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

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.
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

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.

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.

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

the heavy weight of the past

The common interpretation of  the frontier wars between settler Australia and the Aboriginal people is that this history is  a case of a doomed hunter-gatherer people unable to withstand the agriculture, animal husbandry and machinery of modern capitalism. This downplays the history of  the killing phases, segregation-by-incarceration phases, assimilation or absorption- to-the-point-of-disappearance phases, and  the  erasure-of-their- presence phases.

Currently, the aboriginal people in Northern Territory and Lajamanu are governed under an ‘emergency intervention’ initiated under the Howard Coalition government 2007 and continued under the Rudd and Gillard Labor federal governments, then the Abbott/Turnbull  Coalition government. This involves sending in civilian task forces (largely untrained in this work), and the military (even less qualified) ‘to save the children’ from reported child abuse, sexual molestation and neglect. The predators are  now seen as  the Aborigines themselves.

This is Henry Jakamarra Cook and one of his sons reading Judith Crispin’s recently published book, The Lumen Seed,   which includes a number of Henry’s stories:

Henry Jakamarra Cook, Lajamanu

Henry Jakamarra Cook, Lajamanu

This intervention involved the suspension (and therefore the protections) of the federal Racial Discrimination Act and the Northern Territory’s anti- discrimination legislation. That  suspension was revoked and the Act restored on 31 December 2010. The intervention, however, l involves the suspension of the permit system which allows Aborigines to decide who can enter their domains; the search for sexual predators; the quarantining of all social welfare payments; the physical medical examination of children; and the banning of alcohol. Legislation in 2011 ensured that social service payments would be tied to school attendance.

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.

Continue reading