Skip to content
  • Open today 9am–5pm
  • Free general admission

Melinda Hinkson, School of Archaeology and Anthropology, Australian National University, 30 September 2014

TIM BONYHADY: Thank you, Philip. Having just watched Brilliant Creatures on television and had Robert Hughes there and the thing about the shock of the new, there is a kind of shock of the new today. In one sense, a kind of obvious shock of the new, which is when David [Hansen?] gets his scrapbook which has been in a private collection. But there is also extraordinary enduring potential for shock of the new coming out of our public collections.

With collections like the National Library or the Museum or the extraordinary opening image which Philip showed us from the Museum of Victoria, there are these amazing things which are in these collections, which have either not been cataloged or they’ve been improperly cataloged. There is a wondrous kind of potential for revelation as we’ve had today.

Our next speaker really doesn’t need any introduction. Melinda’s exhibition of Warlpiri drawings: Remembering the future, her wonderful exhibitions downstairs and with her wonderful book she has done, fabulous work on Stanner and great work on the intervention. And, if I can say so, she has been great to organise today with. It’s been great working with her. Melinda. [applause]

MELINDA HINKSON: Let me echo the pleasure. I would also like to acknowledge Susan Barry’s very gracious welcome to Ngunnawal. A little bit in the spirit of what of what Tim has just said about the shock of the new, there will inevitably at this point in the afternoon be echoes of some things you have heard before in other talks.

In the opening pages of Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century, Andrew introduces a pair of portrait sketches two men have made of each other: Eugene Von Guérard’s sketch of an Aboriginal man he knew as Johnny, and Johnny’s coloured pencil drawing of the artist. [images shown]

We learn the backstory to these drawings. Von Guérard met Johnny in 1855 during his visit to the Western District property of James Dawson, a man renowned for his empathetic relations with Aboriginal people and his deep interest in their cultural life. Clearly, the interactions between the two men were sufficiently engaged that von Guérard invited Johnny to make use of his drawing materials. Andrew highlights the particularity of this encounter. Drawings, he insists, were made by somebody’s hand; they mark a moment of intimacy between an artist who draws and the subject drawn. These men, at this place, at this time.

Via this pair of drawings Andrew takes us into a world not only of rediscovered pictures, but of cross-cultural relationships that radiate outwards from the page. The world of Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century is, as we have heard so much today, not a segregated world of Aboriginal cultural production, but rather the fraught, entangled, uneven ground of colonial Australia.

If Andrew brings to light Aboriginal drawings as a prism through which to explore responses to the brutality of the settler-colonial order, he does so with an eye firmly fixed on creative response - ‘Each of these men’s life histories was marked by enormous and devastating cultural upheaval,’ he writes of Barak, Micky of Ulladulla, Tommy McCrae. Yet within these circumstances these men were able to find a new space of creativity, an important element of which was their resistance to the coerciveness of European society.

In the drawings by Johnny and von Guérard, resistance takes on distinctly intimate and humanist qualities, as each artist attempts to get the measure of the other. In their attempts to do so they reveal the cultural frames that shape their attention: a sympathetic European eye sees masculine Aboriginal pride and dignity and distils it in the medium of the portrait. An Aboriginal eye is attentive to the phenomenon of the European artist who, dressed with flair, sits at work on a chair, drawing tool in one hand, paper in the other.

Andrew’s scholar’s eye seems to me to owe at least as much to anthropology as art history. He reveals the diverse and complex circumstances in which drawings were made and exchanged - as many situations as there were kinds of relationships across Australia’s frontier. So rather than a medium of production, he gives us drawing as an activity of living in the world: to make sense, to communicate, to remember, to make money. Art is not set apart but rather inextricably entangled in daily life.

Just as we marvel at the delicacy, beauty, liveliness with which these men made their pictures, we are also drawn to these pictures as conduits to the lives and times in which they were made. Each drawing becomes a precious jewel through which we might glimpse yet another untold story of Australia’s past. In short, Aboriginal Artists is not a book that simply brings to light previously unseen pictures, it introduces a method, as well as an ethics and politics, of seeing.

Drawings are everywhere [image shown – thanks to Philip Jones for this one]

The pictures made by Aboriginal people and filed away in notebooks and archives must be of a very large number. When I introduced the drawings made by Warlpiri people at Hooker Creek in the early 1950s to descendants of their makers in 2011, it quickly became apparent that drawing had been a part of many early interactions between Warlpiri and visitors to their country. Mervyn Meggitt surmised that the men and women who made drawings for him were using crayon and paper for the first time. Yet Warlpiri memory as well as anthropological history suggests otherwise. Tindale collected drawings at Cockatoo Creek in 1932. Warlpiri women recall drawing, as children, for Olive Pink. The Berndts collected drawings at Birundudu station in the mid-1940s. Just as Andrew tracked an intricate spider’s web of drawing as encounter across nineteenth-century Australia, everywhere I looked in the twentieth it seemed Warlpiri drawings were to be found.

Even in the pages of journalist FE Baume’s Tragedy Track, a grim account of the brutal hostilities that played out across Warlpiri country in the early 1930s during the Granites Gold Rush, we find a reference to Aboriginal drawing. In the only sympathetic depiction of an Aboriginal person to be found in this book, Baume singles out Alice, a young Warlpiri woman distinguished by her apparent loyalty to pastoralist Randall Stafford, a man infamous for his involvement in the 1928 reprisal killings of Warlpiri and Anmatyerre people that would become known as the Coniston massacres.

Baume makes clear his deep admiration for Stafford and other neighbouring pastoralists who are celebrated for their brave and difficult work on behalf of the nation; the personal sacrifice they have apparently made to bring development to Central Australia. Alice is praised for having saved Stafford’s life more than once from impending attacks from members of her own tribe. Baume describes her as having achieved the hallmarks of civilised culture. He writes that she wore ‘a felt hat, a quiet dress, long black stockings and black high boots’ and he remarks in passing that Alice was ‘especially interested in drawing’.

Aboriginal Artists traces the wide sweep of collecting activity undertaken by missionaries, police, anthropologists. Significantly, Andrew observes that many of the drawings he writes about were intended for a public audience, many were made with a financial transaction in mind.

In Remembering the Future I speculate that the Warlpiri drawings currently on display here at the Museum have a more ambiguous status. They were made at the request of an anthropologist, Mervyn Meggitt, but apparently outside the terms of any economic exchange. They were produced as part of an ongoing set of interactions, most intensively around ritual matters. We cannot know whether the men who made the drawings imagined their pictures would be seen by other eyes at some place in the future. If we work back from Warlpiri principles that organise exchange between specifically placed persons and emphasise process, performance, the time of enactment, it is likely that they did not.

Meggitt was after drawings associated with the ceremonial life with which he was absorbed, yet two men who made the longest and most intriguing series of drawings transcended the terms of his request. In Mervyn’s words, Larry Jungarrayi and Abe Jangala went on ‘drawing for the pleasure of drawing’. In the process they made some pictures that confounded Meggitt and continue to bewilder Warlpiri people today.

In approaching these drawings in the present, we meet a number of challenges. All makers of the Hooker Creek drawings and their collector are dead; we cannot know their intentions or indeed what they themselves saw in the pictures they made. There remains just one witness to this field of production: Mervyn’s widow Joan was with him at Hooker Creek and she recalls the night Larry Jungarrayi visited her husband and presented him with this picture [image shown]. Significantly, Joan also recalls the look of deep bewilderment on Larry Jungarrayi’s face when her husband failed to identify his drawing of the superintendent’s house.

By way of this one drawing and the lines of enquiry it triggers, we can glimpse a series of interrelated matters: the circumstances of Warlpiri people’s lives through the early to mid-twentieth century as well as Warlpiri attitudes and creative responses to those circumstances. Through this enquiry, Jungarrayi’s drawing also invites us to reflect upon the limits and possibilities of cross-cultural interaction at the time of the making of the drawings, as well as on what we, six decades removed from that place and time, can possibly know.

The time of straight lines

The early 1950s marked a turbulent time for Warlpiri. Two decades of sustained pressure and competition with pastoralists and miners for access to their hunting grounds and precious water sources finally resulted in the displacement of Warlpiri to government settlements; a new kind of place that would bring into being a new world order. The establishment of settlements was marked by a contradictory impetus: to provide welfare and security; to relieve Aboriginal people from the brutality, sickness and starvation that had become widespread; but also to train them in the ways of routinised work and sedentary life. Settlements were places for the cultivation of a new work-ready Aboriginal subject who would provide labour for surrounding cattle stations.

The superintendent was the figure who embodied these contradictory tendencies of care and control. The same man who distributed rations and administered medicine also forced people to work, threatened to withhold rations from those who refused to work, and shot disobedient dogs. On many occasions he made clear his authority and way of seeing were not to be challenged. At the height of a prolonged drought, 130 Warlpiri people were trucked into the partly-built settlement at Hooker Creek that was dangerously ill-equipped to deal with their basic needs. In the days that followed, a Gurinji man presented himself as the senior rainmaker who had come to help. The superintendent instructed him to return directly to Wave Hill. In this harsh environment where a new settlement and governmental order was being crafted out of the desert, only one mode of authority would be tolerated.

The Hooker Creek daily diary meticulously kept by the superintendent provides a glimpse of the circumstances Warlpiri people found themselves in. At this place of Kuwinyi Jukurrpa, Mosquito Dreaming, flies and mosquitos were often thick in the air. There were long periods of dry searing heat, with hot winds, followed by nerve-wracking periods of stillness that brought the settlement’s windmill-powered water supply to a halt. Through the early months of 1953, just prior to the Meggitts’ arrival, conditions steadily worsened. Among the people brought to the settlement were a number who were seriously unwell. An elderly man and an elderly woman died days after arrival. A baby died. Wracked by grief, the child’s mother and extended family left the settlement, walking hundreds of kilometres through the desert back to Yuendumu. They would not be the last to do so.

In carving out of the arid desert a new settlement that would meet the needs of hundreds of people, a raft of urgent tasks required attention: constructing houses; securing water supply; digging lavatories; clearing an airstrip; planting trees and vegetable gardens; carting firewood; servicing vehicles and bores; cooking meals; tending the sick; killing and butchering cattle. Hard labour lay at the heart of the new settlement regime.

The work of erecting the verandah and the fly screen that encased the superintendent’s house was elaborate and time-consuming. It absorbed the energies of Superintendent Petherick and those he identifies only as ‘three boys’ over a three-week period in January 1952. Completion was delayed when the superintendent allowed his labourers to enjoy a long weekend of ceremonial activity in recognition that ‘they had been working well’.

Larry Jungarrayi’s attention to the geometric structure of the house echoes the lines of fence posts Warlpiri men were enlisted to cut from trees; the straight roads they cleared; the ground they levelled for the airstrip; the lines of tin huts they erected; and the straight lines senior women recall being made to stand in while they waited to receive rations. In the history of settlement, the straight line recurs often, indicating so many elements of a new cultural attitude to which Warlpiri were subjected.

With this context in mind it is impossible not to read Larry Jungarrayi’s mesmerising drawing as a response to these world-changing circumstances. Drawing, it seems, was a mechanism for coming to terms with a world in turbulent transformation; a world that could no longer be explained by recourse to jukurrpa, Warlpiri law; a world in which new creative responses were called out and urgently required.

The proximity of Jungarrayi’s attention - in close up - seems to indicate the intensity of his gaze. His drawing forces the viewer to confront the structure itself: the flyscreen, the wooden frame, the window, the house from every possible angle, the light glowing within are all condensed. The vigorous shimmer of yellow, green, blue that gives this picture its charge is an effect that Larry worked up and then replicated across a number of the drawings he made for Meggitt. It is an effect he seems to have perfected in order to convey liveliness and power in a range of contexts, primarily ancestral power, the power of country, but perhaps also in this case the power of the superintendent.

If drawing is, as John Berger and Michael Taussig have suggested, a mode of sense making, might it be that Larry’s drawing is an exercise in grappling with the implications of this structure, not simply as a curious, new object in the landscape, but as symbolic of the new regime, its forms of power and new way of life he was coming to terms with?

http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/warlpiri/works/houses [image shown]

Larry Jungarrayi’s daughter Tess Napaljarri Ross drew my attention to this drawing being a view from the other side of the colonial encounter, and more specifically of light shining within the house. Her father, she surmised, would have walked past this house every day and would have seen the light shining in the night. In this drawing the perspective of the observer is not the customary view from the window looking out, but that of the outsider looking in. While Warlpiri people were being subjected to this new world order in the which grid and the straight line, as well as new forms of illumination, would come to have such significance, Larry Jungarrayi’s drawing reminds us that they returned the gaze with intensity.

Mervyn Meggitt may have failed to recognise the superintendent’s house in Larry Jungarrayi’s drawing, because his eyes had been trained to look for and see different things in the drawings by Warlpiri men. Drawings of country, of ancestral journeys, were the primary subject matter of the pictures made for Meggitt. But given the monumental change Warlpiri were experiencing, might it be that Larry drew the house in an attempt to shift his interactions with the anthropologist, to commence a new kind of conversation dealing with the here and now of the settlement and the question of what life would be possible for the Warlpiri who found themselves living on Gurinji land at Hooker Creek?

http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/warlpiri/works/houses [image shown]

Jungarrayi was not the only man to draw the house. Willy Japangardi surveys the scene from a further distance. Placing the house in its surrounding environment, with clear blue sky separating the structure from the yellow spinifex, Japangardi appears to highlight that these strange new people lived very differently from Warlpiri, above the ground. His impenetrable black box might also be read as evoking a very different sensibility to Jungarrayi’s shimmering picture, with its unmistakable warmth and openness to the light glowing within.

‘Every drawn place is a here and an elsewhere’

Another series of drawings made by Larry suggests he was an unusually attentive and empathetic observer of his new environment, and particularly taken by the majestic red gum trees on the outskirts of the settlement. Yet Warlpiri people today are confounded by these drawings, which make no sense from a Warlpiri perspective. Larry’s country lay hundreds of kilometres southwest, at a place called Yarripirlangu. In the wake of his displacement to Hooker Creek and despite his status as a fully initiated ritual man, I am told Larry Jungarrayi acquired no rights that would entitle him to make pictures of the trees adjacent to the settlement. His daughter Tess Napaljarri insists that while he may have been looking at those trees, he was really thinking of his own country. Her explanation is convincing, but need it be the only one? Could Meggitt’s observation that Jungarrayi was painting Hooker Creek also hold? Significantly, while homesickness drove many southern Warlpiri people to leave Hooker Creek, Larry Jungarrayi stayed on for decades. In his embrace of what Meggitt calls drawing for the pleasure of drawing, might it be that Larry Jungarrayi found a crucial creative medium for working through the circumstances of his new life?

The Warlpiri drawings have provided a potent prism for posing questions such as these, some of which remain unanswered, and for thinking more broadly on the twinned themes of settler-colonial relations and creativity. It is a project that owes a debt of inspiration to Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century.

Today we celebrate the legacy of a book published 20 years ago, but in closing I want to say something brief about how Aboriginal Artists might be read as charting a course with which Andrew Sayers has remained concerned up to the present. As the creative and administrative force behind the establishment of the National Portrait Gallery, Andrew somehow continued to find time to write essays and curate exhibitions. Open Air: Portraits in the Landscape was the opening temporary show for the new portrait gallery, an exhibition that made a clear statement on the intellectual direction he proposed for that institution. Some of you will have seen that show and, like me, you may have been struck by the affinities created in the selection of works on display and the refiguring of the idea of portraiture that was achieved as a result.

In Open Air Tiwi Pukumani poles, bark paintings by the Marika family and Ricky Maynard’s prison photographs were presented side by side with paintings by Arthur Boyd, Tony Tuckson and Sidney Nolan, among others. But this was no simple exercise in inserting an Aboriginal presence into the national story. At the heart of this show were a series of paintings made at Papunya by Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, Clifford Possum Japaljarri and Tim Johnson. The arrangement of these pictures made a powerful and complex set of statements: on the shared space of Australia, on the irreconcilably different cultural identifications within that space, and on the crucial place of art making in establishing empathy and affinity between us.

If I had more time I could tell you about my experience on opening night, when somehow, among the throng of hundreds, I managed at find myself in this exhibition space alone with one other woman. As our paths crossed I was taken aback - she had tears streaming down her cheeks. ‘Are you ok?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ she smiled, ‘I’m just so grateful that finally we can do this.’

Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century made a crucial intervention in our collective attempts to bring about a new space in this country; a space in which a genuine rapprochement with the brutal injustices of the past might give rise to new ways of shaping a shared future. Andrew’s love of pictures - and his insistence that we look at them with care - is now well entrenched as a vital part of addressing fundamental questions we continue to face as Australians.

Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007-19. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 27 November 2014

Return to Top