Res­i­dency: Lake Mungo, by Liz O’Reilly


ROAR­ING GUSTS OF WIND WHIPPED up lay­ers of salt and sand and clay and blew them across the lunettes known as the Great Wall of China. Such is the force of na­ture at Lake Mungo, just one of a se­ries of dry lakebeds in the Wil­lan­dra Lakes Re­gion World Her­itage Area of NSW. This south­west­erly blow­ing wind is how the lunettes were formed thou­sands of years ago, and how they are chang­ing still. It was a par­tic­u­larly fe­ro­cious wind in this March when I was at­tempt­ing to paint us­ing plas­tic cylin­ders filled with washes of colour and a 10-me­tre roll of wa­ter­colour paper laid out on the ground. As quickly as I could pour paint out, the wind lifted it up, seem­ingly sus­pend­ing it mid-air be­fore hurtling liq­uid colour and sand across the paper’s rough sur­face. It felt like some­one or some­thing else was do­ing the paint­ing, not me. I tried to paint as well as stop the paper from tear­ing and flut­ter­ing away, yet the re­sult­ing flow of marks seemed big­ger than my reach and not of my hands. Two years ear­lier in a beach­side café, Natalie O’Con­nor and I al­most felt Lake Mungo call­ing us. In the pres­ence of a vast sparkling ocean, we dreamt of Mungo’s an­cient arid land­scape, its vast lakes dry for over 15,000 years. Drawn to the in­dis­putable ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies of life, most no­tably 42,000-year-old Mungo Lady and Mungo Man, a co­hort of six like-minded women com­mit­ted to an artists’ res­i­dency. We con­sulted the Mungo com­mu­nity at ev­ery step of our project, and con­tinue to do so. In Fe­bru­ary 2016, we asked the el­ders of the Three Tra­di­tional Tribal Groups, (3TTGs) the Paakan­tji, Mut­thi Mut­thi and

Ngyi­ampaa, per­mis­sion for a one-month res­i­dency in Au­gust 2016. They granted this will­ingly, but by ne­ces­sity of life’s un­ex­pected storms and the ac­tual weather, the res­i­dency took place in two parts, in Au­gust 2016 and March 2017.

No-one could have pre­dicted what fol­lowed. Of the six of us, one would never make it to Mungo, pass­ing away in Novem­ber 2016 just six months af­ter find­ing out she had lung can­cer; an­other’s hus­band would be di­ag­nosed with lym­phoma, and I would not make it to Mungo for the first res­i­dency in Au­gust ei­ther – my part­ner would also die of can­cer.

If there is ever any­where more en­com­pass­ing to con­tem­plate the strength and fragility of hu­man ex­is­tence, and the rev­e­la­tory cy­cles of death, life and sur­vival, Mungo is it. In the shock­ing fi­nal­ity of these ex­pe­ri­ences, we were, and still are, em­braced by Mungo, the tra­di­tional own­ers and their an­ces­tors.

The chal­lenge and beauty of an artists’ res­i­dency is in the leav­ing of home, and at Mungo you also lose the abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate with home. The de­ci­sion as women to com­mit to the process with crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tions left thou­sands of kilo­me­tres be­hind, added an in­ten­sity to our re­sponse as artists in the an­cient Mungo land­scape. With so much at stake, we had to do it justice.

A visit to Mungo 10 years ago sparked in­ves­ti­ga­tions into sen­sory shifts within the land­scape and their wider im­pli­ca­tions, and for the first time words ap­peared in my work. For Natalie, her ex­plo­rations into the per­ma­nence and fragility of colour had been lead­ing her away from the coast, and into the fluc­tu­at­ing land­scapes of the in­te­rior.

UK artist Bar­bara Ni­cholls’ prac­tice was des­tined to be ex­plored at Lake Mungo, her pro­cesses and se­quences work­ing with wa­ter­colours on a large scale al­ready con­nect­ing to ge­o­log­i­cal changes and sed­i­men­tary shifts of flood and ero­sion. Mungo pro­vided Sam New­stead with the per­fect place to ex­plore com­plex­i­ties of empti­ness, in con­trast to her usual prac­tice work­ing with lush clut­tered land­scapes. Shar­ron Ohlsen is a Wan­gaay­puwan/ Ngyi­ampaa tra­di­tional owner and el­der who is spir­i­tu­ally and cul­tur­ally con­nected to the Wil­lan­dra Lakes. A pro­lific artist in many dis­ci­plines, Shar­ron led a resur­gence of cre­ative iden­tity through cul­ture in her home town of Co­bar in western NSW, but had never been to Lake Mungo, part of her coun­try. “I want to ex­pe­ri­ence the beauty of such a sig­nif­i­cant place by shar­ing it with oth­ers,” she said at the time.

Sam ar­rived with Natalie, Bar­bara and Shar­ron at Lake Mungo in early Au­gust 2016. The land­scape was green with yel­low wild­flow­ers scat­tered through salt­bush on ei­ther side of the dunes – not at all what had been ex­pected. To­gether they took a tour of the lunettes with Tanya Charles, Mut­thi Mut­thi woman and Dis­cov­ery Ranger. Bar­bara and Sam took long walks through the lakebed, while Natalie and Shar­ron ven­tured slowly out onto the dunes to­gether.

Within their mo­ments of con­tem­pla­tion, Sam bal­anced pre­car­i­ously on the top of a wa­ter tank tower for hours; Natalie was mes­merised by char­coal, bone, shell and stone; Shar­ron was paint­ing gum leaves and cease­lessly pho­tograph­ing her­self in the land­scape; Bar­bara was bury­ing wa­ter­colour paint­ings in the sand.

The ex­pe­ri­ence en­gulfed change in them and their work. Sam says she “came to un­der­stand that cre­at­ing within a land­scape gives rise to work that is sat­u­rated with the essence of that place. View­ing the work later, the vis­ual holds the en­tire sen­sory mem­ory of that time spent.” Sharon says her “art­works have changed im­mensely. I think it was from re­ally tak­ing things in, looking at the dif­fer­ent colours of the land­scape up there. Also from watch­ing Natalie work. Now I’m not fright­ened to work with lay­ers.”

Bar­bara says “I stopped work­ing from the land­scape and in­stead worked more lit­er­ally within the land­scape. I saw the con­trast be­tween the green of the dried lakebed and the pale yel­low of the sand dunes.”

Com­mon ground oc­curred, from maps to tran­scribe the vis­ual lan­guage of the lakes, to the use of wa­ter­colours and char­coal. Mi­cro and macro emerged: looking down at the small­est ob­ject, a fish ear bone, and out at the largest ex­panse, the panorama of the lunettes.

Tak­ing ad­van­tage of a daily 20-minute win­dow of mo­bile cov­er­age when the satel­lite passed over­head, Shar­ron sent pho­tos across the ether, back to me in Syd­ney. As I pored over them, the green land­scape puz­zled me. And then the an­swer came – rain. In a dra­matic one-hour pack up, heavy black clouds would send Natalie, Bar­bara, Shar­ron and Sam home, in a des­per­ate drive along the Bal­ranald Road, in a race against the rain.

Four months af­ter my part­ner died, I was in Mungo wrestling with the wa­ter­colours in the wind, close to the site where Mungo Lady and Mungo Man were found, and the po­etic res­o­nance of this act af­fected me pro­foundly. As Tanya says, “That’s the way I think about it; a lot of peo­ple, when they come away from Mungo they feel spir­i­tu­ally con­nected. It hap­pens to me ev­ery time I go out there. It’s like a deeper ex­pe­ri­ence.”

When the el­ders were asked how they felt about artists com­ing to Lake Mungo, ev­ery Paak­in­tji, Ngyi­ampaa or Mut­thi Mut­thi el­der I spoke to an­swered that when re­spect is given, ev­ery­one is wel­come. War­ren John­son, Barkindji man, says, “We love it when peo­ple come here as long as they show re­spect. We want peo­ple to know about it.”

“The an­ces­tors are al­ways watch­ing us, walk­ing with us and guid­ing us. They touch ev­ery­one and we are looking af­ter coun­try in the same way the old peo­ple used to,” says Mary Pap­pin, Mut­thi Mut­thi el­der.

On 17 Novem­ber this year, with deep emo­tion and great cer­e­mony, Paak­in­tji, Mut­thi Mut­thi and Ngiyam­paa el­ders will ac­com­pany Mungo Man as he trav­els from Canberra and re­turns back to his an­ces­tral home, Mungo.

The artists would like to thank all the el­ders and com­mu­ni­ties of Mungo, and Na­tional Parks and Wildlife Ser­vice, and World Her­itage Area staff.


Lakebed 24 Novem­ber 2017 – 28 Jan­uary 2018 Bro­ken Hill Re­gional Gallery, www.bro­ken­ Fea­tur­ing art­works by Liz O’Reilly, Natalie O’Con­nor, Bar­bara Ni­cholls, Sam New­stead, Shar­ron Ohlsen

When they were asked how they felt about artists com­ing to Lake Mungo, ev­ery el­der I spoke to an­swered that when re­spect is given, ev­ery­one is wel­come. War­ren John­son, Barkindji man, says, “We love it when peo­ple come here as long as they show re­spect .”

Clock­wise from top left: Af­ter Mungo 3, 2017, wa­ter­colour on Saunders Water­ford 300 gsm HP, 45 cm di­am­e­ter, photo by Bar­bara Ni­cholls; Bar­bara Ni­cholls work­ing in situ, Lake Mungo, 2016, photo by Sam New­stead; Dunes with wild­flow­ers, photo by Natalie O’Con­nor; Liz O’Reilly, re­turn­ing (de­tail), 2016, wa­ter­colour and wool on paper 113 x 915cm; Liz O’Reilly, re­turn­ing (de­tail), 2016, wa­ter­colour and wool on paper 113 x 915cm; Lakebed, Mungo, 2017, photo by Liz O’Reilly; Sam New­stead, Shad­ow­dune (de­tail), 2016, wa­ter­colour on paper, photo by Sam New­stead.

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