The Dilemma of “Dreaming”

dilemma-dreamingChristine Nicholls, researcher and curator at Flinders University, recently published a trio of articles on the website The Conversation (whose tagline is “academic rigor, journalistic flair”; I like that) concerning the problematic nature of the terms “the Dreaming” and “the Dreamtime.”

Rather than rehearse them here, I am simply going to recommend that you follow the links and read them for yourselves.  In the first piece, “‘Dreaming’ and ‘the Dreamtime': an introduction,” Nicholls offers a brief critique of the terms’ inadequacies and notes the number of “closely affiliated ancillary vocabulary” terms, especially in Warlpiri, that add resonance and complexity to the concept expressed by the word jukurrpa.  She notes the wide range of terms in the numerous Indigenous languages that correspond to the Western Desert language variations on jukurrpa, and suggests that a broader use of these original words might benefit our comprehension by removing the misleading connotations of “dreams” from the concept as well as by forcing the non-Indigneous language speaker to confront the very difference that inheres in the concept.

The second piece, “‘Dreamtime’ and ‘The Dreaming’: who dreamed up these terms?,” she traces the origins of the terms back to Spencer and Gillen, through their adoption by A. P. Elkin, and to a kind of canonization in the work of W. E. H. Stanner (whose explicative “everywhen” would garner my vote for a substitute term, if such a transformative replacement were possible).  She notes the problems that are compounded by translation in European languages, where the word for “dream” is most commonly employed, without resort to the gerundive “Dreaming.”  (I will go here one farther and say that in my memory, a translation as “Dreamtime” is far more common, be it the French temps du rêve or the German Traumzeit.  Fascinatingly, the French Wikipedia glosses temps du rêve as “Tjukurpa en langue anangu“, while the German version references the “engl. Dreamtime oder Dreaming.“)  Nicholls also includes a discussion of one scholar’s solution for translating the term into Croatian, which provides an interesting look at strategies for introducing nuance.  Nicholls devotes  the rest of her second piece to explicating the concept, and ends by repeating her plea for English speakers to take up an Indigenous term in place of “the Dreaming.”

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Such usage of Indigenous terms is relatively easy to undertake in specific contexts, where jukurrpa indicates a reference to Western Desert concepts, and specifically, perhaps to Warlpiri as distinct from tjukurrpa among the Pintupi.  Wangarr signals Yolngu meanings; ngarrankarni locates us in the Kimberley.  But what do we do when we speak of the concept in southeastern Australia?  What words do we employ if we wish to indicate a more generalized notion that applies across language groups?  Is there a good option in those cases?  I don’t know, and to be honest, I haven’t really thought about it before.  Such ticklings of my consciousness are one of the reasons I enjoyed Nicholls’s articles.

Perhaps we don’t even need a unitary word or phrase.  There are indeed plenty of English idioms that have been adapted to specific contexts.  We speak of law and business, of creation ancestors and creation time, of cosmologies and world views, of stories and myths and philosophies.  I am neither poet nor linguist, but I can imagine myself getting by quite nicely without ever saying “the Dreaming” again.  Perhaps it’s worth a try.

Nicholls’ third installment in the series was published this week, “‘Dreamings’ and dreaming narratives: what’s the relationship?”  This time around she looks at the connections between the stories told (for example, in contemporary paintings) and the country that they describe or are situated in.  Although once again focused largely on Warlpiri examples, this week’s article does offer a brief look at a story from Arnhem Land that concerns the proper preparation of the potentially deadly cycad-palm fruit.

Nicholls has aimed her essays at a general audience, quite appropriate for The Conversation.  Too often those of us who sleep and breathe Aboriginal art lose sight of the stunning degree of complexity these cultural issues involve and the subtleties that are often lost either in highly technical writing or in the souvenir-shop and wall-calendar marketplace for “Dreamings.”  Nicholls hits a middle ground, and for that we should be grateful.

Update: A fourth installment, explicating two paintings (by Yolngu painter Charlie Burarrwanga Matjuwi and Warlpiri artist Lily Hargreaves Nungurrayi) and their relation to country and ancestral stories, has now been published, and a fifth is alluded to.  Stay tuned to The Conversation.

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The Grace of God

Old-Masters-cover“How to paint the grace of God?”

That is the surprising question with which Wally Caruana opens the essays that introduce this extraordinary compilation of Old Masters: Australia’s greatest bark artists (National Museum of Australia, 2013).

A few years back, I visited the National Museum for the first time and, after wandering through the Yalangbara exhibition that was on display at the moment, rendez-voused with John Carty.  John treated us to an experience that I would have otherwise have missed: the “archives” of the Museum’s collection of bark paintings and artifacts, housed in glass cabinets and kept dark and shuttered except for a few brief periods each day when the doors are opened, the lights raised, and visitors allowed to stroll through the wonder cabinet.

The experience was over all too quickly: there was much to see, precious little time, and apart from John’s own knowledge, no guide map for us.  I remember only being stunned by the variety of objects, by the overwhelming beauty of many of them, and by an almost visceral sense of an encounter with lost time, with history swelling up before me.

Now a generous selection of that history has been put into a more extended (if still all too brief) exhibition that highlights the grandest painters of the twentieth century bark tradition.  My friend Henry Skerritt has published an informative and useful analysis of the intent of the show–to reclaim these paintings as art–and I refer you to his essay, “New Lines of Flight,” which was published in Art Guide Australia on January 14, 2014 for his sensitive interpretations.

I will return instead to Wally’s question: How to paint the grace of God?  It might seem a strange opener for a show of bark paintings, for while we may easily recognize the sacred content and context that is conveyed through ochres applied to flattened husks of stringybark trees, I doubt many of us have ever considered these paintings in the light that Wally suggests we ought.

The essays that are included in the catalog stand as signposts to an answer to Wally’s question, in that they offer hints to the meanings that are so often inaccessible without a detailed knowledge of the mythologies (if you will) that they illustrate: the stories of the Djang’kawu and the Wagilag Sisters, the creation myths at Djarrakpi where Narritjin Maymuru comprehensively documented Manggalili clan stories, the Morning Star ceremonies that arc across the northern shores of Arnhem Land, even, on a more historical level, the arrival of the Macassans in their sailing ships with their knives of steel that would transform material culture in the region.

The essays, by Howard Morphy, Luke Taylor, Alisa Duff, and Caruana himself, are of an almost cruel brevity.  Each of the authors takes one section of Arnhem Land as his terrain, and couches his discussion in terms of a larger concept.  Morphy discusses abstraction in the paintings of the eastern Yolngu; Taylor examines expressiveness in Western Arnhem Land; Caruana looks at “the shapes of things” in the central regions.

old-masters-dickThough the essays are each only three pages long, they attempt to strike a balance by elucidating general principles with pointed illustrations to particular works reproduced later in the catalog.  It is a mark of the deep understanding that each of these scholars brings to his writing that these abbreviated synopses can be thrilling in their insights, in the ways that they will help you to look at the paintings with fresh eyes.  Discussing Dick Nguleingulei Murrumurru and John Namerredjie Guymala, Caruana offers this succinct analysis of the hunting scenes they often paint:

The energy of many of their works is created through the dynamism of the mimih hunter’s body as it propels a spear, and the outline form of the kangaroo that may be fleeing or turning to face the hunter, as well as the striking patterns of colour blocks or crosshatching that glow within the body of the kangaroo.  In Western Arnhem Land this emanation of the designs is called kabimbebme (literally, ‘colour coming out’) and artists strive for this effect, as well as to achieve body form appropriate to certain movements, careful linework, exciting constructs of colour, elements of symmetry, and overall dynamic balance within the picture frame (p. 22).

Or here is Morphy on the paintings of Mithinari Gurruwiwi, Mawalan Marika, and Narritjin Maymuru:

Elements of figurative representations … become components of geometric designs.  The digging sticks and circles are, in a sense, both geometric and representational, but in Mithinarri’s paintings, the limbs of goannas or the feet and legs of birds will continue as extended lines to become part of a clan design or background pattern.  Yolngu use figure-ground reversal to create shapes that reference sacred objects… (p. 27).

You could spend hours (and I did) examining the color plates in the catalog to see how the artists have achieved these effects; indeed, just knowing to look for them or to note their absence in a given work is quite like being handed the keys to the kingdom.

And that last simile, of the keys to the kingdom, brings me back to Caruana’s opening interrogative: how to paint the grace of God?  It seems to me that in the contemplation of these magnificent paintings, beautifully reproduced in the catalog and, I am sure, stunning to see in person, that we are never far from the concept of transcendence.  As with all great art, these paintings point unfailingly beyond the physical, even as their immediate presence and beauty becomes breathtakingly clear.

old-masters-narritjinAny dozen of these paintings taken together could revolutionize your appreciation for the artistry of bark painting: the images are crisp, dynamic, pulsating.  With over 120 works in the exhibition, the cumulative effect is staggering, the more so because so many of these works are unfamiliar.  Even among the large selection of Narritjin’s works there are multiple surprises.  I have looked at a lot of Narritjin’s paintings over the years, thanks in large part to Howard Morhpy’s extensive documentation and scholarship, and I like to think I am fairly adept at recognizing and reading his iconography.  Nonetheless, the works in Old Masters introduced me to astonishing new variations in the familiar topography of Narritjin’s paintings of country.   Where I expect spareness and symmetry, I found abundance, narrative, and in some cases, a pinwheeling energy of composition.

Perhaps the most surprising single painting in the show was Narritjin’s Coat of Arms, the like of which I had never suspected.  Painted in 1963, the year of the Yirrkala Church Panels and the Bark Petitions, it is an astonishing work of individual creativity.  Narritjin takes as his ostensible inspiration the kangaroo, emu, and shield design of the Australian coat of arms.  He then imposes upon it the sacred geography of Djarrakpi, replacing the heraldic shield with the spear thrower as a symbol of authority, and populating the conventional map of Australian with the iconic animals of his country, the whole supported by the gunyah, or sand crab, that is one of the prime symbols of renewal and continuity in Narritjin’s body of work.  It is a work of stunning sophistication and ingenuity, and in this regard is typical of the exhibition as a whole, even if its subject matter appears on the surface to tend toward the mundane rather than the spiritual.  Of course, in truth, this painting is every bit as transcendent and spiritual as the most “conventional” clan designs in a bark by Yirawala, Nganjmirra, or Dawidi.

While I can say that Narritjin’s painting may be the most surprising of the lot, it is impossible to pick even a dozen of the “best” from this assemblage.  In one way or another–composition, color, historical significance–every one of these works is masterful, engaging, and worthy of prolonged consideration.  What is most astonishing is that they form part of a single great collection and that they appear to have been exhibited so little over time.  They deserve a wide audience and represent a gold mine for further study, which I hope this exhibition can spur.

The essays at the front of the catalog, as I’ve noted, are suggestive and illuminating, if all too brief.  Throughout the pages that illustrate the paintings further brief explanatory texts discuss individual artists, clans, and paintings, although again all too briefly.  This material is supplemented by an appendix that features short biographies and photographs of the artists.

All this inspires in me a longing for extensive documentation about the stories behind these paintings, and the conditions of their creation and circulation.  I imagine something along the lines of Helen Groger-Wurm’s magisterial Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings and their Mythological Interpretation, published in 1973 by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, which remains in my mind one of the pre-eminent sources for the interpretation of the bark tradition.  (Indeed, several of the paintings included in this exhibition were collected by Groger-Wurm and annotated in her book.)  These paintings were made to instruct balanda on the nature of the Law, and as stunning as they are as aesthetic objects, they should speak to us as fully as possible.

***

In the meantime, another striking exhibition of bark paintings is approaching its final days at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne.  Transformations: early bark paintings from Arnhem Land, curated by Joanna Bosse from the collections assembled by Donald Thomson and Leonhard Adam, is more narrowly focused in its scope on paintings derived from ceremonial designs, but is no less stunning and rich in what it offers.  For those who want a deeper look at the meanings encoded in the works of these old masters, this video of a discussion Bosse led with Wanyubi Marika, Howard Morphy, and Lindy Allen will amply repay your curiosity.  Together these two exhibitions offer incredible insights into the artistry of Arnhem Land and an extraordinary glimpse of the grace of God.

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Redfern Revisited

redfern-now-2The second series of Redfern Now was a stunner.  I’d had high hopes and high expectations for the return of this highly acclaimed television drama, and I was not disappointed.  I’d like to say that I enjoyed watching it as much as I did the first season, but somehow “enjoy” doesn’t seem to be the appropriate sentiment.  I admired it; I was blown away by the acting.  But each episode was extraordinarily painful to watch.  That is a testament to its power and success.  But it sure hurt.

The six episodes this year provided some continuity.  Leah Purcell reprises her role as Grace from the first episode of season one, in which she tried to care for her sister Lilly’s kids instead of going on a long-awaited family vacation.  This year, she’s still trying to take care of family, but the family this time is the Shields, Eddie, Nic, and Joel, whom we met last time around in episode four, which concerned Joel’s expulsion and loss of scholarship for refusing to stand for the national anthem at his school.

Indigo and Allie (Dean Daley-Jones and Lisa Flanagan), whose disturbed domestic relations were the focus of episode five last year, are back as well, and there’s still trouble.  Some of that trouble gets sorted out by the long-suffering Indigenous copper, Aaron Davis, and it’s wonderful to watch Wayne Blair in action again.  But Aaron is still haunted by the death of Lenny, the young troublemaker who pushed Aaron’s buttons too hard while in custody.

What’s equally intriguing is the way these characters’ stories get upended in the new season.  In the second episode of the new season, “Starting Over,” Indigo hasn’t changed much; he’s still violent and abusive.  Allie throws him out again, calling the cops to take him away after he bashes her in a fit of jealousy.  But I hadn’t expected to see copper Aaron fall in love with Allie, much less to discover that the attraction is mutual.  I found this episode to be one of the best in the series, not only because it satisfied the desire for a happy ending better than most, but because in the course of its single hour it offered up so many surprises, went in so many directions that I hadn’t seen coming.

Episode five, “Pokies,” offered its share of surprises as well in its continuation of the story of the Shields family in the days after Joel’s act of adolescent rebellion in last seasons’s “Stand Up.”  Last time around it was Eddie who seemed completely at loose ends.  He was a man searching for some shred of pride and who banked his own sense of self-worth on his son Joel’s academic promise, a promise that Joel’s recalcitrance threatened.  This time Eddie, approaching his fortieth birthday, takes pride not only in his son but in his job, and is surrounded at his birthday party by friends who clearly prize him.  This time, rather, it is Nic who is in trouble, gambling away the family’s finances at lunch-time sessions at the pokies, hiding her accumulating debts by sending dunning statements from creditors to her sister Grace’s address, cheating the other blackfellas at the cultural center where she works, and ultimately conspiring with a nephew to stage a robbery from the center to cover her losses.  It’s a simple narrative, simply told, and you can almost see the way that it’s going to unravel from the very first.  And yet, in another sense, the conclusion is left open-ended.  We know, in the final moment, what comes of Nic’s retreat to a hotel room where she overdoses on pills and alcohol, but we are not told how that action will play out in the dynamics of the family.  That much is left to our imagination.

Our imaginations also have to fill in the consequences of the strife that permeates “Babe in Arms,” the story of a mixed race couple with a new baby whose incessant crying slowly drives its mother Janine (Caren Pistorius) to the brink of unstable behavior.  Isolated, lonely, bereft, she walks down to the bottle shop one day and leaves the baby alone, crying, in their home while her husband Justin (Meyne Wyatt) is off downing a few beers in the wake of a bitter argument.  In the days that follow Janine is trebly burdened, by unabated loneliness, by grief at the loss of the baby, and by the suspicions of all around her.  Her sense of guilt prods her to ever increasing strife with Justin until she forces him to admit that he suspects her of having murdered the infant.  At that moment there is a bitterly ironic reversal, and we are left, as in “Pokies,” to work out for ourselves what will happen to the family dynamic in the future.

Season two opened with the story that probably generated the most headlines, tweets, and controversy of the year.  Richard (Oscar Redding), a whitefella, and his blackfella partner, Peter (Kirk Page) are raising their daughter together, but when Richard is suddenly killed in a traffic accident, his mother contests Peter’s suitability to be a father.  The specter of homosexuality in the Aboriginal community was not greeted with universal openness in the media once the episode had aired, to put it mildly.  The controversy the story generated mirrored the bitterness of the battle between Peter and Margaret (played against type by Noni Hazelhurst).

Unfortunately, the weakness of the story line itself didn’t help to defend the show against its critics.  Margaret takes Peter to court, and it looks like a certainty that he won’t prevail.  When the couple’s friend Lorraine (Deborah Mailman, radiant as ever) gives him a stern speech, advising him to knuckle down, do his homework, and build a strong legal defense, I had hoped that her homily would put some backbone into the plot line as well as into Peter, but it wasn’t to be.  Peter comes into the courtroom essentially unprepared to do anything but make an emotional declaration of his love for his daughter.  The judge is moved and grants him custody.  Perhaps family courts in Australia succumb to these heartfelt appeals more easily and commonly that they do here in America, but I remained unconvinced of the realism of the outcome.  And I wasn’t any more convinced by the seemingly magical rapprochement between Peter and his lover’s mother with which the episode ended.

A similar sense of an ending too easily contrived weakened, for me, the season’s final episode, “Dogs of War,” in which a spate of common burglaries sets off a chain of events that ends in tragedy.  The police recommend that the burgled households buy a dog to ward off future attacks.  Derek (Bruce Carter) takes the advice, and brings home a German shepherd that is a both a pet for his two children and a watchdog.  Across the street Tenile (Katherine Beckett) demurs, but her father Ernie (Ernie Dingo, looking fit and handsome) shows up unexpectedly to install security devices for her.  Ernie is a Vietnam veteran, and angry man haunted by nightmares of his experiences in the war and in denial about the lumps on his larynx that are causing him to cough up blood.  Ernie’s nightmares repeatedly set the new dog across the street to barking at night.  The dog in turn wakes the baby in the house next to Tenile and Ernie.  The baby’s parents, Jimmy and Susie, are enraged and frustrated.  One morning, the police show up when the dog is poisoned; horrifyingly, Derek’s young daughter is poisoned as well.  Ernie ferrets out the culprit, but the process seems too pat and simplistic, too engineered to produce harmony and salvation.

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At the heart of all these stories, as was true of season one, is the idea of community and the individual’s relationships within it.  In the first series the very community of Redfern itself seemed almost to be one of the characters.  The action often took place in the same streets from episode to episode; the giant Aboriginal flag mural loomed over the action, and the same cast of recurring minor characters provided a thread of continuity among the stories.  Often the plots revolved around the relationships, not just among the Redfern denizens themselves, but between those citizens and the larger forces of social welfare or the police with which they dealt as part of daily life.

In season two, there is a subtle shift in the way in which these themes are elaborated.  The stories this time are more tightly focused on smaller units, on families or on a small group of individuals.  I was struck by the notion that the stories that are told in season two could be told in almost any suburb in any city.  They are stories of individual strife, of psychological tensions; they are less bound up in the uniquely Aboriginal experience, in the fabric of the place called Redfern, than they were in the first series.

Janine, the lonely new mother in “Babes in Arms,” struggles because she is an outsider, and the victim of racism: she is left to fend for herself because she is a white woman in a black community; she doesn’t fit in, she doesn’t belong.  Peter struggles because he’s gay much more than because he’s Aboriginal.  Mattie, in the fourth episode, “Consequences” has been the victim of a bigamous father, but the scene of her betrayal is only incidentally Redfern and the fact that the other family is white seems of minor consequence to the psychology of the characters who struggle to deal with the father’s transgressions.

I’ll admit to being a little uncertain how I feel about this development.  In some ways, I am disappointed to see the particular give way to the universal, for the character of the suburb itself, the history that is implicit in the streets of Redfern, was a powerful element in the first season.  On the other hand, the new stories broaden the scope in some ways and show us the community in different lights, less anchored to a classic view of Redfern as a locus of oppression and more a collection of human beings with aspirations and burdens that they share with a larger cross-section of society.  In the end, I think I am happy with the direction the series has taken, if only because it shows that the creators are willing to take risks, to try to shed new lights on the community, and to refuse to play to the critical success alone that greeted the debut a year ago.  In short, the second season of Redfern Now demonstrates that the complexity, the creativity, and the humanity that powers the narrative engine are healthy, self-critical, and alive.  Taken together, the two seasons truly represent a landmark in Indigenous storytelling.

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Cookie

Cookie-PaddyJapaljarriStewartLast week I read with some surprise and no little sadness the obituary notice in the Sydney Morning Herald for Paddy Japaljarri Stewart.  He was known as “Cookie” from his days as a cook at the Papunya settlement, days that overlapped the creation of the Honey Ant Dreaming mural on the school building there, days that presaged his own involvement in painting up the school–the doors this time–at Yuendumu over a decade later.  Those twin events have always stood in my mind as the portals of the Western Desert Painting movement; I know there are other significant milestones scattered in and amongst them, but for a long time Papunya Tula and Warlukurlangku Artists represented in my mind the birth of the movement.  And while there are still a few of those giants in the earth still standing, I find it inexpressibly sad to lose one more witness to genesis.

I’ve met a fair number of artists in the last twenty years; Cookie was one of them, although the acquaintance came late.  But in different ways he has held a unique place in my personal history of exploring Aboriginal art, and perhaps that is why I am left pondering his legacy on this cold and rainy January morning.

Like many people, our education about Aboriginal art began with Papunya Tula, but in the early 90’s when we began collecting, the austerity of the traditional four-color palette was giving way to brighter acrylic dazzlers and among our first acquisitions was a brilliant, multi-hued Rain Dreaming by Long Jack Phillipus, another of those primordial painters from the Papunya settlement.  This was a time, too, when the artists of Utopia and especially Emily Kngwarreye and Gloria Petyarre were dominating the market.  The brilliance of color was an irresistible part of the appeal, and it wasn’t long before we fell under the spell of the Yuendumu painters.

And by the mid-90s, Paddy Stewart and Paddy Sims were the touchstones of men’s painting in that community.  My memory is that their works were scarce and expensive in those days, and it was with great joy that we finally located a resplendent work by the latter at Indigenart in Perth on our first trip to that city.  These were the days when Internet commerce in Aboriginal art was limited pretty much to email communications with major galleries in the capital cities and we came home delighted but determined somehow to find another work by Paddy Stewart.

Luckily, the art coordinator at Yuendumu in those days was also a pioneer in the arts of technology, Liam Campbell, and I believe that he was the first remote community manager with whom we were able to correspond electronically.  We wrote and explained our quest to him.  Within a few days he wrote back and suggested that we commission a work—a possibility that had never even crossed our minds.  We responded enthusiastically and in short order Liam told us he’d gone out for a walk with the old man and encouraged him to make a painting “in the old way” for us.   A few weeks later, an envelope arrived via air mail; this was still the days before digital cameras, and so Liam had to photograph the canvas, print the picture, and send it postally.

The painting was a Possum Dreaming (Janganpa Jukurrpa) and this was the story:

Jajirdi [native cat] came from the south of Wantangurru to Yakurdiyi where Janganpa were having a secret ceremony. The Jajirdi saw them but did not realize that the ceremony was on and walked in on it. Janganpa and Jajirdi began fighting as a result, at Yurripajirru. The men fought but the women were not close by as it was men’s business. The Janganpa forced the Jajirdi to be part of the initiation ceremony after they had finished fighting. The concentric circle represent the Yakurdiyi. The Dreaming belongs to Japaljarri/Jungurrayi men and Napaljarri/Nungurrayi women.

Cookie-AndreaNungurrayiMartinWe were delighted, all the more so because in the interim we had stumbled on the work of Andrea Nungurrayi Martin, who painted the same subject (right).  We quickly agreed to purchase Paddy’s work; Liam quickly suggested that if we liked, he would ask Andrea to paint her version of the story for us as well.  This was the first time that we had acquired two works that we explicitly understood to be representations of the same jukurrpa story, and I was fascinated to study the ways in the which the iconography both differed and overlapped in the two works.

A few years later we went back to Australia, in 2001, and for the first time managed to see the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award show in Darwin.  This was the year that the Japaljarri men won the work on paper with their reinterpretation of the Yuendumu School Door designs and I remember gazing at them with a mixture of awe and longing.

That trip around Australia in 2001 was a watershed in terms of our collecting.  We bought our first sculpture, our first bark painting, and while back in Perth, stumbled across the catalog for Beyond the Pale, the show that Brenda Croft had curated the previous year for the Adelaide Biennale; that was our introduction to urban Aboriginal art.  We never lost interest in the desert acrylics, but we had vast new territories to explore.

In 2007 I was able to take part in a tour of remote communities sponsored by Austrade, and I was overwhelmed at the possibility of visiting so many places I’d only heard of and meeting many more artists.  We arrived in Yuendumu about midway through the trip, and after we had all piled into the troopie for the short ride from the airstrip to the art centre, Cecelia Alfonso informed us the Paddy Stewart was gravely ill and had gone to Alice Springs for medical attention.  We spend the afternoon on the verandah of the art centre with Paddy Sims, who was voluble in explaining the Star Dreaming he was painting at the time, but grew subdued at the mention of his brother’s absence.

The following day we were in Alice Springs and went to visit Ngurratjuta Iltja Ntjara.  Not long after our arrival, John Oster pulled me aside and asked if I recognized the old man seated in the middle of the room.  You can imagine my surprise when he told me that it was Paddy Stewart.  Despite having spent the previous day hanging out with Paddy Sims (and earlier that morning at Kintore with George Tjungurrayi, Charlie Tjapangati, and Makinti Napanangka), I was suddenly overcome with shyness.  I sat down on the floor near him, and quickly fell into conversation with Pansy Napangardi (it was quite a couple of days!) who was excited to have so many Americans visiting, Americans who might be talked into taking her back to the States with us.  Paddy kept his head down, painting the designs of a Budgerigar Dreaming slowly and precisely.  Eventually he looked up, and I had my iPod ready, displaying a photograph of the Janganpa Jukurrpa he’d painted for us nearly a decade earlier.  He looked at it closely but briefly, and returning to his brushwork said simply, “Old one, that.”

I came away from those two days feeling like I’d dived deep into the well of Aboriginal art history, having met and spoken to some of the heroic figures of the past thirty years, feeling, in some ways, as though I’d met the ancestors themselves.  For of course, I had.  And now another one of them has grown tired and returned to the country he came out of.  The songs endure.

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The Bruise Beneath the Skin

One of the most popular paintings in the Crossing Cultures exhibition, judging by the comments I heard and the number of people standing with their phones and cameras pointed at it, was Samantha Hobson’s beautiful canvas, Wave Break at Night (2003).  At both the Hood Museum and the Toledo Museum, the painting hung in proximity to Rosella Namok’s Blue Water Hole (2003), and I’d like to take some time today to talk about the two of them, and to take a plunge into what may be deeper meanings that stand to unsettle the immediate appeal of these works.

The modern community of Lockhart River is comprised of a diverse collection of approximately 850 people from the Wuthathi, Kuuku Ya’u, Uutaalnganu, Umpila, and Kaanju clans who were brought together  at Orchid Point in the 1920s through the efforts of the Anglican Church Mission.  Dispersed and told to go bush during the Second World War, these people were once more assembled in the 1950s and ultimately relocated at the present location near Quintel Beach.  As with many other government and mission sponsored settlements, friction developed among the various clans living on country traditionally belonging to others.  Removal from the coastal areas and islands caused more unhappiness.  Sally Butler describes recent history in her publication Our Way: contemporary Aboriginal art from Lockhart River (University of Queensland Press, 2007).

The township of Lockhart River is located 2 kilometres inland from Quintel Beach, one of the many white sandy beaches that run along the coast of Lloyd Bay.  Traditional homelands of Sandbeach country incorporate the islands and sea that run parallel to these shores, spreading inland to the easterly slopes of the coastal ranges.  Most of the population of approximately 850 live in the township of Lockhart River, although many kinship groups have camps or outstations located on their traditional lands….  These outstations and camps are extremely important to the community today.  The Lockhart River Community Plan 2004-2008 lists the people’s first priority as ‘getting back to country’, an initiative involving the development of facilities on these outstations and improving access to them by road and sea.  A number of native title claims and other tenure resolution processes relating to these traditional homelands are currently in place.

The priority of ‘getting back to country’ inspires much of the contemporary art, and expressions of country are often means of establishing or affirming traditional connections to one’s homelands (Butler, p. 17).

Elsewhere in this chapter of Our Way, Butler reproduces a conversation she had with a number of the Lockhart River artists in which they talk about “getting back to country” and reconnecting with the “old way.”  The beaches are a favored site in these stories, as the younger generation strolls the shoreline or camps at night around a fire to listen to the older people tell  stories handed down from the days before the missionaries arrived, when language was still strong and the sense of place uncorrupted.

This, then, is part of the background to these two paintings by members of the original Lockhart River Art Gang that hung in Crossing Cultures and are now part of the permanent collection of the Hood Museum of Art.

bruise-namok-2003

The proximate subject of Rosella Namok’s work is a waterhole called Blue Water, a place to which she frequently returns in her paintings.  Blue Water Hole is wonderfully multivalent in its imagery.  Although centered on the image of the water hole itself, the painting suggests in its background a blueness that encompasses sky, sea, and even the beach itself in its varied hues and textures.  The long vertical lines that transect the surface of the painting evoke rain falling on the beach (as in Soft Morning Rain, 2004, see Butler, p. 38) and the mangroves that line the shore (see Claudie Mangroves, 2004,  Butler, p. 96).  But most of all they evoke those soft times upon the beach, the whispered conversations with aunties as they speak of the old days, a respite and relief from modern times, a moment of peace in country with ancient associations.  We could be looking back through time almost as much as upon a moment in time.

bruise-hobson

Samantha Hobson’s Wave Break at Night is quite another matter altogether, although it partakes in some degree of that sense of escape to the silence of the beach that pervades Namok’s painting.  In the wall text that accompanied the display of this work at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum in November of 2003, Hobson stated “This painting is about the waves coming in and breaking on the beach…you can see it on a full moon…to make those white bubbles. Looks really good.”  In a conversation we had during the weekend they spent at the exhibition in Charlottesville that year, Hobson spoke about how she relished the chance to get away to the beach at night, away from the noise of the township proper and to spend quiet time in the hut she had built on the shore.

Based on the reactions of audiences during the exhibition of the painting in Crossing Cultures this past year, the pleasure Hobson expresses comes through clearly.  The beauty of the foamy waves breaking on the beach, the hint of sunrise suggested by the crimson illumination of sky and sea and beach  immediately transport viewers into a vision of a kind of tropical paradise (notice how, as in Namok’s painting, all three elements are presented as a continuum, perhaps even as a single phenomenon).  Even the dense, shiny, clotted surface of the paint has the effect of suggesting a luxuriant humidity that makes the illusion all the more enticing.

But there is another story lurking in this painting, and it is not as pretty as the surface suggests.  Hobson has been a great chronicler of the stress and violence that exists in the township of Lockhart River, starting with a series known collectively as Stressed Out.  The eponymous canvas (1999, Butler, p. 99) from this group of works features a hangman’s noose.  The composition of what Butler calls the “pinnacle” of this series, the NGV’s Bust ‘Im Up (2000, Butler, p. 100) deploys paired splashes of black that invert the white wave crests of Wave Break at Night.  It shows the ferocity of violence much the way that the raging bush fires of the paintings Hobson created at around the same time. It also reflects a violence in the natural world that parallels the drunken Friday night domestic violence of Bust ‘Im Up.  Smass ‘Im, from 2001 (Butler, p.120) uses the same iconic device, a flare of black splattered across the canvas that evokes a blood spill.

“Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, “grace” metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.”  So said the American poet Robert Frost in a speech delivered at Amherst College in 1931.  I’ve always felt that his statement applied to the arts generally.  Indeed, if you accept a broad definition of “poetry” based in its Greek root ποιεῖν, “to make,” it is a small step to Plutarch’s assertion that “painting is silent poetry.”

Hobson may well be saying one thing and meaning another in Wave Break at Night.  The peace of the beach, the solace of the sound of waves breaking is surely present.  But behind the beach, back in town, lies the violence that the sea represents an escape from.  Seen in this light, the painting takes on the colors of bruising, the harsh blue-red of broken blood vessels.

We are accustomed to the thought that the surface of Aboriginal paintings reveals only part of the story contained in them.  In work stemming from the traditional practices of the desert or from the clan patterns of Yolngu, we know that another, deeper meaning lies concealed.  I would say that this manner of painting reflects a habit of thinking as well as an aesthetic tradition.  And I submit that such a habit of thinking informs the paintings of the Lockhart River Art Gang, even though we tend to think of them as springing from a society and an artistic tradition whose links to the past are not obvious. To quote Stephen Gilchrist again, there are registers of knowledge in Aboriginal painting, and those registers sing to us across the beaches of the Lockhart River settlement.

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Yolngu Songmen: Rorruwuy Manikay

Last week I shared a couple of clips of Yolngu rock ‘n’ roll from the Seven Star Band, a bunch of rowdy young rockers (and I say that with love in my heart).

This week, I want to turn to a production from the Mulka Project, a hauntingly beautiful, both visually and aurally, recording of Rorruwuy manikay.

Rorruwuy lies just west of the mouth of the Burungbirinung River on Arnhem Bay.  The song men here are Manydjarri and Ngongu Ganambarr, and the yidaki is played by Marrawulwul Garmu.

A CD recording of these songs is available from the Mulka Project.

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Yolngu Songmen: Seven Star Band

Each year at Christmastime I try to kick back a little and instead of putting together an essay, I try to offer a little lighter entertainment: photographs, or short reading lists, or something similar.  This year, it’s time for some music videos, and I’ll kick off a pair of posts today with a couple of clips from Yirrkala’s Seven Star Band.

The first is a highly polished music video, and I’ve cribbed this text from its appearance on Vimeo:

“Baru” means crocodile in Yolngu Mata, the language spoken in the Seven Star band’s hometown of Yirrkala, in NE Arhemland, Australia.

Crocodiles are important to each of the band members, in more ways than one. Baru are strong symbols representing the central way in which each Yolngu clan is connected together in an age-old system. The image-rich lyrics of this song reflect this connection, with words talking about the responsibilities of the band’s generation.

One of the central messages in the song is how the band’s generation are next in line to follow in the old people’s footsteps, and keep the culture alive and strong.

In August last year, the Seven Star Band won the School Band Award in the Indigenous Music Awards. 105.7 ABC Darwin supported the School Band Award prize, and the ABC worked with the band to produce a clip of their winning song, ‘Baru’.

ABC Open producer Will Tinapple and NT State Director Mark Bowling travelled to Yirrkala in November for a three-day video-making workshop.

Despite two days of torrential downpours, the team worked hard to pull off some great shots and locations.
It was a big few days planning and shooting for the musicians who put in extra hours to finish year-end schoolwork. They braved the unseasonal downpours, layered on traditional white clay paint, Gappan, and got out on location to shoot multiple takes at different spots in the community.

As well as its cultural significance, Yirrkala has massive musical heritage producing the likes of Yothu Yindi and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu.

A couple of the members of the Seven Star Band have family members who played in and toured with Yothu Yindi.

Seven Star Band guitarist said, “This video gives me a chance to be a role model and share culture to other members of my generation.”

The second clip is rougher in its sound production values, as it was recorded live at a Battle of the Bands, but it gives a good sense of what the boys sound like live, which is kind of a cross between Yothu Yindi and Iwantja.  Good stuff.

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