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Dr Melinda Hinkson, School of Archaeology and Anthropology, Australian National University, 15 October 2014

TONI MAKKAI: Hello everyone and welcome to the second annual public lecture on future directions in Indigenous research. For those of you who don’t know me my name is Toni Mciye and I am dean of the College of Arts and Social Sciences here at the Australian National University. Before we get started I would first of all like to welcome Ngunnawal elder Auntie Susan Barry to the stage for the official welcome to country.

SUSAN BARRY: Today I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the United Ngunnawal Elders Council, all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-Indigenous friends here today. Thank you for inviting me to conduct the Welcome to Country.

For those who may not be aware, Welcome to Country is a protocol which is ancient. Before entering another person’s country, one would always announce your arrival and not enter until the traditional owners welcomed you. The reason for this practice is to protect your spirit and to show respect for the people for whose country you are entering.

The Ngunnawal people are the traditional owners of the ACT and region. As with all Aboriginal communities, our community is made up of several family groups who represent the Ngunnawal people.

Now I would like to read to you a charter that has been developed by the Ngunnawal people in 2003. I hope it is an inspiration to you in the work that you do:

United Ngunnawal Elders CharterOur unity is a journey of healing. We have taken the first big step and along the path people will join with us and leave, but everyone is welcome. In welcoming people, we know the following to be true: that our elders have our respect. We are honoured by their giving respect back. We acknowledge them for assuming responsibility as leaders in our community. We need to come together to create our future, one in which everyone has a place where they can feel proud, have dignity and feel they belong. That communication is everything, and we do this in a supportive way to know more about each other, our history and our culture. These knowledges we make are ours together, although it belongs not only to us but it’s also for our kids and grandkids too. It is for them that we do this work now. It takes courage to do work for the greater good. We need to learn how to solve problems, include not isolate, to listen with our hearts and speak with our souls. In being courageous, we are a direct link back to the Dreamtime, and this is the essence of Aboriginality, as is our relationship to the land. In this journey we strive for unity. We do this by empowering people, creating confidence, self-esteem and room for difference so we can work and laugh together, moving forward all the while. We, each and every one of us, want this not only for ourselves and our families we want this, too, for people who need it the most.

On behalf of all Ngunnawal people, both past and present, I am happy to welcome all of you here today to the lands of the Ngunnawal people. May the spirit of this land comfort, heal and guide us. Thank you. [applause]

TONI MAKKAI: Thank you very much, Susan. We are grateful that you could join us here today to open this lecture. This is the second year that the college has hosted a public lecture showcasing future directions in Indigenous research. We will be hearing from Dr Melinda Hinkson about her research which has culminated in her book [Remembering the Future: Warlpiri Life Through the Prism of Drawing] and this wonderful exhibition here at the National Museum Warlpiri Drawings: Remembering the Future. Around this time last year, we heard from Dr Jennifer Deger who spoke about her research into the ways that the Yolngu are using digital technology to record and share their histories and their stories.

These lectures are an opportunity for the college to highlight and share with the public some of the innovative work of academics across the college in Indigenous research and community outreach. The reason why we started this series was we were thinking about how we could make a contribution to reconciliation and highlighting areas of importance for improving the lives of Indigenous people. We decided that although we do a lot of work in the Indigenous space, actually we tend to just be talking with our colleagues or with Indigenous communities with whom we are very grateful to be able to work with. We decided that a public lecture was an opportunity for us to highlight the kind of work going on. I would really like to both acknowledge members from across the college, because it is an opportunity for them to hear about Indigenous work going on in different areas, but also members of you who have come from the public to listen to the lecture.

What better place to engage in public outreach than Australia’s National Museum. One of the things that is very striking is the changing generation that is occurring in our academic staff and the use of new and innovative ways of sharing their research from the older generation. The use of exhibitions, the use of digital technology and so on is becoming much more common in academic practice as a way of reaching out across the broader community.

Perhaps one of the hallmarks of Indigenous research in the college is that we really do attempt to improve our understanding to influence policy and make a real difference in Indigenous communities. For example, the Centre for Aboriginal and Economic Policy Research is one of the most trusted sources in Australia for research on Indigenous economic issues. The film screened at ANU last week, Message from Mungo, coordinated by Professor Anne McGrath, uses film innovatively to share that particular project’s research outcomes. It has been very well received and it has been nominated for a number of awards. That is just two examples across the strength of the college in Indigenous research. We really are cross-disciplinary. We cover areas as broad as music, anthropology, art, language, history and the list just goes on.

Tonight, however, we are really lucky to be hearing from Melinda. She is a social anthropologist with wide-ranging interests in visual culture. She has published extensively on the Warlpiri’s engagements with visual media, on the life work of anthropologist WEH Stanner, on the contested cultural politics of the Northern Territory intervention and on the broader field of contemporary cultural attitudes to images.

Very importantly, Melinda is an ARC future fellow in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology. You might wonder why that is so important. Well, it is the funding that is provided to us from the Australian Research Council. If I might make a little plug for the funding of the Research Council because in the humanities and social sciences, it is pretty difficult for us to raise money from industry for the kind of work we often do. We are very dependent on the funding that we get from the Research Council. Contrary to what some people might think, our work is very relevant, it makes a difference and it is very important to the nation.

Melinda and the purpose of the future fellow is that it gives an academic time away from the day-to-day activities of teaching to just focus intensively on their research and their outreach. It is a very important scheme and it is very hard to get. Melinda is a special person in the college because she is one of the few people that we have that have been successful in the ARC future fellowship. Although I should also add another plug and that is that we do better above the odds than other colleges around the country.

Melinda has had extensive experience in teaching. She has convened a postgraduate program in visual cultural research and taught courses in the history of anthropological theory, the anthropology of media and inter-disciplinary visual studies. Straight after the lecture I hope you will join us for a reception. Last year people rushed down and didn’t realise that we had a reception. We do have that and importantly Melinda will also be signing books so you will be able to have an opportunity to purchase her book and to have it signed personally. Also our preferred format is that we won’t have questions at the end but Melinda is very happy to talk to people in a more informal collegial setting with a few drinks and a bit of food if you have in-depth questions that you want to ask her.

Without further ado, please join me in welcoming Dr Melinda Hinkson.

MELINDA HINKSON: Thank you very much, Toni. Hello everyone. It is wonderful to see you all. Thanks very much for coming. And thank you, Susan Barry, for your warm and gracious welcome to Ngunnawal country.

I am particularly grateful to the College of Arts and Social Sciences and to the ANU Reconciliation Action Plan committee for inviting me to give this lecture today. It is a rare honour to have the opportunity to present one’s research in a public forum with such a level of institutional support. Can I single out Cathy Gough, if she is here, for a special thanks for all the work she has put in to organising today.

And to our hosts the National Museum of Australia, thanks once again for your terrific support for Warlpiri Drawings. Behind the research I am going to talk about today lies a crucial network of collaborations involving the Museum, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, the Warlpiri art centres Warnayaka and Warlukurlangu - as well as the contributions of many Warlpiri friends. I am deeply grateful to all of them.

A few words of background before I get properly into this paper: Mervyn Meggitt, an anthropologist, deposited 169 drawings at the Institute of Aboriginal Studies in 1965 where they were archived as research materials. I learnt about the Meggitt collection during a brief period of employment at the Institute 15 years ago. I was mesmerised by these drawings, but it was more than a decade before I was able to initiate this research. By the time I did, all of the makers of the drawings and Mervyn Meggitt were deceased. The only documentation for the drawings was a transcribed audio recording made by Meggitt in which he describes the content of each drawing and offers his views on their artistic significance.

Further documentation was produced in 1980 by ethnomusicologist Stephen Wild, who went up to Warlpiri country and sought advice from Warlpiri men about the drawings’ status. At this time 50 drawings were identified as dealing with restricted men’s themes, and these were separately filed away. Before I commenced my research, Stephen consulted a new generation of Warlpiri men to ensure that they approved of the drawings being made the subjects of a new research project. They confirmed that 120 drawings were appropriate for circulation. So, equipped with the documentation, laminated prints and digital files of these drawings, and accompanied by a small research support team - including the wonderful Hannah Quinliven who is here with us today - we headed for Warlpiri country.

[Map shown] Just to give you your bearings, Alice Springs is here; 300 kilometres north-west is Yuendumu where the major focus of my work has gone on; and another 600 kilometres up the road is Lajamanu or Hooker Creek as it was known at that time.

Drawings for making white people happy

Late one afternoon in early February 2011, I am sitting in the yard of the widow’s camp as dramatic storm clouds form overhead. A woman in her 70s takes a mobile phone from the hands of a younger woman and thrusts it towards me. The screen displays a satellite image of Cyclone Yasi, which at that time was hurtling towards the Queensland coast, thousands of kilometres to the north-east. ‘Look’, she urges, pointing to ‘ears’ on either side of the ‘head’ of this beast - Mamu, monster. Later that night Warlpiri children dive under their beds in terror as alarming sounds and pictures of cyclone warnings are televised. Central Australia receives satellite broadcasts from Queensland, confirming some viewers’ fears that the cyclone is bearing down upon them. The following morning old women tell me they had prayed through the night for the people of Queensland.

The timing of the trip to reintroduce drawings made by Warlpiri people at Hooker Creek in the 1950s coincided with a series of dramatic events - social as well as climactic. A protracted inter-family feud had erupted at Yuendumu, following the death of a young man four months earlier during a drunken fight in an Alice Springs town camp. Three young men were in prison awaiting trial on charges relating to this death. In the aftermath of violent retribution that followed, a group of 100 relatives of the men in prison had left Yuendumu and sought refuge nearly 2000 kilometres south, in Adelaide. Those who remained in the township lived with daily outbreaks of fighting, constraints on their ability to move around the town, an increased police presence and frequent arrests of people on charges of assault. Tensions were high with much of the productive activity of the town as well as school attendance deeply affected.

In the midst of this turmoil, the art centre remained a place of relative calm and focused creative work. It was here that we made our first public presentation of the drawings. Senior women greeted these pictures with surprise and delight and with much emotion as the pictures brought to the surface memories of long lost loved ones. Over four mornings we pinned prints to the external walls of the building so they would catch the attention of people as they came and went in this busy space.

One morning a senior man turned up and paused to look at the pictures on display. A retired school teacher, sometime painter, ritually active man, Japangardi Poulson was an acute interpreter of Warlpiri history and a keen observer of the world at large. His eyes scanned the pictures briefly. He shook his head and he smiled. ‘They’re only for making white people happy’, he told me. Oh dear, I thought. I asked him to explain what he meant. He went on to distinguish drawings he described as ‘cheap’ from those that were valuable and he pointed out several examples of each.

[image] This emu was one of the supposedly ‘cheap’ drawings. I was bewildered by some of his identifications as I knew the subject matter of several drawings he placed in the ‘whitefella’ camp to be treatments of important ritual themes. And indeed Larry Jungarrayi had described the red emu to Mervyn Meggit as being red, because red was the colour of blood, the colour of power, and emus were powerful creatures.

So what was going on in this interpretation six decades after the drawings were made? Japangardi’s distinction seemed to turn upon two criteria: first, whether a drawing depicted its subject matter as it was seen or deployed classical Warlpiri iconography; and, second, whether it appeared to have been completed with care or was roughly drawn. On reflection I could see that Japangardi was distinguishing images that presented objects as able to be apprehended by the European eye from those that followed Warlpiri conventions of picture making, wherein the most potent forces are rendered and understood to lie beneath the surface of visibility, accessible only to those educated in how to read them, most properly in ritual contexts.

In elaborating on his distinction between drawings made to make white people happy and those that were important to Warlpiri, Japangardi spoke about cave paintings and engravings, pictures embedded in places as being the ‘really important’ pictures. He then moved on to tell me he was critical of people bringing ‘rough work’ to the art centre, boomerangs and other wooden objects that were not finely worked, not properly planed or sand papered. He suggested, ‘You can tell by looking at something’ whether it has been made ‘just for money’. The key marker of quality, he proposed, is care - one can clearly see when a wooden object or painting has been ‘truly cared for’ by its maker. The ultimate significance of such an attitude, Japangardi said, was that only when a person cares for a picture, really thinks about what one is doing and handles the material with sustained attention, only then can one feel good about oneself.

The following day this man returned to talk to me again. ‘I’ve been thinking about this some more,’ he told me, ‘and I’ve changed my mind. Those drawings are important ones, all of them; I’m going to show you why.’ Over a period of days he mounted a forceful argument, in pictorial as well as spoken form, for reinterpreting some of the apparently secular or ‘cheap’ drawings, drawing which Meggitt had described as objects ‘just there’ receiving the artist’s attention, as in fact dealing with Warlpiri high culture, with restricted men’s sacred themes. Initially dismissed as cheap copies, the drawings were now identified as significant works of cultural value.

Japangardi’s thoughtful engagement with the drawings heavily influenced the enquiries I pursued over the next three years, and indeed my book is dedicated to this remarkable man who died unexpectedly in the middle of last year. He fuelled my determination to make sense of the complex entwining of what once would have been identified as distinct Warlpiri and European cultural attitudes. If the early 1950s, the time of the making of the drawings, marked the beginning of a new sedentary life for Warlpiri and the coming of a new world order, the time of their introduction to a new generation of Warlpiri people was an apposite moment to consider the weight of six decades of change. All I can do today is scratch the surface of these matters and I will do so by revisiting a number of interactions with the drawings. Those of you who are interested to delve more deeply into the larger story behind Japangardi’s responses might be interested to read my book.

As I have said, by the time I commenced this research, all the makers of the drawings and the man who collected them were deceased. Meggitt did not write about the drawings in his celebrated ethnography Desert People and he destroyed his unpublished Warlpiri research materials prior to his death ten years ago. People are often bewildered when they hear of research materials being destroyed, so it is worth pausing to reflect upon why he might have done so. Mervyn’s widow Joan recalls lengthy discussions with her husband over the status of his fieldnotes as imprecise records of the observation of events. Mervyn had been a boarding school pupil and a naval officer and he was meticulously organised. For him anthropology was a science dealing with things about which one could be certain. On the eve of his death from lung cancer, Mervyn made the decision that he would not leave what he regarded as inconclusive materials around to be misinterpreted by a future generation of researchers.

Joan and women

The only living connection we have to the field in which these drawings were produced is 89-year-old Joan Meggitt, who was with Mervyn at Hooker Creek, and indeed was with us here in mid-August when we launched the exhibition and the book. Japangardi’s suggestion that the drawings were made to make white people happy acquires a curious twist when we bring Joan’s memory into the frame. She recalls the night Larry Jungarrayi visited their house and handed Mervyn this drawing. [malaka’s house]

The Warlpiri man watched her husband’s face and asked if he knew what the drawing was. Mervyn eyed the picture and shook his head. As Joan recalls it, Jungarrayi looked at Mervyn in utter astonishment, as if he were a fool. ‘What is it?’ asked the anthropologist. ‘It’s the malaka’s house!’ Jungarrayi exclaimed.

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

[image] 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.

[image] 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, and shot disobedient dogs. On many occasions he made clear that his authority and way of seeing were not to be challenged. At the height of a prolonged drought, 130 Warlpiri people were trucked into this 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 of the region 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 fascinating glimpse of the circumstances Warlpiri people found themselves in. At this place of Kuwinyi Jukurrpa, Mosquito Dreaming, flies and biting insects 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 gravely unwell. An elderly man and 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.

[image] 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.

[image] The work of erecting the verandah and flyscreen that encased the superintendent’s house was elaborate and time-consuming. It absorbed the energies of Superintendent Petherick and those he identifies 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 world-changing circumstances. Drawing, it seems, was a mechanism for coming to terms with profound dislocation; 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.

[image] 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 and 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 instance 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 object in the landscape but as symbolic of the new regime, its forms of power and the new way of life he was coming to terms with?

[image] Larry Jungarrayi’s adopted daughter Tess Napaljarri 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 regime in which the 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 made 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?

[image] 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 ground, which we see around the edge of the drawing, 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.

These drawings of the house encourage the posing of such questions and, as indicated, I am led to do so by contemporary Warlpiri responses. In perhaps the most compelling element of this research, drawings have been taken up not simply to reflect upon people and times long since passed, but as touchstones for making sense of the pressing circumstances of the present and to channel hopes and fears for the future.

Old monsters newly seen

One morning in late May 2013 I am sitting with April Napaljarri, a daughter of Larry Jungarrayi’s brother, on the sparsely grassed ground beside her house in an Alice Springs town camp. A sign on the front fence of Napaljarri’s dwelling with its neat yard declares it to be an alcohol-free zone. I had visited his house briefly the previous afternoon and introduced Larry Jungarrayi’s drawings to this woman. She was visibly moved to see the pictures and upbeat at the prospect of me returning the following day to share her memories of her father and his brothers. However, this morning I find Napaljarri more reserved, deferring to the superior knowledge and memory of her absent brother, the man I had hoped to meet at this house but who had left for the distant township of Kintore the previous day.

[image] Among his more explicitly anthropomorphic pictures, Larry Jungarrayi produced drawings of jarnpa, malevolent beings. These jarnpa pictures, two by Jungarrayi and another two by Abe Jangala are distinguished as the only drawings Meggitt directly referred to in his published writing. Meggitt’s account of jarnpa tracks the appearance of these beings in ceremonial narratives and songs. He reports having attended jarnpa-related ceremonies in December 1953 where Larry Jungarrayi and Abe Jangala - classificatory brothers-in-law - danced together.

Meggitt describes jarnpa as malicious beings ‘who on occasion seem to be wholly immaterial and to posse ss miraculous powers, yet have many human qualities and frailties’. He lists the countries where jarnpa are known to reside. Jarnpa were known to prefer sandhill country, to make their camps near rock holes surrounded by trees and dense vegetation. Warlpiri men told Meggitt jarnpa were capable of moving through the air at extraordinary speed. Warlpiri could not see jarnpa but yet had a clear sense of their physical characteristics: they were black, very black, blacker than Warlpiri people, with course hair that stood straight up or headdresses that created the same effect. Their eyes were blood red and their mouths similarly a terrifying blood red. They had huge penises that were always partially erect. They were left-handed, whistled like birds (although they could speak if they wished). They wore emu-feathered boots and were invisible to all but dogs, ngangkari or medicine men, ancestral heroes and kardiya or white people. Their invincibility meant jarnpa could enter a camp and steal anything they liked. In the dark of night people would extinguish fires if there was a concern that jarnpa were close by.

Jarnpa were known to take human wives. These women, as well as small children, were abducted when out hunting alone. Women were said to remain with their abductors because the sexual prowess of jarnpa kept them satisfied. Those who were not taken as wives were raped and killed. Jarnpa left tell-tale signs of their crimes - they snapped the necks of their vicitms by twisting the head back over the shoulder. Another signature method involved killing a victim by fatally damaging an internal organ. The afflicted person was killed but brought back to life for two or three days before they fell down dead. What Meggitt did not report and perhaps was not told was that Larry Jungarrayi’s family held that one of his young sisters had been abducted and killed by jarnpa in the time they lived in the bush.

Looking at these jarnpa drawings with Napaljarri seated in her yard in Alice Springs, I am struck yet again by the way the 1950s drawings get taken up to animate current concerns. Meggitt describes one figure not as jarnpa but more ambiguously as a ‘man walking around in the night going to urinate’. [image] As I hand this drawing to Napaljarri and read Meggitt’s description she grimaces with recognition - ‘jarnpa’, she says. I ask her to tell me about jarnpa. Pointing across the town camp, she says she sometimes sees them silhouetted against the lamp-post in the distance at nightfall. They come out at sunset, ‘that’s the real time for jarnpa’. In the long shadows that form at that time of day you can see them. They live ‘in every country, in the yuwurrku’, in the scrub. In the bush they are often close to kurrkara, desert oak trees. They look like kurrkara - ‘hairy trees, hairy men, kurdaitcha’, she says. They do not talk.

In earlier times, Napaljarri tells me, ‘jarnpa were not people but really jarnpa’. They tried to get good-looking girls, nice-looking girls with oiled hair and skin. They used to stay around the big dam at Yuendumu, a favoured drinking place just outside the ten-mile boundary of community enforced alcohol prohibition.

Today, she tells me, people are trying to turn themselves into jarnpa. ‘They make themselves invisible. They’ve seen things on movies that they copy. They learn skills like ninja out in the bush. These new jarnpa people come into houses, they look at the layout of people’s sleeping positions so they can come back later in the dark and kill a person. There are lots of these jarnpa people now and lots of people are getting killed, she tells me.

I have heard similar stories from other Warlpiri friends, accounting in part for the high levels of anxiety that currently pervade the community. Whereas in earlier times Meggit reported that fires were extinguished to ward off jarnpa, in the present, Napaljarri leaves the lights on around the perimeter of her house all night to ward off these devils. She calls the lights her angels. Most important, however, is the presence of God. ‘Wapirra looks out for us’, she says. ‘He’s the big one; he stops them. Like a shield. You see them coming along that road [she nods in the direction of the highway] as the sun is going down. They can’t come to this house. I don’t drink. I pray to Wapirra.’ ‘That trouble is over now at Yuendumu’, Napaljarri continues. ‘Only here in town we have these problems. They shouldn’t come around here looking for fights. If they want to fight, they should go to Afghanistan.’

Napaljarri’s narrative fed into a swirling visual economy I had been grappling with - one in which pictures of cyclone monsters were bluetoothed between mobile phones; rain snakes were observed circling the sky above the Alice Springs prison passing judgment on incarcerated inmates; dramatic media reports announced army deployments to Aboriginal towns sparking fears that soldiers were coming to take children away; a government announced national emergency identified Aboriginal men as child abusers; and an escalation of increasingly brutal attacks in Alice Springs, reported and real, all converged.

The economic base of this visual economy was marked by increasing levels of unemployment and few opportunities for sustained meaningful activity, the tightening of government regulation of many aspects of Warlpiri people’s lives, the outlawing of customary law practices, and alarming rates of imprisonment. These circumstances certainly called for new magic, a new means by which Warlpiri might reclaim some power, if only the power to explain these circumstances to themselves.

Napaljarri is slight of frame and as we sit on the ground talking she intermittently rubs a section of puckered skin on her neck and a long shiny scar on her right calf - she tells me there is a metal plate in there. She survived an horrific car accident three years ago in Adelaide in which the driver died. Her recovery was long and difficult. She used to drink, she tells me, but not since that accident. That’s when she found God.

Napaljarri tells me that in recent times another kind of jarnpa have also started appearing, jarnpa who are not dangerous, just hungry. They enter houses in the night and they take food. In the morning when people wake up, they find their cupboards and refrigerators empty. They know it wasn’t people who ate that food, ‘it was jarnpa’.

Trees at Hooker Creek

As we have seen, Larry Jungarrayi’s jarnpa pictures prompted his brother’s daughter to talk about terrifying killers. But when Jerry Jangala looks at the jarnpa pictures made by his classificatory ‘big brother’, Abe Jangala, he speaks of countrymen. [image]

On looking at these drawings as we sit together out the back of the Warnayaka Art Centre at Lajamanu in August 2013, Jerry Jangala becomes animated and tells me a series of stories in quick succession.

One story tells of the time Jerry Jangala was camped in the Kurlpurlunu area with his family. He was about six years old. They all went to collect bush fruits. At the conclusion of their harvest the family regrouped and made camp at the base of a river red gum tree. They ate and rested a while, and then dispersed to go hunting again, everyone except Jerry Jangala. The boy stayed behind eating more of the fresh fruit. As his relatives walked away, Jangala saw what looked to be a man and his family appear, walking towards him. When he saw these people he was no longer able to eat, his eyes began to sting and his body felt numb. The family were jarnpa. The jarnpa man, who Jangala knew as his classificatory father, came close. He threw dust in front of Jangala and picked him up. He said, ‘Jangala, I want to take you’. Then he took the boy south-west to mulga country, to a place called Mantarla. He kept Jangala there until late afternoon. Meanwhile, his family were unaware that Jangala had been taken. They were hunting in another direction from the camp.

[image] The jarnpa looked after Jerry Jangala, fed him goanna and kangaroo and then brought him back to his family. By then everyone was looking for him. His mother was crying. They thought Jangala had been taken by jarnpa or by a snake. When he was brought back to his family Jangala had an unquenchable thirst and quickly threw himself down to drink water from a rockhole. Then he vomited violently. Jangala’s father was a ngangkari, a healer, and he treated the boy to undo the effects of the jarnpa’s powers. Jangala recalls he was so exhausted by this episode that he couldn’t walk around for several weeks.

[image] In Jerry Jangala’s telling, jarnpa visits were not unusual or frightening occurrences for his family because they regarded these * jarnpa* as warlalja, countrymen. Jarnpa are tricky, the subject of curiosity; they are dangerous and mysterious; they abduct children and dogs; but they are not necessarily killers. Jangala tells me he still sings for jarnpa at kurdiji initiation time.

Jangala moves from sharing these stories of jarnpa deeds to describing the etiquette of how people should move through country:

We can’t just walk in like kardiya [and say] ‘ah this is nice country, I’m gonna take this country’. We got to talk to that country, apologise to that country. Otherwise we might have that goanna and we might get sick. Country might not have right feeling for me. Country and people feels. Country gives back if you treat it properly. If you want to cut wood for a campfire, you’ve got to treat that country properly.

Such matters of moral attitude to country and its resources are crucial to older Warlpiri people and they acquire heightened sensitivities where much movement of people has occurred. In speaking of apologising to country, Jangala indicates the appropriate attitude of a man who has been introduced to, rather than directly inherited, ownership of a place.

These concerns bring me to another series of drawings made by Larry Jungarrayi, drawings that Mervyn Meggitt identified as ‘trees at Hooker Creek’.

Looking at trees

[image] Depictions of trees, figures recognisable to the European eye as trees, are a strongly recurring feature through the drawings Meggitt collected. Fifty-five drawings cleared for public viewing include what Meggitt describes as ‘representational depictions of trees’, trees drawn in numerous ways by numerous picture makers.

[image] John Berger reminds us that a picture of a tree depicts not a tree but a tree being looked at. So how do Warlpiri people look at trees? One way to address this question is through language. Watiya denotes a generic class of trees, shrubs, wood, and also spears. But in most contexts Warlpiri will identify specifically named species for particular purposes. Different species are favoured for making fire, for erecting humpies, for shaping spears and for carving boomerangs.

The Tanami Desert is vast; the southern and northern regions are populated by different species of trees. Different species are directly linked to the locations in which they grow; such locatedness in turn confers authority and ownership on particular persons and lineages of persons. Identified as such, and most significantly, trees are actors in the ancestral order. Specific trees are identified as named persons, deceased relatives incarnate. In this highly dynamic process, trees acquire sacredness by virtue of becoming conception sites, the places where babies are conceived. [Larry red trees] Thus in shorthand, in Warlpiri reckoning to draw a tree is no neutral act. Attitudes to trees and to pictures of trees enact wider Warlpiri ways of ordering relations between persons and places and the world at large.

Consider the story Jerry Jangala told me in response to my question of how he came to have an outstation on Gurinji land, at Lulju, just a few kilometres from the Hooker Creek settlement. He tells the story in two parts. The first locates his personal circumstances in relation to national events, notably the 1967 Referendum, which has been hailed symbolically for the spirit of inclusion it extended to Aboriginal people and for marking an historic shift that would follow to a less paternalistic governance regime.  But in Jangala’s telling the significance of the Referendum is marked very differently: as Warlpiri became ‘free people’ who could drink, his life cascaded out of control. He, like many other Warlpiri, hail the role of Christianity in helping him regain sobriety and steadiness in life purpose. Jangala’s move out of the Hooker Creek settlement to occupy Lulju with permission of Gurinji owners is integral to the story he tells of how he managed to steer a path back to regain control of his life and the capacity to help others.

[image] In the second part of the story Jangala enfolds Lulju, his ‘little station’, firmly into his family’s intergenerational trajectory, and he does so by telling me about three trees. He starts by pointing out the large wirrkali bloodwood tree that stands prominently adjacent to the tin houses. This is a sacred tree and has become so since Jangala’s family came to occupy this place. It marks the conception site for the first generation of children born to Jangala’s family who camped beneath that tree before any housing had been established. Jangala then points out a yinirnti bean tree now standing several metres high, planted he tells me from a seed brought from his mother’s country. Finally he points out a nurrku snappy gum tree he transplanted from the banks of Hooker Creek.

As Jangala’s story and actions compellingly suggest, trees mark itineraries, journeys made by persons - in this case from ancestral country to settlement, to outstation. In Jerry Jangala’s telling, the bringing of these trees to this place secured his moral claim and provided a special kind of ontological anchorage, quite literally marking the uprooting and re-embedding of people in a new place.

[image] Looking at this drawing, Jangala declares his elder brother Abe put ‘the right one for this area’. He points out the pencil figures of emu and goanna that he tells me reside in countries adjacent to Papinya. He tells of a kind of hawk, kirrkirlanji, who picked up a snake at Wanimpiji and brought him through Papinya to a soakage called Mungularri. The snake fell from the bird’s mouth into the rockhole at Papinya and kept travelling to Kurlpurlunu. The rounded black elements across the top of the drawing ‘might be’ the deep rockholes atop Kurlpurlunu Hill. The rainbow Jerry Jangala identifies in Abe’s picture travelled from Kurlpurlunu to Christmas Bore. He goes on to speak about the many lines of rain activity in the area, as well as the Kunya Kunya song his father knew, a song to slow the rain, to make it more gentle if there were violent lightning storms around. Water, snake, emu - they were ‘all friends’, all countrymen, ‘they travelled together a long way,’ says Jerry Jangala.

In separate conversations I learn that these important rain places are now lost. Sometime in the 1970s there was a great storm that washed away the sacred tree and soakage at Lungkarra-jarra. A number of expeditions to find these places, the most recent to the Kurlpulurnu area about ten years ago, have been unsuccessful. As Abe Jangala’s drawings suggest, this is deep sandhill country, inaccessible by car. When Warlpiri walked out of that country sometime in the mid-1940s, driven by curiosity to visit the nearby cattle station and new settlements, they were unknowingly leaving those places behind, quite possibly for the last time.

Just as the media of song, story and drawing become mechanisms for holding on to lost places, they also provide the means by which people can picture themselves in new places. Could it be that in Jerry Jangala’s tale of journeying and the claim to authority and legitimacy it stakes lies an explanation for Larry Jungarrayi’s drawings of trees at Hooker Creek? Is it not the case that the making of these drawings can be understood as part of this process of coming to terms with life in a new place in a similar way to that which we see in Jangala’s life history, only this time in crayon and paper? It seems a compelling proposition, but it is one that is roundly rejected by Jerry Jangala and other senior Warlpiri men who remain deeply bewildered by Larry Jungarrayi’s ‘trees at Hooker Creek’.

[image] If Mervyn Meggitt were right that Larry Jungarrayi was deeply caught up in drawing the trees at Hooker Creek and if Warlpiri people in the present are also right that he had no authority to do so, then these drawings would appear to mark a significant moment of rupture. They distil one response to the turbulent circumstances of exile. While the forced relocation to Hooker Creek may have been traumatic for many Warlpiri people, one man at least seems to have grasped the opportunity with energy and openness to the new possibilities that might follow.

It is an attitude we see echoed in the creative activity of the next generation of Warlpiri, especially Japangardi Poulson whose responses to the drawings kicked off our journey. Deeply philosophical in his observations of the European world and the peculiarities of kardiya ways, Japangardi also took great pleasure in what he described as the ‘freedoms’ he had acquired through techniques and technologies kardiya brought into his community. An avid maker of portraits, Japangardi recalled with some pleasure the new ways of picture making, the new ways of seeing he acquired in the classroom of his teacher and friend David Tunley. ‘We learned to see the country in a new way,’ he told me. Mastering the art of line making in the classroom was as crucial to settlement life as the labour I spoke of earlier. This watercolour is the only work included in the exhibition that is not a drawing.

In attempting to look back to the world of the 1950s with the aid of archival research and the guidance of my Warlpiri interlocutors, this research has unavoidably maintained a focus on how Warlpiri people see their place in the world today. And in moving to conclude this talk, I want to consider two drawings made by Warlpiri women in the context of my research. These are two of more than 200 drawings that were made across a whole series of workshops and other activities.

If Meggitt’s time was the time of the privileging of male ceremonial knowledge, in the present it is the work of women that dominates Warlpiri cultural production particularly for the market and a wider audience. [image] Prompted by my suggestion that it might be possible to do so, just for fun, Biddy Napaljarri Tims, a woman well into her 70s, drew herself as a figure clothed in the trousers that she recalled wearing during her time as a young woman washing dishes on the Mt Doreen pastoral station. She drew this blue figure reluctantly and very quickly added another, her sister with hunting implements, digging stick and carrying bowl, but this time depicted in the classical iconography of arc and lines, and without pause surrounded them both with her Ngalyipi Snake vine dreaming.

Her move seems similar to Jerry Jangala’s polite deflection of my request that he talk to me about Hooker Creek. The ground of post-settlement experience is not the neutral place of authorised story-telling. There are complicated and risky politics to be waded through in pitching oneself into this new kind of public territory. Stories of life, vernacular tales, both Jangala and Napaljarri indicate, must be framed by what Warlpiri commonly incite as ‘proper ways’ of talking for places, persons, events. No one can just speak about any place - history might be collectively held but talking for the circumstances of a place is an authorised activity.

A similar rhythm guides the approach many people have taken to drawing in the course of my research. When invited to draw memories, events recalled from long ago, many people would first draw the Dreamings and countries they commonly paint in acrylic, as if laying the ground of their publicly recognised identity before making pictures of events witnessed or scenes from early life, and concluding with another ‘Dreaming picture’.

Lizzie Napurrurla Ross was an exception. This 34-year-old woman, Larry Jungarrayi’s granddaughter by adoption, is a radio DJ and a video maker, she loves music and has a riotous sense of humour. Lizzie communicates her daily dilemmas in love and life through regular status updates on Facebook. When invited to draw something from memory, an event from her past life, Lizzie eschews classical iconography and gives us point perspective: the horizon, the lone figure - herself - walking along a road into the setting sun. The picture’s composition reveals the strong visual influences of her European education as well as Hollywood films. ‘Look at me as a creative, independent individual’, this picture seems to declare, ‘do not presume to characterise me through the prism of kinship and Dreamings; do not look backwards in time in order to understand who I am; I am focussed on the future’.

Now, we might be tempted to read Lizzie’s picture as a statement of radical transformation in the way Warlpiri persons see themselves and their place in the world, a statement that also speaks to wider debates about the future of remote Aboriginal communities. But we must note the direction in which she is walking. Lizzie is not heading for Alice Springs but rather west along the Tanami road, into the desert. In this sense, if this drawing looks to the future, it is a future that is less than clear. Lizzie’s description of her drawing similarly refuses to admit finality; she is walking and thinking, not leaving.

[image] This drawing appears to enact a similar sensibility to Larry Jungarrayi’s malaka’s house. The confident stride of Lizzy’s black figure heading toward the radiant setting sun resonates with Jungarrayi’s attention to the light shining within the house. Both pictures seem to distil uncertain, future-focussed, hope.

Perhaps it is this sensibility of uncertainty that has made the present an apposite time to bring the Warlpiri drawings out of the archive. Mervyn Meggitt did not write about them because the drawings posed a different set of questions to those with which he and other anthropologists of his time were concerned. Six decades on, a time we might say coloured by uncertainty not just for Warlpiri but for all of us, such questions acquire a new resonance.

In glimpsing through these drawings something of the remarkable journey Warlpiri people have made over the past 80 years, we also glimpse a space we are invited to occupy. If Lizzie’s picture makes a demand on the viewer it is this: see me in relation to you. Thank you very much. [applause]

TONI MAKKAI: Thanks so much, Melinda, for that. It was terrific and I hope that you have all enjoyed it and have some ideas and thoughts that maybe you want to discuss outside. As I said, Melinda has her book there if you would like to purchase a copy to get her to sign it. There is also food and drinks there as well. Thank you all very much for coming.

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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