An ex­quis­ite book of desert draw­ings high­lights the hopes and fears of re­mote Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralia, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS -

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


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