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