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Singing a painting

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Daniel Wilfred leading bunggul (dance)
Daniel Wildred leading bunggul (dance) at a 2012 funeral ceremony in Ngukurr, Northern Territory. Photo: Samuel Curkpatrick
'See that old bark painting on the wall? You know, the one of stone-spear country, Ngilipidji? That painting has a song. I'll tell you.' Daniel Wilfred (2012)

Daniel Wilfred was playing bilma or 'clapsticks'. He was grooving. It didn't matter that we were walking along the road, through the Australian National University (ANU) and down the hill to the Museum. It didn't matter that he wasn't covered in ochre and sitting under a stringybark tree at his ancestral estate of Ngilipidji on the Walker River, Northern Territory. What mattered was that the clapsticks were coming together - two pieces of wood - striking, meeting, colliding. What came out of this collision? Sound. Music. Song. These things happened. They happened where they did not before exist. As Daniel always reminds me, 'Everything comes out of the clapping sticks.' Existence is an animation.

A long, long time ago the ghost Djuwalpada walked through the stone country. He danced and sang his way through the land, searching for the place that was to become the home of the Wägilak people. Djuwalpada's clapsticks broke the lingering stillness and his song happened. On this site, the homeland of Ngilipidji was founded and Djuwalpada danced. A song was sung, the same one that is performed today: the present is animated by the same clapstick pattern, the same groove that Daniel continued as he carried on his way to the Museum.

Daniel was visiting Canberra from Ngukurr in the Northern Territory, doing some teaching at the ANU School of Music - teaching law, that is, through music. Daniel leads smoking, funeral and other cultural ceremonies in his communities, singing the manikay liturgy that was passed down to him by his older brother, Sambo Barabara.

Daniel Wilfred standing besdie a bark painting of Ngilipidji by Djardi Ashley
Daniel Wilfred in the National Museum of Australia’s Gallery of First Australians with a bark painting of Ngilipidji (Date unknown), by Djardi Ashley. Photo: Samuel Curkpatrick

On display in the Gallery of First Australians is a bark painting by Djardie Ashley. This is a painting of Ngilipidji, stone spearhead country - Djuwalpada's home and ancestral estate of the Wägilak clan. Ngilipidji is the site of a significant quarry where, for generations, skilled craftsmen made ngambi (stone spearheads) from the greasy, pink-streaked rock. Highly prized, these ngambi were traded far and wide.

This painting of Ngilipidji is also a painting depicting everyone together under the one law. The meeting of the kangaroo and the wallaby, one from Ngilipidji and the other from the outside - represents difference joining under a common law. This is a ceremony, a festival, a happening where there once was not. This painting is the clapsticks coming together, two different pieces of wood striking and causing something to happen: music, community, relationships, law. The sound of the clapsticks brings people in.

This continues today: where Djuwalpada's song of old reverberates in ceremony today, people come together under the same law. Daniel points out: 'See the dillybag there in the painting? That's for the law.' Next to the painting is an image that was taken in 1935 by the anthropologist Donald Thomson. The image shows an unidentified man carefully crafting a stone spearhead. This man died long before Daniel was born and, while Daniel had no way of recognising him, the connection was still important. Daniel said, 'That man has knowledge. That's my Grandfather.'

Like two clapsticks meeting, something happened here in the Museum. Where someone of the present met something of the past, the encounter reverberates into the future.

Djardie Ashley's painting will feature in the 2013 exhibition Old Masters: Bark Artists from Australia 1930s – 1990s.

Samuel Curkpatrick Assistant Curator, ATSIP

Daniel Wildred leading the Australian Art Orchestra in Melbourne, 2012, with David Wilfred (didjeridu) and Niko Schauble (drums)
Daniel Wildred leading the Australian Art Orchestra in Melbourne, 2012, with David Wilfred (didjeridu) and Niko Schauble (drums). Photo: Samuel Curkpatrick