at Emu waterhole

Between the end of  the 2016 Milpirri Festival and prior to leaving  Lajamanu we visited Emu water hole just outside Lajamanu. The waterhole was full  and it in a  Tanami desert-scape of sparse vegetation ( spinifex, desert oaks, acacias and mulga trees), blue skies and strong sunlight.   The history of the desert  is one of a  ice gre around 20,000 years ago,  which retreated around  11,000 years ago and the rangelands  emerged.  That shift  to an arid zone is a climate change event.

Desert in Australia  traditionally means unsuitable for pastoral undue to the sandy soils that are deficient in nutrients  and the spikesy spinifex grasses that are unpalatable to stock.

Kitty + Ursula, Emu Waterhole

The Warlpiri have  extensive knowledge of water sources  in  the flat terrain  in their dreaming stories, their vocabulary has names for  different types of transient or permanent waterholes (e.g, rock holes, soakages)  and they  pass their  knowledge about water holes and food tracks on through dance and paintings. I started to decode these paintings whilst at Lajamanu —I got as as far as circles for waterholes, lines for journeys, half-circles for people.  Continue reading

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landscapes at Lajamanu

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.

Lajamanu landscape#2

Lajamanu landscape#1

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.
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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

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

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