Billy Griffiths | Caring for country and telling its stories
Hamish Gurrgurrku | Introduction
Mandy Martin | The Arnhembrand Project
Guy Fitzhardinge | The essence of country
Guy Fitzhardinge | Djelk Healthy Country Plan 2015-2025
William L. Fox | Resilience in the face of change
Libby Robin with Mandy Martin | Sketches in the Sands of Time: The grounded art of Mandy Martin
Billy Griffiths | Caring for country and telling its stories
SMALL FIRES STREAK the savanna beneath me, as the land is worked and cleaned. The gentle smoke on the horizon is sign of a healthy country. In the distance, disappearing into a soft haze, lies the rugged stone country of the Arnhem Land Plateau. The plane wobbles over the mouth of the Liverpool River, where saltwater meets fresh, and descends towards a thin ribbon of grey on a cleared patch of thick, earthy red: the international airport. On one side of the airstrip, a few dozen houses cluster around a football oval; on the other, a neat grid delineates the newest suburb, called simply ‘New Sub’. Maningrida, as our destination is known, takes its name from the Kunibídji phrase Mane djang karirra: ‘the place where the Dreaming changed shape’.[i]
The town’s simple layout belies the immense cultural diversity of its inhabitants. On any given day, a visitor might hear the rippling sounds of Ndjébbana, Eastern Kunwinjku, Kune, Rembarrnga, Dangbon/Dalabon, Nakkára, Gurrgoni, Djinang, Wurlaki, Ganalpingu, Gupapuyngu, Kunbarlang, Gunnartpa, Burarra and English. In per capita terms, it is perhaps the most multilingual community in the world.
Indigenous ranger Ivan Namarnyilk picks up our small team of artists, scientists and historians from the airport and drives us out to Djinkarr, where we will be staying for the next week. Djinkarr is a small outstation powered by a run-up generator with beautiful fresh water pumped from the ground. It is one of dozens of such settlements scattered across western Arnhem Land: small clusters of houses inhabited by one or more family groups, often remote from the main settlements and usually poorly connected by unsealed bush tracks. It is the kind of outstation that is out of favour with the current government, the kind that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott targeted with his ‘lifestyle choices’ rhetoric and that former minister Amanda Vanstone dismissed as a ‘cultural museum’. With the current government focus on ‘regional hubs’ (the centralisation of services in towns), the long-term future of these outstations seems tenuous. Yet there are overwhelming benefits to having people living on country. People sustain country, and country in turn sustains people.
Anthropologist and economist Jon Altman, who has worked in the region since the late 1970s, argues that supporting local Indigenous communities in their efforts to stay on country should be regarded as a form of development and conservation: ‘Developing these communities in accord with market logic is replete with contradictions.’[ii] Instead, he advocates a local ‘hybrid-economy’ where customary activities – such as hunting, burning and painting – interact vigorously with state and market regimes. The experiences of community-based Indigenous ranger groups, which employ thousands of young men and women across Australia, demonstrate the immense benefits of this model. Through these programs, a new generation of Indigenous land managers are using cultural and historical experience, as well as new technology and Western expertise, to care for their country. It is no coincidence, Altman argues, that the most ecologically intact parts of the continent are Aboriginal owned and managed.[iii]
During the next week our team will be working from Djinkarr with dozens of Bininj, as the people of western Arnhem Land are known, to tell ‘healthy country’ stories through paint and performance, science and oral history. Many of the artists involved, like Ivan, are also rangers who manage the Djelk Indigenous Protected Area to the south of Maningrida. I am helping to record the stories that are being captured in the art, as well as reflections from the rangers about their role in caring for country.
The Djelk IPA is a vast estate, extending across monsoon rainforests, tropical savannas, grasslands, wetlands, sea country and stone country – and it encompasses the territories of a hundred and two clans. It has been carefully cultivated and transformed by people for over fifty thousand years.[iv] But since the arrival of Europeans, this management system has broken down and the land is rapidly degrading. Archaeologist Carmel Schrire, who worked across Arnhem Land in the 1960s, laments that the present landscape ‘owes no more to cataclysmic events like the Pleistocene ice ages than it does to outwardly trivial ones, like the release of a few imported buffaloes from a minor outpost of a now faded empire’.[v] Buffaloes, pigs, feral cats and cane toads have trampled, chewed, rubbed and wallowed their way across a delicate ecosystem, destroying habitats, spreading weeds, muddying springs, transforming the vegetation and exacerbating the eroding impact of wildfire. The effect on native species has been devastating. Their decline and extinction have deprived the Bininj of bush tucker as well as delivering a more existential loss: the displacement of totemic beings from their ancestral homes.[vi] ‘Such loss,’ argues conservation biologist John Woinarski, ‘stains our society; it demonstrates that we are not living sustainably; it degrades our legacy.’[vii] As Ivan reflected in 2015: ‘Country is in the heart… Bininj, today, it’s like we’re suffering.’
In the painting workshops that artists Mandy Martin and David Leece are facilitating at Djinkarr, this frustration comes to life in magnificent fluorescent colours on canvas. A sick echidna burrows into a termite nest surrounded by invasive plants and orange cane toads; the stomach contents of a feral cat are painted in x-ray style; electric-green mission grass grows up against white mimih figures on a rock wall. ‘That mission grass,’ Ivan tells me, ‘it’s messing with the mimih spirits. It’s hiding them.’ The art is a powerful way of telling stories about the changes that are happening on their country, and which the rangers are working to control. It is also a means of raising awareness at a time when government support for Indigenous land management programs remains flimsy and ephemeral. The contrast of traditional ochres and fluorescent pigments seeks to capture the rupture that feral animals, invasive weeds and wildfire represent. Ivan, who was taught to paint at the age of twelve by his father Timmy Namarnyilk and his ‘big’ father, the rock-art master Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, shows me another painting that captures the essence of the project. It is of a fluorescent feral pig rubbing up against the ochre art of a rock wall. ‘This troublemaker,’ he tells me, pointing at the feral pig, ‘he’s destroying all of our painting, this rock art here. Damaging stories. So maybe we’re going to tell stories of this one troublemaker, damaging our land.’
DESPITE MANY ATTEMPTS, Arnhem Land was never conquered, nor systematically settled by white colonists. The failures of successive large-scale and ill-devised schemes for development have, ironically, allowed northern Australia to retain vast areas of relatively unmodified landscapes.[viii] Even today, Arnhem Land exists largely outside the economic currents of mainstream Australia, and its intricate social structure eludes familiar labels such as ‘millennials’, ‘gen X’ and ‘baby boomers’ that are bound to twentieth-century Western culture. The opportunities and challenges facing young men and women in Arnhem Land have instead been defined by a different, parallel history.
As late as 1933, journalist Ernestine Hill described Arnhem Land as being ‘the only corner of Australia that has persistently baffled, and even frightened, the white pioneer… For one hundred years Arnhem Land, by the sheer ferocity of its natives, has defied colonisation.’[ix] Anthropologists Rhys Jones and Betty Meehan believe the key to the resilience of the Bininj is their long history of contact with other cultures.[x] For centuries, Macassan voyagers from Indonesia visited the shores of Arnhem Land in search of trepang, building stone houses and growing rice along the coastline, trading with local communities and even taking Bininj with them back to foreign ports. Macassan words entered the local dialects and still remain: ‘Balanda’ (whitefella) is believed to have a Macassan root.
This long history of interaction ended in 1907 when the government refused to grant fishing licences to non-Australian operators.[xi] Only a few industries were exempt from this aspect of the White Australia Policy, and in the early twentieth century Japanese pearlers began to frequent Bininj sea country, building wooden huts across the landscape, their walls plastered with ‘yellowing pictures of naked Japanese women’.[xii] Since 2007, the Djelk Rangers have joined with the Australian Customs Service (now the Australian Border Force) to monitor illegal fishing activities off the coast: the modern manifestation of a long history of cultural contact. This innovative arrangement involves fee-for-service payments, which are an integral part of the meagre funding the Djelk Rangers receive from the federal government. ‘We know all their hiding spots and where they need to come for fresh water because we have been trading with fishermen from Makassar for many centuries,’ write rangers Victor Rostron, Wesley Campion and Ivan Namarnyilk. ‘This gives us a bit of an edge… We know our sea country.’[xiii]
MANINGRIDA WAS NEVER meant to be a town, let alone the fourth-largest town in the Northern Territory. The idea for a ‘trading post’ on the Liverpool River came from Syd Kyle-Little, a patrol officer of the Native Affairs Branch in Darwin, in 1947. Since the late nineteenth century, mines, missions and buffalo-hunting camps had caused a drift of Aboriginal people from their homelands into built-up areas. Bininj were drawn to settlements by curiosity, trade and access to food and tobacco. In an attempt to stop this drift, Kyle-Little suggested creating a commercial centre in the heart of Arnhem Land, where Aboriginal people could get access to European items such as blankets, tomahawks, sugar and tea in exchange for crocodile skins, dingo scalps, pandanus dilly bags, dried trepang and pearls. ‘I envisaged all sorts of possibilities,’ Kyle-Little wrote in his memoir Whispering Wind (Hutchinson, 1957). ‘I even had plans for extending the trading post and persuading the natives to start lumbering.’[xiv] On 9 June 1949 he settled on a site at a place known as ‘Muningreda’.[xv] He paid locals with tobacco to build a paperbark storehouse and he roved around the country spreading word of the new trading post.[xvi] Hundreds of people came to drop off trade goods, seek medical assistance or work for supplies. But the settlement was short-lived. Soon after a devastating outbreak of disease in late 1949, in which many locals died, Maningrida was abandoned.[xvii]
It was not until 1957 that the Welfare Department resolved to repeat Kyle-Little’s experiment and set up a government settlement in Maningrida. It took three days for the new managers to sail to the mouth of the Liverpool River from Darwin. ‘The only map of these waters the skipper had been able to procure was that made by Matthew Flinders in the early 1800s,’ reported Ingrid Drysdale, the wife of the first manager and first white woman to live at Maningrida.[xviii] The old trading post quickly gained a school and a hospital, a supermarket and a snack bar, a sawmill and a church.[xix] By 1969, more than one thousand Bininj lived in Maningrida along with one hundred and fifty Balanda. Missionaries mixed with woodcutters to form one of the largest towns in the territory. But disease and alcoholism were rife. In town, Bininj lived in cramped housing camps, spiritually divorced from their homelands. Even those who remained on their country struggled with the new controls imposed on their traditional practices – especially burning – by Balanda law.[xx] Drysdale lamented that the traditional owners were ‘at the end of their “dreaming” and at the beginning of a new road unmarked by the spirit ancestors who guided their every step in days gone by’.[xxi]
But around 1970, an unexpected phenomenon spread throughout the Northern Territory. In an explicit rejection of attempts at assimilation, Aboriginal people left the cramped housing in Maningrida and began moving back onto country.[xxii] Betty Meehan, who had set up the first school in Maningrida in 1958 and whose first husband, Les Hiatt, had studied social life during the initial contact period, was shocked by the rapid development of what became known as the outstation movement. When she returned to Maningrida in 1972 as an anthropologist in her own right, she was surprised to find that many of the Gidjingali people she had worked with in the town had returned to their homelands. They were hunting and foraging across their rich coastal country surrounding the Blyth River, moving camps according to the seasons and religious needs, and supplementing their diet with food bought from the Maningrida store with money from art sales and pensions. ‘Perhaps twenty years of living in a white-dominated European type town was long enough for the Maningrida people,’ Meehan and Jones mused, ‘perhaps the glitter of the Balanda culture and its material objects had dulled sufficiently during that time… There can be no doubt that they desired to avoid the unpleasant by-products of Maningrida culture – alcoholism and associated petrol sniffing, violence and delinquency – that these were burdens that they no longer wished to bear.’[xxiii]
The outstation movement began tentatively, Helen Bond-Sharp reflects in her history of Maningrida, but with the election of the Whitlam government in 1972 it gained support and momentum under the new policies of self-determination.[xxiv] In the early years at Maningrida, Bininj had experienced a sedentary lifestyle for the first time – and they had rejected it. They were driven by a responsibility to return to country, to tend to sacred sites and to work the land through fire, ceremony, hunting and gathering.
Anbarra elder Nancy Bandeiyama, who allowed Meehan to camp near her hearth on the Blyth River when the anthropologist returned in the 1970s, exemplified the importance of connections to country in navigating the impact of white settlement. Nancy had first seen a white man in 1956. ‘She now wears European clothes, uses an iron digging stick, rides in motor vehicles and listens to rock and roll music on her transistor radio,’ Meehan wrote in 1985. ‘With little difficulty she has reconciled herself to a changing environment and taken from European culture what she wants. She is able to do this because she is firmly attached to her own land, secure in the fact that its resources are hers and that its religious forces are fully intact and working for the benefit of her people.’[xxv]
In returning to Maningrida at the beginning of the outstation movement, Meehan had not encountered ‘the end of the Dreaming’. This was the place where the Dreaming changed shape.
WHEN THE LATE Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek (Wamud Namok) returned to his country to the south-west of Maningrida in the 1990s, he gazed out across ‘the smokeless horizons of the early dry season’ and ‘cried for the emptiness of the plateau’.[xxvi] His companion, Peter Cooke, recorded his sadness at the damage wrought by recent intruders: the muddied springs and floodplains that had been trampled by herds of feral buffalo, bush foods devastated by feral pigs and the destruction of waterholes through erosion from wildfire. In the absence of traditional burning, fire, too, had become feral. The cultural landscape had transformed into a modern wilderness. Lofty was instrumental in helping to re-establish human control over fire in the stone country, working with other Aboriginal leaders, fire researchers, fire management authorities and public and private funding agencies to create the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement project, a fire management regime based on an amalgam of traditional practice and use of modern technology.[xxvii] The program gained funding from the government through the carbon credits scheme, as the fire regime’s mosaic of ‘cool’ burns stopped the destructive ‘hot’ burns of wildfire. But, Cooke stresses, ‘The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement project did not start with a focus on greenhouse gas abatement, but rather greenhouse gas abatement became an innovative means of securing funding to address the biodiversity, social and cultural agendas of the Indigenous and science partners.’[xxviii]
It was in this context that conservationist, anthropologist and pastoralist Guy Fitzhardinge first met Lofty and became involved in work in Arnhem Land. As a member of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee he joined one of Lofty’s cultural walks across Wardekken country. ‘They would walk and camp, walk and camp, and the kids would learn the names of all the walking trails…it was all part of Lofty’s idea to try to get kids to come back and live on country, to maintain their connections with country, to look after country.’ Fitzhardinge remembers huddling around fires at night listening to stories of the ancestors, and waking up in the morning to the soft singing of the elders. The biggest threat to the environment, he tells me, is ‘empty country’: ‘not having people on country to look after it’.
‘The landscape in Australia has been misread with regard to occupancy, productivity and modes of management since European settlement,’ Fitzhardinge wrote in 2007. ‘The implications of this misreading have been profound, not only in terms of the environment but also in lost opportunities to connect with indigenous knowledge and experience.’[xxix] He played an instrumental role in founding the Karrkad-Kandji Trust, which supports caring for country initiatives in the Djelk and Wardekken IPAs in western Arnhem Land.
The outstations, combined with the ranger services, are the key to avoiding the neglect that comes from empty country. ‘We need a lot of help from each other and from Balanda to make a new future for our outstations because they are where we can grow our culture and knowledge,’ write Djelk rangers Victor, Wesley and Ivan. ‘This is what the outstations are for us; they are like the seed for a big tree… Outstations are not about the old ways, they are the birthplace of the new ways for us.’[xxx]
AFTER A FEW days, I break away from the painting workshops at Djinkarr and join the Djelk Rangers on one of their trips on country. The ranger shed is a hub of activity in the morning as the rangers check the vehicles, discuss the agenda for the day and get lunches from the nearby supermarket. One group prepares the boats for a day on the water in search of ghost nets and illegal fishermen; another loads leaf blowers, drippers and rakes into the back of a ute to use for burning. The ranger program was created in 1991 as one of the pioneering Indigenous land management programs in the country. It now employs thirty male and female rangers, many in their twenties and thirties, who manage the land and sea country of the vast Djelk IPA. One of the young women rangers, Tara Rostron, shows me and photographer Hugo Sharp the crocodile hatchlings behind the shed. Our shadows cause a commotion as we approach, and hundreds of small scaly bodies twist into hiding. These crocodiles, little bigger than my hand, have lived their whole lives in this tank. They were collected as eggs from the coastal wetlands and soon they will be sold to crocodile farms in Darwin. It is another one of the many fee-for-service operations that the rangers conduct to supplement government funding for their work on country.
I am soon bundled into a car and we rumble out of town along the red dirt road, stopping on the way to check up on the outstations and to get permission from landowners to do work on their country. We drive south-east for an hour until the road dwindles into a track and takes us down onto the Ji-balbal floodplain, which is pocked with buffalo wallows and cobbled with their hoof marks. ‘This year we didn’t have much rain. None of this floodplain was flooded,’ senior ranger Darryl Redford tells me. ‘It used to be.’
I help make firebreaks around the outstation, blowing and raking debris away from the houses, cars and water tanks, and then watching as Darryl flicks matches into dry leaves. There is no wind, so the flames creep slowly across the landscape, cleaning the country. It is a calm, cool burn. It is protecting the land and the infrastructure against the threat of late ‘hot’ fires, which burn at a higher intensity because of weeds, and destroy habitats and blacken rock paintings on the Arnhem Land escarpment. ‘You got to look after the rocks,’ another ranger, Greg Wilson, says sombrely. ‘Our ancestors are on that.’
On another day, I return to the floodplain where we did the burning to help monitor the spread of Mimosa pigra weeds. Darryl leads the party on foot through the thick vegetation, searching for the mimosa outbreak he tagged last time. He holds a CyberTracker – a digital GPS device – in one hand and a machete in the other. Ranger Dave Moore roves in advance on a quad bike; Romeo Lane follows us in the troopy, knocking down all that stands in his way. Mimosa is an insidious weed that spreads quickly, suffocates other plants and fuels damaging ‘hot’ burns. It was introduced by Maurice William Holtze around a century ago to the botanic gardens in Darwin, Guy explains to me, ‘and it escaped’. It has virtually taken over some of the floodplains to the west. Here, the outbreaks are more sporadic – and they need to be kept in check.
We spread out in the dense growth of the floodplain, each searching our own line of bush for a rogue sprout of mimosa. Whenever an outbreak is found, a series of high-pitched calls echo through the trees and everyone converges around the weed. Jethro Brian cuts it off at the stump with a big smile and piles the limbs of the tree into a neat circle. Darryl then pours a combination of access herbicide and diesel (siphoned from the car) over the pile and scatters some pellets, which will dissolve in the rain and kill off any loose seeds. They burn the bigger outbreaks. After every treatment, Darryl takes a photo and then records the location on his GPS CyberTracker.
It is a slow process, demanding an attentive eye. In a full day of monitoring perhaps only a kilometre or two of floodplain will have been cleared of mimosa, but there is no way to rush the process. And, as much research has shown, the social aspects of this work are as compelling as the ecological benefits.[xxxi] The ranger program is one of the few jobs that allow young men and women to work on country, which makes it a source of pride within the community. Many kids stay in school longer in order to qualify for the ranger internships. ‘Soon as I was a schoolboy, I was turning up everyday,’ Jake Taylor tells me as we search the dense undergrowth. ‘That was my first job, ranger. I love this work, being on country, looking after country.’ As Victor, Wesley and Ivan write: ‘…looking after country and looking after people go hand in hand for us… For example, we did some work to help researchers on the “Healthy country, Healthy people” study. This work demonstrated what we have always known. Caring for your country makes you healthier.’[xxxii]
After three hours of walking in the heat of the day we come out onto a clear, recently burnt patch of the floodplain and spot some buffalo wandering in the distance. Controlling the population of buffalo is as important as monitoring the mimosa. They carry the seeds on their coats for miles and then trample them into the soil. In the wet season the rangers actively cull the beasts, often from the air; in the dry, the hunt is more opportunistic. Despite industry lobbyists spruiking the potential benefits of selling buffalo meat, the rangers remain determined to get rid of the buffalo. Jake put it to me simply: ‘We look after the country. We don’t like buffalo coming in damaging all this land. People upset.’ Instead of selling the meat, the rangers find other uses for a buffalo carcass, from cutting it up for a feast (and passing on some meat to the owners of the land on which it was shot) to dragging it whole behind a car in order to clear a road – ‘it was the right width’.
The frustration with buffalo reflects a wider concern with the displacement of native species caused by feral animals. ‘At the river there,’ Darryl tells me, pointing over the steering wheel, ‘out on the floodplain, we used to go out fishing, driving along like this and we always see goanna, you know, just strolling along the way… Since cane toad moved in we haven’t seen any goannas round here.’ He goes silent for a moment, before adding, ‘Maybe those animals just move out to some place, quiet place, where no people is hurting them, no late fire coming in.’ In the painting workshops, ranger Greg Wilson has depicted the arrival of these intruders in electric colours. He gets fired up about the changes they have wrought: ‘First Captain something, Captain Cook, he’s the one, he made the mess, mucked up this country. He bring buffalo… They don’t belong here. Get rid of them. This country belong to kangaroo and emu and brolga, not cat or cane toad or buffalo.’
Before returning to Maningrida, the rangers shoot a buffalo on the floodplain and efficiently strip the animal of its flesh as eagles gather and circle above. They stop at the outstation to exchange news about the mimosa outbreaks and distribute the meat to the landowners, keeping two legs for a barbeque at the ranger shed. ‘That old man whose country we’re on,’ Darryl says on the way back, ‘he was telling me when he was a little boy, you know, he was saying everything was good. But he’s seen a lot of change. Soon as when the buffalo got here. Buffalo and pigs. They moved in and that time everything was changing.’
TODAY, RANGERS HAVE incorporated the use of GPS, satellite imagery and aerial photography to help manage their country. Visual artist Alexander Boynes draws inspiration from this convergence of tradition and technology to add another dimension to the painting workshops at Djinkarr. He uses technologies such as depth mapping and 3D imaging to create installations with Aboriginal dancers about caring for country. The result is a dazzling, electric display of movement and sound, in which figures are broken up into lines and dots and primary colours. ‘The colours and textures used in Alexander’s artwork are very Dreamtime,’ his sister and independent dance artist Laura Boynes reflects. ‘It looks a bit like the brushwork they do in their own paintings.’
Laura has perhaps the most challenging task as an artist. She is talking with Bininj about healthy country stories – such as ferals and fire – with the goal of working with them to fuse ‘traditional dance with contemporary styles to create a new dance’. For her, live performance is key. Singing and movement are natural expressions of connections to country. ‘When we dance we follow the stories, we follow everything,’ one young performer, Brendon Cameron, reflects. ‘And plus when we sing, I follow the same story.’ On one of the final days, Laura collaborates with a group of men to choreograph a traditional/new wave dance. One hunches over an iPad, softly singing and drawing a digital image of red clouds and a polluted sea, which is projected onto the performance. Another plays didgeridoo, while a third thrusts a feathered ‘morning star’ pole at the audience with a blood-curdling cry. It is the story of a songline being broken by increasingly wild storms. This performative aspect of the project – along with the digital dimension – feels fresh and exciting. And the reaction from younger generations in the community is immediate. ‘The importance of the project,’ Alexander explains, ‘is to connect… For people in the Djelk IPA to realise that there are people in the wider world who care very deeply about their country and their culture and really want to do very positive things to maintain the lives that they live. It’s not a lifestyle choice; it’s a way of life. It is their life on this land. And the stroke of a pen or the government of the day cannot undo or change sixty thousand years of life on this land.’
IN RECENT YEARS, the population of Maningrida has rapidly grown again; many of the thirty-two outstations in the Djelk IPA are being visited less often or not at all. The Northern Territory intervention and associated policy changes, especially the focus on regional hubs, has seen a decline in outstation support services like the mobile supermarket ‘tucker run’ as well as education and medical support for people living on country. Once more, Bininj are being forced to come off country and into towns. The shift presents new cultural, ecological and social problems, which the landholders and rangers are trying to tackle with their 2015 Djelk Healthy Country Plan. Outstations will play a key role in their plan ‘to keep the land, the sea, culture and languages strong through appropriate use and management’.[xxxiii] Alongside climate change and ‘unhealthy fire’, the management plan outlines threats from pigs, buffalo and ‘problem animals’ like cats and crocodiles, as well as mining, visitors, illegal fishing and coastal pollution. The biggest threats facing this generation, however, are ‘loss of knowledge’ and ‘empty country’.
The Indigenous ranger programs, created in the final decades of the twentieth century, have empowered a generation of men and women to care for their country. The rangers are recognised as expert managers of their lands, harnessing modern tools and knowledge to refine long-established practices and skills. Today, Aboriginal land managers are looking after some of the most biologically intact and culturally rich landscapes in the world. And because of the fabric of interconnections, the programs are also making important contributions to health, education and local economies, and offering meaningful employment to young men and women who want to stay on country. Yet, as one of the early art centre managers at Maningrida, Dan Gillespie, laments, ‘The work is being done on a shoestring and many of the successful outcomes so far are small miracles.’[xxxiv] Too often, ranger programs are dismissed as a form of ‘welfare’ or a pathway to a ‘real job’. The Australia-wide Country Needs People campaign is urging the federal government to heed the funding advice of its own Productivity Commission, which has repeatedly highlighted the ranger programs as one of ‘things that work’ in overcoming Indigenous disadvantage.[xxxv]
The Bininj recognise the immensity of the challenges ahead and they are seeking long-term support and funding for their programs. ‘Today it’s like we’re floating,’ Ivan reflects, hunched over a canvas. ‘In the territory, we always listen Balanda government, we always listen government. But they no listening back.’ The vibrant, electric paintings and performances they have produced at Djinkarr are simply one of the ways they are sharing their story, hoping to create understanding, urging the nation to pay attention.
This essay grows out of a short-term, independent art and environment initiative known as The Arnhembrand Project. The paintings and digital works created during this project have been acquired, through donation, by the Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art. The collection will be exhibited at the Macquarie Bank’s ‘Space’ gallery in Sydney from 6-27 July 2017. Learn more about ‘The Arnhembrand Project’ at arnhembrand.com.
This essay was amended on 29 May 2017 to include a correction to the number of rangers employed by the Djelk Ranger program ,which is thirty. The earlier version suggested ‘more than sixty’, which was incorrectly sourced from the Djelk Healthy Country Plan 2015–2025. This version now reflects the actual number of employees.
[i] Victor Rostron, Wesley Campion and Ivan Namarnyilk facilitated by Bill Fogarty, ‘Countrymen standing together’, in Jon Altman and Seán Kerins, eds, People on Country, Vital Landscapes, Indigenous Futures (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2012), 162–73.
[ii] Jon Altman, ‘Living the good life in precarious times’, Inside Story, 2 June 2015, <http://insidestory.org.au/living-the-good-life-in-precarious-times>
[iii] Jon Altman, ‘People on country as alternate development’, in Jon Altman and Seán Kerins, eds, People on Country, Vital Landscapes, Indigenous Futures (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2012), 1–25., 2.
[iv] Christopher Clarkson, Mike A. Smith, Benjamin Marwick, Richard Fullagar, Lynley A. Wallis, Patrick Faulkner, Tiina Manne, Elspeth Hayes, Richard G. Roberts, Zenobia Jacobs, Xavier Carah, Kelsey M. Lowe, Jaqueline Matthews, and S. Anna Florin, ‘The archaeology, chronology and stratigraphy of Madjedbebe (Malakunanja II): a site in northern Australia with early occupation’, Journal of Human Evolution 83 (2015), 46-64.
[v] Carmel Schrire, The Alligator Rivers: prehistory and ecology in western Arnhem Land (Canberra: Australian National University, Terra Australis 7, 1982), 17.
[vi] JCZ Woinarski, S Legge, JA Fitzsimons, BJ Traill, AA Burbidge, A Fisher, R Firth, IJ Gordon, AD Griffiths, CN Johnson, NL McKenzie, C Palmer, I Radford, B Rankmore, EG Ritchie, S Ward and M Ziembicki, ‘The disappearing mammal fauna of northern Australia: context, cause, and response’, Conservation Letters 4 (2011), 192–201.
[vii] John Woinarski, ‘Correspondence: After the Future’, Quarterly Essay 49 (2013), 85–88, 88.
[viii] John Woinarski and Freya Dawson, ‘Limitless lands and limited knowledge: coping with uncertainty and ignorance in northern Australia’, in JW Handmer, TW Norton, and SR Dovers, eds, Ecology, Uncertainty and Policy: Managing Ecosystems for Sustainability (New York: Prentice-Hall, 2002), 83–115, 84.
[ix] Ernestine Hill, ‘Arnhem Land: Deals, Death and Defiance’, Northern Standard, 21 Jul 1933, 5.
[x] Rhys Jones and Betty Meehan, ‘The Arnhem salient’, in Desmond Ball, ed, Aborigines in the defence of Australia (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1991), 100–62, 100.
[xi] Campbell Macknight, The Voyage to Marege’: Macassan Trepangers in Northern Australia (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1976), 124.
[xii] Syd Kyle-Little, Whispering Wind: Adventures in Arnhem Land (London: Hutchinson, 1957), 177.
[xiii] Victor Rostron, Wesley Campion and Ivan Namarnyilk facilitated by Bill Fogarty, ‘Countrymen standing together’, in Jon Altman and Seán Kerins, eds, People on Country, Vital Landscapes, Indigenous Futures (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2012), 162–73, 169.
[xiv] Kyle-Little, Whispering Wind: Adventures in Arnhem Land, 123.
[xv] Ibid., 172–73.
[xvi] Ibid., 177.
[xvii] Ibid., 237.
[xviii] Ingrid Drysdale, The End of Dreaming (Adelaide: Rigby, 1974), 81.
[xix] Helen Bond-Sharp, Maningrida: a history of the Aboriginal township in Arnhem Land (Howard Springs: Helen Bond-Sharp, 2013), 114–123.
[xx] CD Haynes, ‘The pattern and ecology of munwag: traditional Aboriginal fire regimes in north-central Arnhem Land’, Proceedings of the Ecological Society of Australia 13 (1985), 203–214.
[xxi] Drysdale, The End of Dreaming, 194.
[xxii] Bond-Sharp, Maningrida, 141–46.
[xxiii] Betty Meehan and Rhys Jones, ‘The outstation movement and hints of a white back lash’, 1978, 135.
[xxiv] Bond-Sharp, Maningrida, 157.
[xxv] Betty Meehan, ‘Bandeiyama: She Keeps Going’, in Isobel White, Diane Barwick and Betty Meehan, eds, Fighters and Singers: The lives of some Australian Aboriginal women (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1985), 200–13, 211.
[xxvi] Peter Cooke, ‘A long walk home to Warddewardde’, in Jon Altman and Seán Kerins, eds, People on Country, Vital Landscapes, Indigenous Futures (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2012), 146–61, 147.
[xxvii] Peter Cooke, ‘Buffalo and tin, baki and Jesus: the creation of a modern wilderness’, in Jeremy Russell-Smith, Peter Whitehead and Peter Cooke, eds, Culture, Ecology and Economy of Fire Management in North Australian Savannas: Rekindling the Wurrk Tradition (Canberra: CSIRO Publishing, 2009), 69–84.
[xxviii] Cooke, ‘A long walk home to Warddewardde’, 153.
[xxix] Guy Fitzhardinge, ‘Attitudes, Values, and Behaviour: Pastoralists, land use and landscape art in Western New South Wales’, PhD thesis, University of Western Sydney, 2007, 81.
[xxx] Rostron et al, ‘Countrymen standing together’, 172.
[xxxi] CP Burgess, FH Johnston, HL Berry, J McDonnell, D Yibarbuk, C Gunabarra, A Mileran and RS Bailie, ‘Healthy country, healthy people: the relationship between Indigenous health status and “caring for country”’, Medical Journal of Australia 190 (2009), 567–572.
[xxxii] Rostron et al, ‘Countrymen standing together’, 167.
[xxxiii] Djelk Rangers, Bininj Landowners and Jennifer Ansell, Djelk Healthy Country Plan 2015-2025 (Maningrida: On Demand, 2015), 9.
[xxxiv] Dan Gillespie, ‘Foreword’, in Jon Altman and Seán Kerins, eds, People on Country, Vital Landscapes, Indigenous Futures (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2012), vii.
[xxxv] Productivity Commission, ‘Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators’, 2016 report, 145.
Hamish Gurrgurrku | Introduction
Keep following old generations. Keep looking and remember, you know, and telling our people in young generations, you know, keep learning, keep coming. Art is coming when the old people is painting. Keep walking in hot suns and the bushes, look around in the hollow logs and barks and spirit mimih. Cut him off like that, bark cooking in the fires, you know, cut him off, and keep moving, you know, and pick it up and carry on, keep walking. All this is my Dreamings you know, telling stories in secret by that art. … Sometimes it’s plain – keep working stories, you know … We strong, Aboriginals, passing knowledge for our cultures, keep working.
That’s the stories, you know. We like to make some things to make money, you know, and keep working, telling more stories about that how we work. When we get old we pass it on, we pass it on. Our kids, you know, and many more generations and many more parents. … Keep painting and more stories coming.
We’re living in this community in Aboriginal peoples. Sometimes the old people telling us some really old stories, you know, in wayback, in the beginning. Sometimes now we put it into other ways, Aboriginal people, in new styles. We still have stories, like old people. So put stories, old people always draw like this, you know. We are new, so we put things like other picture, good things to good styles, good picture, coming new styles, our ways. We keeping that story in our history and we pass it on to young generations, you know. Pass it on in old and new.
Hamish Gurrgurrku is a renowned artist who lives in Maningrida NT. His Country is Mumeka, his language Kuninjku and his moiety is Yirridjdja (Bangardi)
Mandy Martin | The Arnhembrand Project
‘I need plak,’ John Mawurndjul says, gesturing with his chin at the Arnhembrand art supplies. I take a second beat because although he has been dropping in most days to watch Hamish Gurrgurrku’s canvases evolve, this is the first time he has indicated he wants materials. Hamish’s wife, Jennifer Wurrkidj, having finished her own canvases the day before, is now working further long hours, to help Hamish put the finishing touches to his big, ‘Yabbie Dreaming’ painting. They are surrounded by various family members who are all chatting away about the growing number of large crocodiles this season and the big buffalo they had cooked up for dinner last night.
Hamish and Jennifer make a collective decision to paint the edges of the linen turquoise blue, the same colour Jennifer used for the fine line, added as a finishing flourish to her Old Time Bush Tucker in Rock Country painting, the day before. The blue denotes water but also sets up a lively visual zing with the rich red and yellow ochres, black and fluoro pigments that they have both used. I have mixed all the non-earth pigments with acrylic binder medium and water, then carefully mixed the fluorescent pigments the same way, adding cadmiums and cobalts to enhance their permanence.
I avoid giving any of these fluoros to John, instead carefully packing a box of traditional ochres, collected and given to me over the years by archaeologists, anthropologists and friends. John is taken by the deep purple oxide from the Pilbara, which a boiler maker had ground up and carted south for me in a few Cottee’s Cordial bottles, some years ago. I explain to John that none of them are sacred ochres. I would hate to transgress any cultural rules, my colours are in fact, like most ochres, decomposing haematites in a clay base.
Arnhembrand originated from an invitation from within the community in 2013 to generate a multidisciplined and participatory project in the mould of my work with the Walmajarri people in Desert Lake. It began as a simple drawing workshop on an investigative trip in February 2015 and evolved, with the approval and support of the Djelk Rangers, into an art and environment initiative aimed to promote the cultural and land management work conducted in the Djelk Indigenous Protected Area. As a short term, independent project we have worked with a cross section of nearly 80 Bininj participants of all ages and skill levels. There are musicians, performers and respected visual artists living in these communities, like John Mawurndjul AM, whose high profile exhibitions in Australia and around the world have placed him and others in the limelight. The primary aim of the Arnhembrand project is to raise awareness, both nationally and internationally, of the work that the Indigenous communities living in the Djelk IPA undertake to preserve their unique cultural and ecological environments.
With the introduction of new technologies and methods of communication there is potential to reach out in new and exciting ways that communicate what is a very positive story about Bininj land management and interrelated cultural life. The younger community members adopt new electronic technology (mobile phones, computers etc.) very readily and older people are excited by the possibility of telling their stories in new and interesting ways. The Arnhembrand project helps these remote communities to communicate to a wider audience the values of their culture and landscape and the exciting work they are engaged in to preserve a way of life that has lessons for all of us in Australia and around the world.
The traditional owners of western Arnhem Land live in a very remote part of Australia and in country not easily accessible. For almost half the year they are cut off by flooded rivers swollen by the summer monsoon. The country has environmental values that are similar to Kakadu National Park to the west, rock shelters display rock art that could be 40,000 or more years old, and the traditional culture remains strong. Many younger people in the community are caught between two worlds – that of white and black – and struggle to recognise and integrate the values of each. The traditional owners’ and elders’ commitment and desire to maintain both the social and environmental values is clear. However, these attributes remain largely unrecognised by the wider national and international population. There is a need to create a global appreciation of the incredible wealth of culture and environment held in western Arnhem Land and the work that is being done to support it by its Indigenous inhabitants and to boost the chance of the community becoming sustainable in the long term.
Organisations like Pew Charitable trusts, Bush Heritage Australia, The Nature Conservancy and the Karrkad Kanjdji Trust, recognise these intertwined values. These groups have spoken and attested to the uniqueness and importance of this culture and the determination and unanimity of the Traditional Owners to care for their Country. To support their activities, 15% of monies donated by the group of partners supporting the Arnhembrand project goes directly to Karrkad Kanjdji Trust operational costs.
The name, Arnhembrand, comes from the language of art world. Bill Fox has written about the fact that all major art centres now have their own brand, Xie Xing brand, LA Brand and so on, which led me to declare this project, set in Arnhem Land, to be Arnhembrand.
New Wave Painting
The method for the Arnhembrand New Wave Painting was a wonderful home-grown mix of Balanda and Bininj techniques that naturally evolved over the project. As an indicator of changing times and culture we used the latest fluorescent Anthropocene pigments mixed with traditional ochres to create a new language to paint environmental stories. It allowed both Bininj and Balanda artists to record stories about healthy country, in a new way. The Bininj artists called it ‘New way’ painting to distinguish it from the traditional Bininj way that the rarrk masters paint barks, funeral poles and other wooden objects in Arnhem Land.
Fluorescents are Anthropocene signifiers, being new chemicals and compounds, and as many of the global drivers impacting healthy country are connected to climate change, plastics, minerals and other Anthropogenic markers, it seemed an apt choice.
On the initial Arnhembrand reconnoitre, I simply took along a sketch book and loose sheets of black paper, already with grounds applied, to test the interest and feasibility of this project with participants. There was strong scientific precedent. I was inspired by the drawings made with anthropologists Catherine and Ronald Berndt by the Yirrkala community in 1946 and 1947 using kids’ coloured wax crayons on brown paper. Those drawings recorded a rich heritage and contained powerful information, including visual documentation of the long trade with the Macassans. The bark paintings made on the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land led by Charles P. Mountford were also a precedent, although traditional materials, ochres on bark, were used to depict local ancestral narratives, as well as body painting designs associated with the trade winds, which heralded seasonal visits from Indonesian trepang fisherman from Makassar.
Following the method with the black paper used on our first trip, David Leece and I grounded the canvases with ochres or fluoros, or sometimes a layer of each, crudely overlapping. But the final method for the project emerged from a collaborative process. The Bininj artists took to the canvases with round acrylic brushes or small watercolour brushes but then did the ‘real’ painting with their traditional bush brushes. It is of particular joy watching the Bininj artists prepare these from spear-grass slashed from the seafront at Hamish’s house. These are then cut into roughly 20 cm lengths and then stripped back to 2 or 3 sinewy threads about 6-8 cm long. The artist pulls these threads away from their body through the mixed colour and then apply them to the surface, in this case, linen or canvas, once again drawing the threads away from the body in a fluid and perfectly controlled, ruler sharp line. Any mistakes are met with great consternation and my greatest efforts in assisting the artists was cleaning up accidental smudges, all possible with some heart in the mouth scrubbing under a tap and paint reapplication.
Arnhembrand live performance
In makeshift music recording studio and performance spaces, Laura Boynes choreographed and directed Arnhembrand Live performance and at times the performers would rush away and come back with clap sticks, ceremonial dance poles or – after testing several for musical key – a didgeridoo, then hurry back to their rehearsals: vital signs that these objects have living ceremonial significance. It has taken a year for this electrifying performance to come together. It is a story from the Dreamtime but uses the latest interactive technologies and recording. While the performers dance and play didgeridoo, Daniel Bonson sings as he sketches with a stylus on an iPad in fluoro colours. He recounted in an oral interview that making visits to his ceremonial fishing grounds is more precarious due to climate change and that big storms are disrupting his songline.
Digital performance Arnhembrand
Daniel and his nephew, Marcus Rostron, are also key performers in Arnhembrand Digital Performance, in which Alexander Boynes uses digital and depth mapping technologies to record song and dance. Daniel Bonson, a sea country person, has a clear understanding of the environmental threats to his country, including coastal pollution, and as Daniel sings his ‘Flying Fish Dreaming’, Alexander digitally manipulates the fish to skim the water and through his very body, Daniel simultaneously transcends.
Alexander has also created his own artworks that evolve from this collaboration as 2D acrylic and ACM aluminium panels in vibrant colours. The digital performances are exhibited projected onto a silk scrim with a large mat (commissioned by Arnhembrand) in the foreground, symbolising a ‘meeting place’. Sally Rickards, KKT partner and nurse, assisted the creating of the large mat in natural Pandanus and fluorescent dyed raffia palm. She joined the women collecting the Pandanus and then sat on the ground helping Maisie Mirinwarnga and Vera Cameron tease out threads and prepare them for weaving, making cups of tea and taking notes.
Methodology in practice
This project sought to respond to, and communicate, many of the key challenges faced by Indigenous land-holders in this area, and how those challenges are being addressed. One of these key threats is loss of knowledge. Cultural loss can be practical and include loss of art forms, tools or techniques: but it also manifests itself through the stories themselves being broken. Ivan Narmarnyilk, Djelk IPA Ranger, learnt to paint from his ‘big father’ Wamud Namok or Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek AO, the last of the rock painters on the plateau. Ivan explains how Lofty taught him his x-ray style of rarrk and that this is different to the sort of rarrk that the coastal artists in Maningrida paint. Certainly as he applies fluoro rarrk x-ray lines with his bush brush to his large painting of a narbalek rock wallaby, a cosmic tingle arcs across the table. The last colony of narbalek known now in Arnhem Land lives at Awunbarna, Mt Borrodaile. Ivan is using a threatened cultural technique to paint a nearly extinct species.
Ivan uses the ochre ground that I have applied to the canvas to signify the rock wall and he explains that his rarrking technique takes a while. Towards the end of the trip, Ivan takes a painting home with him and works on it long into the night. He tells me that he wants to teach his young son to paint, which is evident by the fluoro orange butterflies and turtles daubed all over the cardboard box of paints I had given Ivan to take home. He wants his son to one day be a great painter like his ‘big father’.
Artists like Hamish Garrgarrku paint their Dreaming. To Hamish, he embodies the Yabbie and it is his songline, his country. Painting or singing that Dreaming is part of caring for his country. Dealing with environmental threats to his country is a huge task and Traditional Owners sometimes need help from outside organisations to care for that country. His painting becomes testimony to his Dreaming and the threats to his country such as pigs, visitors, and buffalo, but it is also an appeal to the national and international community to preserve that Dreaming, his country, him.
The Bininj participants in Arnhembrand know these issues intuitively and experientially. As oral, performed and painted testimony are their main forms of communication and recording stories for posterity, they responded naturally to the Arnhembrand methodology.
Communities are not just local or of the locale, they include communities of interest which can be national and international and if people cannot visit the country and meet the people and hear the stories, walk on the country and see the problems themselves, other ways need to be found to take the stories of how local communities care for their country to that audience. This is where our project fits in and why we have chosen a cutting edge methodology to achieve this. There are a lot of competing voices out there in the communication world and a new and vital approach can help break ground, help audiences look at the issues and stories afresh.
Arnhembrand has run on the largesse of KKT partners and some of those partnerships have been in-kind from academics, writers, artists, photographers and filmmakers, most of whom generously donated their time. Many donors have become participants as well and the project benefited from their financial, organisational and teamwork skills as they drove vehicles, cooked, cleaned, wrapped artworks, recorded stories, helped set up Bininj phone accounts, sorted out bank accounts and far more.
David Leece, international architect and KKT partner, was involved in all decisions relating to Arnhembrand and he has an unquenchable passion to paint. I have to rein in his consumption of canvases, much to his frustration but he tirelessly threw himself into mixing paints for artists and a range of other tasks like coordinating and recording the children’s school song, ‘cheeky, cheeky buffalo’ like a proverbial head master.
Like me, David battled to find time on the final trip to continue his own painting, the main opportunities during the whole project have been on weekends and briefly in the morning and afternoons when we returned to the Djinkarr rocky spur. Most of our finished works were completed in our respective studios, when we returned home. However his output was still impressive and he found a place of meditation in the verticals of pandanus against the distant horizontal of the Liverpool flood plain and the pale line of the Arafura Sea.
My work over the year was in my sketchbook which doubled as a project for a 2015 International Year of Soils project, Dirt Dialogues, see essay. Mostly, I managed a sketch a day and for once took hardly any photographs, leaving that task to the photographers in the team, including Hugo Sharp Arnhembrand cinematographer, videographer and web designer and David Taylor, KKT Partner and Agricultural consultant. My studio paintings focussed on the many forms of fire culture ‘Wurrk’ practised in Arnhem Land, see “Savanna Burning” text box and visual essay.
Frances Murrell, founder and coordinator of MADGE, food writer and commentator, another KKT partner, joined us on one of our trips and worked in depth with our host at Djinkarr, Leila Nimbadja, discussing food and bush tucker. Leila took Fran and some of the younger women to collect seeds and also to make artworks about issues surrounding food and the loss of knowledge
The Arnhembrand writers, Bill Fox, Henry Skerritt, Billy Griffiths and KKT partner, David Rickards have been able to work at desks on most visits, in touch with the world while being surrounded by paintings, funeral poles and weavings of masters, past and present. David, a director also of Social Enterprise Finance Australia, has been sending out calls to gather support for Arnhembrand, to friends around the world, with the diligence of a bloodhound. International connections for this project are important to promote the art and artists of Arnhem Land and take their story to the world. He feels the number of young women and children participating will particularly appeal to women donors who are keen to see the ‘next gen’ coming through in Indigenous communities.
Two key women artists in the project have been Deborah and Jennifer Wurrkidj, they both design and print beautiful bolts of fabric and also exhibit more traditional barks and mimih poles. They are both very quick to grasp how their painting can tell stories about the environmental threats and they gave oral recordings, adding their own stories to this testimony.
One artist, Timothy Johnson, amazed himself and us with his powerful new images. He communicated a dark picture of the land and in his painting of a waterhole with ‘too many fish’ and a yellow belly black snake on top of them, he was commenting on waterholes drying up because of climate change. He is also the lone artist addressing mining in the project, although there are anti-CSG and coal mining signs posted up about town, it is difficult for Countrymen, who haven’t seen the effects of mining to visualise it. CSG exploration is taking place out in the Arafura Sea and complex negotiations have been happening in Arnhem Land over township leases which involve mining rights.
Although this project may have produced the first fluoro rarrk pussy cat, cane toad, buffalo and the first fluoro and raffia mat in Maningrida, there is nothing really new under the sun. When Maisie Mirinwarnga visited the Djomi Museum for the first time, she wept to see her father in a photo up there on the wall. She said she saw him dancing and singing and her grandparents too, that they were all there. We talked about the wonderful baskets and dilly bags in the museum, which include brightly coloured synthetic fibres – Macassan influences. When Maisie needed to match the pink edging to tie off the mat, she called her family to seek a particularly dark purple pandanus to match the fluorescent colours.
Art movements come and go but cultural shifts are much more profound. This cultural adaptation to record testimony about living on healthy country will help communities like Maningrida cope with the challenges of climate change and its effects like shifting populations, the loss of biodiversity, people’s ability to feed and cure themselves from disease and much more. The testimony that these participants have generously proffered in Arnhembrand, will be an enduring archive which documents this period in ways that no other forms really can.
The purchase of the Bininj artwork for the archive and book royalties have contributed income for the community. The archive, consisting of stories collected through digital, filmed, oral, written and painted testimony, provides a clear and important record of all aspects of the project. The archive will be acquired by the Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art. This is one of few institutions that collects art and environmental projects from all over the world and maintains this material through the work of dedicated librarians and staff for posterity.
In the longer term, the activities of the Karrkad Kanjdji Trust (whose role is to support community and landscape sustainability), will become better recognised through this project, thus enabling it to continue and expand the work it is doing in supporting the communities of Djelk.
This project has used a contemporary format, under Bininj ownership and control, to help move the challenges and triumphs of these isolated communities into a national and world spotlight.
Mandy Martin is a renowned artist who lives in the Central West of New South Wales. The Arnhembrand is the final project in a series of 10 art and environment projects working across Australia. She is an Adjunct Professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society Australian National University. http://www.mandy-martin.com
 Toussaint, Sandy. Yirrkala Drawings. Work on paper, bark, sculptures. Catalogue Laurence Wilson Art Galleryand Berndt Museum at the University of Western Australia, 2015
Guy Fitzhardinge | The Essence Of Country
A hand passed in front of me, pointing. ‘This hill – this hill here… This is the site of bandicoot. This is very important to me…’ These words were spoken by Darryl Redford a senior Djelk ranger. We had been driving for most of the morning following roads that turned into tracks and then petered out altogether, winding through trees, across grasslands and finally passing through these low lying hills that were so important to Darryl.
‘This is my country and my home.’ He could well have added ‘this is the essence of me’. For Darryl and his clan, the bandicoot has long been an integral part of identity: it is their totemic animal. The two hills here – one the sacred site of the male bandicoot and the second the sacred site of the female bandicoot – were immersed deep in the spirituality of Darryl’s clan. Traditionally, perhaps for millennia, these two hills have played a crucial part in their lives. But now, the storylines that relate to these two sacred hills have a disconcerting fragility – an uncertainty about their future in the now depopulated landscape.
We had set out to spend the day burning, engaging in the traditional burning practices that follow the ending of the wet season, lighting cool and low intensity fires that trickle through the landscape leaving a mosaic of burnt and unburnt country – the pattern that the northern Australian ecosystem so depends on. However, a side trip to Darryl’s country was too much to resist, especially as it led to good hunting land and the possibility of a meal of roast buffalo.
Darryl said that he was next going to bring his baby daughter out to his country and spend the weekend with her there. He stressed the importance of the connection between his people and their land – not just any land but their clan estate. He had obligations, not just to look after the land, but to pass on everything that bound his people to their land.
This affinity for land is alien to many Australians. The inability of second settlers to understand the deep connection between the traditional owners and the land seems to lie at the base of much of our thinking about Indigenous people and our relationship with them. The separation of social systems from ecosystems in much Eurocentric thinking does not exist in traditional Indigenous culture. Our failure to understand this point means that our understanding of Indigenous issues is unknowingly flawed and flavoured by white values. It is this narrow conception that led former Prime Minister Tony Abbott to declare that Indigenous people wanting to live on their land is a ‘lifestyle choice’, and it resurfaces when others talk about getting ‘real’ (equate this to white) jobs, having aspirations to go to university, or as Noel Pearson says ‘Cape York to New York’. While some may indeed have these aspirations, for many this is not the case.
The Djelk Indigenous Protected Area (IPA), covering 673,200 ha in western Arnhem Land, was declared in September 2009. It includes Darryl’s country, among the 102 clans and 12 language groups, and encompasses a landscape rich in biodiversity and cultural heritage. An IPA declaration is an agreement between the traditional owners and the Commonwealth Government to manage Indigenous-owned lands for biodiversity and promote cultural conservation. Indigenous Protected Areas now constitute nearly half the area of Australia’s National Reserve System – a protected area network that seeks to conserve Australia’s landscapes and native plants and animals for future generations.
The Djelk IPA forms part of the vast Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve, which was proclaimed in 1931 as a Native Reserve and to be managed by the Native Affairs Branch of the Commonwealth Government. The Arnhem Land Reserve was to be bounded on the west by the east Alligator River, on the south by the Wilton River and on the east by the Roper River and encompassed an area of approximately 88,000 sq. kilometres. Pressure of its establishment came from a range of organisations that significantly included many of the church missions. A year after the proclamation the crew of a Japanese vessel were murdered in Caledon Bay. This and the subsequent police expeditions no doubt sowed the seeds for the sense of aura and mystery that the area now commands.
Australia’s northern savanna, of which Arnhem Land is part, is considered to be the most intact savanna ecosystem in the world (Woinarski et al., 2007). As such, Australia’s tropical savannas are of high conservation value not just in Australia, but internationally. These lands have co-evolved with people for 60,000 years, making the concepts of ‘pristine’ and ‘wilderness’ inappropriate in this case, as far from a ‘pristine wilderness’, this is an ancient peopled landscape. There is an intricate connection between the culture of the inhabitants and the landscape in which they live, with changes to either affecting the other.
Historically, government policy has vacillated between the establishment of outstations (where clan members live on their own country) or removing people from the landscape and settling them in regional centres (where the cost of service delivery is cheaper). In the Djelk IPA there are about 30 outstations with approximately 100 houses and a population of about 1000 people (Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation Annual Report 2009/10). However, there is little money to support these outstations and historically little government will to do so in any sustainable way.
Djelk’s Healthy Country Plan 2015-2025 (see text box) recognises that community members ranked ‘empty country’ as the most severe threat to the maintenance of healthy country. ‘Empty country’ is country where people no longer live, no longer hunt or take care of the land in the traditional manner. The absence of people is seen to have a critical impact on cultural places and fire regimes, and a high impact on sea and coastal areas, rivers and wetlands. This impact is through a range of threats such as a loss of knowledge, unhealthy fire regimes, feral animals and the increasing incursion of weeds.
Many of these threat factors are closely aligned with threats recognised more broadly for Australia’s national heritage goals in areas such as the adjacent Kakadu National Park. Given these two areas have many inter-related environmental values, there is a strong case for supporting the traditional owners in the Djelk IPA to manage and care for their own land. Making the case even stronger is the desire of many people to leave the bigger towns and move to the outstations where problems such as drugs, alcohol and fast foods high in fat and sugar can be avoided or minimised through the addition of more traditional food sources, the absence of fast food outlets and controls on the availability of alcohol. There are environmental and social benefits from supporting initiatives that allow traditional owners to return to their country – a goal to which many families aspire. It has been a struggle for policy makers to understand that the values of Indigenous people are often not the same as those more generally held by the white population. The attraction of urban life can be dwarfed by the pull of a more traditional lifestyle. Communities prefer to take the pieces of white culture that suit them rather than what is thrust upon them through government policy. All too often Indigenous people are blamed for what is in reality a failure of government policy.
The Djelk IPA is home to one of the world’s oldest continuous living cultures, and it is the homeland of many Indigenous people. However, in terms of national and international interests, caring for these areas and the well-being of its peoples and cultures is more than just about a future for Indigenous people (Social Ventures Australia, 2016). It is about the maintenance of the world’s largest intact savanna, and its myriad ecological values. Northern Australia holds a charismatic place in the Australian psyche, with its remoteness, picturesque landscapes and a sense of the wild. But many of these values are now under threat. Apart from the issues mentioned in the Djelk Healthy Country Plan (see text box), there are some other substantial issues emerging.
Commonwealth and States continue to push to develop Northern Australia under the misconception that it is a land of untapped resources with large quantities of both water and abundant areas of productive land – all presenting an unprecedented opportunity for development. However, most of the talk about agricultural development has paid little regard to the majority Indigenous land-owners and how they may avail themselves of this opportunity. Absent also is any discussion of the need to establish cultural economies – sustainable social economies that are compatible with the cultural needs of Indigenous communities. The potential Indigenous contributions to the aspirations of northern development remain largely unrecognised.
Those proponents of development also pay scant regard to the importance of healthy functioning landscapes and ecosystems. This disparagement is a recurring theme in the recurring episodes of the generally failed attempts to develop northern Australia (Woinarski & Dawson, 2004; Cook, 2009), with few lessons learnt from the ecological disrepair that accompanied clearing of large areas elsewhere in Australia. Large, intact and healthy landscapes are an investment in the future as they provide opportunity to generate enduring enterprises and to maintain and preserve a range of species whose functions are or could be critical to human wellbeing. Healthy landscapes are better positioned to adjust to or mitigate against the influences of climate change. They also provide critical ecosystem services such as clean air and clean water. The failure to appreciate and value these wide-ranging benefits presents a significant threat to the savanna areas of northern Australia.
Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek AO (1926-2009) was one of the last great rock art painters in Arnhem Land. He was also an activist for and strong believer in returning people to their homelands. Through his support and guidance many outstations were established, and it is partially through his vision that the Karrkad Kanjdji Trust was formed. While Lofty was concerned about the damage to country caused by the absence of people, he was also concerned with the loss of culture and the negative effects of living in large communities that were remote from traditional lands.
With Lofty’s guidance, the Karrkad Kanjdji Trust was formed to support communities living within the Warddeken and Djelk IPAs. This engagement would not only help enable communities to care for their natural environment, but also support cultural activities, recognising that these two facets are so inextricably linked. The formation of such a Trust was a new concept for these communities, and indeed a novel concept in terms of working with Indigenous communities. Previously most funding had come from Commonwealth or State agencies, usually for specific purposes and time bound within Commonwealth and State funding cycles (Social Ventures Australia, 2016). These funding cycles seldom aligned to natural cycles and usually failed to accommodate the time required for natural changes to occur. The objectives of such government funding was mostly determined outside the communities with little input from them, often leading to projects that were more aligned to a generic national imperative than to a high priority community need. To be fair, this equally applies to a greater or lesser extent to most natural resource funding, be it Indigenous or otherwise. All too often funding streams and policy fail to take into account the needs of local communities or the timelines that successful landscape management work takes.
The risks faced by Indigenous communities when dependent upon Commonwealth and State funding was also recognised by the Pew Charitable Trusts and The Nature Conservancy, both of which made substantial contributions to the Karrkad Kanjdji Trust in the formation stage. These two international groups have much experience working with Indigenous people. Not only did they identify the funding issues, they also recognised the valuable and cost-effective contribution that land management by these communities make to the ecological health of the landscape in which they live. Support this with white ‘scientific’ knowledge and it becomes a highly powerful model for landscape management.
The Trust was established to augment government funding, rather than to replace it. Such long-term commitments of non-government support also allows for longer term planning and a focus on community priorities and goals. The Trust focusses on achieving successful outcomes as opposed to achieving successful outputs – another subtle but important difference to most funding streams. Being accountable for the output(s) is one thing but being accountable for a desired outcome is different and is a far more important criterion for the success of a project. Running a chainsaw course and successfully training people to use a chainsaw may well pass in terms of a successful output, but if the community does not own a chainsaw then there is no successful outcome! Sometimes success is hard to measure, especially when outcomes such as an increase in community capacity or changes in biodiversity condition typically take many years to materialise. Hence, supporters must share the same values as the Trust and be prepared to invest for the long term.
To date the Trust has engaged in activities such as setting up a school at which children are taught in their traditional language for part of the time, and in which there is a major emphasis in experiential learning. A Women’s ranger coordinator has also been employed to support a women’s ranger program and funding has also gone to an ecological monitoring project. One project in the process of development relates to recording and preserving rock art sites in clan areas and having clan elders speak about these sites and the images displayed so that this traditional knowledge and the sites themselves are not lost. Another project under development is looking at ways to minimise the damage that pigs and buffalo do to the environment, especially to waterholes and lagoons which traditionally have been an important food source for people.
The Trust only supports projects that emanate from the communities and are supported by the community, and in this way real ownership is developed. The projects are not ‘owned’ by the Trust but owned by the individual communities. They are their projects and, as a result of this focus, the value of the outcomes is measured by the communities concerned.
Similar models for working with Indigenous people can be extended to other communities, based on the principle of a partnership approach where respect and value is assigned to the aspirations of all participants; where value is placed on successful and meaningful outcomes as opposed to just delivery; and where trust and respect are established between all parties. In terms of social and environmental values for all Australians, there is so much to be gained from getting it right and so much to lose if we get it wrong.
Australian Government (2015) White Paper on Developing Northern Australia http://industry.gov.au/ONA/WhitePaper/index.html, viewed 26/07/2016
Australian Government (2015) White Paper on developing Northern Australia, Submissions http://industry.gov.au/ONA/WhitePaper/Submissions/index.html, viewed 27/7/2016
Bawinanga Aborigional Corporation (2009-2010) Annual Report
Cook, G.D. (2009) Historical perspectives on land use developments in northern Australia: with emphasis on the Northern Territory. Canberra.
Djelk Healthy Country Plan (2015), Jennifer Ansell for the Djelk Rangers and Bininj Landholders, printed by on demand.
Social Ventures Australia (2016) Consolidated report on Indigenous Protected Areas following Social Return on Investment analyses. Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Canberra.
Evans T, (1990) Arnhem Land; A Personal History, Occasional Paper #12, Northern Territory Library Service
Woinarski, J., Mackey, B., Nix, H. & Traill, B. (2007) The Nature of Northern Australia: natural values, ecological processes and future prospects, ANU e-press, Canberra.
Woinarski, J.C.Z. & Dawson, F. (2004) Limitless lands and limited knowledge: coping with uncertainty and ignorance in northern Australia. In Ecology, Uncertainty and Policy: managing ecosystems for sustainability (eds J.W. Handmer, T.W. Norton & S.R. Dovers), pp. 83-115. Pearson Education Limited, Harlow.
Guy Fitzhardinge is grazier who lives in the Central West of New South Wales. He has a Phd in Anthropology and is a research fellow at the Centre for the Inland, Latrobe University, Victoria. He is the chair of the Karrkad Kanjdji Trust, a board member of WWF and the Northern Indigenous Sea and Land Alliance and is currently working with the Indigenous Land Council in Western Australia.
Links will provided after journal publication to articles by historian, Billy Griffiths, art historian, Henry Skerritt and scientist, John Woinarski.
Guy Fitzhardinge | Djelk Healthy Country Plan 2015-2025
The ‘Djelk Healthy Country Plan’ was written to guide the operations of the Djelk Rangers for ten years from 2015. It represents a collective vision for the land and sea country of this environmentally and culturally significant landscape of more than 14,000 km2, of which about 6700 km2 is formally designated as an Indigenous Protected Area
Indigenous landowners have long managed their lands in a careful and purposeful manner. To some extent, such management planning has been formalised and documented through the process of Conservation Action Planning – known in Australia as Healthy Country Planning. This approach was introduced to Australia over ten years ago by The Nature Conservancy as a tool for planning, implementing and evaluating successful conservation projects and differs from Conservation Action Planning in that it includes Indigenous social and cultural values. Since 2006, over 26 Indigenous groups across northern Australia have conducted Healthy Country Planning workshops. Healthy Country Planning uses five iterative steps to plan and measure the success of conservation projects. It is seen as a continuous process from defining goals, to planning actions, taking action, reviewing and monitoring the success of the criteria used and then initiating the process again, thus building on experiential learning from previous plans.
The process entails two workshops, each a week long, in which participants create a shared vision for their land, and then identify and prioritise goals and likely threats to the achievement of these goals. This plan is prepared in collaboration with landholders and partner organisations. In many cases, such as for the Djelk plan, this is a significant endeavour considering that there are over 2500 people living in the Djelk Indigenous Protected Area, either in Maningrida or in outstations. A second workshop is then held to develop finer detail around strategies and actions and how results are to be measured. Because of the large number of clan estates (over 100) and landowners in the Djelk IPA, the process is time consuming and highly consultative because not all landowners may share the same vision for their lands and not all lands may have the same threats.
The implementation of the Plan is undertaken by the Djelk rangers – a ranger team comprising male and female rangers of a wide range of ages and language groups. There are three groups of rangers – land rangers, sea rangers and women rangers, who work across land and sea country.
Management focuses on a set of targets – the important things on the land and the sea country that need to be addressed. For the Djelk plan, five targets were selected – sea and coast, rivers and wetlands, culturally important places, culturally important plants and animals, and healthy fire. The initial condition of these targets was assessed: three were in good condition and two (rivers and wetlands and culturally important plants and animals) were identified as being in only fair condition.
Loss of condition was attributed to a range of threats. For example, the threat of ‘empty country’ was seen as having very high threat to cultural places and high impact to sea and coast, and to rivers and wetlands. Empty country was also seen to have resulted in the lack of healthy fire. Using this process a matrix was formed listing the targets on one axis and the threats on another, and in this way the various threats could be ranked according to their impact on the indicated targets.
Both ‘empty country’ and pigs were ranked as very high threats across the range of targets, with loss of knowledge, buffalo, weeds, unhealthy fire, mining and climate change being ranked as high. Threats that currently or potentially were considered to have lower impact were problem animals and visitors, with least concern for coastal and illegal fishing and coastal pollution.
William L. Fox | Resilience in the face of change
It is May, the end of the wet season. . The spear grass is six feet tall and ready for burning, by fires carefully worked to fertilise the thin soils, promote new growth, and allow both animals and hunters free passage across the land. At least, those are the traditional rationales; now there is also the need to reduce fuel loads in the face of catastrophic bushfires. Not far away the Liverpool River flows clear over waving strands of grass and through groves of slender gum trees. Henry Skerritt and I approach a deep niche in between two layers of a sandstone formation, lie down on our backs, and wriggle inside. A Rainbow Serpent dances on the rock above us: a vivid living map and myth, a physical and spiritual path. To the left more ancestral beings and symbols painted in red ochre and white kaolin clay march deeper into the niche. Sandwiched in between stone and serpent, Henry and I feel peaceful and secure, embraced by an ancient order.
The images form not merely a strong tradition, but are essential to survival and the maintenance of regional and local identity. The pigments used in these paintings contain a high concentration of hematite, which neither fades nor weathers with time, but instead seeps into and stains the rock. But now, many of these rock panels, which have been painted and re-painted over millennia, are being degraded by feral animals and modern fire regimes and are in need of active management.
The rock art of the stone country, as well as its cultural context, are inextricably bound to the artworks sold below on the coastal community which serves as the primary point of contact for tourists to this part of Arnhem Land. It is these embodied designs that underlie contemporary Aboriginal paintings, whether on bark, poles, or canvas. Art not only helps create the identity of Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land, but is an essential element of how non-Indigenous people perceive that identity.
Art dealings were formalised in 1963 and a community art and culture centre in Maningrida started receiving state funding a decade later, relatively early in the history of art centres across Australia. The majority of artists involved with the centre were bush-based, and only occasional visitors to the town. From 1973 through the next twenty years the primary challenge was to negotiate an understanding with Balanda (non-Indigenous people) that Arnhem Land paintings were not just ethnographic artefacts but fine art. Most collectors were primarily focused on the abstract dot paintings from the central desert, then secondarily Arnhem Land work made to the east of Maningrida. And women didn’t really become important to bark painting here until the 1990s. The most accomplished of the artists, such as John Mawurndjul, were very successful and gained international reputations. Among the ironies created by success are that making art absorbs time otherwise spent on hunting and ceremonial practices, thereby taking the artists away from country, and the practice of looking after it, which is the inspiration for the art. Then there’s the issue of the western cultural distractions that money bring, such as movies, online games, and drugs, that can disrupt the successful transfer of Indigenous knowledge to younger generations. And, finally, there’s the issue of the community art and culture centre coping with an increasing number of artists. All of these foster an appreciation among elders for the conservation of tradition.
Paintings at Maningrida are typically done on bark peeled at eye level from Stringybark trees during the wet season and flattened over fire, or are executed on the trunks of trees hollowed by insects and then cut by elders to make poles. The paintings sold do not carry the exact designs on the barks and poles actually used in ceremonies, but rather are re-arranged analogues that are safe to share with Balanda. A market has been created here for relatively traditional works painted in a recognisable style, most commonly ‘rarrk,’ the systematic and finely brushed crosshatching executed in ochre colours, a technique at which John Mawurndjul excels. But it is reductionist to pose tradition and innovation as opposites in the social mores of Maningrida, as the two dynamics work in conjunction with one another in the evolution of art, culture, and society. Aboriginal art, like Aboriginal culture, has shown itself to be evolving and dynamic, absorbing new phenomena into an existing cultural landscape. Amidst the array of Dreaming creatures in the rock art on the plateau, there are Macassan praus, x-ray style horses and buffaloes, and whitefellas with broad-brimmed hats, smoking pipes and carrying guns.
Aboriginal people across Australia have shared their art with non-Indigenous culture not just because it brings in money to their communities, but because they know we all need to understand what the paintings express: a profound relationship to the world that is beyond the rational and scientific and historical, and one that is based on the deepest empathy and reverence for place and life. Aboriginal artists are not proposing that we abandon science or history to parse the world, but that we understand there are other important tools we need if humans are to live well on the planet. We need their traditional knowledge for the survival of all of our societies and culture. The need to counterpoint fact with feeling, science with empathy, is recognised not only by Aboriginal people, but also by scientists in many disciplines, who value the deep environmental knowledge carried by Aboriginal peoples.
The growth of the Aboriginal art industry has been accompanied by a boom in the international tourism market, as more people are traveling to experience and learn from other people and other places. This urge, as much an emotional need to re-connect with the world as it is a desire to encounter new intellectual stimuli, is a powerful economic driver. Tourism comprises 40% of the global service trade economy; a billion of us travel for pleasure every year. Cultural tourism makes up 40% of all tourism. Looking at art and heritage sites is a huge part of cultural tourism, and such people tend to spend more money than most other tourists. This helps account for why tours to Uluru and sales of Aboriginal art have been promoted so heavily, and the consequent economic activity soared, in recent decades as the world has become more homogenised. Rural Aboriginal communities and art centres in general are seeking to broaden the tourism economy, and the sale of art, as a viable revenue stream in the face of constant public funding cutbacks even as the costs to maintain their communities rise—costs that are exacerbated by causes beyond their control, such as climate change. Most people in traditional Indigenous communities around the world face this challenge, whether it is the Inuit of Nunavut in the Canadian Far North, the islanders of Vanuatu, or the scattered settlements of Arnhem Land.
The Arnhembrand project was a short-term, independent project which made available non-traditional art-making media to a small group of Djelk Rangers and other interested community members. It used art and stories to communicate the ways in which they are managing their country, including paintings of invasive species, new fire regimes, and changing climates. As has been proven repeatedly around the world, if you don’t have a culture of sustainability to underpin the technology of sustainability, you won’t achieve resilience in the face of change. Your landscape, culture and identity will be destroyed. The Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, which collects the archives from projects such as this from around the world, is a way of preserving information about this process and passing it down from generation to generation, and from place to place in order that we might all survive. In a world where it seems that everything will be connected to everything else within a lifetime, maintaining the news of difference between cultures is essential knowledge that might even enable us all to flourish.
Altman, Jon, ‘A brief social history of Kuninjku art and the market’, in Claus Volkenandt & Christian Kaufmann, eds., Between indigenous Australia and Europe: John Mawurndjul: art histories in context (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2009), 19-28.
Kaufmann, Christian, Rarrk: John Marundjul: Journey through Time in Northern Australia (Basel: Museum Tinguely, 2005).
Richards, Greg, ‘Tourism Trends: The Convergence of Culture and Tourism’, The Netherlands: Academy for Leisure NHTV University of Applied Sciences, 2014.
Skerritt, Henry, ‘Bardayal “Lofty” Nadjamerrek’, Art Guide Australia (Nov-Dec 2010), 45-49.
Taylor, Luke, ‘Painted energy: John Mawurndjul and the negotiation of aesthetics in Kuninjku bark painting’, in Claus Volkenandt & Christian Kaufmann, eds., Between indigenous Australia and Europe: John Mawurndjul: art histories in context (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2009), 31-45.
Volkenandt, Claus (and Christian Kaufmann), eds., Between indigenous Australia and Europe: John Mawurndjul: art histories in context (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2009).
William L. Fox is a renowned poet and writer who lives in Reno, Nevada. He is Director of the Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, Nevada.
Libby Robin with Mandy Martin | Sketches in the Sands of Time: The grounded art of Mandy Martin
Mandy’s environmental art projects always begin in place, on the ground. From an early age, her ecologist father, Peter Martin, drew her eye to the workings of nature. Later she travelled with him on ecological field trips, sketching and painting, and drawing on his deep understanding of the relations between soils and plants. Much of her painting is physically ‘grounded’: the pigments and soils of the place she portrays are embodied in the artworks. Dirt is the foundation of her art, as well as the ecological foundation of the landscapes she depicts.
The groundedness of the environmental works also reflects the local people and the earth on which they live. Some of the works that complement this textbox use pigments given to the artist by Mike Smith, Australia’s renowned desert archaeologist. In painterly terms these inorganic (mineral) pigments are referred to as native earths: ochre, raw umber, burnt sienna. They have been amassed as hundreds of soil samples for analysis and dating from ancient Aboriginal sites that Mike has excavated across Australia. Each sample is specific to place. Sands mean different things in shifting historical contexts.
In 2015, when Mike finally came to part with his tiny vials of ochre, all systematically numbered, he presented them to Mandy. These were among the many soil samples from his archaeological digs right across Australia that informed his landmark work, The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts. How should Mandy use them to make art?
Mike gave the ochres to me with the suggestion that I might like to use them to paint with. He was clear that he did not want the samples post-analysed in the future. Most of the samples were in tiny glass vials. My paintings are usually encrusted with ochres and pigments, but these tiny soil samples – strongly coloured and sandy from the Australian desert – would not work as canvas crusts. I decided that the best use for these colours was in a dedicated sketch book.
When Alexandra R. Toland and Jay Stratton Noller invited Mandy to submit a dialogue between art and science for the Dirt Dialogues project, she returned to the sketchbook and chose works that use ochres that connect not just places but ideas, particularly the scientific ideas about deep time in Australia. The dialogue here is between place and time. The geochemistry of the ochres or ‘sands of time’ enabled Smith to reconstruct and date many of the important trade routes of Aboriginal people living in the desert. His archaeology in Arnhem Land and the central deserts has been a major part of the discovery of the long human history (deep time) of Australia which dates Aboriginal occupation at well over 55,000 years.
For the Arnhembrand project, Mandy used these samples of traditional ochres combined with fluoro pigments as a way for a diverse group of Bininj participants to record their stories about healthy country, in a new way. It is called new way (or wave) painting to distinguish it from the traditional Bininj way that the Rarrk Masters painted barks, funeral poles and other wooden objects in Arnhem Land.
Fluoros are markers of the Anthropocene, reflecting the fact that many of the global drivers impacting on healthy country are connected to climate change, plastics, minerals and other signs of the many anthropogenic environmental changes of our times.
The drawings and loose works on black paper slipped in between the leaves of the Dirt Dialogues sketch book were drawn over four trips to central Arnhem Land, as Mandy developed and worked on this collaborative art, science and stories project with Bininj and Balanda participants.
My time for drawing was limited. I usually managed one sketch or more a day early in the morning or often late in the day as we sat gazing out over the Liverpool flood plain at dusk from Djinkarr, an outstation about 35 km from Maningrida. The third trip in August was burning time, when the local people and Djelk Rangers were all out burning the landscape, practising the many different kinds of wurrk tradition.
Sometimes the ‘grounding’ of Mandy’s art is about putting western art in conversation with Indigenous understanding. In the artworks for the Arnhembrand project (Image 1), Hamish and Temika have painted in fluoro pigments on a thin layer of ochre which enables a dialogue between the colours that flow out when mixed with water (natural pigments), and those which do not. The colour qualities speak to the partnership between Hamish’s and Temika’s paintings and Mandy’s underpainting, a sort of new wave fusion art.
Sketches in the Sands of Time portray landscapes of the north, but use the materiality of deep-time archaeological samples from all over Australia. Together they celebrate the partnerships between arts and sciences, particularly archaeology and conservation biology. The sketches embrace the long connections between Traditional Owners and their country, and explore the history of relationships between the peoples of the first and second settlements of the continent.
Libby Robin is a renowned writer and environmental historian. She lives in Canberra, ACT. She is a FAHA and Professor Fenner School of Environment and Society ANU and affiliated professor KTH Stockholm and National Museum of Australia Canberra
Mandy Martin is a renowned artist and lives in the Central West of New South Wales. She is an Adjunct Professor Fenner School of Environment and Society ANU