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.”
Arnhembrand, May 10-16, 2015
After the Climarte event in Melbourne, I fly to Darwin with Australian artist Mandy Martin, conservationist Guy Fitzhardinge, architect and artist David Leece, and a host of related folk who have taken on a new “art, science and story” endeavor. The Paruku Project, which Guy, Mandy, and David ran a couple of years ago, addressed the ecological and economic fragilities around Lake Gregory in Western Australia. That work produced a fine archive and exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art, and now we’re off to work on a similar project in Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory.
Much of the Northern Territory is a tropical savanna very unlike the red deserts of Western Australia. This is where homo sapiens first entered Australia, and the region therefore has very old evidence of Aboriginal culture. Arnhem Land, located in the northeastern corner of the Northern Territory, is known for its avid preservation of that culture. Except for Kakadu National Park, it’s a region few outsiders are able to visit. This new project seeks to “raise awareness, both nationally and internationally, of the work that the Indigenous communities living in the Djelk and Warddeken Indigenous Protected Areas undertake to preserve their unique cultural and ecological environments.”
We spend the night in steamy Darwin, then hop in a chartered twin-engine plane for the 323-mile flight east to Maningrida, a coastal town of around 2000 inhabitants and one of the most important art centers in Australia. When we land we learn that the big story in town is an attempt to capture an eighteen-foot-long saltwater crocodile that’s been snacking on dogs and feral pigs foolish enough to wander the beach.
It’s Mandy contention that, while the people of Arnhem Land are world renowned for their bark paintings and other objects telling traditional stories, there are also new stories needed to deal with climate change and other evolving challenges—and maybe new art techniques are needed to portray those narratives. She’s talked with the local people and determined that they’d like to try out a new palette that includes everything from day-glo paints to three-dimensional video techniques.
While I’m writing for the project, I’m also here to spend time with curator Henry Skerritt—with whom I’ve worked recently on our recent No Boundaries exhibition of Aboriginal art. We plan on interviewing some of the better known masters of bark painting, as well as some of the artists with whom Mandy is working.
While Mandy and her husband, the rancher and conservationist Guy Fitzhardinge, meet with the local rangers to sort out logistics, Henry and I head over to the Maningrida Art Centre to meet with Coordinator Louise McBride, and to arrange the interviews, including a conversation with John Mawurndjul, whose work I’d seen at TarraWarra a few days previously. The Centre is packed with some of the finest bark paintings and ceremonial burial poles I’ve ever seen, as well as textiles, baskets, and other objects. At the end of the day we regroup to drive out to the Djinkarr Lodge, an eco-tourism facility set up eleven miles out of town, and where we’re staying for the week. The cabins, which are mostly unused at the moment, sit on a bluff overlooking a river valley, which offers up one of the best sunsets we’ve had in our travels. When dark falls, the invasive and poisonous giant cane toads flop around the paths, while over my bed green geckos chase down an astonishing variety of insect life.
As the week progresses, it becomes evident that Mandy’s strategy of bringing new tools to new stories is a good one. A prime piece of evidence is Ivan Namarnyilk’s fluorescent feral pig rubbing up against rock art, which is painted as white figures on an ochre ground. The neon colors of the invasive species threatens to erase history. This melding of old and new palettes, of traditional images with that of a new environmental and cultural challenge is exactly what Mandy is seeking.