Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 6 of 6

Printmaker Basil Hall and conservationist Guy Fitzhardinge with the acetates on the floor of the Warruyarnta Art Centre in Mulan. Photo by John Carty.

Printmaker Basil Hall and conservationist Guy Fitzhardinge with the acetates on the floor of the Warruyarnta Art Centre in Mulan. Photo by John Carty.

At the end of the two-and-a-half weeks in Paruku, the painters from Mulan and the visiting artists, the writers and conservationists, the scientists and local Aboriginal rangers, had created a layered and linked body of work unlike anything I’ve witnessed elsewhere. A fine trope for it all was the portfolio to be created by Basil Hall, a printmaker from Darwin with whom Mandy Martin and Aboriginal artists have collaborated for years.
Basil gave the Aboriginal artists sheets of acetate upon which to paint each color from their paintings in order to reproduce them as prints. In some cases, the artists took to painting new works directly on the acetates. Notes from the scientists, sketches by the visiting artists, a poem from me–all of it would be incorporated. Even drawings by Chris Curran of the water and diesel pumps he repaired for the community would be layered into the work. Some of art would tell stories dating back thousands of years, others to last week.

And the men’s painting, although it wasn’t completely finished when I photographed it the morning we were driving back to Alice Springs, was breathtaking. A large selection of works from the project will tour parts of Australia, and the project archive and many of the artworks then come to the Center for Art + Environment. But it was difficult to envision that particular painting leaving Paruku. It’s not simply that the painting was a representation of Paruku and its Dreaming, but that the painting itself is considered country.

All of the work was linked, a culture of markmaking that started during our trip with mud being smeared on us in the lake as a gesture of welcome to country and that would continue as the artists both from Mulan and elsewhere would contribute work in future years. And, in turn, this expedition was linked into that much, much long arc of art on the continent that started with body decoration and rock art tens of thousands of years earlier.

The Parnkupirti Creek painting finished on the left side, awaiting additional detail on the right. Photo by David Leece.

The Parnkupirti Creek painting finished on the left side, awaiting additional detail on the right. Photo by David Leece.

Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 5 of 6

Chris Curran examining the Parnkupirti Creek painting at the end of the first day’s work. Photo by John Carty.

Chris Curran examining the Parnkupirti Creek painting at the end of the first day’s work. Photo by John Carty.

The men’s painting of the dingo tracks along Parnkupirti Creek took days. At first, each of the five artists picked up one of the five panels and sat apart, painting his own style onto the canvas. By the end of the first day the panels were beginning to come alive with rich patterned color–but none of the panels matched. Dingo tracks were painted along Kim’s creekbed, and ended in a pool of blue pigment painted by Hanson to represent where the two dogs went to ground.
On the second morning the men took the five panels back down into the creekbed, along the way torching some of the spinifex. It was done casually with a tossed match, which astonished me, coming from a state where out-of-control wildfires regularly consume thousands of square acres. But, despite the fierce afternoon winds that rose, the fires stayed contained within a few square yards, a testament to the wisdom of burning country on a regular basis, and a land management tool that’s been used on the continent for at least fifty thousand years.

Hanson’s brother Cyril took each of the panels and completely covered over the white creek that Kim had painted across them with thick black paint. Then he repainted them again with white, and completely redid the dingo tracks in a manner that was consistent, thus starting to reinforce how the individual pieces would jell into a single story and work of art.

As I was sitting crosslegged on the ground nearby, taking notes about the progress of the painting, I also kept staring at the bank of the creek opposite me, which Bowler had studied and sketched. A hundred thousand years of lakeshore sediments was exposed, and the men were painting a story that was so old it was almost geological in its origins.

Hanson Pye and others laying out the painting on the second day. Photo by John Carty.

Hanson Pye and others laying out the painting on the second day. Photo by John Carty.

Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 4 of 6

Kim Mahood showing the template of Sturt Creek to the artists. Photo by John Carty

Kim Mahood showing the template of Sturt Creek to the artists. Photo by John Carty

One morning Kim Mahood drove out from Mulan with a five-canvas template-map of Parnkupirti Creek, one of the feeders into Lake Gregory, to the site along the creek where the Australian geomorphologist Jim Bowler discovered the oldest human artifact on the continent. It’s also the site where the major Dreaming story of region, Two Dingoes and the Emu, concludes. Bowler has spent more than forty years untangling the paleoclimate of the ancient lake systems of the interior, and along the way done more to push back the dates of human presence in Australia than anyone else. At this site during his 2006-2007 field season he discovered worked rock between 47,000 and 53,000 years old. The place we stood with the artists from Mulan was the site of the oldest continuous cultural tradition on the planet.

The Dreaming–or Dreamtime as it is sometimes called–is the period when country was created, but it’s also a system of beliefs and practices that govern everything from hunting and marriage to land management. The stories are an ancient oral system of knowledge that’s the basis of what has been called the most complicated non-technological society in the history of the world. The Dreaming story where Kim spread out her painting is about two dingoes hunting and eating an emu, then going underground where they still reside. Kim had painted one of her topographical templates of the creek for the women to talk over and paint, but after a few minutes of discussion, the women decided that this was “men’s business,” and that the men should take responsibility for the project.

Hanson Pye, the senior man of Mulan, led the men down into the creekbed by Bowler’s dig site, where they set out the five panels, the creek a meandering white path connecting each of the canvases to one another. Then he pulled out a printed reproduction of the only painting ever done of the story, one done by his father during the 1990s, and began to compare it with the template. To paint the creek, the country, is to paint the Dreaming, hence using art to express and maintain the relationship of the people to their environment. It was not something to take on lightly.

Hanson Pye comparing The Two Dingoes and the Emu painting by his father, Clumpy Pye, to Kim’s template. Photo by John Carty

Hanson Pye comparing The Two Dingoes and the Emu painting by his father, Clumpy Pye, to Kim’s template. Photo by John Carty