Kubulwarnamyo, May 15, 2015
My last day in Maningrida is an eventful one: I see green ants for the first time (an important source of vitamin C for hunter-gatherers); I almost step on a small green python; and, at three in the morning, I’m woken by a green tree frog hopping onto my head. This troika of fecundity seems emblematic to me of the rich and evolving nature and culture of Arnhem Land. And that’s why we’re flying this morning from Maningrida to the outstation at Kubulwarnamyo. Roads to the remote community up on the plateau, which rises a thousand feet above the coastal plain, are closed much of the year due to Monsoon-swollen rivers. Even now in what is the late Austral it’s evident from the air how much of the country is still covered with water.
Aboriginal Australians were relocated or moved into towns and cities during the mid-20th century. Hunter-gatherers adapting to colonial settlements is a familiar story around the world, and as with many indigenous cultures elsewhere, there was a counter-movement. In the 1970s an “outstation movement” sought to return Aboriginal people to a sustainable and healthier life on their traditional country. A key player in establishing a half-dozen of these remote communities was the artist Bardayal “Lofty” Nadjamerrek.
Lofty was born in 1926 and spent many of his early years with elders learning how to draw and paint rock art; from the 1970s onward he became one of the most influential bark painters in Australia. In 2002 he founded an outstation on his own clan’s territory, Kubulwarnamyo. This community of a few dozen people, which fostered the return to a more traditional relationship with the land, became a virtual bush university for Aboriginal people and visiting anthropologists, ecologists, linguists, botanists, and art historians.
The hour-long flight to Kubulwarnamyo in an eight-seater plane is bumpy, the sky hazy with smoke from the annual fires set by the rangers to keep the land healthy. Upon landing we’re met by Lofty’s grandson, Keith Nadjamerreck, and head ranger Jake Weigl, who with his wife Georgia Valance administers the outstation. Jake works with the Warddeken Rangers, an Indigenous team that manages more than 5,000 square miles of country with international conservation and cultural importance.
Kubulwarnamyo is built near a robust spring. Butcher birds and parrots converse overhead, and there’s nary a crocodile in sight. Everyone lives in tents standing under wooden A-frame-and tarpaulin structures resting atop a steel deck. The double-layered architecture is flexible, inexpensive, airy, and bug-resistant. Solar panels power small appliances and there’s WiFi. After we’re formally introduced to country by Keith and Mary with a brief head dunking in the spring, Mandy works with some of the rangers and artists, including Lofty’s widow, to paint narratives of contemporary environmental issues, using her traveling palette of non-traditional colors.
In the afternoon, we visit the site of Lofty’s last rock art painting, then head deeper into the plateau to a series of deep sandstone clefts and crevices filled with some of the most intricate and powerful rock art I’ve seen anywhere in the world, including images of animals extinct for thousands of years. Many of the best rock surfaces are a palimpsest, layers of images applied atop one another during different eras, which shows how the rock art styles have evolved. Mandy and David Leece, in bringing “fluoro” paint to Arnhemland, as well as Alexander and Laura Boynes working in experimental video, are just laying down the newest layer in the continually evolving cultural response to changes in the environment.
The Arnhembrand project is an effort by contemporary artists, both Aboriginal and “Balanda” (the local term for non-Aboriginal people), to understand how the identity of a place and its culture is both rooted and changing—and what part art might play in that evolution. To brand something is to sell an identity. In terms of remote or sublime landscapes, such as the Swiss Alps, it is an attempt to establish a “brandscape,” a landscape recognized through iconic images and attractive to tourists seeking new experiences. The communities of Arnhem Land are careful about courting tourism, understanding well the challenges. At the same time, the Traditional Owners are rightfully proud of their country and culture, willing to share the stories that bind the two.
The brandscape of Arnhem Land is mostly formed in Western eyes by two images: the edge of the plateau as it appears in Kakadu National Park—the only part of the region that’s easily accessed by tourists—and by rock art. Using art as a way of understanding the complex and evolving relationships among place, identity, images, and brand is of relevance to how we sustain both place and “our place on Earth.”