historical silences

A couple of days after  the Milpirri Festival  had finished we drove  north out of Lajamanu  to Top Springs via the Buntine Highway  The Landrover Discovery was damaged,  so we did  not make a detour to  go to Kalkarindji (formerly Wave Hill) or to  take a look at the Victoria River. This  region is the traditional land of  the Gurindji peoples and I kept on thinking of the myths of colonial history of this region. These myths have shaped how Australian’s have traditionally viewed the country and its indigenous people.

The myth about Aboriginal people is  that before European invasion, Aboriginal people were simply living off the land, with no civilization and a culture that didn’t make it out of the ‘stone age’ despite tens of thousands of years of human habitation. European colonists myth  painted blackfellas as primitive and that the land was an untamed wilderness. European settlement could occur because  the land was seen as desert and uncultivated and inhabited by a  backward people. The myth is part of the  core  narrative of colonial history  about the  establishment of the pastoral industry, which  celebrate European exploration, pioneering, colonisation and conquest. In this narrative  Aboriginal people were part and parcel of the environment: an element to be overcome by force if necessary, along with drought, wild animals, hunger and thirst.

creeper and tin

creeper and tin

This  is a myth and narrative is notable for how it covers over some marked  historical silences. Continue reading

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more Tanami landscapes

The most seductive time  for my photography in the Tamani Desert was just as  the sun dipped below the horizon. The magic hour. Except that the hour was more like 15 -20 minutes:

Magic "hour"

Magic “hour”

It was a world of gentle and subtle  pastel colours. Even more so than just after dawn. I confess that I had the colour palette of Albert Namatjira  in mind when I was photographing at twilight.   His water colour landscapes of the desert country around Hermannsburg (Ntaria), particularly the Arrernte lands around the Western MacDonnell Ranges, were delicately coloured.  His watercolours of ghost gums, desert flowers and rocky outcrops of the MacDonnell Ranges  were  often seen as both derivative ( he used an existing white man’s art form) and  pretty in a chocolate-box kind of way. They were  viewed as  ultimately vacuous. Continue reading

Armenian Khachkars at Lajamanu

Whilst I was at Lajamanu I was fortunate enough to attend a Baptist service in which Bishop Haigazoun Najarian and Deacon Nishan Basmajian from the Armenian Apostolic Church of the Holy Resurrection in Chatswood, Sydney gifted and blessed two Armenian khachkars (or cross stones) to the indigenous  Baptist Church, under Jerry Jangala Patrick, the local pastor.

Baptist missionaries had  visited Hooker Creek from the early 1950s to teach their version of Christianity to the Warlpiri,   then they were resident from 1962. In 1978  settlement was handed to Aboriginal community control and renamed Lajamanu. The Church was an example of  an Indigenous Baptist church in Australia; one that is culturally ‘hybrid’, with a  local identity. The bible on the lectern,  for instance, was written in Warlpiri.

Jesus is the light of the world

Jesus is the light of the world

I did not know the relationship between Warlpiri cosmology and the Baptist Christian one; nor do I know whether much work has been done on the relationship between Aboriginal cosmogony and the full breadth of biblical creation theology. This is important because the cultural aspects of Baptist ceremony and ministry lose their relevance unless they are anchored in the Warlpiri’s  beliefs, customs and values. Cosmology is the prime mover  in Warlpiri society.

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Milpirri portraits

Photographing people  was very different at Lajamanu during  Milpirri that it is in Australian cities.   Many of the  young Milpirri   wanted to have their  photos  taken,  and they often presented themselves in front of the camera. Then they would ask their friends to be part of their  performance. Often they  would direct in the sense of presenting themselves  for the camera.

From what I could see on the night  the photographers at Milpirri were non- Aboriginal people (kardiya). This was another indication that the reality of life in Lajamanu is that Warlpiri culture is being overwhelmed by a pervasive and powerful Euro-Australian culture.

2 girls at Milpirri

Warlpiri friends, Milpirri

 

Most Warlpiri feel trapped between two cultures. Young people particularly feel that engagement with the mainstream organisations that run Lajamanu requires too great a departure from their Warlpiri life, while on the other hand the culture of their elders seems increasingly irrelevant. The result is that many people are in a kind of social no-man’s land where the values of neither culture are learned deeply. In some cases the young Warlpiri  now know so little of their own culture that they do not even have the luxury of choosing which culture they want to follow.

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celebrating Milpirri

The Milpirri festival was conceived by the Warlpiri educator Steven Wanta Jampijinpa Patrick and produced by Tracks Dance Company in Darwin.  Milpirri is structured around a selection of endangered Warlpiri rituals, many of which have not been performed in their traditional contexts for decades and are largely unknown by the youths in the community.It cannot simply be described as a ‘festival’ in the Anglophone sense, since younger Warlpiri are learning Jukurrpa (Dreaming) and their own obligatory relationships to country and community, in both Warlpiri and English. The story is told in segments that feature both traditional and contemporary elements which use the  core concepts of  of culture and apply them to contemporary community living.

The 2016 Milpirri performance  draws on themes and values from the Jarda-Warnpa ceremony and  is associated with atonement and reconciliation. The performance was very colourful and joyous.One side of  the stage was surrounded  by 27   banners  designed by variety of  Warlpiri people. These are kuruwarri (customary designs) and  their visual representation on bodies and the  banners is a direct link to the most powerful and sacred aspect of culture and country.  They symbolise ancestors, country, ceremony and law.

banner, Milpirri Festival, 2016

banner, Milpirri Festival, 2016

The banners, which   act as a kind of backdrop for the Milpirri performers, are images that are a representation of Lajamanu, and so belong to, and are a part of,  the community. This  festival is a very specific community-based event that is a contemporary notion of traditional in that

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Hooker Creek

Whilst I was at Lajamanu I would sleep in  a swag  on the verandah of the Learning Centre, rise before dawn, quickly  dress,  then  walk around the township  taking photos before the early morning  light became too bright.

I usually ended up in the Hooker Creek area and wandering along the dry river bed as this gave me more time  for photography. The township is on the eastern side of  Hooker Creek. The creek is normally dry and a flooded Hooker Creek is  a rare occurrence in the Wet season at  Lajamanu.

tree, Hooker Creek

tree, Hooker Creek

Lajamanu used to be known as Hooker Creek circa 1948 –1978 . That was when it was a government settlement which also included  a Baptist mission from the 1960s. Government here means the Commonwealth government since  1 January 1911 marked the date  in which the Northern Territory became the responsibility of the Commonwealth.  At the time there was a belief that Aboriginal people were an inferior and doomed race.

Some held the view that full blood Aboriginal people would die out in within a few generations, and the best thing that government policy makers could do for them was to provide a comfortable existence until that happened. Settlement meant the Chief Protector was empowered to assume the care, custody or control of any Aboriginal or half-caste if, in his opinion, it was necessary or desirable in the interests of that person for this to be done. Continue reading

Milpirri Festival at Lajamanu

A key reason  for the roadtrip to Lajamanu was to see  the Warlpiri’s  large-scale outdoor Milpirri Festival, which  is put on by the Warlpiri community in partnership with the Tracks Dance Company for one night only every two years.  The one that I saw  on  Saturday October 15 was  the seventh biannual festival.

The rehearsals for Milpirri  were on the Friday night:

Milpirri rehearsal, Lajamanu

Milpirri rehearsal, Lajamanu

Milpirri is a ceremonial performance based largely around dance that taps into the  history of Warlpiri culture. It is a way of  passing on the  knowledge of this culture that connects the Warlpiri community and enables them  to survive on this land. Milpirri refers to the clouds that bring thunder, lightening and  rain at the start of the wet season, which then  results in grass and food. The  ceremony is a celebration. Continue reading