Karlu Karlu: photographing landscapes

On the return trip  once  we had linked up to the Stuart Highway via  the Buntine and Buchanan Highways we moved quickly south trying to make up for extra  time in taking the northern route  from Lajamanu. Our aim was get beyond Tennant Creek  so that we could camp overnight in our swags  at  Karlu Karlu,   a series of round boulders, which have formed from an enormous chunk of granite, and which are  strewn across a large area of a wide, shallow valley.

We wanted  to photograph the  impressive rock formations  of huge, red, rounded granite boulders in the early morning light because daylight drains all the colour out of rocks, and flattens the shapes. The next morning, whilst   I was photographing the rocks I realised  how much my approach to photographing the landscape worked within the common conception of the landscape tradition in which the ‘landscape’ is a pictorial way of representing,  and in doing so it is transformed into something   useful for human beings.

rock+tree, Karlu Karlu

Thus the  colonial photographers on the various expeditions  to Alice Springs and beyond were interested in how the land could be useful for  development–ie., for the pastoral industry or  for agriculture. Karlu Karlu in contemporary postcolonial Australia  is an iconic  site for the tourism industry,  which frames the landscape as something to be viewed and appreciated. Karlu Karlu  is  right up with  Uluru and the Olgas as iconic  tourist sites.

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photography after Lajamanu

We left Lajamanu via Top Springs so that we could link up to the Stuart Highway via  the Buntine and Buchanan Highways. The Landrover’s  compressor  housing had been  damaged,  and  so we had to avoid the long drive over  the severe corrugations on the Tamani Road.   Whilst having lunch at Top Springs I realised that the photography being done on this road trip was working within contemporary art, in that  it is part of the current of art that emerges from post colonialism in a globalised world.

Top Springs, Northern Territory

This contemporary art current is a new temporality: it is decentred and diverse, is post medium, is  more open to an interaction with artists from different cultures, has no brief against the art of the past, no sense that the past is something from which liberation must be won, has taken leave of the linear conception of history with its carrying art into the future whilst waging war  against the old old forms.   The conception of time is one of a set of possibilities rather than a linear progression. Continue reading

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

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

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

landscape, Tanami Desert

Late one afternoon  whilst I was at Lajamanu I went on a brief phototrip with Helga Leunig to take photos of the Tanami Desert landscape.  We travelled a short distance  along the gravel  road  that provides access  to the local cemetery and rubbish dump.  This road  north  from Lajamanu, which   connects Lajamanu to the Bunting Highway,  Kalkarindji and Top Springs,   and doesn’t feature on Google maps is  the road that we would take to leave  Lajamanu for Alice Springs via Top Springs.

Helga had briefly explored the area to the north of Lajamanu early in the day,  and she was interested in returning to the rubbish dump to photograph a red car in the late afternoon light.  We never got there. I suspected that we  missed the turn off because we were rushing to catch the light. The Tanami landscape was very different to what I’d expected. I thought that it would be low and flat like the landscape of northern South Australia or featureless sand plains.   I didn’t expect this bio-region  to be as treed as it was:

dead tree, Lajamanu

dead tree, Lajamanu

Vegetation is predominantly spinifex hummock grassland with a tall-sparse shrub overstorey. Like most coastal Australians my imagination had constructed it  as  terrifyingly,  inhospitable arid country–an undifferentiated,  empty  desert landscape  with intense white light, termite mounds, and extreme temperatures.  Unhomely. It was yet another version of the white settler’s “dead heart”–that  long held popular conception of the Australian interior as a great and threatening unknown; one  counterpoised to the mythical  Inland Sea  in the middle of Australia  that  was  the preoccupation of  the early white  explorers, such as Charles Sturt, who took a whaleboat to the desert.  I didn’t expect  to see the  clustered eucalypts.

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The Tanami + the Frontier wars

After meeting up with friends in a very green Alice Springs we set out on the 15 hour drive along the Tamani Road in Warlpiri country to Lajamanu.

The history of this landscape  is that of the Frontier wars involving a series of conflicts over 140 years (1788 to 1934) that were fought between Indigenous Australians and mainly British settlers. Denialism, the failure to acknowledge  the existence of armed resistance to white settlement and the widespread frontier conflict,  constituted a ‘great Australian silence’ in Australian  history. This politics of ethnic amnesia  started to shift  in the 1970s,  when it was acknowledged that Australians had been engaged in the intentional physical killing of groups of people because they were those people, and forcibly removed children from their group with the intention of ‘transforming’ them into members of another group.

Central Australia was one of the last frontiers in the European conquest of Australia and, when administered by South Australia in the 19th century (between 1860 and 1895) 40 per cent of the population in the Alice Springs region, were mostly shot in the name of ‘dispersal’. Frontier massacres were erratic, episodic, sporadic, from a dozen to ten dozen dead at a time, more eliminationist than simply punitive in intent — for stealing livestock or spearing cattle ranchers, bushmen, miners and men who took Aboriginal women.

 Coniston in the Tanami desert was its western outpost in the European conquest of the Northern Territory.    The conflict was caused by the  pastoralist’s attempts  to occupy Warlpiri land and then to secure that land from the Warlpiri. This conflict lasted until the 1930s,  and  it was centred around the Coniston massacre,   in an area in and  around Coniston Station, just north of  Yuendumu. Coniston  is the last known officially sanctioned massacre of Indigenous Australians. It was a series of punitive raids that occurred over a number of weeks as police parties (ie., vigilantes under the command of a white police officer, Constable William Murray)  killed indiscriminately to establish white Australia by killing  over 200 or  more Walpiri, Anmatjere, Kaytete and Allyawar people.   
Termite mound, Tanami

Termite mound, Tanami

 

In 1928 Central Australia experienced a severe drought that reduced the ground water. The original owners of the land did what they had done for thousands of years and gravitated to their ancient water sources, mainly in the form of soaks.For the pastoralists, the lack of water came at a crucial time as they were carving out vast tracts of land to run cattle. Conflicts between Aboriginal people and white settlers resulted. The Aboriginal people were angry as they watched their waterholes being destroyed by cattle, fences being erected and white men taking their women as wives or servants. Their law, customs and traditions were being violated. 

The new pastoralists saw that the Aboriginal people  were competing with their cattle for the precious water. They considered their cattle to be  more important than the Walpiri people. This was a frontier society determined to maintain its whiteness,  determined to put an end to Aboriginality, and  ensure the erasure of the Aboriginal presence, one way or another. Aborigines as a distinct group would disappear.