environment—are represented with extraordinary delicacy and nuance.

Lily Karedada uses the same ocher-based paints to recreate the figures of Wandjinas that have adorned the walls of caves and rock shelters for thousands of years.  These spirit beings are associated with the coming of rain—again marking the importance of water—and the rock art depictions of them are regularly refreshed by new applications of color in their caves, as well as being reproduced and re-interpreted on bark supports for sale in the contemporary art market.

Daniel Walbidi, Winpa, 2007

Daniel Walbidi, Winpa, 2007

Away on the Pacific coast of Australia, in the tiny mission town of Bidyadanga, a talented and self-assured young man named Daniel Walbidi decided, ten years ago when he was barely out of his teens, to encourage the elders in his community to take up acrylic paints to preserve a cultural connection that was on the point of vanishing forever.  The Yulparija people originated in the inland deserts of the Kimberley.  But late in the twentieth century a combination of drought and the draining off of underground reservoirs of fresh water by the mining industry’s insatiable thirst forced them to abandon their homeland for a long trek to a more sustainable coastal home.  Under Daniel’s precocious leadership they began to paint the stories of their desert homeland, but with a palette inspired by the vivid blues and greens of their new oceanside settlement beside the traditional reds and oranges of the desert.

After touring the exhibition with us, Georges and Mike led us back out into the misty streets of Utrecht in search of lunch and further conversations about the collecting and exhibition programs of the AAMU.  In addition to showcasing the tradition-based arts of Aboriginal Australia, the AAMU does excellent work in demonstrating the breadth of this art form and its connections to contemporary artistic practice, taking the discussion out of the realm of ethnographic curiosity into the arena of installation art, video, and photography.  A year ago, BOMB! celebrated the 400th anniversary of the Peace of Utrecht with a large, multimedia installation of work created in concert by Aboriginal artist Adam Hill (aka Blak Douglas) and Adam Geczy, a Sydney artist who has lived and worked extensively in Europe.  This coming fall, a new exhibition called BLAK: forced into images will focus on representations of Indigenous Australian identity through the mediums of video and photography.

After lunch, we returned to view the installation of works from the museum’s permanent collection , which showcased the variety of styles, media, and content that characterizes current practice.  And then we were taken down into the subterranean vaults of the museum for a quick look at the innovative ways Petitjean and Alexander have transformed the potentially humid canal-side environment of an old Dutch building into a climate-controlled storage facility where the bulk of the collection can be safely housed.

A painting by Helicopter Tjungarrayi from the Kimberey community of WIrrimanu (Balgo Hills) has been translated into a mosaic that adorns the AAMU courtyard.

A painting by Helicopter Tjungarrayi from the Kimberey community of WIrrimanu (Balgo Hills) has been translated into a mosaic that adorns the AAMU courtyard.

We ended our visit, as one does, inspecting the museum shop.  We somehow managed to resist the temptation to take a bit of Australia and Utrecht back home with us.  Like any good museum shop, AAMU’s is crowded with plenty of good books that help to interpret the collections.  But unlike many, it is also well stocked with the art itself.  Although modestly priced for the most part, the canvases and paintings on bark, along with fiber art and prints, were truly museum quality pieces themselves that would not have looked out of place on the walls of the gallery instead of the walls of the shop.  We said our goodbyes with regret, and headed off under Georges’ direction through the narrow, winding streets of the city to regain the train station and settle in for the 45-minute ride back to Amsterdam.  Along the way we enjoyed watching the deep green fields of the Dutch countryside slide past us, spotting the occasional windmill in the distance and following the progress of barges along the canals.  But our minds’ eyes were full of images of Australia that the visit had captured for us.  Our short trip had taken us four centuries away from the Golden Age of Dutch painting that we’d been enjoying in Amsterdam, and thousands of miles from the lowlands of Holland to the worn hills of a continent half a world away.  It’s a journey I suggest you take if you’re ever in the neighborhood.

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eight-and-a-halfI’ve just passed an odd milestone: 8½ years of publishing this blog on pretty much a weekly basis.  This is my 634th post, or an average of 1.4 posts a week.  I haven’t counted the words.

And the truth is, I need a break.

Over the Christmas holidays I did a lot of writing, shored up a number of pieces, and have pretty much been coasting ever since.  For the past six weeks I’ve had the catalog from the Yirrkala Drawings show on the bookshelf behind my desk, and I’ve barely made it past the introduction.

So I’m going to put the blog on hiatus.  I may stop publishing entirely for a while, but I will eventually put things out intermittently as inspiration strikes.  But I don’t want to just mail it in week after week.  I guess it’s the schedule that I’ve imposed on myself that’s drained me, so I need to relax a bit.

I never thought that I would write this much, for this long.  But it’s been an extraordinary experience, most of all for the friendships that it has brought me through the years.  Reaching out to y’all in this way has opened many doors and many arms to me; and that experience alone makes me sure that I will be back someday when the batteries are recharged.

A couple of weeks ago the National Gallery of Australia Research Library, working in conjunction with the National Library of Australia, requested permission to include Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye in PANDORA, Australia’s Web Archive.  I am delighted and honored beyond words to have received that invitation.

Thank you all for listening, and please stay in touch.  There’s a link on the “about” page, and you can reach me on Facebook, but not on Twitter.

I’ve never been one for graceful exits, so maybe I should just stop here.  Thank you.

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Video Culture / Museum Culture

A pair of new exhibitions opened this past week at the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum.  One extends established queries about the nature of objects stored in museums and their relationships to the people they purport to represent.  The other makes the museum the site of Indigenous agency and poses an entirely new set of questions about how technology, broadly defined in the museum context, creates avenues for renovating strategies of communication.

The curatorial staff of two new exhibitions at the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum

The curatorial staff of two new exhibitions at the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum

The first exhibition, written on the body, continues Waanyi artist Judy Watson’s interrogation of museum collections of artifacts associated with Australia’s Indigenous people.  (See, for example, the glass work museum piece that adorns the Musée du quay Branly in Paris.)  In the UQ exhibition the focus falls most directly on the marks that exist on or along with these objects and that serve to identify them according to different schemata.  In the most obvious instance, these marks are museum labels, sometimes attached with string or glue, sometimes written directly on the object, in both cases defacing its original construction and adding a new layer of meaning to the semantics encoded in the thing itself.

In a Saussurian sense, these labels also point elsewhere, to a history, a location, a person who at one time or another who created the object, or removed it from its original place of use or deposit, or transformed it by placing it in a new context (specifically that of the museum).  Some of these objects would be considered “classical” ethnographic data—pendants, shields, weapons, or decorations—but in this exhibition they have been arrayed alongside the detritus of a modern civilization: a collection of kitchen utensils that are as utilitarian, but in a different context, as the “museum pieces.”  For Watson, whose Indigenous heritage spans both contact and pre-contact societies, both have resonance in a personal history that is also a larger cultural history.  And both raise troubling questions about the interaction of cultures and the ways in which one culture seeks, through the appropriation of naming, to dominate another.

The second exhibition, Gapuwiyak Calling, is something quite new in many ways, even though it builds on the video work that co-curator Jennifer Deger has been exploring with Yolngu from the remote community of Gapuwiyak since the 1990s, when she collaborated with Bangana Wunungmurra on the film Gularri: that brings unity.  More recently Deger and Paul Gurrumuruwuy, under the auspices of their Miyarrka Media project, produced Christmas Birrimbirr, which records the meeting of Yolngu and Christian traditions in the celebration of the build-up of tropical storm clouds just prior to the feast of Christmas.

This show opens new ground, as Deger explains it in her brief catalog essay,

In 2008 the introduction of Telstra’s 3G mobile network generated a wave of creative energy across the bush communities of Arnhem Land in Australia’s tropical north. New genres of video, photography and performance flourished. Travelling at lightning- speed via satellite and Bluetooth, this digital culture rode the energy of the new and the cheeky. Moving hand-to-hand, kin-to-kin, community-to-community, it drew inspiration from both the Internet and the ancestral. It was made to be watched, to be shared, and then deleted to make way for the next.

So began a new era in Australian Indigenous media, a period of intensified communication, connection and creativity in which Yolngu exploited the potential of phones as multimedia tools—and, in so doing, claimed a place for themselves in the digital world.

The results are startling.  In a twenty-two minute film, Ringtone, that plays on a continuous loop at the UQ installation, a number of Yolngu men and women pull a ringing cell phone from a pocket and then explain the significance of the chosen ringtone—a clan song recorded during bungul, the call of a green frog that is associated with family—to the viewer.  Some of the participants, including Gurrumuruwuy, comment further on the meaning of cell phones to the community, or reactions to the introduction of this new technology to the Yolngu of Gapuwiyak.

The possibilities afforded by the image and video capture features of cell phones have been thoroughly exploited, in typical Yolngu fashion, to extend and reinforce clan networks, to capture significant milestones in their lives, traditional dhapi (circumcision) ceremonies and secondary school graduations.  They remind Yolngu of distant loved ones, and serve as vehicles for self-promotion and humorous grandstanding through performance that mixes bungul and hip-hop moves.

But not all of these effects are positive, as captured in this still from the film.


In her essay, Deger notes that, while these phone technologies  allow the sharing of images among a more restricted social network than the broader world of the global internet, they have given rise to some of the same social problems—bullying, gossip, misinformation—that Western cultures are grappling with.  But part of the very reason for creating the works that are showcased in Gapuwiyak Calling is the desire of Yolngu to demonstrate the exact opposite: how these technologies can be used to shore up the traditional social networks and “to support and even strengthen rom” while forging new connections within Yolngu spheres and reaching out to the wider world.

And herein lies the particular fascination for me of the concurrent displays of written on the body and Gapuwiyak Calling at the UQ Anthropology Museum.  The objects in written on the body evoke, in Judy Watson’s words,

collectors plotting the classification of the object, describing its function, its history, carefully adding the number that ties it into the collection. By writing onto the object, the collector asserts their ownership and authority, stamping it onto the cultural item.

This can be read as a form of colonization, sterilization and desecration. The tattooing of numbers and scarification of labels onto objects in some way takes away from their natural beauty and form. It diminishes them to be curiosities within a museum.

The museum becomes the record of suppression, the objects the evidence of subjugation.

In Gapuwiyak Calling, Yolngu have seized history and pre-empted the colonization of their culture, writing, as it were, within the context of the museum itself.  To quote Deger again,

And so began an experiment in activating a Yolngu poetics of connection in an anthropology museum gallery; a project that, if it were to succeed, needed to do more than simply catalogue and classify Yolngu new media as contemporary cultural artefacts. Throughout the design, the media selection, the arrangement and production of wall and touchscreen texts, the challenge has been to find ways to present this phone-media in a suitably performative way, in keeping with the subject matter as well as Yolngu social and aesthetic values. For us, the art of curation lay in finding ways to re-mediate the photographs and films so as to give them new life and meaning appropriate to the broader, and yet still site specific, intercultural context of the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum.

Or as Gurrumuruwuy simply puts it,

We decided to name our exhibition Gapuwiyak Calling because we’re calling you through our phones, calling so you can connect to us.

We’re grabbing hold of new possibilities using these little things.

Maybe you’ll answer us.

Gapuwiyak Calling

Gapuwiyak Calling

The trickster spirit Murayana Ganbulapula initiates the call and response

The trickster spirit Murayana Ganbulapula initiates the call and response

"People call me and I hear my ringtone"

“People call me and I hear my ringtone”

Blue taffeta skirts

Blue taffeta skirts

"Maybe you'll answer us."

“Maybe you’ll answer us.”

My thanks to UQ Anthropology Museum Direcotr and co-curator (of written on the body) Diana Young for supplying me with the exhibition catalogs and the wonderful installation photographs, which were shot by Carl Warner.  Below are some views of written on the body.







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Explicating Bark Painting

grogerwurmTwo years ago, during the turning of 2011 into 2012, I took my customary holiday break from serious thinking and produced a pair of posts in which I looked back at what I thought to be some of the core texts and catalogs that a student of Aboriginal art and culture might want to have on the shelf and under the belt.  On list enumerated significant works of anthropology in my personal education, the other was a catalog of great art books.

In retrospect I can see that there was one title that should have been on both lists, and its omission from either is therefore all the more striking.  I was reminded of it a few weeks ago while perusing the beautiful bark paintings in the National Museum of Australia’s exhibition, Old Masters: Australia’s great bark artists.  Especially in the early days of my studies of Yolngu painting, Helen Groger-Wurm’s Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings and their Mythological Interpretation, volume 1: Eastern Arnhem Land (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1973; Australian Aboriginal Studies, no. 30) was an indispensable guide to the stories and iconography of the region.

A decade ago, before the long tail of the book market became as well exposed as it is today, this was a difficult book to find at all; when copies did turn up they were usually expensive, over A$200 for a slim (139 page) paperback.  I was fortunate that the library where I work owned a copy, and am even more fortunate today to have found a more reasonably priced copy I can call my own and consult whenever the mood strikes me.

The volume contains black-and-white plates reproducing 194 bark paintings (16 of which are also shown in color) collected by the author from Milingimbi, Yirrkala, Numbulwar, and Maningrida between 1966 and 1969.  The paintings are arranged in three major categories: “Sacred Bark Paintings of the Dua Moiety”; “Sacred Bark Paintings of the Jiridja Moiety”; and “Secular Bark Paintings.”  The first category encompasses the Djang’kawu and Wagilag stories, as well as the wild honey, shark, mosquito, and thunder man ancestors.  The Yirritja section includes, among others, the stories of Barama and Lany’tjung, and “the gathering of the Wongar beings in the Plain Country at Arnhem Bay.”  The “secular’ paintings discuss death and mortuary rites or offer illustrations of a particular story or myth, and thus are far more than what one might think of a “secular.”

What distinguishes this book from so many others in the extensive detail which Groger-Wurm provides about each painting, both in terms of the story that is being told and in the way that it is represented in the particular work at hand.  Indidvidual actors are identified, cross-hatching explicated, the meaning of dots in the designs surfaced.  At the risk of quoting too extensively, allow me to computer the treatment of Mathaman Marika’s Rirratjungu Mortuary Ceremony (1967) as it is presented in the NMA’s Old Masters, and in Groger-Wurm’s catalog.


The painting appears on page 142 of Old Masters; it shows a number of human figures against a cross-hatched design in its lower portion; the upper third of the painting consists of broad, radiating bands of solid color.  In the introduction to this section of Old Masters devoted to the Marika family, it is described as follows.

Mathaman  paints another set of Dhuwa ancestors, the Wäwilak Sisters.  In the upper panel of Rirratjungu Mortuary Ceremony the rays of the sun capture diet rising from the ground as people dance in the ceremony depicted below.  Here, the spirit of the deceased is taught how to make paddles and is given a canoe to row to Dhambaliya (Bremer Island) in its way to the ancestral realm (Old Masters, p. 136).

This description is based on the one provided by Groger-Wurm (she collected the painting in question), but necessarily abbreviates the annotation.  In Groger-Wurms publication, the plate is accompanied by a diagram which identifies various figures by attaching numbers to them, and explains the relationships among them at length.  The 1960s orthography may take a moment to get used to, but the effort is well worth it.  Here is the story as Groger-Wurm presents it.

When a Riradjingu person of the dua moiety dies, his or her spirit goes immediately to Munumbarlwui, a jungle swamp on the western side of Melville Bay.   Here [the upper-left corner of the lower section of the panel] the spirit is awaited by two mogwoi [mokuy] Wuluwaid and Bunbulama, who guide it along to meet all the assembled relatives who predeceased it.

In the centre is the new spirit surrounded by four women crying and “feeling sorry” for it.  On the bottom left, old Bunbulama is beating his clapping sticks, bilma, and on the right is Dolunganda with his didjeridu, jitagi [yidaki], which he holds against a paperbark pad for better resonance.  These two old men start very slowly to clap___ clap___ clap___ doo___ doo___ doo___.  After some time the rhythm becomes faster and then all the spirits start dancing to make the new arrival happy.  In the bottom corners are two dawo trees.

The coloured bands in the upper panel are symbolic of the dust that rises from the ground while the mogwoi are dancing.  In the evenings, when the sun is setting, one can see these bands of rays in the reddish sky and this indicates that the sprites are dancing at  Munumbarlwui.

The dead sprites stays there for about two days.  The Bunbulama mogwoi (this term can also refer to a group of mogwoi) teach the new spirit how to make paddles and then give it a canoe for the journey to Dambalia, Bremer Island.   Nganug, the paddle-maker, rows the spirit acres and there it remains for three or four dats hunting and corroborating until it departs for Bralgu where it remains forever (Groger-Wurm, p. 110)

The extraordinary amount of information contained in this annotation and the many other likes it that fill Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings and their Mythological Interpretation have always raised two questions in my mind.  How did Groger-Wurm achieve the degree of intimacy with Yolngu elders that allowed the sharing of such “inside” information?  And what ever happened to the projected other volumes implied by the subtitle of this one?

The answers to these questions can be found in Margie West’s essay “‘The Woman with Men’s Business’: Helen Wurm,” which was published as Chapter 19 of The Makers and Making of Indigenous Australian Museum Collections (Melbourne University Press, 2008: 537-553, edited by Nicolas Peterson, Lindy Allen, and Louise Hamby), in which West refers to Groger-Wurm’s notes on the expedition.

The collection was initiated at a time when it became apparent that the traditional way of Indigenous life in Arnhem Land was on the threshold of considerable change through the pressure of western civilisation. The age old unbroken chain of handing on tribal wisdom knowledge and law in a series of initiation cycles each lasting many weeks, became threatened. Though ceremonies were shortened it became apparent that the day was approaching fast when the chain would be broken. And once this happened it would be the end of the old traditional life.  This fact, by the way, worried the old men in eastern Arnhem Land particularly because it would mean that all their knowledge and wisdom would be lost to future generations (quoted in West, pp. 541-2)

Most significantly, [Groger-Wurm] said that the Yolngu considered ‘that I knew the “business” like a man and anyway, that I was an “old” married balanda (European) woman’.17 So it was her perceived status as a female elder that in part allowed her access to certain privileged information, especially the detailed ancestral narratives that accompanied the artworks (West, p. 548).

West notes that Groger-Wurm considered the collection of paintings from northeastern Arnhem Land published as “volume 1″ to the the most rewarding and challenging” part of the larger project, which additionally  included fieldwork and collecting in Gunbalanya, Groote Eylandt, Melville Island, and Wadeye.  West goes on to say this:

Her decision to publish on the northeastern Arnhem Land segment of the collection first was no doubt influenced by this experience. After the volume was published by the AIAS in 1973, there was, however, concern about the sensitive nature of its contents. The book was subsequently classified as semi-restricted, with a published note requesting the reader’s discretion because ‘much of this material is secret/sacred’. However, Howard Morphy, in a personal communication (2006), mentions that he attended a meeting at Yirrkala between the then Principal of the AIAS, Dr Peter Ucko, and senior Yolngu men to discuss the status of the Wurm publication. At the meeting, only one painting in the book was considered conten- tious, due in part to the passing of the senior custodian of the site in question. Later on, the artists decided to paint this segment of the story again. As previously mentioned, Morphy’s own extensive field research in northeastern Arnhem Land has shown how fluid the classification of paintings can be over time, with different clans releasing imagery or restricting previously public imagery due to political considerations of the time. Today there appears to be little in the Wurm publication to warrant its restriction (West, p. 552).

Be that as it may, no formal publication of the remaining material was undertaken.  The works from the entire endeavor were distributed to the Institute of Anatomy (which eventually became part of the collection of the National Museum of Australia) and to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, where it formed the core of MAGNT’s holdings of Indigenous material after the devastation of Cyclone Tracy destroyed the Museum’s original site.  Much later, Groger-Wurm provided reports on these collections to the NMA and MAGNT, but formal publication never ensued.  Nonetheless, the publication and the collection as a whole are of surpassing importance to the study of the art and culture of Arnhem Land, broadly defined.  I will leave the final words on its significance to West:

Even so, the Wurm collection remains, as intended, an important record of the art and related ancestral stories from northern Australia. The collection provides a snapshot of a seminal time in Aboriginal art when people were engaging at a sig- nificant level with the wider Australian society through their paintings. She worked with many artists who are now regarded as the nation’s most gifted and important practitioners. They were the inspired ini- tiators of the dynamic art movements that have since catapulted Aboriginal art into the national and international spotlight. Part of Wurm’s success in amassing this collection, apart from her own obvious dedication, was the generosity of the Indigenous people who shared her vision and in fact utilised her project as a way of securing certain outcomes for themselves. This was not merely a one-way transaction, but one that, as illustrated particularly by the north- eastern example, required extensive negotiations to work out the protocols of engagement. The ultimate aim for both Wurm and the artists was the collection of significant cultural information for the benefit of future generations.

As someone who has worked with many of the collected artists, and subsequently with their other family members since their deaths, I know that this collection is very highly valued by the people of the Top End. Many artists often refer to the Wurm publication to inform their own contemporary art practice and cultural knowledge and are always keen to view their relations’ work on museum visits. With its solid documentation and mythological coverage, the collection is also an important resource for researchers and curators, and many of the works have been featured in both in-house and touring displays by the MAGNT and the NMA. It is hard to imagine today that Wurm herself would disapprove of individual works from the collection being displayed and toured in such major exhibitions, as fine art. They are works often of exceptional aesthetic merit and this does not detract at all from their enduring cultural significance to the nation’s heritage (West, pp. 552-3).

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Music of the Spinifex Country

OoldeaA few weeks ago, thanks to my friends Deb and Matt, I had the chance to view Mick Angus’s 2006 film from Marcom Projects, Ooldea.  It tells the story of a collaboration between composer Iain Grandage and a group of elders from the Spinifex People.  It’s an extraordinary story, almost as much as for what doesn’t happen as for what does.

The backstory began in 2002 when Grandage, whose long involvement with Indigenous music now extends to creating orchestral arrangements for the Black Arm Band, was doing research for the production that eventually became The Career Highlights of the Mamu, a piece directed by Peter Sellars for the Black Swan Theatre at the Adelaide Festival.  The production was a history of sorts of the Spinifex People, their experience of the Maralinga bombing, and their lives in the country near Tjuntuntjura in Western Australia.  Trevor Jamieson supplied narration, the community elders spoke of their country to video footage, and the Tjuntjuntura Band provided rock ‘n’ roll accompaniment.  Grandage became infected with the rhythms and melodies of the ceremonial inma he encountered during the development of the piece.

Two years on, Grandage was offered an open commission by Nick Bailey of the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO), and his thoughts returned to the Spinifex Country and its songlines.  And thus began the development of what was to be a new form of music, true to both the orchestral traditions of the West and the indigenous traditions of the deserts.  It was not meant to be an orchestral setting of Pitjantjatjara songs but rather a common ground, a meeting space where the two traditions could co-exist and, if possible, work together.

The film Ooldea recounts the physical and intellectual journeys that Grandage undertook in order to gain an understanding of the lives, the memories, and the music of the Spinifex elders and to craft from that experience a musical form and language, to rehearse the performances, and to invest members of WASO in the experiment.  This is a fascinating journey in itself and comes with many of the tropes of cross-cultural learning that will be familiar to audiences who have followed such collaborative ventures before: the differing sets of expectations, the difficulties of language, the conflicting understanding of time and schedules, the diverse cultural protocols, the uncertainties, the failures, the new beginnings that are required repeatedly.  There is the sense of wonder and amazement that Grandage and his fellow classical musicians experience, the inquisitiveness and openness of the desert children, the amusement of the ladies who watch sometimes from the sidelines.  There are trips out to country and nights around the campfire when slapsticks and cello reach out over the bridge of the human voice in mutual exploration.

Roy Underwood and Iain Grandage

Roy Underwood and Iain Grandage

For those who love the paintings of the Spinifex country, there is the added delight of watching some of the premier artists from the community who are at the core of this adventure.  Roy Underwood, Simon Hogan, Fred Grant, and Allan Jamieson all figure prominently in Grandage’s education, and others, including Lennard Walker and Lawrence Pennington make cameo appearances.  I am helpless before the thrill of watching these old men go about their business (even if, in the film, that doesn’t involve painting); it’s a combination of a sort of celebrity watching and the opportunity to feel as though I have the chance to witness the spirit, the landscape, and the songs from which their marvelous paintings spring.

There is much tension to the story as the deadline for the performance, scheduled to premiere in October 2005, approaches.  The film cuts back and forth between Perth and Tjuntjuntjura as the musical composition begins to take shape and Grandage negotiates with both the elders and the management at WASO for the manner in which the work will unfold.  The final form of the piece is described thus by Grandage:

Structurally, the work is a single continuous movement, in three broad sections. The first (incorporating the Ooldea Inma) utilises the octatonic scale in a chorale that grows from a pair of mirrored lines out to 5 voices and back. Interpolated between these chorale sections are two other musical ideas – a stacked and clustered version of the scale, and a set of three falling phrases that is gradually compressed from 7ths down to clustered 2nds. This section is scored for strings, single woodwinds and percussion alone. It is interrupted by the arrival of the Brass and woodwind in antiphonal positions in the choir stalls in a 12 tone interlude.

The second section features the more active Mamu Inma – a song series about a spirit-being best equated to the western ideas of the devil or a trickster god. In this movement, a constant rhythm from the orchestra continues between each of the sung verses, with interjections from the instrumental groups above that increase in duration and intensity before mirroring back.

The final section of the work returns to the slow chorale style of the first, and incorporates the Kalaya Inma. This Inma is centred around Ilkurlka, in the heart of Spinifex country, and tells the story of the Emu – the custodian of Spinifex land before anangu (people) arrived.

This work is intended not as an accompanied traditional song, nor as an orchestral reworking of indigenous themes. It is, I hope, simply a meeting place. A work within which the musical forces of Australia’s European heritage share a campfire with some of Australia’s traditional owners. A campfire around which history may become a source of shared pride, and where time might reveal a communal future rather than a buried, stolen past.

In the end, however, the performance never took place.

As final preparations got underway in Perth, Grandage received the news that important business had come to the fore out in Tjuntjuntjara.  Elders from another community has arrived, and a certain important piece of business (its exact nature unspecified due to its sacred nature) had to move on from Tjuntjuntura to the next custodians, and the men who would have traveled to Perth to perform could not leave their country.  As the Orchestra’s press release announcing the cancellation of the performance described it (quoted by Grandage described it in “Journeys with Spinifex,” an article published in Sounds Australia: the Journal of the Australian Music Centre (no. 68, 2006), “the living of culture took precedence over the performance of culture.”  While I suspect that the elders might not have made such a fine distinction, what is truly remarkable was the reaction to the news in Perth.  In a series of recorded discussions among the members of the orchestra, the understanding and acceptance of this sudden and disruptive change of plans came with some difficulty but with no questioning of its essential rightness.  After all, as one member of the ensemble pointed out, guest performers and conductors with the Orchestra cancel all the time, and frequently for reasons that are far flimsier than those offered by the Spinifex men.

In a coda to the story, Grandage returns to Tjuntjuntjura six months later to meet with the men one more time.  The purpose of the trip is not to resume planning for the event; indeed, death and illness have precluded much of the possibility of that occurring.  It is simply for the parties to re-establish the connections that had been forged over the preceding years.  Eventually a modified version of the project was executed by the post-classical ensemble Topology at the Powerhourse in Brisbane, but in the film that remains beyond the horizon.  Grandage simply returns to sit with the old men.

For all of these reasons, Ooldea is a remarkably powerful experience.  If ever there were a  manifestation of the notion that “it’s not the arrival but the journey that matters” captured on film, this is it.

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