Fly­ing vis­its

An art tour of Arn­hem Land be­comes a voy­age of learn­ing and un­der­stand­ing, writes Caro­line Baum

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

BANK­ING over the red earth tracks through the scrub of Arn­hem Land on the fringes of a de­serted coast­line, our plane comes in to land be­yond the man­groves. A sign reads: Wel­come to Cape Don In­ter­na­tional Air­port. But there’s no ter­mi­nal and the run­way is only long enough for our twin-en­gine light air­craft.

The wel­come for our party of seven weary trav­ellers, tour guide and pilot is im­pres­sive. Staff from Cape Don Fish­ing Lodge come out in force to meet us armed with cold drinks, cool­ing face tow­els and in­sect re­pel­lent to com­bat ag­gres­sive sand­flies.

It’s day three of a unique out­back art tour; it’s about as far re­moved from any con­ven­tional no­tion of cul­tural tourism as it gets. Five days, 10 arts cen­tres, cross­ing the Ti­mor and Ara­fura seas and the Gulf of Car­pen­taria. When you’re in a light plane, you hes­i­tate to call it a crash course, but it’s cer­tainly an in­ten­sive in­duc­tion.

Thir­teen years ago, He­len Read con­ceived Didgeri Air Art Tours as a way of in­tro­duc­ing trav­ellers to in­dige­nous art through di­rect con­tact with com­mu­ni­ties and their artists. To­day she or­gan­ises five trips a year, each for a max­i­mum of nine peo­ple, to the Kim­ber­ley, the cen­tral and west­ern deserts, Arn­hem Land and the Tiwi Is­lands.

The price tag is steep, at $7850 for five days, start­ing from Alice Springs or Dar­win, but at­tracts a loyal clien­tele who of­ten book a sec­ond trip (NSW Gov­er­nor Marie Bashir has been on sev­eral Didgeri jour­neys).

In­evitably, Didgeri’s clien­tele in­cludes private col­lec­tors keen to buy work at the source. Five of my com­pan­ions are re­peat cus­tomers ex­pand­ing their col­lec­tions; they dis­play a well-in­formed aware­ness of artists’ styles and progress through ex­hi­bi­tion and awards. But there is ab­so­lutely no pres­sure to buy. Read is more than happy if her clients just look and learn.

A pe­tite, Bri­tish-born nurse, Read worked in Africa and gained a pilot’s li­cence be­fore re­lo­cat­ing to Aus­tralia. She worked as a mid­wife with the Pin­tupi peo­ple, and she has the steely de­ter­mi­na­tion of those for­mi­da­ble 19th-cen­tury Bri­tish fe­male ex­plor­ers such as Mary Kings­ley, who fought off croc­o­diles in West Africa and fell into jun­gle traps pro­tected only by the thick­ness of a wool skirt and vo­lu­mi­nous pet­ti­coats.

Ef­fi­cient, prac­ti­cal and pas­sion­ate, Read never seems to wilt in the heat. (She is not fly­ing the plane her­self only be­cause she’s re­cov­er­ing from a bout of chronic fa­tigue, though you would never guess it from her un­flag­ging stamina.) She car­ries enough sup­plies to feed an army, pre­par­ing morn­ing and af­ter­noon tea laid out on a proper table­cloth, no mat­ter where we are. Her li­brary of books, ar­ti­cles and cat­a­logues makes fly­ing time use­ful for back­ground re­search.

When no one else’s mo­bile phone works, she man­ages to call ahead to our des­ti­na­tion, en­sur­ing that we are met ev­ery­where punc­tu­ally; she briefs us on ar­rival, re­mind­ing us of where we have just landed and which tribal group we will meet. She is greeted in the com­mu­ni­ties with warmth and re­spect, a trusted in­ter­me­di­ary be­tween two worlds of­ten es­tranged from each other, each be­wil­dered by the other’s lan­guage, cus­toms and laws.

The cul­tural dis­con­nect is never more ev­i­dent than now. Read treads es­pe­cially gen­tly, re­mind­ing us of pro­to­cols and sen­si­tiv­i­ties like a sea­soned diplo­mat: it is po­lite, she tells us, to shake hands limply and look away when meet­ing in­dige­nous peo­ple, who are not used to a firm hand­shake and find di­rect eye con­tact threat­en­ing. We prac­tise in the plane.

The mood in the com­mu­ni­ties is dark, anx­ious and fear­ful as they wait and see what ef­fect the latest gov­ern­ment pol­icy will have. On the is­land of Milingimbi, where we ar­rive at the same time as the first troops over­see­ing the fed­eral Gov­ern­ment’s in­ter­ven­tion in North­ern Ter­ri­tory in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, the arts cen­tre co-or­di­na­tor has taped a sign to the door telling them they are not wel­come.

Even with­out the present sit­u­a­tion, the Didgeri ex­pe­ri­ence is in­tense, con­fronting and at times emo­tion­ally over­whelm­ing. And while it is filled with un­ex­pected mo­ments of real con­nec­tion, it is def­i­nitely not for the faint-hearted or those who pre­fer their en­coun­ters to be co­cooned in a bub­ble of lux­ury.

Ac­com­mo­da­tion is un­pre­dictable: on Melville Is­land, we stay in small fi­bro rooms where the sheets badly need re­plac­ing and we share a shabby ablu­tions block. At Cape Don we have vast rooms and high comfy beds. Food is ba­sic, de­spite Read’s best ef­forts. The lo­gis­tics of cater­ing here are dif­fi­cult, given how lit­tle fresh pro­duce is avail­able, though we are treated to sweet moist mud crab and melt­ingly good just-caught fish in some places.

In oth­ers, we live on Tim Tams, sud­denly acutely aware of in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties suf­fer­ing from mal­nu­tri­tion. At Nhu­lum­buy on the Gove Penin­sula, a let­tuce costs $7.

Our itin­er­ary is tightly packed but is flexible enough to leave room for the un­ex­pected. On El­cho Is­land, af­ter a talk at the Gali­winku arts cen­tre, we are spon­ta­neously taken to a sa­cred place and shown the Tree of Knowl­edge by charis­matic artist Peter Datjin Bu­rar­rwanga. There he shares sto­ries with us that even the lo­cal arts co-or­di­na­tor has never heard and dances a few cer­e­mo­nial steps in the sand to il­lus­trate his point.

On the way, Bu­rar­rwanga stops at his brother’s grave and the rem­nants of a burial me­mo­rial, now a charred ed­i­fice of mourn­ing and farewell. Then, in a haunt­ing mo­ment of private rit­ual, we glimpse a cir­cle of men sit­ting play­ing clap­sticks as the pre­am­ble to an­other

funeral rite. Noth­ing has been staged for our ben­e­fit, and the naked, un­var­nished au­then­tic­ity of grief and loss pro­duces a mo­ment of shared emo­tion that makes ev­ery­one quiet. The en­counter be­comes a high wa­ter­mark of un­der­stand­ing, but it is not the only one.

An equally mov­ing, but very dif­fer­ent, con­nec­tion oc­curs at Yir­rkalla’s renowned arts cen­tre, Buku Lar­rng­gay Mulka. This is a highly sig­nif­i­cant pil­grim­age site for any­one in­ter­ested not only in Abo­rig­i­nal art but in­dige­nous cul­ture, rights and spir­i­tu­al­ity. It is home to the two fa­mous church door pan­els that the Yolnu peo­ple painted in 1962-63 to demon­strate their own­er­ship of coun­try. See­ing th­ese in­tri­cately dec­o­rated works, de­pict­ing tribal cre­ation myths worked on col­lab­o­ra­tively by clan el­ders us­ing tra­di­tional ochres, is in­cred­i­bly mov­ing: the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the im­agery and the com­plex­ity of its pur­pose as a doc­u­ment of be­lief and na­tive law gives it a po­tent elo­quence. It’s like see­ing Guer­nica and the Sis­tine Chapel all at once.

As if this were not enough, here too we meet ris­ing star Wukun Wanambi, fea­tured in this year’s Tel­stra art awards with a stun­ning paint­ing us­ing his totemic mul­loway fish mo­tif swirling in a feed­ing frenzy. It has a pul­sat­ing rhythm and ex­u­ber­ant en­ergy, like the man him­self, a for­mer diver who gen­er­ously rushes home to fetch us his latest work in progress, then sings us a song about Blue Mud Bay, a con­tested fish­ing place.

At Oen­pelli, in the heart of Stone Coun­try, we walk a rocky trail high above a flooded bil­l­abong where jabirus are feed­ing along­side croc­o­diles. We are with Wil­fred Nawirridj, a dis­tin­guished se­nior artist. Through body lan­guage and long si­lences, he forces us to switch to his rhythm from our own more rushed pace be­fore em­bark­ing on ex­pla­na­tions of the rock art we have come to see.

We are not spared squalor, ug­li­ness or de­spair. We see ap­palling hous­ing, where 20 peo­ple share a two-bed­room house and lit­ter fes­toons the sur­round­ing earth. We see peo­ple who look sick, have ter­ri­ble teeth or miss­ing limbs, don’t have enough to eat and whose eyes are empty of hope. We ask ques­tions to which the an­swers are com­plex, emo­tive, po­lit­i­cally di­vi­sive. Our ig­no­rance of so­cial pres­sures is ex­posed and some of us feel ashamed, while oth­ers look away, in­dif­fer­ent to what they see, or with a dif­fer­ent ex­pla­na­tion for its causes. Some of us cry.

Some­how, the group finds its col­lec­tive equi­lib­rium and avoids con­flict. Read watches qui­etly from the side­lines, with­out in­ter­fer­ing. Ex­pe­ri­ence has shown that her groups tend to fol­low a pat­tern. ‘‘ On the first day, peo­ple are ex­cited, on the sec­ond they ask ques­tions like: ‘ Why don’t peo­ple tidy up the lit­ter, why do they live like this, why don’t the kids go to school?’; the third day is usu­ally the an­gry day, when peo­ple won­der why things can’t be fixed. The fourth day there are of­ten tears. And on the fifth day, peo­ple are usu­ally quiet, do­ing lots of lis­ten­ing.’’

We do not fol­low this par­tic­u­lar pat­tern but have our highs and lows and mo­ments of ten­sion, dis­si­pated when a hot shower comes into view or a new is­land ap­pears be­neath us. From the air, the land­scape is an art­work in progress; when we fly over the croc-in­fested Ara­fura Sea, where sand­banks carve and curve through the azure wa­ters, we are si­lenced in won­der. Even the huge alu­minium mine on the Gove Penin­sula looks good from up here.

On Bathurst Is­land, the up­beat en­ergy of arts cen­tre co-or­di­na­tor Tim Hill at Tiwi De­sign is in­fec­tious. His en­thu­si­as­tic pride when in­tro­duc­ing us to artists print­ing on fab­ric at the long silk-screen ta­bles or paint­ing on can­vas makes him a nat­u­ral am­bas­sador for a tal­ented group. Sim­i­larly, the stylish Apolline Kohen, a French art cu­ra­tor with many years ex­pe­ri­ence at Man­ingrida, runs the cen­tre and the mar­vel­lous ad­join­ing Djomi mu­seum with dy­namic ef­fi­ciency, dis­play­ing a stun­ning se­lec­tion of work in many me­dia. There are fu­ner­ary poles, mimi spirit carv­ings, works on bark and pa­per, fish­traps and a se­lec­tion of painted fi­bre wild dogs and pigs and dis­turbingly life­like croc­o­diles.

At Ramingin­ing’s Bula’bula arts cen­tre, we meet some of the cast of TenCa­noes , many of whom are lo­cal artists, and at­tempt to sort through the tan­gle of wo­ven and coiled bas­kets and dilly bags dyed with nat­u­ral ochres and plant pig­ments. At Nguiu, on Bathurst’s south­ern tip, we visit Ngaruwana­jirri, a small cen­tre run by John and Joy Naden for artists with dis­abil­i­ties. Artists, rang­ing from the very young to the el­derly, work on linocuts and paint­ing, lis­ten­ing to John Den­ver (their favourite). The sight of an ap­proach­ing tour bus prompts shouts of ‘‘ Tourists! Tourists!’’, which some­how morph into ‘‘ Ter­ror­ists! Ter­ror­ists!’’ amid shy gig­gling.

The spirit of this place is up­lift­ing, even though the com­mu­nity has prob­lems: a new swim­ming pool nearby is full but un­used be­cause it has been poorly con­structed and can­not be main­tained.

Read fer­ries us from place to place, some­how man­ag­ing to keep her white linen shirts look­ing crisp and clean while we all get pro­gres­sively grub­bier, cov­ered in red earth. When our en­ergy flags, she hands out an­other bot­tle of cold wa­ter. There is the oc­ca­sional dis­ap­prov­ing frown when we ask a ques­tion that be­trays ig­no­rance or lack of sen­si­tiv­ity. Dis­creet when it comes to her own artis­tic taste, her po­lit­i­cal opin­ions of what she calls ‘‘ the sec­ond in­va­sion’’ are very clear, but we are never lec­tured.

Later, back home, some clients call Read and ask how they can help, do­nat­ing funds or clothes or forg­ing di­rect links with com­mu­ni­ties where they have made a per­sonal con­tact. A cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tive in our group has pre­vi­ously given the Milingimbi art cen­tre a much needed lap­top com­puter and is de­lighted to see it be­ing used to cre­ate a data­base for lo­cal artists.

It’s hard to re­turn from one of th­ese trips un­changed. The shift may be small, the aware­ness only par­tial, but it’s a trig­ger. You sim­ply can­not di­vorce the lu­mi­nous art (Read calls it ‘‘ spir­i­tual ex­pres­sion­ism’’, an apt de­scrip­tion for its tran­scen­dent power) from its con­text and that can make the ex­pe­ri­ence para­dox­i­cal and un­com­fort­able in more than a merely phys­i­cal sense.

But some­thing re­mains af­ter we’ve come home. That’s when we re­alise, as we shake the per­sis­tent red earth from our clothes, that it will not all wash away and that we are only at the be­gin­ning of the jour­ney.

Pic­tures by Caro­line Baum, He­len Read

True colours: Women paint­ing at Melville Is­land airstrip, main pic­ture; left, ex­am­ples of in­dige­nous art, in­clud­ing Bar­numbirr (Morn­ing Star pole) by Henry Gam­bika Nupurra, far left

Pic­ture: Caro­line Baum

Myth and magic: Peter Datjin Bu­rar­rwanga be­neath the Tree of Knowl­edge

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