Whilst I was in Lajamanu I experimented with making a few black and white landscapes around Hooker Creek as well as making the coloured ones. These images show that the conventional idea of the arid landscape in this region of the Tanami desert as a timeless boring, barren landscape that you drive through to get to the Kimberley is misleading. This representation of the desert–the emptiness, hostility and otherness—has its roots in the 19th century colonial English male explorers (e.g., Charles Sturt and Edward John Eyre) inland expeditions.
In contrast to the view of deserts as timeless lands, as ‘a featureless tract of eternity in which nothing had changed or would change deserts have a history and the ones in central or arid Australia are post-glacial and, as they are the product of historical processes, there is a diversity of central Australia’s deserts. They are different places with different histories.
The photo experiment was done as a reaction to the hyped up, heavily saturated colours of the tourist aesthetic that I’d seen everywhere on the internet before started the trip to the Tanami Desert. The saturated red dirt, green bushes, blue sky is the norm—- e.g., the stock Getty images of the country– form the backbone of the aesthetics of travel photography. Their conception of the Outback is the romanticised one of the dream of escape, adventure and opportunity to be free.
These landscapes were made in the early morning just after sunrise and before the light became too bright, contrasty and hard to photograph. They were made hand held with slow film as I didn’t take a tripod with me due to a lack of room in the Landrover Discovery. This is country that is going to be affected by climate change. Hence the relevance of a climart that acknowledges that we are part of nature and not separate from it, and which helps to encourage the transformational thinking required to move us towards environmental sustainability.
The black and white film gives a very different look to these landscapes, especially when they are compared to the ones in colour that I made. The prettiness and the gentle colours of the desert landscape in the early morning light have gone, and the picture has become more stark:
At first glance, the black and white image incorporates more subjectivity to the landscape, that is, this is how I felt whilst being in this part of the Tanami landscape. This embodied experience shifts the photo away from natural beauty and pushes it to ‘what does it mean to be out there in the country.’
I, a non Indigenous university educated male photographer, move through the country as a stranger, unsure of why I am really here in this contested space between the conflicting interests of Indigenous traditional ownership of the country and the colonising pastoralist interests, the missions, and now the twinkling lights of the mining industry’s (eg., Newcrest Mining Limited) interests. I do realise that after the Land Rights and Native Title debates the white Australian postcolonial sensibility towards Aboriginality and the Indigenous sense of belonging to the county comes to the fore.
I see landscapes–a way of looking at the terrain—-the Warlpiri see caring for their local country. To represent the country for the Warlpiri is to paint the Dreaming, hence using art to express and maintain the relationship of the people to their environment. The Dreaming is the period when country was created, but it’s also a system of beliefs and practices that govern everything from hunting and marriage to land management. The stories are an ancient oral system of knowledge that forms the cultural basis of Warlpiri society.
It was only after my return to Adelaide that I came across the Desert lake: art, science and stories from Paruku project. This project ran from 2010 to 2014 and it was a fusion of traditional knowledge, origin narratives, Western science and contemporary art, involving Kim Mahood, David Leece and Mandy Martin.
Paruku is the place that white people call Lake Gregory, a northern lake on the margins of the western Tanami desert in arid Australia. It is an active ephemeral lake with a shallow body of water that fills during wet years and evaporates, sometimes entirely, during dry ones. The lake is mostly freshwater, fed by Sturt Creek from the northern subtropics. This is Walmajarri land, and its people live on their country in the communities of Mulan and Billiluna.
The project was a multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural look at how global drivers, such as climate change and mining, are modifying Indigenous traditional owners connection to country in the Tanami Desert. At Parnkupirti Creek, one of the feeders into Lake Gregory, the Australian geomorphologist Jim Bowler, discovered worked rock between 47,000 and 53,000 years old, making this place the site of the oldest continuous cultural tradition on the planet. This is deep time.
Archaeologist science currently suggests that the climate of the interior –the arid zone—had been much wetter in glacial times, that this had been followed by the onset of aridity and the creation of the immense dune fields that ring the arid centre of the continent. It suggests that Australian desert societies have long histories of development, adaptation and response to life in these arid environments—people moved into the Australia ‘s deserts before 45,000 years ago stepping out across land that until then no human had visited. By 30, 000 years ago small groups of highly mobile hunter -gathers were using pockets of the country across the interior of the continent, from Central Australia to the Pilbara and from Lake Mungo to the southern Kimberley
Mandy Martin’s Desert Lake and Falling Star paintings are in colour, but they are much grittier and darker than the standard colour photography of the Tanami Desert. These paintings use the local pigments and soils and they point towards an environmental understanding that grabbles with how people live in place over a long time.