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

Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 3 of 6

Standing in the open air studio of Devid Leece at our Lake Gregory camp, and contemplating his paintings. Photo by John Carty.

Standing in the open air studio of Devid Leece at our Lake Gregory camp, and contemplating his paintings. Photo by John Carty.

The Paruku Project out at Lake Gregory in Western Australia wasn’t just about Indigenous people painting, but also work by the artists Kim Mahood, Mandy Martin, and David Leece. David, who is known more for being one of Melbourne’s leading architects and photographers, worked on a series that captured two views of the same scene on a single canvas, one horizon stacked above the other, a cognitive record of how we never see the same scene twice in an identical manner. Mandy, who is the definitive Australian painter of the romantic sublime, used various ground earthen pigments and acrylic to built up complex 5-part field sketches. They’re complete works in and of themselves, but also notes toward the much larger oil paintings she’ll do back in the studio.
Kim, daughter of a Tanami rancher, grew up in the region and was raised in part by Aboriginal people; she has a distinctly different and deeper relationship with the community here, living and working in Mulan for three months out of the year. Since 2007 she’s been painting a set of very large canvases that are at first simple topographical maps of the land. But the ochre-colored canvases showing the location of the lake and creeks and dunes are just the start. The community women then sit with her, tell stories, and paint information into the work. One map might be a history of local events, another the extent of water from year to year, and a recent one documents burn scars where fire has swept through the spinifex and grasslands during the last five years. The maps are both works of art, but also documents that can help influence politics and policies.

When you look at the story paintings that the Mulan women are doing, the work by the visiting artists, and Kim’s maps, you begin to get an inkling of the layers involved both in landscape as a human construct, but also how deep here those physical layers extend.

Kim Mahood and the artists of Mulan, Fire Map, 2007-2011. Photo by John Carty

Kim Mahood and the artists of Mulan, Fire Map, 2007-2011. Photo by John Carty

Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 2 to 6

Daisy Kungah’s painting “Old people looking for bush tucker.” Photo by John Carty.

Daisy Kungah’s painting “Old people looking for bush tucker.” Photo by John Carty.

One of the objectives of the Paruku Project is to energize the Warruyarnta Art Centre in Mulan, the newest and perhaps most modest art center of the approximately 44 such organizations in central Australia. Aboriginal communities have few opportunities to generate income, and art centers have become a primary venue for doing so. The predominant painting style in the region consists of acrylic dots thickly applied to build up iconic pictures of “country” (a term meaning both terrain and territory) and “bush tucker,” or sources of food found in the wild. While the project generated several beautiful examples of such paintings, such as the one above by Daisy Kangah, project artists Mandy Martin and Kim Mahood also worked with the local artists to develop a style somewhat unique to Mulan, one based on more personal stories and community events.
Australia is the flattest continent (as well as being the lowest, driest, and hottest). Runoff from rain in the interior doesn’t really run downhill in rivers, as we experience in North America, but rather flows across the desert in enormous and slow puddles. Lake Gregory is actually one of those moving puddles that was blocked by a buildup of sand dunes during an ice age within the last 200,000 years. As a result, it is a shallow body of water that fills during wet years and evaporates, sometimes entirely, during dry ones. It’s therefore a very delicate ecosystem easily affected by global warming, and the spangled perch that live in the lake have recently experienced the worst known infestation in the world of a parasitic red worm.

Shirley Yoomarie painted her story of community members working with scientists to net fish for sampling, a painting that is at once a picture of country, a document relevant to climate change, a communal narrative, and a personal story. It’s also evidence of aesthetic evolution in the community–the dots are still there at the top and bottom of the painting, but they frame a flat representational scene.

Shirley Yoomarie painting “Working with scientists”

Shirley Yoomarie painting “Working with scientists”

Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 1 of 6

Aerial view of Lake Gregory, Western Australia

Aerial view of Lake Gregory, Western Australia

In August I flew from Reno to Los Angeles to make a 14-hour flight to Brisbane, Australia, caught a connecting flight for another three-and-a-half hours to Alice Springs in the center of the country, then hopped into a four-wheel-drive truck with artist Mandy Martin and drove another day-and-a-half to Lake Gregory–Australia’s equivalent to the Great Salt Lake. Mandy, along with Center for Art + Environment Research Fellow John Carty and prominent Australian biologist Steve Morton, has been working since April on the “Paruku Project,” a multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural look at how “global drivers are modifying Indigenous Traditional Owners connection to Country in the Tanami Desert.” I was along in two roles: as a writer for the project and as the curator of the project archive we’re collecting for the CA+E.

Our camp spot was in a stand of small white-bark gum trees surrounded by spinifex, the ubiquitous grass of the arid interior. People in Aboriginal communities burn the spinifiex on a regular basis at this time of year in order to forestall catastrophic brush fires caused by lightning, and the entire time we were there the horizon was a thick gray band that made for vivid sunsets and moon risings.

Men and women from Mulan, the town in the center of Paruku, the regional Indigenous Protected Area, took us down to Lake Gregory, walked us out into the water, and covered our arms and legs in mud, introducing us to the great serpent that lives in the lake and asking him not to harm us. And thus began two weeks of work rich with art, ancient stories, and archeology along the shores of a lake that was once ten times larger than it is now, and that is still the most important inland wetland of the continent.

I’ll be writing about those three aspects of the project in several subsequent blogs, but if you’re interested in more information, including the science and conservation aspects of it, you might check out the project’s own blog site:

http://parukuproject.wordpress.com/2011/05/14/paruku-sediments-blog-1/

Mandy Martin sketch of Lake Gregory shoreline and burned spinifex in late afternoon light. Photo by John Carty

Mandy Martin sketch of Lake Gregory shoreline and burned spinifex in late afternoon light. Photo by John Carty

For those of you attending the second Art + Environment Conference at the end of this month, Mandy Martin and John Carty will be presenting as part of a panel titled “Navigating the Waters of Art and Science in Australia.” Guy Fitzhardinge, a cattle rancher and conservationist who was working with the Paruku Rangers as part of the project will also be in attendance.