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.brokenhill.nsw.gov.au 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.