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Questions of research

A black and white photo of Freddy Jangala Patrick (left), Mervyn Meggitt and two unidentified men.
Freddy Jangala Patrick (left), Mervyn Meggitt and two unidentified men, Hooker Creek, 1953-54. Meggitt Collection, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, N0390.142.

Mervyn Meggitt and Warlpiri in the 1950s

Anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt was living with Warlpiri people at the settlement of Hooker Creek (now known as Lajamanu), in the Northern Territory, in the early 1950s. He earned the trust of Warlpiri men, who shared with him their ancestral knowledge enacted in ceremonies and songs.

Following the advice of some earlier researchers, he asked the men to use crayons and paper to depict elements of their cosmology. Two men, Larry Jungarrayi and Abe Jangala, astounded Meggitt with the creative energy they invested in their picture making. Meggitt later observed they were ‘true artists’ who ‘went on drawing for the pleasure of drawing’.

In 1965 Meggitt deposited the 169 drawings he collected at Hooker Creek with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra.

Meggitt did not write about the drawings in his book Desert People and, prior to his death in 2004, destroyed all of his Warlpiri research materials. He did record descriptions of the drawings on audiotape. These, together with the photographs he took at Hooker Creek, are the only information from that time to have survived.

Warlpiri today are perplexed by Meggitt’s descriptions of some drawings, and their challenges remain unresolved. In the Warlpiri Drawings exhibition, some of Meggitt’s descriptions are presented alongside more recent, alternative interpretations from Warlpiri people today.

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