DESERT STORM

The cross-cul­tural arts project that has driven a wedge through indige­nous Aus­tralia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Review -

IT seemed like a dream arts project for the re­mote western desert’s Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties — a re­search and ex­hi­bi­tion se­ries spon­sored by great ed­u­ca­tional and cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, eth­i­cally well-founded, man­aged by a team of aca­demic and cu­ra­to­rial ex­perts. It would be the first en­ter­prise to map the song­lines of indige­nous Aus­tralia with the tools of mod­ern sci­ence, and do so with Abo­rig­i­nal par­tic­i­pa­tion, in a cross-cul­tural spirit, co-op­er­a­tively, pre­serv­ing knowl­edge, ad­vanc­ing un­der­stand­ing. It would show the world the depth of desert life-ways and his­tory. Even the ti­tle cho­sen for the project ex­pressed the sharp ex­cite­ment its pro­po­nents felt: Alive with the Dream­ing!

This ex­cite­ment was shared by the Aus­tralian Re­search Coun­cil, which gave the ven­ture fund­ing of more than $800,000 in its 2011 round of grants. Fit­tingly enough, the project’s first fo­cus was the most fa­mous of all the song­lines, the Seven Sis­ters story, which winds its way across the dunes and me­sas of the desert range­lands. It is a tale of pur­suit and sub­terfuge: a wily man gives end­less chase, the sis­ters flee. For years it has been por­trayed by out­siders as a women’s story. One past at­tempt by an­thro­pol­o­gists to re­search its sites was a women-only af­fair. The saga has al­ready in­spired many ma­jes­tic art­works by painters in the best-known desert com­mu­ni­ties, so it was a nat­u­ral theme for a high-pro­file ex­hi­bi­tion. But there was scope in the new project to ex­plore the mean­ing of the song­lines even fur­ther. Were they not, af­ter all, a kind of con­ti­nent-wide ge­o­graphic im­print­ing? Those mazy tracks could be por­trayed at last in their true light — as em­blems of iden­tity, “rich in spir­i­tual, eco­log­i­cal and eco­nomic knowl­edge”, paths of “iconic sig­nif­i­cance in the na­tional cul­tural her­itage of indige­nous and non-indige­nous Aus­tralia”.

Fine words for a be­gin­ning, but three years on the song­lines dream has turned into a nightmare for the Abo­rig­i­nal desert people caught up in its coils: the mu­se­ums ad­vanc­ing the project grasp lit­tle of the depths of the in­land’s re­li­gious sys­tem; the con­sul­ta­tions with song-cy­cle cus­to­di­ans to date have been bizarre and ill-man­aged; there are elab­o­rate paper pro­to­cols and safe­guards but, in prac­tice, no is a word Abo­rig­i­nal art re­searchers just don’t un­der­stand.

The up­shot is that on the eve of the first Song­lines ex­hi­bi­tion, open­ing this weekend at the South Aus­tralian Mu­seum in Ade­laide, the Pit­jan­t­jat­jara desert people of the state’s north are in ex­treme ten­sion, di­vided, full of an­guish. The ex­hi­bi­tion has its co­terie of Abo­rig­i­nal back­ers and its fierce op­po­nents. It is fac­tion against fac­tion, fam­ily against fam­ily. No col­li­sion in re­cent decades be­tween the grand de­signs of the main­stream world and an Abo­rig­i­nal re­sis­tance cam­paign quite ri­vals this one for its long-term im­pact: its con­tro­ver­sies dom­i­nate the com­mu­nity night-time fires. Se­nior men and women in the heart­land talk of lit­tle else.

What be­gan as a dewy re­search scheme to ex­alt desert art and knowl­edge is in­creas­ingly be­ing seen in the bush as a mor­tal threat to tra­di­tional law and cul­ture.

This cri­sis on the fron­tier built step by step; it is now a per­fect storm. Its ori­gins lie in the chang­ing na­ture of the indige­nous art scene. Af­ter the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis hit in 2008, the boom­ing, over­sup­plied desert art mar­ket crashed. The painters in re­mote art cen­tres needed sales. State mu­se­ums and gal­leries stepped in, bought heav­ily and be­gan de­vis­ing grand projects: none more elab­o­rate than the Can­ning Stock Route field trip that pro­duced 100 desert paint­ings and a glitzy ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Aus­tralia in Can­berra.

Re­search funds and co-oper­a­tion be­tween art gal­leries and academe were the way of the fu­ture and the key fig­ure­head for joint projects was the doyen of Abo­rig­i­nal art schol­ars, Howard Mor­phy of the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity. Mor­phy was the big name on the Song­lines grant. With him from the CSR project came a desert vet­eran, Diana James, who had worked for 30 years in Pit­jan­t­jat­jara coun­try, run­ning an art cen­tre and a bush tourism camp. James knew and lodged with Margo Neale, the flam­boy­ant indige­nous ex­pert at the Na­tional Mu­seum. She also had close ties with the so­cial ac­tivists of the NPY Women’s Coun­cil — the name ab­bre­vi­ates the far desert re­gion’s lan­guage groups, Ngaany­at­jarra Pit­jan­t­jat­jara Yankun­yt­jat­jara. And so a grand coali­tion took shape: the mu­seum, the univer­sity, the so­cial ser­vices provider.

The Song­lines team had their sub­ject, their fund­ing, their key part­ners. All they needed was Abo­rig­i­nal back­ers and James had taken care of that. In 1995, when work­ing at Cave Hill out­sta­tion, she had been asked by the fam­i­lies there to record their songs and sto­ries. James was one of a small group of white friends who went out into the bush in the 1970s and early 80s, high ideals in mind, and made the desert their home. They were a rad­i­cal gen­er­a­tion, work­ers for health, cam­paign­ers for land rights: self­less people but for the pride they felt in their Abo­rig­i­nal ties.

James now had the chance to ful­fil her longheld wish to present and strengthen desert cul­ture. She made field trips to the desert coun­try she knew. Other Song­lines teams fanned out across the in­land, led by well-paid lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nal guides: the vi­sion of a con­ti­nent-span­ning dream­ing track was so­lid­i­fy­ing. The re­searchers went to the Martu re­gion near New­man, up as far as Roe­bourne, out into the West Aus­tralian lands, seek­ing Seven Sis­ters sto­ries and sup­port for their scheme as they went: seek­ing, in fact, mem­bers for a guid­ing cu­ra­to­rium who would rub­ber-stamp their ven­ture.

This was where the ten­sions be­gan. A sharp clash of ideas about desert re­li­gion was loom­ing. The mem­bers of the Song­lines team had a com­mit­ment to knowl­edge-shar­ing be­tween black and white. They also claimed to have a man- date: “If we do not share our cul­ture,” James’s friend and fe­male co-worker Inawinytji Wil­liamson had ex­plained to her, “it will die.” But for most western desert men of promi­nence, the ex­act op­po­site is true. Many now feel shar­ing deep cul­ture kills it, show­ing sites de­val­ues them, what is hid­den is most valu­able.

Of course the aca­demics and cu­ra­tors un­der­stood se­crecy was at the heart of desert law, but few grasped quite how ob­ses­sive this fo­cus has be­come in re­cent years, as in­frac­tions have mul­ti­plied. Desert lead­ers are more hard­line to­day than a gen­er­a­tion ago be­cause more of their mys­ter­ies have been re­vealed. Some­times it’s white an­thro­pol­o­gists push­ing to see be­hind the veil; some­times the grave dis­clo­sures that oc­cur are in­ad­ver­tent. Take the case of the War­bur­ton collection, a set of se­cret paint­ings kept in a closed collection in Aus­tralia’s re­motest large desert com­mu­nity.

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