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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.