There’s no doubt that Wayne Quilliam can take fabulous images of his fellow First Nations people. The lutruwita man from Tassie’s Central Highlands has been at it for 30 years, has had 300 shows and has a library of 7 million images! So I was excited to get hold of his first book, ‘Culture is Life‘, for it promised not only to place Australia’s Indigenous peoples in a modern world, but it also offered to show “why country (sic – no capital C) is so important”.

And there, accompanying RMIT Adjunct Professor Quilliam’s own words at the beginning, are three fabulous girls – painted up, carrying leaves, looking sexy, questioning, involved in ceremony, and as contemporary as anyone could want. But who are they, where are they from, what’s their culture? Or, are we back in ethnographic days when only the story mattered, never the artist?

I fear Quilliam has not been brilliantly served by his editors when it comes to the book’s text. Mere lip-service is paid to the promised commentary on culture. You just can’t quote singer Christine Anu as saying seriously,“To me culture is the foundation of our indigenous (sic) peoples – at its core are our languages”, and picture her showing off, dancing outrageously. Definitely modern and a lovely image, but hardly cultural. And quite unrelated to the text.

Similarly, artist manager Jodie Choolburra claims, “Culture is the sacred foundation of the health and well-being of our people. It is the identifiable past of tradition, connections to our creator, ancestors, songlines and dreaming (sic)” – which is not really matched by showing her getting married on a beach.

There is a bit of a sense that Quilliam has attended a lot of events like that where the good and the great (and the sportsmen) in the Indigenous community have lined up for an official snap. Indeed, he himself has been photographed at many of them – he offers us 11 self-portraits over four pages.

But when he gets serious, preferable out bush, where he obviously has carte blanche to enter many remote communities, Quilliam’s work takes off. There’s a Boroloola boy – all hat and boots – who simply stares the photographer out. But his backdrop is what may well be shipping container accommodation, which hints at living conditions out there. And though there are many joyous pictures of kids at play, I was most moved by the pic featuring a community phone box, speaking powerfully of the dereliction in many remote townships. One girl’s hogging the phone, another waiting sullenly on a chair, while a dog takes advantage of the box’s shadow in the overwhelming heat. In the background, an imaginative kid is dressing up as a Superman who ain’t goin’ to fly today

Not a picture that’s going to make it into a Telstra ad. But, hey – the phone’s working!

There are some fine pictures of ceremony – both remote and urban. And I know how hard it is to photograph night-time dancers by lamp or firelight from my own experience at a Groote Eylandt festival. But I was particularly taken by three urban warriors in spattered white ochre – one wearing cityfied glasses beneath his feathered head-dress – taking their event very seriously. The text challengingly refers to “cultural interpretation” being “both tribal and individualistic”. “Can we truly see culture through one single ‘lens’?” Quilliam wittily queries.

And that may well be the message behind the book’s variety. For there’s just as much understanding in his highly colourised picture of four proud Tjanpi weaving ladies – dolled up to the nines against a startlingly yellow desert hillside.

But why are the unnamed? And why is there no backgrounding to the important story of Mungo Man’s return to Country to accompany a respectful suite of photos? That was Culture with a capital C. For there are other points in the book where I was delighted to learn the history of NAIDOC week, to discover that there’s a First Nations Assembly in Victoria, and that the remarkable conjunction of the (unnamed) Goulburn, Campaspie and Edward Rivers with the Mighty Murray at Echuca quite properly deserves a Three Rivers Festival in celebration.

So, can I forgive the people who put this book together? Maybe. For there are two significant juxtapositions of images that share pages. A seemingly derelict man looking like something out of a Millais painting sits beside a scene showing the dynamics of work at Australia’s only Indigenous-owned airport. And the second apposition is actually amplified by the text – a deeply tribal elder is given skin texture that looks almost mummified, and is captured with a face full of ceremonial concentration. Beside her, an urban couple are seen only from behind, though clearly the ceremony matters as much to them. And she is poised to dance on two prosthetic legs.

“One is an ethnographic portrait reflecting the strength of the past”, explains Quilliam, “while the other recontextualises how we live in modern society”.


Artist: Wayne Quilliam,

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