An art tour of Arnhem Land becomes a voyage of learning and understanding, writes Caroline Baum
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.
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
Myth and magic: Peter Datjin Burarrwanga beneath the Tree of Knowledge