What do you do with a book that you are becoming convinced is a masterpiece, possibly even the best book ever written about Aboriginal art and culture? Well, the only response to such a daunting thought – you read it slowly and carefully, making copious notes and underlining everything you regard as revelatory.
John Carty’s ‘Balgo : Creating Country’ is huge and intimidatingly yellow. But its importance lies in the rare combination of anthropological rigour with historical relevance, plus the three years that the author spent at the coal-face coming to understand what the artists were seeking to create – both aesthetically and spiritually.
Mind you, it undoubtedly helps that I was reading about my favourite art community – Wirrimanu, out there on the northern reaches of the Tanami Desert, an unnatural place that the missionaries set up to cut off members of eight different language groups heading north towards The Kimberley. They were fleeing drought, the colonial advance up the Canning Stock Route, and the steady loss of their fellow-tribespeople to stock-work on Kimberley cattle stations. I’ve visited three times, and, filming there, lost a chunk of flesh in my ankle to a local bitzer. Salved by the healing tongue of Eubena Nampitjin and boosted with penicillin at the clinic delivered by elder Tjumpo Tjapanangka, I too became a Tjapanangka in order to be welcomed into my proper place in this community.
That night, ‘sister’ Matti Mudgedell took me further into my new ‘skin’ by singing of the journey ‘our’ late father’s spirit had taken back to his birthplace in the desert.
No wonder I care about Balgo – the mistaken name that the missionaries gave the place when asking locals what it was called. “Parlku”, was the reply, naming the grass the idiots were pointing at! But Balgo it has become for both the brand of its unique art and a reflection of what Carty calls “the social and symbolic trajectories” that have developed around the now-shared Kutjungka identity as Kukutja, Walmajarri, Wankajunka, Ngarti, Warlpiri and Pintupi speaking peoples came to terms with each other over 80 years.
But the important thing about this book is that coming to an understanding Balgo will permit a greater perception of Aboriginal art wherever it is made.
For the key to Carty’s illumination is that the artists are not so much painting stories of Country, but that their artworks are Country itself.
It’s easy to assume that Country is only about mythical beings who gave birth to humans and the shape of the land, then transform into significant rocks, waterholes, etc. Serendipitously, the missionaries chose a site for Balgo that fell on the Luurnpa Songline – the ancestral kingfisher’s Tjukurrpa. For this was where the giant kingfisher put his beak into the ground and pulled out the peoples whose descendants would later inhabit a place still pockmarked by the holes that he made. The Luurnpa would then head south to Uluru, adding peoples, guiding them to water and survival in the deserts through the creation of ceremonies that had to be passed from generation to generation.
And the troglodyte people found by The Luurnpa were the Warlayirti – now, appropriately, the name of Balgo’s art centre.
Significantly, imagery about the kingfisher was the initial statement made by the old men at Balgo when they painted ‘The Luurnpa Banner’ in 1981 to celebrate the 25 years of Father Peile’s ministry. Peile was the first of the missionaries who made any attempt to understand his flock – his predecessors having been tough assimilationists, locking children away in dormitories to deny them contact with traditional culture, and feeding their parents only if they consented to this and attempted to ‘discover the joys of work’! Father McGuire even made a point of sending young boys off to Derby to be circumcised so he might forestall their initiation.
Sadly, while the elders created an entirely traditional banner – their concentric circles matching head, shoulders, wings and stomach of The Luurnpa – their young made a much more Christian version, and continued to make religious art that never really found favour with a market in the 1980s that was just beginning to appreciate the desert iconography that had emerged from Papunya a decade earlier. Young Matthew Gill was one with talent, and took it hard, leaving Balgo and dying after a stint in prison in his 40s. But the power of the traditional Banner is proven by the fact that a new art centre now has a facsimile of it painted on its wall – Papunya school-style.
For, as Carty makes clear, the artworks that are Ngurra/Country may begin with such Tjukurrpa stories but are equally about art market economics and the social polities of a place like Balgo. And he pursues these linkages through the increasing abstraction of the artworks – happily using words from Western art like abstraction and abstract expressionism – taking desert dotting, he says, “from optical dynamism to becoming the content itself”. He’s equally upfront about the fraught subject of money, which is inevitably a factor in a community where, in recent years, most artists earn less than $1000 a year from their art work while two stars topped out at $100,000.
Carty’s understanding goes deeper, using the phrase “cultural abstraction”. He expands: “It is a creative process of great complexity that has inverted the place of the Dreaming in contemporary art, and reimagined the grounds of Country in contemporary life”.
Borrowing from the pioneering anthropologist of the Pintupi, Fred Myers, Carty quotes him as identifying that “Country is not so much a place as a set of relationships”. He elaborates that just as hunting and foraging were the only ways to harvest Country once upon a time, today painting is the prime way to glean and crop it. “In fact, the sharing of (painting) styles and the sharing of the money earnt is how Country is created today. It’s a social practice – the act is as significant as its proceeds, as hunting used to be”. And the act is not one of representation; it’s an act of creation”.
As Carty emphasises, there are many motives for painting, “but they were unified in their hope to get paid”. For “painting is a creative response to the economic erosion of desert people’s sovereignty. It is a response to history, the mission, rations given and withheld, fences built and dormitories locked, families divided and ceremonies stopped. In the light of this history, Balgo art is not a genre of painting but a mode of action….it is action that uses the power of the Tjukurrpa to capture the resources of a new world”.
Of course these conclusions emerge from both a wealth of art illustrated and statistical analysis, and from a profound engagement with individual artists – especially Tjumpo Tjapanangka, who took him deep into the Luurnpa Banner, Eubena, who talked only in ‘high Kukatja’, Lucy Yukenbarri who invented kinti-kinti dotting, and Elizabeth Nyumi whose Country was denied her when she refused to share it with her wider family. Sadly such masters as Wimmitji Tjapangarti, old Mick Gill and Sunfly Tjampitjin had died before Carty had his direct experience of Balgo between 2002 and 2005.
In John Carty, now Head of Humanities at the South Australian Museum, the personal connection, art history and anthropology combine as they must “to meet the challenge of Western Desert art”. For, as he himself puts it (in the third person), he “takes the revelations of anthropology away from anthropologists and translates (the) profundity of desert life for people who want to understand it”.
‘Balgo : Creating Country’ is published by the University of WA Publishing at $90
Artist: Tjumpo Tjapanangka, Eubena Nampitjin, Matti Mudgedell, Matthew Gill, Lucy Yukenbarri, Elizabeth Nyumi, Wimmitji Tjapangarti, old Mick Gill, Sunfly Nampitjin,
Tags: Balgo : Creating Country , elizabeth nyumi , eubena nampitjin , Jeremy Eccles , John Carty , lucy yukenbarri , Luurnpa Songline , Matthew Gill , Matti Mudgedell , old Mick Gill , Sunfly Tjampitjin , tjumpo tjapanangka , University of WA Publishing , Warlayirti , wimmitji tjapangarti ,