Six years ago no one could have foreseen the explosion of art produced by senior women from the Kaiadilt tribe of Bentinck Island in north-west Queensland. In 2003 there was not one single Kaiadilt artist. In contrast to many parts of Australia where Indigenous artists have drawn on long-standing iconographic traditions such as the rock- and bark-painting of Western Arnhem Land or the body-painting and sand-drawing styles of Central Australia, the Bentinck artists lacked a prior tradition of painting, as such.
The Kaiadilt people traditionally inhabited the South Wellesley Islands – Bentinck Island, Sweers Island and a number of smaller islands – in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria. Their islands are low-lying with beaches backed by mangroves, saltpans and patches of low scrubby bush. Their lives are oriented to the shore and the sea beyond – full of fish, dugong and turtle. The Kaiadilt were the last coastal tribe in Australia to come into sustained contact with Europeans and, as late as 1940, all Kaiadilt people were living completely traditional lives on their low islands. Soon after, a natural disaster – high seas that engulfed their freshwater supplies and submerged much of their island home – created an opportunity for the mission on nearby Mornington Island to transport the entire Kaiadilt population there.
This major social dislocation, where nearly a decade passed with no Kaiadilt child surviving infancy, led to a disastrous abandonment of traditional culture. No person born after this mass abduction would master the Kayardild language.1 For more on the Kayardild language, see Nicholas Evans, A Grammar of Kayardild, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, 1995; see also ‘The Kayardild language’, in Julia Robinson (ed.), Voices of Queensland, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2001, pp. 151–90; Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us, Wiley-Blackwell / Language Library, Oxford, 2009. Note that we use the established ethnographic spelling ‘Kaiadilt’ to refer to the people, but spell the language name in the practical orthography as ‘Kayardild’. The texture of sibling transmission was torn through, and young children were separated from their parents and placed in dormitories. If they spoke their own tongue, they were ridiculed by means such as boys being dressed in girls’ clothes. For many Kaiadilt nearly a half century would pass before they could return to their ancestral lands through the gradual establishment of outstations, and most had to reckon with life in a demoralised ghetto on the edge of the Mornington mission, the parents and grandparents suddenly stripped of the authority that a dulkuru dangkaa (place-having person) possesses in their own country. From the word miburlda (eye), the Kayardild language derives miburiji (in (one’s) far eye) and for many years in the intense conversations upholding their links to their real country, people’s homelands could only be seen and conjured up in the remote eye of exiled memory.
The seven Kaiadilt women who have emerged as artists in the last few years were all born on Bentinck Island: Sally Gabori, †Dawn Naranatjil, †May Moodoonuthi, Paula Paul, Netta Loogatha, Amy Loogatha and Ethel Thomas. Indeed, between them they now constitute the entire community of people still able to speak fluent Kayardild. The traditional gender imbalance of a society where men took many wives (a proportion of whom were killed in combat to maintain this ratio) has been amplified in recent years as the diseases of colonisation have disproportionately claimed male lives. For these women, now in their seventies and eighties, this sudden burst of creative energy has come, unexpectedly, at the end of their lives. Two are already deceased and others are frail, living in the old people’s home on Mornington Island but visiting their outstation on Bentinck Island when they can. Into the span of their lives has been telescoped an accelerated version of the whole history of colonisation in this country: from pre-contact traditional life, sudden and almost total dispossession and missionisation to recent exposure to the outside world as artistic celebrities.
The Kaiadilt women did not begin to paint until 2005, beginning with Sally Gabori, when arts centre coordinator Brett Evans provided her with painting materials at the Mornington Island Arts & Craft centre and rapidly spotted her talent.2 For more on the growth of modern painting on Mornington Island, see Nicholas Evans, Louise Martin-Chew & Paul Memmott, The Heart of Everything. The Art and Artists of Mornington & Bentinck Islands, McCulloch & McCulloch, 2008, Melbourne. Other women soon followed, but though they were bound together by the space and time of this sudden development, it would be inappropriate to speak of a ‘Kaiadilt school’ – their styles are unmistakably different from each other. Most of their themes are also distinctive and, in the rare cases where two artists draw on the same visual inspiration, they subject it to quite different iconographic treatments.
What makes the Kaiadilt women painters so intriguing is the way they represent such individual and highly abstract developments of a culture of seeing more than a culture of painting. Each has invented her own distinctive artistic language for showing us how they see their world. The group’s recent Singapore exhibition was appositely titled ngalda marraaju wuuju dulku kilwanmaruthu (We Will Show Our Country To You All).3 This exhibition was held at Redot Gallery, Singapore, 8 July – 22 August 2009.
As long-time students of the Kayardild language, we have been struck many times by the way the distinctive world view this intricate language embodies has trained its speakers to attend to particular aspects of their visual environment, across a vast crossword of metonymic links that English speakers may at first find surprising.
Jara, which basically means ‘foot’, extends comprehensibly to ‘footprint, track’ but then more puzzlingly it also means ‘rain’ – the source of clear new tracks as it cleans the overwritten chalkboard of the previous year’s accumulated footmarks. Malji means something like ‘textured, rhythmic hole’, such as the patterned holes in a net, but we had always been bothered by its extension to mean ‘school of fish’. A glance at Sally Gabori’s painting of a big school of mullet (fig. 2) answers the conundrum: they are seen not directly as figures but through the ‘holes’ of smoothness that they create in the surface of the water.
Malji itself is only one of a large set of terms for referring to tracks, wakes of fish and signs. The verb mayiij, for example, describes the surfacing of dugongs and the distinctive cigar-smoke rings their breathing leaves as tracks in the sea’s skin. It is linked to words meaning ‘resemble’ and ‘twitch in a particular part of one’s body, as a portent for an approaching relative’. Another verb, ngaarrngij, which is hard to translate into English, signals the way a sign of spiritual conception – perhaps the unexpected yielding of a dugong to its hunter, or a strange occurrence like a goanna floating on a turtle’s back – presages the birth of a child that will bear the sign of this manifestation on its body. A child with a scrunched ear may be spiritually associated with the dugong and thereafter the dugong will be regarded as his conception totem.
The density of such words in the Kayardild lexicon speaks of an abiding interest in the ways that events and phenomena signal each other as portents and clues to the interconnectedness of things, and especially of the association of almost imperceptible signs to the deepest issues of human conception and death. The constant use of this verbal network invests the Kaiadilt eye with an instantaneous set of conceptual associations that underlies the palette of motifs. A central part of the appeal of the Bentinck women’s art is the way it can succeed in placing the viewer behind Kaiadilt eyes to see the world in another way. Some of these motifs stem from tiny, fleeting customs of aesthetic arrangement. In cooking cockle shells on the coals, Kaiadilt women traditionally line them in symmetrical rows (dirrbanda) for the few minutes it takes them to cook. Paula Paul, in particular, has employed dirrbanda arrangements in many of her works, but magnifying the scale and colour contrasts way beyond what is found on a cooking fire (fig. 3).
Other motifs carry a weightier emotional burden. The figures of burrkunda (ritual cicatrices or scars) have been explored from many angles by both May Moodoonuthi and Paula Paul – a subject that unites the depth of pain that links the living to lost kin with the lifelong cumulation of signs upon the bodies of the bereft women.
Scarring was used for many purposes in traditional Kaiadilt life. Significantly, the first scars given to a boy were known as mungurru, a word that normally means ‘knowing, knowledgeable’,4 See Norman Tindale, Wellesley Journal, unpublished MS, 1963; confirmed by discussions between Nicholas Evans and several Kaiadilt women in May 2009. linked to the fact that these first cuts were used to accustom boys to the greater pains they would face on initiation. These first mungurru burrkunda were ritualised in terms of who would make them. A boy would be cut by his kakuju (mother’s brother), and a girl by her father’s full cousin (his jambathu), someone she would call kardu (father-in-law) in anticipation of future marriage to his son.
Other scars were cut onto oneself with sharp shells, as part of the grieving process. When someone died, people would cut themselves in a way that blood would drip down out of their burrkunda onto the corpse. Women would cut their thighs (ngirra kalaaj) on the death of their husband. Cuts in visible areas would be packed with rambaramba – a sort of multicoloured ochre widespread on the island – or with red dirt or a kind of puffball called maathu, to help them heal and to impart a particular texture to the scar.
May Moodoonuthi and Paula Paul have each been inspired by the same burrkunda theme of rawly patterned, raised scars, but have taken it on quite different visual trajectories. In May Moodoonuthi’s case, they often blend with criss-crossing overlaid networks resonant of woven dillybags (fig. 4), and then in her last paintings fuse into almost Munch-like dusk-scapes where it is the evening sky that is blooded and scarred (fig. 5). Paula Paul’s way of depicting the same subject matter has abstracted in quite another direction, developing into chunky, solid monochrome meshes in some cases, and in others into rhythmically positioned chromosomal blocks (fig. 6).
Another element of the Kaiadilt world of seeing-and-feeling, perhaps more obviously shared with other Indigenous groups, is strongly cartographic. The flat diamond shape of Bentinck Island is embroidered by a massive tracing of stone ngurruwarr – sometimes called ‘fish traps’ but perhaps better described as fish walls which would trap fish and turtle as the tides fell. Following the contours of the sea bottom with their runs and entrapments, their heaved rocks are cemented back together by centuries of oyster growth, describing vast half-circles upon half-circles all around its coastline. The largest extent of built fish walls on the continent, they project a humanly constructed edge of the land into the sea beyond. Some are attributed to named individuals, others to ancestors like Bujuku the black crane, and †Dawn Naranatjil was the last Kaiadilt woman to actively rebuild them. These half-natural, half-built objects appear in many of Paula Paul’s paintings: My country (fig. 7) combines them with her burrkunda motifs. Equally striking are the patches of colourful laterite found all around the island’s shores (fig. 8), forming a natural source of coloured ochres that women would traditionally rub into a dry slurry which would give colour to the string they rolled on their thighs. Amy Loogatha especially has been inspired by these motley patches of brightness, and her depictions of these natural colour blocks join other stretches by Moodoonuthi in parts of their great collaborative work (fig. 12).
To walk around Bentinck Island is to pass through a dense network of named places, with evocative titles like Nguluthalkurunaayarrba (the place where the (turtle) burdened with its own huge penis was burned), or Maburrabarndayarrba (the place which fog blocked off). As Tindale’s classic 1962 map shows (fig. 9) almost all of the named places were found along the coast, which is where people spent most of their time, whether hunting or camping.5 See Tindale, ‘Geographical knowledge of the Kaiadilt people of Bentinck Island’, in Records of the South Australian Museum, 14.2, 1962, pp. 252–96. Every Bentinck-born person carries a name ending in –ngathi suffixed to the name of the place where they were born, indexing the rights over and emotional links to these places that birth confers; for example, Tharurrkingathi (born at Tharurrki). Incidentally, some of the English names of the artists are distortions of such names: Moodoonuthi is an anglicisation of the Kayardild name of her husband, Murdumurdungathi (born at Murdumurdu [hibiscus grove]), while the Loogatha surname shared by Netta and Amy Loogatha derives from Rukuthingathi (born at Rukuthi [coastal casuarina]).
Many of Sally Gabori’s paintings in particular relate to locations of great emotional import to her and her family – the beach at Thundi, the freshwater lagoon at Nyinyilki, the estuary at Makarrki, the river at King Alfred’s country (King Alfred being one of her senior relatives), the famous story place where the liver of Dibirdibi, the Rock Cod Ancestor, was thrown into the sea and created a perpetual freshwater well (fig. 10). However, even looking at a map or standing at the site, the link between the place and the painting can be difficult to establish. Beyond the names she has given them, Gabori has remained reticent about the exact interpretation of her paintings, but our own view is that they are worked up from the distinctive blocks of light or colourations of the land and sea that dominate as one sits at the locations she names, transmuted so radically that the landscapes which inspired them are barely recoverable. As Gabori’s career has progressed, she has begun experimenting with more austere colour choices, such as her abstract black-and-white depiction of the site Nyinyilki (a waterlily lagoon) recently acquired by the Musée du quai Branly, Paris (fig. 11).
In addition to their individual works, the Bentinck women have produced three remarkable collaborative works: one depicting Bentinck Island (Dulka warngiid (fig. 12)), one showing Sweers Island and one depicting King Alfred’s country around Makarrki at the northern end of Bentinck Island.
Such different individual styles could easily have appeared kitsch and jarring when combined. But remarkably, in each case, their disparate styles and motifs have melded into a striking visual unity whose rhythm reproduces the ecological bands of the landscape, from saltpans to estuaries to exposed shore to fish traps. As each artist works their part of the canvas (fig. 13), they proceed from the unshakeable sense of place that their birthplace confers, bringing the light and texture of their particular location into their part of the painting, along with more elusive references to their own land-owning group.
Dulka warngiid – the term which ethnographer Norman Tindale was given when he tried to elicit a name for Bentinck Island as a whole – can mean ‘the one place’, ‘the whole world’, ‘the land of all’ or ‘the place in common’, and this polysemic tension between common identity and multiplicity emerges in these collective paintings because the personality of each contributor is rooted in its own distinct place. Dulka warngiid, the painting, is a visual parable for how each artist takes their place on the earth, contributing to the whole, painting those things they see and savour from their own place. The fundamental principle of Aboriginal social organisation is to plant each person in their particular country in spirit, knowledge and jurisdiction, but then to integrate these parcels into an overarching, interdependent whole. Balance, health and creativity are assured by the role that each group plays in respecting and recognising the ties all others have to their own countries.
In Kayardild parlance, to be shown around country by its owner is to warraja mari (to go at his or her hands) as they draw attention to the things they see and know in their own place after a lifetime of moving through it. None of the Kaiadilt painters held a brush in their hands until late in their years, but in each case, this only serves to remind us that the real business of art is seeing – something these seven painters have been developing over the course of lives stretching back into an uncontested Kaiadilt world. The directness of their individual styles feels as though all this time, their eyes have been preparing exactly what they want to show us.
Nicholas Evans, Professor of Linguistics, Australian National University, Canberra, and Penelope Johnson, a consultant medical anthropologist (in 2010)
We would like to thank the many Kaiadilt people who have gradually taught us over nearly three decades about their language and culture with love and insight, especially Sally Gabori, Pat Gabori, Dawn Naranatjil, May Moodoonuthi, Darwin Moodoonuthi, Paula Paul, Arthur Paul, Netta Loogatha, Amy Loogatha and Ethel Thomas. We also thank Brett Evans, Beverly Knight and the staff at Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne, for discussions on art and help with photography used in this article; Judith Ryan for her invitation to write this article; Jenny Green for her refereeing comments; and the Australian Research Council for supporting a linguistic/archaeological fieldtrip during which Nicholas Evans was able to gather some of this material.
The dagger (†) symbol that precedes the names of people referred to in this essay indicates that person has passed away.
1 For more on the Kayardild language, see Nicholas Evans, A Grammar of Kayardild, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, 1995; see also ‘The Kayardild language’, in Julia Robinson (ed.), Voices of Queensland, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2001, pp. 151–90; Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us, Wiley-Blackwell / Language Library, Oxford, 2009. Note that we use the established ethnographic spelling ‘Kaiadilt’ to refer to the people, but spell the language name in the practical orthography as ‘Kayardild’.
2 For more on the growth of modern painting on Mornington Island, see Nicholas Evans, Louise Martin-Chew & Paul Memmott, The Heart of Everything. The Art and Artists of Mornington & Bentinck Islands, McCulloch & McCulloch, 2008, Melbourne.
3 This exhibition was held at Redot Gallery, Singapore, 8 July – 22 August 2009.
4 See Norman Tindale, Wellesley Journal, unpublished MS, 1963; confirmed by discussions between Nicholas Evans and several Kaiadilt women in May 2009.
5 See Tindale, ‘Geographical knowledge of the Kaiadilt people of Bentinck Island’, in Records of the South Australian Museum, 14.2, 1962, pp. 252–96.
About the authors
Nick Evans is a linguist who has been studying the Kayardild language since 1982. More generally he is interested in the fragile languages of Indigenous Australia and New Guinea. His recent book Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us appeared in 2009 with Wiley-Blackwell. He is Professor of Linguistics at the Australian National University. Penelope Johnson is a consultant medical anthropologist with an interest in the interaction of culture and health, both in small-scale Indigenous communities and in immigrant and other minority communities reckoning with the public health system as they deal with infections such as TB and Hepatitis C. She has also worked with the Bentinck community on a range of anthropological topics since 1982.