29 Apr 21

But goodways


Big stories run through the exhibition Big Weather and other works in the NGV Collection, serving as a reminder of our reciprocal relationship with the weather, as well as the continuous and important nature of storytelling. As Dr Jared M. Field says, stories need to be told and retold, enabling us to both carry responsibility and pass it on. He shares a few of the works whose big stories resonate with him.

The Wanjina of Alec Mingelmanganu creep me out. But goodways, you know? They remind me of childhood and long hours listening to ghost stories. Stories that were told always in the same setting: a thin sheet on the floor, a pack of cards, and tea aplenty. And always by the same people: mum, aunties, and aunties that aren’t aunties but definitely are. These stories often left me scared, but also feeling protected. Protected, of course, because of who was doing the telling: there is no safer place than the arms of an old Black lady. These stories now also provide comfort, in the way that things once taken for granted sometimes do. Long of the short, that is what I mean when I say the Wanjina creep me out but goodways. They give me the heebie-jeebies, yes, but mixed with many good things too.

They also, very specifically, remind me of one story in particular. This one tells of the six great Wandaabaa spirits. These spirits were very powerful, but also very bad. Some caused great sickness, others terrible hauntings. Wabuwi, out of the six, brought dangerous weather. Dangerous in the sense that the weather was severe, but also in its timing. Unseasonably warm winds, followed by regular cold, can spell disaster for the year ahead.

As punishment for their evil deeds, Buwadjarr the All-Father captured the great Wandaabaa. Their left legs, from about the calf down, were covered in ochre – the same ochre of the Wanjina – and severed from their bodies. Their bones, once burnt, were treated in a similar way and wrapped with care. They were then hidden through craft and cunning throughout the great Gamilaraay nation.  

Every now and then it is said that Wabuwi attempts to escape, and so brings danger; weather unexpected in timing or size. Although Wabuwi fears Buwadjarr and so will never leave for too long, it is still our responsibility to ensure he is kept in check. To my mind, this is understanding that the weather and climate are not so big that we cannot influence them. Indeed, understanding that we and the weather interact; our relationship is reciprocal.  A similar notion of responsibility exists in interactions with the Wanjina, too.

Mingelmanganu’s Wanjina are painted on canvas, but their original setting is rock. This is not to downplay the innovation of bringing them to a new medium, but to highlight this point: many Wanjina on rock are repainted each year, in order to bring rain at the right time. Which is to say, there is the same interaction between weather and people. There is responsibility – after all, water is life – that is symbolised concretely in the actions of the artists.

The fact that they are repainted emphasises another point, too: there are many artists over many periods. This, in my opinion, is an overlooked quality in our art more generally: not always but very often, the narrative in our creations is much larger than any individual artist. In turn this means, of course, that the narrative is rarely complete. There is instead constant telling and retelling. In this way, our art not only carries responsibility but also passes it on.

Increasingly, however, I’m beginning to feel that perhaps this responsibility has been neglected. Or more likely, actively disallowed by colonialism. Either way, perhaps Wabuwi has escaped. Or the Wanjina in the NGV desperately need to be repainted. These are symbols of other things, of course, but symbolism is important. Rest assured, I will not break in with dillybags of ochre at the ready – I am Gamilaraay, so the painting of the Wanjina is not my honour to have. I do however hope to visit the gallery in person again soon. They are, to my mind, not just about sight. The signs saying ‘do not touch’ speak volumes of the very particular craving of touch we all must have when inside. There are, however, to my knowledge absolutely no signs saying ‘do not smell’. In light of this, I encourage everyone to very carefully sniff the next ochre painting they see. Though the Wanjina of Mingelmanganu are on canvas, their odour hints at their hidden history. One whiff, and the rocky galleries where they were born quickly come to mind. The experience, I assure you, is enriched.

Of course, I do not want to visit the NGV again just to sniff ochre. I also want to visit so I can stand in front of Fire Dreaming at Ngulyarma, 1999, by Charlie Ward Tjakamarra. It is abstract, but like most of our art, not without narrative. This, I suspect, is precisely why our abstract works are so cherished the world over – we are all equal parts storyteller and collector; to satisfy that thirst in an abstract painting is something unique. But mostly I want to stand in front of Fire Dreaming because there is a certain quality about it that I find very calming. It shows both restraint and confidence.

Confidence in the sense that Tjakamarra was clearly not daunted by the blank canvas, as most people are. It feels as if the story he wanted to tell was clear from the outset (likely, I suspect, because like the Wanjina it is a responsible retelling). Restraint in the sense that a painting ostensibly about fire contains none of the uncontrolled characteristics that we often associate with the element – there is no explosion and no death. There are only undulating lines, perpendicular barriers and the slight curve of the flame at the centre. There is a burn, but it is gentle.

Instead of the wildfires we are increasingly used to, Fire Dreaming invokes more tender memories we have of flames. For me, it reminds me of family: cold nights on Darug country, huddled around the fire. We had an old wood stove indoors, too, like all the neighbours, but we always preferred to spend our loud Black evenings outdoors, by make-shift firepits. In turn, I am reminded of that sensation that you just can’t get from an electric heater, where your bones are warmed but your skin is left unburnt. Fire dreaming, for me, symbolises this original comfort.

The tenderness in Tjakamarra’s work has another source, too. It speaks to the way that we care or need to care for land. This is evident in the physical barriers between the fire and the undulating bush, preventing the flame from running amuck. In this way, Fire Dreaming demonstrates the same reciprocity and responsibility of the Wanjina; the protective barriers are of our own creation, made with the very thing that is being blocked. They are also made from the very thing that is being guarded. Fire Dreaming, then, is both visual reminder and instruction manual: burn in the right way, at the right time, and the land will protect you as you have protected the land. Neglect this, and wildfires will come your way.

Tjakamarra’s work is similar to Mingelmanganu’s in other aspects, as well. It also shows the ways that weather and climate are not so big that we cannot influence them – a burnt country is a different country. But this is not simple symbolism. Indeed, a Wiradjuri maliyaa of mine recently showed the full extent to which we understood and understand this influence: for example, what is now temperate rainforest on Palawa land was once grassland savanna1Michael Shawn-Fletcher, ‘This rainforest was once a grassland savanna maintained by Aboriginal people – until colonisation’, theconversation.com/this-rainforest-was-once-a-grassland-savanna-maintained-by-aboriginal-people-until-colonisation-138289, date accessed 10 Sep 2020., maintained by fire. Fire Dreaming, however, is most similar in the timescale of the narrative; it is ancient telling and retelling. It has many authors, and it is unfinished. Though the Palawa have been prevented from burning their country, their inherited responsibility remains. Which is to say, the Fire Dreaming on their country has been paused but it has not been stopped.

The dhoeri or headdresses of George Nona echo this. Or rather, they are a demonstration of what lies on the other end. They are an example of what resurgence may look like, when the play button has been pressed. Of course, it is not quite so simple as that metaphor; revival, instead, is full of important but prickly questions. Who can and cannot bring something back, and for what purpose? Who does and does not have authority to tell a story or continue a particular narrative? I will not suppose to know the details of this particular debate (if there is one) amongst saltwater mob. Even if I did, however, I am Gamilaraay – freshwater mob –  and know my place. But I can and will say this: the dhoeri that Nona has created are beautiful.

I do worry, however, that their beauty may be limited on a wall. Unlike Fire Dreaming and the Wanjina, the dhoeri need movement and music. These other pieces require people too, but the need in the case of Nona’s work is on a different scale entirely. But let me be clear: not just any person will do. For the narrative and story to be fully appreciated, the right person needs to be dancing the right dance. Again, I’m drawn back to my childhood and my Gunii. Growing up she made us all first learn, and then perform our traditional dances. But back then my limbs were awkward and unsure. Without fail they got a severe case of the wobblies near any unfamiliar eye. I was not yet the best person to dance those dances or tell those stories.

But do not let me mislead you: these dhoeri, I suspect, are far from just decorative accessories of dance. They seem, to my Gamilaraay eye, also deeply practical. The giveaway is the mother of pearl. This precious material, which was traded2Toni Massey, ‘Diving into the history of Queensland’s pearl shelling industry – the first pearling trade in Australia’, www.slq.qld.gov.au/blog/diving-history-queenslands-pearl-shelling-industry-first-pearling-trade-australia, date accessed 10 Sep 2020. extensively throughout the continent in pre-colonial times, has numerous uses. I will skip those that are mundane. The use that is of interest here is that of magic: mother of pearl, so loved by water, can be worked to charm the rain. In this way, Nona’s work also hints at this reciprocal relationship we have with the weather. We influence it, through daily ritual, just as much as it influences us. Whether or not you believe magic is real is irrelevant: an understanding of the possibility of a two-way interaction remains. On reflection, however, this ritual-influence is not so different to our current understanding of a changing climate: car or bike, shower or bath, new cotton or old shirt?

The dhoeri and their rainmaking potential remind me not just of my Gunii and her insistent feet but also of my people more generally. Or rather, writing about my people. In particular I’m brought back the work of K. Langloh Parker, an early pastoralist, who for a time lived on Yuwularaay country. The Euahlayi Tribe: a study of aboriginal life in Australia is by far her most famous book. Though the spelling is different, Euahlayi and Yuwularaay are in fact the same. Yuwularaay and Gamilaraay are also the same, but in a slightly different way. I could (but won’t) write an entire essay on the powers and perils of Western orthography of our words, but suffice to say that we are made from the same stories. All that aside, in The Euahlayi Tribe, Langloh Parker demonstrates a curious half-belief in our rain magic. When her inhouse rainmaker fails, she remarks that the blame may lay with the more powerful rainmaker up the creek:

[he] was so angry with the white people who were driving away all emu, kangaroo, and opossums, the black fellow’s food … that he put his rain-stone in a fire, and while he did that no rain would fall3K. Langloh Parker, The Euahlayi Tribe: a study of aboriginal life in Australia Library of Alexandria; 1905.

She continues, with no small amount of condescension: ‘He said if all the sheep died the white fellows would go away again’.4Ibid.

With the smugness of posterity, I can confirm that indeed this happened: Langloh Parker’s cattle station failed shortly after, suffering a drought of uncommon magnitude. Now this is perhaps an odd story to share but I do so with purpose. It highlights the obvious that weather and climate affect both lives and livelihoods. Once coupled with all the notions of interaction and responsibility, however, it then illustrates the less obvious: weather and climate are also political. To skip this point, while discussing the beauty of saltwater mob, would be unforgivable. As I write, the very homelands of the dhoeri are being swallowed by the sea. What we are witnessing, in real time, is no less than the disregard of the narrative of others.

Disregard of narrative is particularly poisonous in these cases because, as I’ve pointed out, our stories are very long and very connected. Our notions of reciprocity and responsibility have a different timescale entirely to that our colonisers – to mess with these things is to mess with many things. This is captured, I think, in all of the artworks discussed so far: the bringing of rain and lighting of fire are done with the aim of providing for the future; the periodicity and consistency of actions to do so speaks to just how far in the future we aim to provide. We do not just desire to be decent parents, but also excellent ancestors. This idea is best portrayed in the Eel trap, 2004, of Dot Peters.

I am attracted to this trap not just because of all the ideas woven into it, but also because I weave myself. For this reason, I have an appreciation of just how long this piece would have taken to create. I can also almost feel the unique muscles in her hands that would have ached in its making. My appreciation goes further than this though: there was, I assure you, no small amount of effort and time (in the order of weeks) taken in the preparation of the grass alone. It is, in short, a huge investment. And yet, this trap is designed so as to not catch every single eel that may chance by it. Instead, as eels enter from the left and progress to the right they are selected based on size. The younger and smaller ones may simply pass through. The medium sized ones may turn around. The older ones, however, become stuck; destined for the dinner plate.

In this way, many of the eels are free to grow and embark on the long migration back to the Coral Sea – near the homeland of the dhoeri, in fact – where all freshwater eels here and in Aotearoa return to spawn.5Victorian Fisheries Authority, ‘Short-finned eel’, vfa.vic.gov.au/education/fish-species/short-finned-eel, date accessed 11 Sep 2020. A remarkable journey, if you really think about it. And one that has been enabled generation after generation, eel trap after eel trap. The ancestors of the present-day Wurundjeri could have eaten more than their fill, but instead their thoughts lay far in the future.

While all of the pieces I’ve selected speak of Big Weather, they also tell big stories. They show, in no uncertain terms, an understanding of the way we interact with our world – we are not simply in it, but part of it. This interaction has effects, however, that are far reaching: our stories are not just our own. Which is to say, we are a part of it on a timescale that is much larger than our individual lives. In this sense, overwhelmingly, these pieces hint also at a great responsibility. A responsibility, it seems, that we are failing to fulfil: droughts and wildfires are worse than ever; floods in other parts now seem to be common; snow comes at all the wrong times. Even Yarragerh, the warm wind that kisses the trees to make them fruit, can’t quite seem to commit.

For this reason, these pieces also make me kind of blue. But goodways, I guess. Goodways in the sense that they point at our failings, yes, but also suggest solutions: it is time to listen to the narrative of others; to learn and revel in them; to be responsible and reciprocal. In a roundabout way what I’m trying to say is this: if you look at these pieces and just see art then you need to look again. But goodways.

Show your strength;
Time to take a stand.
Make the violent miner feel
Your violent
Love of land.

‘Time is Running Out’ by Oodgeroo Noonuccal

Dr Jared M. Field is a Gamilaraay mari from Moree way, but grew up on Darug land in a small town along the Great Dividing Range. He studied maths and French literature at the University of Sydney, before completing a doctorate at Balliol College, Oxford. He is currently a McKenzie Fellow in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Melbourne. Alec Mingelmanganu and Dot Peter’s works are on display in Big Weather on Level 3 at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia until 6 Feb 2022. The NGV warmly thanks The Hon. Justice David Angel for gifting Fire Dreaming at Ngulyarma, 1999, by Charlie Ward Tjakamarra and Supporters and Patrons of Indigenous Art for supporting the acquisition of Eel trap, 2004, by Dot Peters.

This was originally commissioned for and published in NGV Magazine Issue 28 May–Jun 2021.

Notes

1

Michael Shawn-Fletcher, ‘This rainforest was once a grassland savanna maintained by Aboriginal people – until colonisation’, theconversation.com/this-rainforest-was-once-a-grassland-savanna-maintained-by-aboriginal-people-until-colonisation-138289, date accessed 10 Sep 2020.

2

Toni Massey, ‘Diving into the history of Queensland’s pearl shelling industry – the first pearling trade in Australia’, slq.qld.gov.au/blog/diving-history-queenslands-pearl-shelling-industry-first-pearling-trade-australia, date accessed 10 Sep 2020.

3

Langloh Parker, The Euahlayi Tribe: a study of aboriginal life in Australia Library of Alexandria; 1905.

4

Ibid.

5

Victorian Fisheries Authority, ‘Short-finned eel’, vfa.vic.gov.au/education/fish-species/short-finned-eel, date accessed 11 Sep 2020.