We’re writing this on the bush bus heading back to Alice from Yuendemu after a wonderful celebration of the Warlukurlangu Art Centre’s 30th anniversary and the re-opening of the Men’s Museum. It’s been a day that snapshots so many aspects of life in the centre. The bus was due to leave at 7 am. It left at 7.30. That’s not late for “Alice time”. But we haven’t learnt to trust it yet, so we were up early ready for a 7 am departure. We had a pit stop at Tilmouth Well, a place that local travellers are fond of for its great food. And petrol of course. And lowering the tires ready for the dirt road ahead.
Only an hour of bumpy red road and we were at Yuendemu. A quick hello to friends and a race around the gallery to pick up a few more paintings (more? – below we’ll tell you about all the others we’ve bought since the last blog) and we were ready for the opening of the celebrations, scheduled for noon.
We noticed that the ladies were still arriving (no, we haven’t lost our feminist language, but Aboriginal women call themselves ladies out here. It’s PC. Promise). Over the next hour they sat together painting themselves up for the dancing. One of those precious moments, sitting and listening as they sang the dreaming they were painting and were about to dance. But also some challenges in terms of respect. White women were coming around to the preparation space and taking photos. We were appalled – we knew we were privileged to be allowed to sit there, surely it wasn’t ok to take photos. But then someone else came and asked and one of the ladies said yes. So is it really ok? Does she speak for them all? By now there are about 6 white lady cameras clicking away? Will we join in? We did. Not sure if we’re pleased to have got a good photo or feeling shame that we took it. Then Daphne looked up to see that one of the male art dealers had come out back to watch the women painting each other’s breasts. You can imagine what she said to him. He was rather put out that women’s business wasn’t his business.
At last, at around 1.15, the Chair of Warlukurlangu, Otto Jungarrayi Simms, opened proceedings. Followed by the process of getting the 8 senior ladies settled comfortably ready to do the chanting. Then the dancing began. Several hundred cameras were clicking away. Ours included. The dogs wandered around and through the dancers. But suddenly it stopped. A loud “discussion” in language between the elder leading the dancing and the elder leading the chanting. Seems that each thought the other was doing it wrongly. Then they got into the flow of it and for a few magical moments they danced for us.
One of the audience, a tall man in a very white shirt, saw fit to put himself in the best position for taking photos. Right next to the wall the ladies were coming around. We could see more of him than the ladies as they emerged. We wonder if he’d go on stage and sit in the middle of the action during a performance in a city venue? What is it about this special performance that made him think it was OK? White entitlement? Male entitlement? Or just an insensitive ignoramous?
Then it was time to go around to the Men’s Museum. Only a 10 minute walk but with the temperature over 30 we got the bus. We saw birds on a wire opposite the museum.
And these beautiful flowers growing on a rugged desert plant just outside the museum.
Sitting under cover at the rear of the men’s museum, Harry Jakamarra Nelson told us it’s history. It was built in 1971 by the elders to keep their sacred relics and replicate paintings from sacred sites in the desert. It fell into disrepair until 8 years ago when Cecilia and Gloria from the art centre were given permission from the men to restore it. Today is the culmination of a huge amount of negotiations, fund raising and hard work.
Harry apologised about there being very few Aboriginal men present and that there would be no men’s dancing. The reason? Yuendemu got into the finals of the football. More than half the town, including all the dancers, went to Alice Springs to play or watch the finals. Football is incredibly popular and important to many Aboriginal people across the Central and Western desert. In modern-day Aboriginal culture a cultural event just can’t compete with a football final. Few things could. Maybe only sorry business (the mourning process when there is a death in the extended family).
An aside – When Joyce’s last big supply of rugs arrived (many thanks Joyce and friends) she was sent a list of team colours for her next supply. Last week she did a special request in blue and white (North Melbourne colours) for Mervyn Rubuntja, one of the water colourists in the Namatjira mob.
Ivy Pareroultja (we bought the painting of course!)
Back to our day in Yuendemu. Two of the elders started to chant. Harry interrupted because they were going too fast. Eventually he and another elder joined them and we were treated to some brief but moving men’s music. Too many cameras to count!
When he made his opening speak, Harry said that only men could enter the museum. This was a big surprise. Many women had travelled from far and wide to see it. Just last week we spent several hours on two different occasions helping to clean the museum. We didn’t just see the sacred men’s paintings, we touched them as we carefully cleaned off cobwebs and fine red dusk with preservationist’s special brushes. The artwork is in ochre so even the slightest touch lifts some of the paint. It was incredibly delicate work and we felt very connected and rather spiritual as we slowly worked our way across the spectacular walls. We aren’t the only women who have been in there of course. Most of the work on renovating the paintings has been done by women, especially Gloria and Cecilia, with full approval of the local male elders.
Somehow this issue was resolved and it was announced that women could enter today – but no photos. Oh Oh. We have a series of precious photos of each of us doing our dusting. We had permission to take them on the day, but given this new directive, is it OK to still have them? Can we show them to others? Can we post them on this blog? We’ll have to ask Cecilia these questions. We don’t want to abuse the honour of being trusted to clean the paintings by holding or publishing photos that are disrespectful. [postscript: Cecelia said it’s ok to share a couple of photos. We decided not to put them in this blog because it can be Googled. So we’ve included them in the email letting you know about the blog (if you didn’t get the email, let us know and we’ll sent them to you). Please don’t reproduce them.]
Back to the arts centre for a huge bbq by Vincent and some volunteers. Then a couple more paintings, especially one by Joe Jangala Bird that we missed on our first sweep through. Now happily blogging away as the bush bus bumps down the red Tanami Desert Road. Just a wee four hour drive to the big smoke. Two more sleeps in Alice and then we’re flyng home on Tuesday!
So that’s todays adventure. A bit of everything that happens here. So what else have we been doing? Last week we spent a few days volunteering at Yuendumu. Here’s a few magic moments:
On one evening during our time in Yuendemu some of the workers offered to take the volunteers out to Tjuka Tjuka at sunset. It’s the site of Rain Dreaming. The rocks are Kuda Kuda (baby clouds) waiting to grow and float into the sky to make rain. Two carloads did the trip. We all chatted a lot when we first arrived but then the place quietened us. We wandered around in our own space and sat with the sunset alone. It was a perfect place for tai chi!
We also had a trip to Darwin for the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair. We stayed in the same fabulous apartment that we stayed in last year. Had the opportunity to help out on the Papunya Tjupi stall. It was such fun – we’ve booked ourselves up to volunteer with them again next August (on our way to Europe).
There was also the Henley on Todd – parade through the mall then “boat” races down the dry Todd River.
Also enjoyed the Light festival parade through the mall to open the Alice Desert Festival (like Sydney Festival)
Some interesting events in the Alice Desrt Festival included Kutcha Edwards singing in the beautiful Church of the Ascension (which was designed by one of the guys Daphne plays bridge with) and a magical walk through Desert Park at night. It was softly lit to show “installations” – gentle dancing and movement with peaceful music and then a guided viewing of the stars as we sat around a big fire pit . It was a full moon, the stars were at their very Central Australia best, and the meditative state induced in all the crowd by the walking and movement made for a moment we’ll always remember.
Two other big events that we really enjooyed were Desert Mob and Desert Song. Next weekend is the NT Bridge tournament and on the next weekend is the Alice Writer’s Festival. Just so much to do in Alice.
This is the new sign Kathleen Buzzacott has painted for the entrance to the land she lives on and a view from her studio. It’s great to be reminded whose land we walk upon. Even in Alice Springs, where we see many Aboriginal people as we move about the town, it’s easy to get caught up in the white world. It’s a white, government town. Much of the available work is to service government projects for Aboriginal people (constantly changing, short contracts, no handovers, contradictory packages) but many of the workers manage to live white lives, segregating the Aboriginal world to their work hours.
We’ve heard about a new app that tells you about the traditional custondians of the land you are passing through. It’s available from Apple store, called Welcome to Country – Australia. A bit clunky – but some great information. They will be extending it to many more groups throughout the country.
An aside on ridiculous government packages. There were childcare centres on many communities. Run down facilities, but they worked ok. The government decided to provide fabulous, state of the art child care centres with air con and lighting and space etc. We’ve been told that the old centres cost about $145,000 for utilities and maintenance. Councils could only just afford this with the government support grant of about $125,000. The new centres would cost about $250,000 for utilities and maintenance, but the government has reduced its support grant. The Councils can’t afford to run the centres. So in four communities, the centres sit empty and there are no longer any childcare facilities. And with the work for the dole requirements, a pile of extra people can’t get the dole because they’ve lost their work in those childcare centres.
We attended a talk during seniors’ week about forecasts of older people in Alice. The data were about white, middle class, older people. There was no mention of Aboriginal people, except when discussing the crime rate in Alice and how it impacts on people’s (read white people’s) feelings of safety. We’ve been looking at houses (still yearning to put down roots in Alice!) and we’ve found suburbs that are so white and pristine that you need to look across to the Macdonnell ranges to remind yourself that you’re in Alice.
Daf had an interesting chat with one of the young project workers. She said she doesn’t talk much about herself when she’s out on country because she doesn’t want to highlight how privileged she is in relation to the people she’s working with. They discussed what privilege means. A university education? Money for a big modern house with air conditioning? Overseas travel? Do these things matter to someone who values country and family? Who sits contentedly with her feet in the red soil as she digs for honey ants? Our white privilege is our white power. But when we listen to the women sitting and chatting and laughing and singing together as they paint their dreaming stories, we wonder who is really privileged? We don’t want to live in the harsh conditions created by generations of white domination, but we sense their wisdom and feel very much to be the stiff, white outsiders that they see us to be.
We hope this isn’t romanticising Aboriginal life. Much of it is horrid out here in the desert. It’s a shock to see how they are expected to live. It’s painful to witness their daily struggles for survival. But it’s also a pleasure to experience their joy and hope and pride. We attended a launch of at the Telegraph Station of a book by Central Land Council on Aboriginal stories of their life in this region. Many of the 200+ people who contributed stories stood up and tole their story. The constant message was how proud they are. One woman said “I feel so blessed”. Us white fellas need to fully appreciate what she meant if we are to understand the lived experience of Aboriginal people in the centre of Australia under the Intervention.
We thought we had great news! Remember Daisy from our last blog? We visited her in hospital to farewell her just before we went to Yuendemu two weeks ago. She was about to leave the hospital and go home to Papunya. She was so happy.
Her grandson had agreed to care for her in his home, and her many friends at the art centre would care for her during the days. But there were so many delays. Health is understaffed and couldn’t get her transfer arranged. She waited and waited. Then, last Thursday night, her grandson died suddenly of a heart attack. She is devastated. Not only to lose him but also to lose her chance of returning to country. Our friend Tracey said she’s tempted to give up her job and go out to Papunya to care for Daisy. Not practicable – but we know just what she means.
Here are a few of the wonderful views we enjoyed every day to and from our accommodation (not really the same as the views we get driving from CBD to our home in Lilyfield!)
It’s 5 months since we set off. We’re excited to be heading home, but sad that it’s come to an end. Are we there yet? If the goal was to spend some months in Alice Springs and surrounds, then yes, we got there. With gusto! But the more we learnt about Alice and her peoples, the more we understood that it’s a deep and complex space. We didn’t even scratch the surface. We’ll have to go back if we want to really get there.
Postscript. We’re home. Here’s a little of the art we brought with us. If you’re in Sydney then you’re welcome to drop in between 10am and 3pm on Sat 26th and Sun 27th for our ‘show and tell’. The purpose is to enjoy the art before we sell it all off at markets. If you want to see the art but that weekend doesn’t suit you, let us know and we’ll invite your around at some other time.