There are three audiovisuals in the Grounded exhibition. Wadlu-gnana (Wangkangurru language, meaning Grounded) is the first AV to be uploaded to this blog. The Australian Aboriginal song on this sound piece is from the CD “Dreaming Songs of the Warumungu Women” and provided with their kind permission and that of Papulu Apparr-kari.

The exhibition is showing next at An Lanntair Art Gallery in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, from 13 September to 11 October, a partner event at Hebtember Festival.

If you are new to the blog, the Grounded residency diary entries and photographs begin here in Scotland and then in Australia here. An interview about my work with journalist Jim Gilchrist is on the Struileag website which can be linked to here. And a response to the Alice Springs jail post by Professor Smith can be found here. A BBC Radio Scotland interview can be found here. A review by Dr Kate Robinson can be found here. The introductory page for the blog can be found here. Feedback on the Glasgow exhibition can be linked to here. Glasgow workshops, talks and exhibition details are here. And the Digital Resources pages of the blog for further information are here and here.

Returning to the beginning


Sand drift



I have reached the point in the Grounded blog where I said in my first Australia post “I begin this story at the end”. That is, it was the evening of the 21st September, ie the evening of yesterday’s posting, and the evening when I was arrested for doing no more than inquiring after the welfare of a friend; my first blog posting in this leg of the residencies. If you are new to this blog and haven’t read that post and the ensuing day in court, you can link to the story here or to the ensuing day in court here, and to the response by Professor of Criminology, Philip Smith, here. These stories are a window into a strange and disturbing world that is a routine problem for Indigenous people.

But now my post that follows the night in prison and the day in court:

24 September 2014

It’s Tuesday and I have been struggling to stay motivated for the last few days. I am gathering my strength to remain positive and arrange some meetings for tomorrow, so for some light relief I book myself onto the backpacker shuttle bus for a trip to the Alice Springs Desert Park. Its 38 degrees and I will have five hours of walking around in no shade through the middle of the day – but I’m going.

I immediately feel depressed by the light and happy nature of the backpacker shuttle. Their world seems a million miles from mine, like they are floating somewhere between here and the sky.

The Desert Park is well laid out, informative and easy to navigate around. I record the birds and read all the signs.

There is a talk about survival in the desert, which I decide to attend. I sink a little when I see it is taken by a non-Aboriginal person. Admittedly this is not usually the case.

The talk is clear and informative and interesting. She knows a lot. But I am left with an impression that all the Aboriginal people of Australia are happily living connected lives; seamlessly negotiating both the Aboriginal and non Aboriginal worlds in which they find themselves; the consequences of their displacement brushed to obscurity. She tells me that Aboriginal culture is evolving when I ask.

The speaker explains how the land is sacred, that the sanctity runs below the ground too. It is all through the ground. When the park was created, she tells us, the Elders were there to sing to the land and heal it as the bulldozers came through to lay the sewerage pipes and the amenities. My heart sinks some more.

It feels like the King’s New Clothes. This woman talks with a smile; with knowledge and authority. Perhaps it is me who has it wrong; a visitor who knows very little, who’s barely scraped the surface of the complexities of life here.

But this place is the physical heart of Australia; the spiritual cog around which the wheel is turning. From here energy must travel the spokes of the wheel and reach that distant coast, with its back turned and eyes gazing out to sea.

I watch the tourists leave; smiling, interested and satisfied.

(A Guardian article titled, “Indigenous incarceration rates are a national shame” can be read here, and I have many other links on the Australia Digital Resources Page of this blog which can be linked to here. I have also just added to that page an interesting article on Aboriginal languages that can also be linked to here. And a link to the Alice Springs Desert Park site.

Don’t forget too, where we started in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland – the first posting of which can be found here with digital resources here.)


Day 43, Exploring the desert


Goanna tracks in the desert


Dunnart tracks in the desert

21 September 2013

It is Saturday and I have agreed with some others to set out in the big truck to do some exploring. My residency time is fast drawing to a close. We clamber in, pulling ourselves up into the high vehicle, and rumble onto the dusty roads, stretching into the open space out of town.

Napatika (Ewaninga) is a place of rock carvings, set back from the road to Maryvale, about 30km from Alice Springs. It is a very important men’s place. The large red rocks are covered in abstract designs; concentric circles, wavy lines and animal tracks, their abstract nature designed to conceal their meaning from uninitiated members of the group.

Each symbol is linked to the locality, representing waterholes, campsites or meetings. These carvings are symbols of the Altyerre (laws of the Arrernte Culture and Creation Time) and the Senior Arrernte Custodians say the meanings are too sacred and dangerous to reveal to those not initiated in Aboriginal Law.

One of the Altyerre events recorded is the Rain Dreaming. This is one of a number of sites on the path of Rain Dreaming that starts near Hermannsburg over 100 km away and travels onwards east and north to Queensland. The songs, art and ceremonies link the people with their neighbours. The stories are passed on to the young Arrernte men at their initiation ceremonies.

We sit at these rocks, at the edge of a large circular clay pan which, when it does rain, must spill with water and metamorphose the landscape with plant growth, birds and animals.

We loiter and laze and chat, listen to the birds and bend close to the wild flowers before getting back in the big truck and exploring further along the road.

Day 42, Lionel Possum and preserving language and culture


Kanytjupai and the Pitjantjatjara bible translation

20 September

I am introduced to Lionel Possum today. Lionel is the son of Clifford Possum who is considered one of Australia’s most renowned Aboriginal artists. Lionel has inherited the right to his father’s stories and his dot work has the same precision and uniformity as that of his father.

Lionel is working on a painting, Worm Dreaming. He tells me if I go out at night I can hear the whistle of the worms, digging under the earth. We sit on the concrete in the shade of some corrugated tin with his painting spread out on the ground, its precisely placed, deep ochre red and yellow dots, set beside rich dark black. He is a strong man, like his Daddy, he tells me, painting the Dreaming.

My other meeting today is with Kanytjupai. Kanytjupai is Pitjantjatjara from Pukatja (Ernabella) but lives now at a hostel in Alice Springs for her care. She is working as part of a team translating the bible into Pitjantjatjara, and has been working on this for many years. She says it will be for many years more too.

Kanytjupai shows me a copy of this amazing work, and the beautiful paintings it contains. Zebras and Kangaroos drink side by side at a waterhole with emus grazing nearby. Rabbits and koalas and snakes move through the trees and the grass, and on the horizon, the silhouette of a young Aboriginal boy feeds what appears to be a gazelle. The whole image has a beautiful golden water-colour wash.

It is important to translate the bible into language, as this has been one way that language has survived. Ironically the missionaries who introduced the bibles were also responsible for much of the banning of cultural practices. It is with great resilience that the Aboriginal people have used this medium as a means of preserving what they can of culture and language.

(The Digital Resources Australia Page of the blog has 2 new links – one on Lionel Possum and an ABC article about Australian Aboriginal youngsters retracing the steps of their ancestors)

Day 41, Anthwerrke (Emily Gap), Eastern MacDonnells


Anthwerrke, Eastern MacDonnells

18 September 2013

I have a very special morning today, meeting with Mark Inkamala and Baydon, two senior lawmen of Western Arrarnta country.

There is much they are unable to tell me of storylines related to their clan, as it is sacred information held only within the clan, but I am very grateful for what they do share.

In the same way, the basement of the Strehlow Museum where Mark now works relates to secret men’s business and ceremony. I am told that up until recently Aboriginal women would not enter even the upstairs of the museum. Much of the collection can only be accessed by the Traditional Aboriginal Custodians.

Some communities in the Northern Territory cannot be visited without a permit. And moving around the community must be done with the guidance of a cultural advisor to prevent accidental entry to sacred or men only sites.

Today Mark and Baydon accompany me out to Anthwerrke (Emily Gap) in the Eastern MacDonnells, Eastern Arrernte country. This site can be visited by the public, though at one time that would not have been possible.

Anthwerrke is the sacred site of Caterpillar Dreaming. Red ochre lined paintings, drawn onto the rocks, mark the significance and the story of this place. It is where the three caterpillar beings of Mparntwe (Alice Springs) originated, the ancestral beings for the Alice Springs area, from whom Aboriginal people conceived in Alice Springs consider themselves descended. The geographical features of the surrounding landscape were formed by the caterpillars as they travelled out from here to the edge of the Simpson Desert.

The sandy riverbed of the red-rock gorge bakes in the sun, cliff edges sharply delineated against a vivid blue sky. White-barked gums grow in the dry, where water must rush in a flood. It is a place of vivid red and white and blue with smatterings of olive green.

Standing on the naked riverbed, in the silence of the gorge, it feels like I can sink a little further into the ground. As the warmth of the sand moves upwards through the soles of my feet my body relaxes.

No-one speaks. The air is thick with silence, like some communal sigh from the watchful painting on the rock walls. The chaos of Alice Springs is miles away. That feeling I always have in Alice of being displaced from where I thought I was, and having no sense of where I am going, has simply vanished. Here we can feel grounded. Here it is as though the rocks are waiting patiently for some line of connection to past and future to re-gather its strength and for the chaos to settle to peace.

(A link to an article about The Dreaming is now up on the Australia Digital Resources page of the blog)

Day 40, Sorry Business


17 September 2013

They say nothing goes in a straight line in the Northern Territory. Rather, time zigzags a path, usually dropping you somewhere other than where you anticipate, or even imagine possible.

Today is another one of those days and I retrace my steps homewards through the dazzling heat of the day.

There are many reasons why an appointment might fail in town. Most sadly, for Arrarnta and Arrernte people, the reason is often because of “Sorry Business”. Sorry Business occurs after the death of a family member. In Alice Springs the average life span of an Aboriginal man is just under 45 years, worse even than the Australia-wide average for an Aboriginal man of 59 years.

I am only in Alice Springs for 2 weeks, yet in that short time, and with the very small pool of people I have met, I encounter Sorry Business no less than three times.

One such encounter is when we are sitting in the garden having dinner, lingering around a pleasant fire with the gentle night noises. Suddenly the night is split open by a roar of heavy metal. A band, meant to be playing at Santa Teresa, has set up in the car park down the road. Sorry Business has shifted them here.

Not much sleep tonight. The dogs are also joining in, and the talking galah next door.

(A link to an ABC radio programme about the life expectancy of Australian Aboriginal people is now up at the Australia Digital Resources page of the blog)

Day 39, Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa)


Anne’s painted seed necklaces

16 September 2013

This morning we discover that the great heavy truck I am using to get to Santa Teresa has a flat tyre. With tyre pressures sitting at around 20 it is little wonder, says the garage. Some great fortune has flattened the tyre before I got on the 100km of unsealed road. Not somewhere I want to break down on my own, with no mobile reception. No wonder the jolly truck has been so hard to handle.

So with tyres pumped up to 40, and a request for an oil and water check too, I head southeast on my adventure to Santa Teresa, in Eastern Arrernte country. I feel pea-sized in such a vehicle, but I get the measure of it and slip into the gentle rhythm of the road.

The road is covered in fine dust that slips and turns with the wheels, and where the wind has blown through, it is ruts and bumps and holes. On the horizon the red rock of the worn old hills is covered with the olive of dusty trees and the combination of the two colours gives a definite ancient painterly purple to their appearance.

From a practical non-driver I am turning into quite a pro, but I still feel a sense of relief to pull safely into the Catholic mission.The first sight is the tall, straight cross on the hill, and the gleaming white of the church, almost Aegean against the stark blue of the sky. But its setting amidst a spread of lightly-coloured, concrete block and tin-roofed bungalows, with that ever-present fine coating of dust, keeps it solidly in Australia. Low wire-mesh fences set out plot boundaries to the street but the red earth continues on both sides of the fence; perhaps some grass struggles to grow on the inside. Lean dogs run excitedly in their packs and bark at the car wheels. A large sign beckons me, “Welcome to Ltyentye Apurte”.

Ltyentye Apurte is a sacred rainmaking site. It is also the site of the Santa Teresa mission, which was built in 1953. It is a community of 600 people, on the western edge of the Simpson Desert.

I have brought lunch with me for the ladies; breads and salads and roasted chicken. I top it up with a bit more ham and cheese from the local shop.

I have been invited to talk with the ladies at the Healing Centre, a beautiful relaxing space hung with bright silk scarves they have painted, and workbenches scattered with trinkets, boxes and crosses, all painted with precision and dexterous skill in traditional designs of vibrant colour.The painting connects the ladies in cultural ways to the land. The artwork can also be bought from the Santa Teresa Spirituality Centre (Facebook page) and from the Ltyentye Apurte Keringke Arts Centre (This site has the Keringke Story about the kangaroo that came in the Dreamtime from the South East).

I am told the room I am in at the Healing Centre used to be a dormitory where the children, who had been taken away from their mothers, slept. One lady tells me she grew up here, crying and crying for her mother. But she’s happy now, she tells me, with new family around her and her painting to do.

I spend a lot of time talking with Mary Therese Mulladad, a Ngangkere (traditional healer).

Mary uses her hands to tell her where healing is needed for patients. She tells me her skills come from the land and her father passed on the knowledge to her.

Mary performs smoking ceremonies at the traditional healing centre using local bush medicine. Houses are also smoked when loved ones are lost to make the spirit rest in peace.

“If a little baby is sleeping and a loud noise happens nearby, the baby’s spirit might hide and make the baby sick”, she tells me. Mary can see if the baby has no spirit and put the spirit back into the body to make the baby well again.

Mary creates a smoking and healing ceremony for me, laying her peaceful hands on my forehead and brushing the smoke from the arrethe medicine plant towards me. She says it will help me be strong in the work I am doing and I am grateful for her counsel.

After lunch and talking with the ladies, I am taken into the church. It is an amazing sight inside. The walls are covered in beautiful murals depicting Aboriginal scenes; Jesus, with his distinctive long hair, as an Aboriginal man rising from the water, or sitting at the corroboree. A traditional Aboriginal carrying bowl, a coolamon, acts as the font in the church.

I am not allowed to take photos inside the church so it is up to your mind’s eye to visualise this scene.

(Some new links are up on the Australia Digital Resources page of the blog relating to Santa Teresa and Australian Aboriginal medicine men and women)

Day 38, Ntaria and a footprint in the rock


Mark with the Creation Story footprint or Jesus’ footprint

15 September 2013

Things unfold slowly in Alice Springs. There’s a kind of chaos that seems to seep into every crevice it can find, turning things around at the last minute to leave me floundering and confused. Change tumbles and roles and clatters like marbles, scattering the plans of the day. I feel ungrounded, tied down to nothing. It is a difficult environment in which to work when time is short, though perhaps it is possible to find a rhythm if you live here, ducking and weaving with the flow.

But today has a picture to it. We are taking Christopher’s huge Toyota 4WD on a journey, over the bridge and along the dry Todd River that runs through Alice. Six of us squeeze into the old truck but it’s a comfortable, companionable ride heading out of town along the MacDonnell Range; 130km to Ntaria, the Lutheran mission of Hermannsburg.

The Hermannsburg mission was founded by Lutheran missionaries from Germany in 1877. It continued until 1982 when the land was returned to the Aboriginal people.

Although the missionaries to Australia are accused of banning traditional practices and mixing different language groups together, causing loss of identity and belonging, there is also the viewpoint that the Australian Aboriginal people were already dispossessed, raped and murdered by white settlers and governments who made it impossible for them to continue in their culture, and that without the missionaries the lives of the Aboriginal people could have been even worse. Indeed, in Central Australia, the Arrarnta were denied access to their waterholes and were being shot and poisoned by the pastoralists, when the Lutheran Mission persuaded them to give up their nomadic lifestyle and live in the mission. This had the dual effect of helping Arrarnta survive but at the same time lose much of the essence of their culture and traditional material.

Now there are many outstations around Ntaria, small communities serviced by Ntaria, where a few families live in close connection with the natural environment. Outstations are set up to bring Aboriginal people closer to their traditional lifestyles.

We are going to Ntaria today for a choir day, organised by choirmaster David, and two other choirs. Pitjantjatjara people’s Utju choir, and Asante Sana from Alice Springs are joining the local Western Arrarnta, Ntaria (Hermannsburg) Ladies Choir to sing first in the Lutheran church, then in the shade of the community’s open basketball court, and finally down by the red rock of the gorge.

German buildings of thick, whitewashed stone make up the old part of Ntaria. Inside the stone the space is bare and cool, protected from the burning blue sun with logs laid across the ceiling and thatch above. These buildings are neatly placed at spaced intervals across the red dust of the courtyards, and punctuated with gleaming white bark of the eucalypt trees that offer an occasional, scanty olive-shade. The community where people live lies beyond the fence, a low spread of tin-roof, concrete brick bungalows common to the communities.

We enter the church, a hubbub of chatter and children and lone dogs that wander in the door for a look and to sniff the cooler air. There is a warm three-dimensionality to the sounds of the church. When the singing starts it is a treat to hear the music of Arrarnta language stitching together the old Lutheran songs.

The second part of the day is planned for the shelter of the basketball court, a wide, open concrete floor with a flat tin roof for shade. The microphones are set up at one end, the backdrop of open country behind, and we all sit in groups around the floor. But hot winds are sandblasting the community today and we are assaulted by scouring dust, thrust and swirled in our eyes and faces, ripping across the concrete floor, on which we are all seated, in red waves of sand and grit.

The subdued shade of the tin shelter, the blazing blue of the heat outside, bouncing off the ground, the ripping wind and dust, all make for a challenging photographic and sound recording experience, but the singing goes bravely on, and the smiles are broad and lift our spirits beyond the superficial challenges of the day. It is decided, however, that singing at the gorge will not be practicable.

Mark Inkamala is senior lawman of Western Arrarnta country. He came with us from Alice Springs for the day to be with his family here and join the festivities. Mark has told me about Jesus’ footprint in the rocks near Ntaria and wants to show me the spot, so before we head back to Alice at the end of the day, we take a drive to the red rocks on the sandy riverbed. The footprint is also part of a traditional Creation story, the first man to set foot on earth. Today Mark refers to it as Jesus’ footprint.

It is dark by the time we are all piling back into the car for the journey home and we chat and laugh as we drive, one eye always on the lookout for wild horses or camels or cattle or kangaroos; the others on the road.

Back at my studio space I can never decide what must come first – food or drink to stave the dryness of my mouth after a long hot day, or a shower to scrape off the layers of dust caked into sun cream, or a phone call home.

(Some new links are up at the Australia Digital resources page of the blog, relating to Aboriginal land rights, Australian Bureaus of Statistics on Language, an ABC story on Ntaria Aboriginal Ladies Choir, a historical article on the Hermannsburg mission, and some cultural stories from the West MacDonnell ranges)

Day 37, Arriving in Mparntwe (Alice Springs)


Munga-Thirri (Simpson Desert)

12 September 2013

There is no direct route from Brisbane to Alice Springs, so I fly first the 1,700 km north to Cairns and from there, 2,400km southwest to Alice in the Northern Territory.

From Cairns, we fly over the tight wool-curls of rainforest canopy; gazing down on hills that fold like draped green curtains dropping to aqua-green sea. Across the range, as we rumble west, colour fades to dryness and the gentle swelling of the land flattens out to plains.

I want to record the pilot announcing our approach into Alice and so the helpful hostie asks the pilot for some advance warning of the announcement.  Advice comes back that the pilot is Scottish. From Dundee she says. I have to let him know I am from Broughty Ferry (a former fishing village, and suburb of Dundee). Before I get my reply, I know that he is going to be from Broughty Ferry too. I have an immediate, irrational feeling of safety up there above the clouds in this metal box; an illogical feeling that I am connected and therefor in ridiculously safe hands.

Mparntwe (Alice Springs) sits on the western side of the Simpson Desert, in the Northern Territory, separated from Wirrari (Birdsville) on the eastern side by 1,100km of desert.

We fly slowly downwards over the rugged red of the MacDonnell Ranges and the final stage of my residencies begins.

The court process following arrest

Charge sheet

Bail sheet

22 September 2013

It is Sunday and I awaken to reality. I rarely meet forensic psychologists but I have met one in my two weeks here and he lives just across the park from where I am staying. He is my first port of call in search of assistance – a silver thread across the park. Breakfast is immediately on and support is underway: letters to contacts in legal aid, and to journalist friends, and the drafting of a statement on my behalf.

What would I do without him? – No one here to support me, no knowledge of the system, and only a few minutes before my court appearance to talk to whatever stranger happens to be at legal aid before my hearing.

But this is also good – I am getting some first-hand experience of how it is for the Australian Aboriginal people of Alice Springs – the majority of whom, I am told, have been through the prison system – very clearly through no fault of their own. According to one ABC report titled “Indigenous Prison Rates are a National Shame” in 20 years, the rate of one in seven people incarcerated being Aboriginal has increased to one in four. And, as an artist, I have the opportunity to share this with you in the glowing clarity of my own story.

Monday morning.

I enter the wide high hall of the courts, somehow designed to make us feel smaller. My bags and I are scanned, and I am in a foyer, with a TV screen listing the names of the people to be called for the court. My name is there.

I must find the legal aid solicitor before I am called. I am lucky. My statement has been written, my biography and my website copied, and a reference written for me. Geoffrey, back in Brisbane, has also given advice on what and how to present. I arrive prepared and supported by a group of well-informed people. I feel it is a very different situation for the Aboriginal people around me who mill out of place in the foreign confines of a structure designed far, far away.

The duty solicitor is behind a desk piled high with people’s needs and he advises me to wait. We hover outside his door. Time ticks by with monotonous haste to the moment of being called. I feel vulnerable and dangerously invisible despite my heaven-sent support.

When we are at last called into his office the solicitor tells us the police papers are not ready. He doesn’t know the charges. A defence cannot be made until he knows. I thrust out my paperwork for him to read before the veil of overburden is pulled down again between us, and he disappears to discuss the matter with the prosecution.

The solicitor returns to say it appears the prosecution think there is no case. He decides he wants to get the bail condition removed and the charges of “Hindering a Policeman” dropped.

We sit in the sharp, clean silence of the court, shuffling loosely along to let others join us at our bench, as if at some church pew. Indeed – we are here to be judged. And we appear crumpled in all the smartness. Names are called. Formalities followed. The smell in here is of polished pine and blue cloth but the air is uneasy. There are two sides to the fence; those who sit limply waiting to be called, and those who march through procedure.

My name is called. It must only be a matter of seconds and I am dismissed, forgotten, eyes turned to the next. The police do not have their paperwork and I am discharged from bail. I am expected to gratefully depart. An invisible cloak falls over the seven hours already spent in gaol.

It remains that I may be summonsed at any time over the next 6 months. I am also advised by the solicitor that if the police decide to increase the charge, I might be summonsed at any time, even after the 6 months period. I am told there is only a one-month period, however, in which I can lodge a complaint.

I leave the court feeling dazed. My support team guide me across the road and we sit over coffee together. Have the police effectively made complaint impossible? I am certainly advised against it by everyone around me. The journalist agrees it would not be in my interest to write up the story. I am to lie low.

I am in Australia. I have been locked up for seven hours for asking after the welfare of my friend. Even the police, when I asked them at the gaol, did not manage to say they would not do the same in my situation.

I have not complained. I am however doing as I said I would do. The Northern Territory Police are included internationally in the Grounded exhibition, and on my blog. I thank them once again for this opportunity. They have provided material to raise a debate on whether perhaps the Aboriginal people of Alice Springs are being locked up without justification, and on how appropriate the systems are.

I have started these posts from Australia with the last days of the Grounded artist residency. Tomorrow I’ll return to the beginning of the story and introduce you to the beautiful Australian Aboriginal people I met along the way, and the stories they are very willing to share.

(You can visit more web articles from the Australia Digital Resources page of this blog)