An exquisite book of desert drawings highlights the hopes and fears of remote Aboriginal Australia, writes
IT was mid-May of 1953 when the young anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt arrived by supply truck at the dusty, unprepossessing settlement of Hooker Creek in the Northern Territory’s remote Tanami Desert. He was intent on the great task before him: a detailed ethnography of the Warlpiri desert people gathered there, a record of their beliefs, their rituals and their closely held high culture.
Meggitt employed all the standard investigative techniques of mid-century anthropology, but he also persuaded his Warlpiri informants to make a set of crayon drawings for him — drawings that would show how they saw the world. These were sketches, in vivid colours: landscapes, country, totemic animals, scenes from the Hooker Creek settlement itself. Many are images of stark simplicity; some are naiveseeming, some are elaborately conceived and worked. They form a striking record.
Meggitt, who was careful to destroy all his private field notes and research materials before his death a decade ago, deposited this set of drawings with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in 1965, and there they stayed, little known or looked at, until a collection review a decade ago, when they were found in a filing cabinet, their colours still fresh and bright.
A pair of valuers upgraded them from “research materials” to “art”. Soon they caught they eye of a gifted visual anthropologist at the institute, Melinda Hinkson, who made them her special focus. She took copies out to the desert capital of the Warlpiri, Yuendumu, and began excavating their meanings and their past.
The resultant book, Remembering the Future: Warlpiri Life through the Prism of Drawing, which accompanies a capsule exhibition at the
The Malakas House Remembering the Future: Warlpiri Life through the Prism of Drawing By Melinda Hinkson Aboriginal Studies Press, 178pp, $49.95 National Museum of Australia in Canberra, is itself a frontier work of artistry, shot through with ambiguities, complexities and hanging, elusive questions. What were the drawings for their makers, corralled in a new bush settlement more than half a century ago? What are they for readers and viewers who see them today, after decades of exposure to a commercial desert art movement that has reshaped Australia’s visual imagination?
Hinkson, like many of her generation of researchers, is almost as much concerned with the beliefs and attitudes of her predecessors in the field as with her indigenous subjects. She has already walked in the footsteps of the patron saint of Australian anthropology, Bill Stanner, and retraced his Port Keats rock art studies. Now she turns to Meggitt, field pioneer in her own doctoral research area, the Warlpiri triangle, bounded by the three communities of Yuendumu, Lajamanu and Willowra.
Meggitt was both reticent and cautious in his few remarks about the 150-odd drawings he had collected: several of them left him “intrigued, bemused, unsure of subject matter or significance”. Can the experts of our time do better, in full consultation with today’s Warlpiri informants, descendants of the men who made the sketches and brought them to Meggitt in his quarters at Hooker Creek?
The Warlpiri cosmos is one of the most persistently explored thought-realms in all the Aboriginal desert. Warlpiri have exercised a strong pull on scholars over recent decades, in part because of their robust culture and penchant for territorial expansion, in part because many Warlpiri stockmen gained a mastery of English that made them attractive research subjects.
Meggitt was followed to the Tanami by the influential University of Chicago ethnographer Nancy Munn and by several philologists and art historians. Even today, Yuendumu serves as a mecca for researchers investigating everything from “the feminisation of the dreaming” to the sleeping arrangements of Warlpiri family groups in their dispersed camps and housing plots. Paintings made at the Warlukurlangu art centre are on view in every national collection in Australia; a full biography of the pioneer desert artist Darby Ross has been written; and two of the most important studies of desert culture produced in recent years have been devoted to the elaborately frescoed “Yuendumu doors”, ex- ecuted in 1983 for the community’s schoolblock by a group of senior Warlpiri men.
Yuendumu itself is contested terrain: mainstream program staff are present in large numbers, delivering the various intervention schemes intended to steer the community down productive lines. There is local politics as well, often stormy. Hinkson returned to the community to begin her investigations of the drawings in 2011, at the height of a fierce feud between two of the Warlpiri realm’s largest extended families. This barbed context forms part of the background to Remembering the Future, a work that stands as a kind of demonstration text, displaying both the sophistications and the besetting anxieties of anthropology on the modern Australian frontier.
Hinkson is already recognised as one of the more prominent members of a new tendency in her chosen field: a school of sorts, loosely based around the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the Australian National University. Its adepts aim to build close emotional relationships with their indigenous subjects. Their works are light years distant from the cold, objective-seeming records compiled by men of Meggitt’s stamp.
Great claims are being made for Hinkson’s probe back into the Warlpiri past — and those claims are printed in her book, before its title page. University of Western Australia professor Jane Lydon, herself a keen reader of archival images, considers the book “breaks new ground in exploring Aboriginal visual culture”. For Luke Taylor, another well-known indigenous art researcher, it “marks a generational change and a new approach to scholarship”.
These advance comments are rather more than the standard academic backslapping: they
The superintendent’s house at Hooker Creek, above, and Larry Jungarrayi’s interpretation of