Re-visiting Central Australia
Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Emu Feather Arm Band, 2010, from Artists’ Bush Camp near Warakurna
When I first came to Australia from the UK in the 1990s, for a residency with Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne, I felt compelled to visit Uluru (Ayer’s Rock). During those first months, when I sat on the roof of my studio, I sometimes thought I could sense the country’s centre, like a giant pivot of the continent; T.S. Eliot’s still point of the turning world, perhaps. Having reached the other side of the planet and experienced the seasons travelling in opposite directions, to visit Uluru felt like an important rite of passage. Unwisely, I undertook the journey at Christmas during the deadening heat of mid-summer; a very mad-dogs-and-Englishmen thing to do. I also, unwisely, decided to camp; the drawings I made during the trip now seem infused with a wide-eyed, panting disbelief. In my tent, my packet of cheese melted to an oily yellow liquid, and my candle softened into a white mass of wax. I suffered from heat stroke; I didn’t understand much about dehydration in those days. Something else I didn’t understand was the sacred significance of Uluru to the local people, the Anangu, and my biggest mistake was to climb it, which they ask that you don’t do. I don’t like to admit this, but it’s true and I regret it.
Fast-forward to today and my son and I are heading south from Alice Springs in a hired car and I am taking him to see the geological wonder. This time I am travelling at a sensible time of year, mid-winter, with mild sunny days and very cold nights. Like many sites of significance that were remote but are no longer, the less-than-intrepid are able to get to central Australia with comparative ease, rarely leaving their comfort zone. Yet, despite the overwhelming numbers of tourists – the highly structured ‘wilderness’ experience and the Yulara resort that feel more like a suburb of Melbourne or Sydney (except for the prices and the choice of food) than the Central Desert – the immersive power of those enormous ancient natural features remains palpable and strong. The geology of the region is overwhelming and the peace, in spite of the jamboree all around, finds its way deep inside.
Avoiding the car parks and pulling off the road just before the turn off to Kata Tjuta (a group of large domed rock formations close to Uluru) we parked the car under a single sheoak, the needles of which were whispering in the wind. Here we found some sense of wilderness amongst the tall pale gold grasses that recent heavy rains had propagated in vast numbers across the red sand. With the classic shape of Uluru just ahead of us, turning from mauve to pink to gold to a deeply shimmering red at sunset, we sketched and collaged and glued, using sand, seeds and grasses to render our experience of being there. Small birds flitted in the trees, chittering and peeping, and in the sand the animal tracks showed the nightly activity of the dingoes, camels, wallabies, birds, ants and lizards that populate the landscape.
In the bright sunshine and cold wind of a winter’s morning back in Alice Springs we met Bronwyn Taylor and her small son at the Red Dog café. She and I had met three years earlier when Bronwyn was manager of Ninuku Arts Centre in Kalka, 10 hours drive south-west of Alice Springs. At that time, I was visiting my very good friend Margaret Cowie who was working as a nurse at Pipalyatjara, the sister community of Kalka. It was Bronwyn who pointed us in the direction of the exhibition ‘Kuru Alala: Eyes Open’, a cross-cultural collaboration between local artists – the Tjanpi Desert Weavers – and Sydney artists Maria Fernanda Cardoso and Alison Clouston, at the Araluen Arts Centre. The exhibition is the final stop of a long tour around regional centres of Australia and is the result of a series of bush trips and artist camps between 2008–9. It involved over 50 women coming together on 12 different occasions to collaborate on new works. The weavers hail from many different communities across central Australia, including the Ninuku Art Centre. In the words of the ‘Kuru Alala: Eyes Open’ blog: ‘The visiting artists camped out bush with their host artists, visiting sacred sites, participating in inma (ceremonial song and dance), hunting, collecting bush foods and medicines and, of course, sharing stories and making art together.’ This was obviously a very different experience from visiting the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
The Tjanpi Desert Weavers are the enterprise of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council. It is a 15-year-old organisation that emerged after local NPY women expressed a need for meaningful employment on their homelands so they could provide for their families. Working with natural fibres has a long tradition in Aboriginal culture but the women are also eager for new ideas brought in by visiting artists. While the weavers retain a clear link with their culture, they, like all artists, thrive on exchange and conversation, on new ideas and new ways of doing things.
Amata ladies with their birds: the Tjanpi Desert Weavers
Art is an integral part of Aboriginal society and closely linked to Tjukurpa, or dreaming, which is a kind of living philosophy. The local women enjoy getting back to their own land and collecting tjanpi (dry grass) to make work directly connected to their country. Any object can be made and the lands can be depicted in many different ways. ‘Tjanpi has Tjukurpa too’ Josephine Mick says. Art-making represents cultural connection for Indigenous artists: it is more than just an artistic practice, but a means of retaining connection to country. It illustrates a responsibility to the well-being of that country as well as the passing on of knowledge to younger generations. In contemporary non-Indigenous societies art is rarely seen as any vital component of human existence, and it is certainly not considered a necessity. Marcia Langton, writer and patron of the NPY Women’s Council writes in the catalogue for ‘Kuru Alala: Eyes Open’ that: ‘Aboriginal art expresses the possibility of human intimacy with landscapes. This is the key to its power: it makes available a rich tradition of human ethics and relationships with place and other species to a worldwide audience … For the settler Australian audience, caught ambiguously between old and new lands, their appreciation of this art embodies at least a striving for the kind of citizenship that republicans wanted, to belong to this place rather than another.’
Installation view ‘Kuru Alala: Eyes Open’ Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs
For the Tjanpi Desert Weavers the work is always collaborative and the women insist on the group name rather than individual names when acknowledging their art. Their three dimensional figurative works in ‘Kuru Alala: Eyes Open’ are stories that depict humans of all ages, adults, children and babies, at work and at play, as well as dogs (huge numbers of dogs and dingoes live in many Aboriginal communities), a truck and a windmill. Using local grasses, the artists create shapes using not only freshly cut reeds but also commercial products like wool and raffia to bind them together. The organic nature of the freshly found and harvested material results in jaunty lines and elongated limbs, torsos, snouts and jaws that add not only an inviting humour to the work but draws a link to the lines and shapes used in some of the most ancient rock art found in Arnhemland or the Kimberley of 40,000 years ago. The figures could be ancestors or relatives, real or symbolic, known or imagined, or both. The works are location-oriented in the most specific of ways and evoke the ancient myths of the landscape. This is fieldwork par excellence, working (and living) en plein air in the most literal way.
Art historian Ian McLean writes in the ‘Kuru Alala: Eyes Open’ catalogue: ‘The main impediment to collaboration is not different world-views but historical. Whatever personal, economic and cultural interactions occur between Indigenous and European people are overshadowed by memories of the great ‘dispersal’, the colonial holocaust of genocide, land grab and enslavement. This trauma is etched like a brand on the psyche of this country, and is reiterated every time the two sides meet. It makes open collaboration and even more informal intersections between Indigenous and European Australians a difficult enterprise, but not necessarily an impossible one.’ Recent migrants to Australia have a slight immunity to this damning legacy. Alison Clouston is from New Zealand and Maria Fernanda Cordoso is from Colombia. Both artists share a concern for the environment, and part of their creative impetus since moving to Australia has been finding ways of relating to this new land.
Photography by Alison Clouston of bush camp near Amata. Niningka Lewis in foreground working on her windmill, Anna with camera, Yaritji Young centre with her grandson, Iluwanti Ken, Jo Foster, Carlene Thompson, and others.
Alison’s interests lie in the human impact on the environment and the recycling of found materials. While on camp, Alison observed the local women using whatever was to hand and she followed their lead in her own work. She used abandoned irrigation pipes to build structures that reference shelter and containers, objects to live under and in and around, and to transport things through the landscape. They look like outlines, armatures, with the middle still needing to be coloured in; they are open-ended, as if sketches of the first iteration of an idea. While skeletal, suggesting the integral support of animal bodies or buildings, the works are delicate and vulnerable, and indeed some of her work completely collapsed during one journey and had to be re-built. Alison’s focus on shelter and containment references the camp. Camping in the bush is hard physical work. In the desert there is little natural shelter – few trees and no rocks or cliffs or curves of hills to provide a buffer against the elements; there is no shade and there are few natural water sources. There is constant exposure to the sun and wind, the heat of the day and the cold of the night. The camp orientation was adjusted daily by the local women, adapting it here and there for a warmer night’s sleep, or for better cooking conditions depending on which way the wind was blowing.
Maria works with found natural objects from animals, and she repeatedly returns to emu feathers as both a natural object and a potent symbol of this land (the emu is part of the Australian coat of arms). For ‘Kuru Alala: Eyes Open’ she works with the feathers although does not find them on site. She acquires them from Western Australia and during camp she discovers that the weavers do the same. She creates totemic uprights out of metal netting and feathers, precariously balanced verticals in the landscape. In the gallery these works are hung from the wall. Emu feathers are surprisingly delicate things. They are long and thin and downy; they hardly feel feather-like at all, and of course do not support flight. Emus have a thick blanket of them that cool the birds in the hot conditions. The supportive component of an emu feather – the quill – is very short so the feathers are long and flowing, and actually seem to have more in common with human hair. Because the feathers are not gathered on site, Maria searches for other materials and discovered the extraordinarily hard gumnuts on a stunted tree not far from the camp. Technically, gumnuts are the fruit of the eucalyptus but their tough outer coating makes the term ‘fruit’ hard to believe; many only release their seed with extreme heat, most commonly fire. Fire plays a significant role in the regeneration of the land, a fact keenly understood by Aboriginal Australians, who, pre-white settlement, routinely burned the landscape with controlled fire. Maria collects several hundred of these nuts and constructs a wall piece, like a low relief, with the nuts as nodes of connection forming organic vertical and horizontal lines. The numerousness of the nuts creates an optical effect and this dynamic play of movement gives the impression of a single object, like a blanket or a rug, hanging on the wall.
Accompanying the finished art works is a strongly biographical element where the sharing of experiences – through spoken and written word, in text and moving image, on the exhibition walls as well as in the catalogue – is an important component of the exhibition. As poet and academic Josie Arnold writes: ‘In our postmodern world the Indigenous approach to life makes increasing sense as we understand the impossibility of depersonalization of “objective” scientific knowledge of the world. The literature of the self is one of the earliest forms of writing.’ Alternative ways of knowing, a focus on the personal and personal responsibility, and the importance of multiple voices, are increasingly important in the 21st century as we face the environmental crisis that we find ourselves in.
This kind of project represents the potential of collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. Most of the time Indigenous Australian art and the wider contemporary art scene run parallel, but separately. Bridging the gap represents the future for a dynamic contemporary Australian art scene. Other recent and notable creative exchanges are Ildiko Kovacs’ residency at Ninuku Art Centre (2011) and her work with Yaritji Connelly, Molly Nampitjin, Monica Puntjina Watson and Sandy Brumby, exhibited as ‘The Shared Language of Paint’ at Raft Artspace in Alice Springs, and the large exhibition ‘Roads Cross: Contemporary Directions in Australian Art 2012’ curated by Fiona Salmon, Vivonne Thwaites and Anita Angel. Art develops through conversation and the exchange of ideas, the filtering of information through many minds. Today, art is not limited to an object, but rather it is a situation, an exchange, and these collaborations are clear examples.
Installation view, ‘The Shared Language of Paint’, Raftspace, Alice Springs
Molly Nampitjin Miller, Ildiko Kovacs and Yaritji Connelly
Untitled 2010, included in ‘roads cross: contemporary directions in Australian art’, Flinders University Art Museum & City Gallery, Adelaide
We walked across the airstrip at Alice Springs to board the plane back to Melbourne through the enveloping sense of endless space, dazzled by the bright white light, squinting up at the huge vault of blue from horizon to horizon and smelling the clean clear air; the vast distances still tangible. There is a sense of ‘becoming-imperceptible’ – writer and academic Carolyn Beasley observes ‘Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of deterritorialisation offers the concept that when the basis of one’s identity is eroded, one can be seen as ‘becoming-imperceptible’, of not standing out but of merging with the landscape’. I felt infinitesimal, humbled by this vastness, this distance from the sea. It’s good to experience this kind of humility, to understand that we are a part of things just like everything else, nothing better nothing worse, and to remember that the landscape shapes us no matter how much we try to shape it.
With thanks to:
Margaret Cowie, Bronwyn Taylor, Alison Clouston and Claire Eltringham.