In Conversation: Connecting through Culture

"In Conversation, Connecting through Culture", one of our afternoon events.

“In Conversation, Connecting through Culture”, one of our afternoon events.

As well as the great music during the afternoon sessions at the Grounded exhibition in Glasgow, we had this conversation (around the peats) about language, chaired by Rona MacDonald, the Gaelic Arts producer at Glasgow Life, and with special guest Craig Duggan, from BBC Wales, talking about Welsh language. Rona begins with a short Gaelic introduction, and we continue the conversation in English. You can listen to a cut down recording of the conversation at this Vimeo link. (16 mins.)

The Grounded 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. We are heading to the Outer Hebrides tomorrow so will be offline for a couple of weeks.

If you are new to the blog, the Grounded residency diary entries and photographs begin here in Scotland and then in Australia here. The book that accompanied the exhibition can be found at Exhibition explanatory book

Three audiovisuals that were part of Grounded, and the promotional audiovisual, can be watched here

The introductory page for the blog can be found here. Feedback on the Glasgow exhibition can be linked to here. Photos of the Glasgow opening event are here. Glasgow workshops, talks and exhibition details are here. And the Digital Resources pages of the blog for further information are here and 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.

My artist biography can be linked to here and here and my personal website is here

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More than a song

I am inserting in here a link to a song and video by Dol Eoin MacKinnon. Dol Eoin sang this song at one of our afternoon sessions during the Grounded exhibition in Glasgow. I really hope you enjoy and admire the song and video as much as I do. Only 13 days to go now until Scotland votes on its future.

Dol Eoin’s next short film includes a feature on Grounded. Looking forward to being able to share that with you too.

The Grounded 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. The book that accompanied the exhibition can be found at Exhibition explanatory book

Three audiovisuals that were part of Grounded, and the promotional audiovisual, can be watched 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. Photos of the Glasgow opening event are here. Glasgow workshops, talks and exhibition details are here. And the Digital Resources pages of the blog for further information are here and here.

My artist biography can be linked to here and here and my personal website is here

Day 31, Across the Sturt Stony Desert to Birdsville

Waddi-tree-Birdsville

Waddi Trees

26 August 2013

I am on the edge of the Simpson Desert, Munga-Thirri National Park. Munga-Thirri means Big Sand Hill.

For this stage of the journey I was kindly offered a lift; there are not many other ways to get the 700km from Longreach to Birdsville.

We drive in a straight red line, past silver grass plains and on through the carpets of rusty round gibber, a great, red-desert pavement of pebbles locked in the clay. The sun beats relentlessly down from an empty bucket of blue.

We have crossed the Sturt Stony Desert when Birdsville, on the traditional land of the Wangkangurru-Yarluyandi people, appears through a dusty flat haze. With its population of only 150 people in such an expanse of space, the roads spread themselves comfortably wide. And with no need to hold in their breath, the roads flop on the landscape in the heat. The houses spread themselves with arms out-flung, saying, ”Look – we have all this room. We hardly know what to do with ourselves!” Such is the grid of four spread-eagled streets; a baker, a hotel, a visitor centre and a caravan park that make up Birdsville.

I am here to meet with Don Rowlands and Lynn, his wife, and Koopah, the beautiful, faithful, little brown dog who is to come everywhere with us; Koopah after the Kallakoopah River.

Don is Wangkangurru Elder and National Park Ranger for Munga-Thirri (the Simpson Desert), and I found him in my research, through ABC radio interviews he had done, talking of the importance of culture and land, and the sharing of this knowledge.

I am staying in a traditional style caravan in his yard, and as he shows me to the corner of the yard, an enormous welcome awaits me; a big sign saying “Parrott Hilton”. How welcome it makes me feel! And how much like Don it is, I am to discover, with his wry humour and his warmth. The town water comes from the Artesian Basin and my caravan sits under one of the water-cooling towers. What a very desert Australia scene my new home is.

Everything out here is continuously covered in a soft mat of fine red dust, picked up by the hot desert winds and scattered unceremoniously on every surface. Tinfoil taped over the caravan window struggles to keep it out. I am here in the hottest September on record with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees and there isn’t much shade. I feel my brain adjusting and clicking down gears for what is going to be for me a very hot week.

I have to shift my whole being into the new time zone. There isn’t much hurry for anything out here. One thing drifts into another under the dripping blue sun. In contradiction, there is always the quiet voice at the back of my head urging me on to complete the work that needs to be done. I must balance the two opposing forces and blend them somewhere into a delicious sweet soup.

Don takes me, on my first afternoon, for a tour of the area. It is a well thought out introduction to Wangkangurru traditional culture. We go to see the Waddi trees, part of the Wangkangurru Thutirla Pula (Two Boys Dreaming) Creation Story. What beautiful old trees they are, thin and bent, brushed over with soft-hanging needles that drip a warm gold-green in the setting sun.

Thutirla Pula Creation story, consists of a series of connected stories about two boys who travelled across the desert from west to east.

The two boys stayed a night at the Waddi trees. When they woke up in the morning they saw tall men all around. The boys were being challenged for passing through someone else’s country. As I sit under the tree, looking up and listening to Don’s story, I can see clearly the man in the tree, arms outstretched.

Creation stories such as Thutirla Pula serve to map routes for navigation across the country. The stories also helped the Aboriginal people find the water wells and survive in the desert. They provided wisdom and a sense of place. Many of the stories cross language groups and also follow trade routes.

Waddis are a rare and ancient desert tree, found in only three locations in Australia. All the stands are on the fringes of the Simpson Desert, separated by hundreds of kilometers.

The timber is so hard it damages axes and saws. Waddi wood has Aboriginal totemic significance, and was used by local groups to transport fire.

(Links to further information on Waddi trees, Munga-Thirri National Park, Thutirla Pula Dreaming and the Sturt Stony Desert have been uploaded to the Australia Digital Resources page of this blog)

Day 30, More tales of resilience and courage

winton-grass-plains-australia-Queensland

23 August 2013

I am driving to Winton today; the long road, taught as stretched elastic ready to fire backwards in my face. I follow the high oblong box of a road train shimmering on the horizon ahead; in my side vision, the dull blue-grey of the grasslands sweeping outwards.

Winton is the first town I arrive at, two hours down the road, and I check into my hotel, climbing the stairs to a narrow corridor with closed doors disappearing to the distance down either side, and my room number stuck to the front of one. Each room has doors leading onto a communal concrete verandah which overlooks the car park, the sounds of the TV and the bar drifting up from below. The room has that same pink smell of all these country motels; mixed with the cigarette ash of the ashtrays outside.

I am here to run some photography workshops but have also been put in touch with Pearl, by my friends in Barcaldine.

When I arrive at Pearl’s home, her paintings are turned to the wall. Aboriginal paintings are based on stories and images centered on the Dreaming and as such are deeply significant and spiritual. I respect that she has let me into her home despite obviously being unsure of who I am and what I am about. We talk for a short while before she turns the paintings around to show me, and I am grateful for this action.

Pearl prefers that I do not record our conversation. I listen instead to her stories, and hear once more the tales of injustice, the hurt and the damage that have been done. After a couple of hours she says, “I wish you had recorded. It is the first time I have had the opportunity to tell a white person”.

Pearl then decides to invite Jocelyn, her mother, down to talk to me. Jocelyn’s mother and father were married before they were even born. They were selected to be married, because their bloodline relates them to the Kings and Queens of their country. Jocelyn’s mother, Alice Wilson, was involved with the big Land Rights marches in the 1960’s, and she received the Order of Australia medal for her work on behalf of Aboriginal people.

Jocylen tells me her language groups are Murrawarri, Kurawarri and Pitapita. But Jocelyn was never allowed to speak her language nor ever taught it. To teach language and culture to children resulted in having them forcibly removed from the family and sent to live at a mission. “Growing up was tough”, she says, “because of the racism”. “We weren’t allowed to dance”. She was taught to survive ‘by being the white way’.

Jocelyn bought a taxi and became a taxi driver to support her children She also completed an Aboriginal cultural course in Geelong and spent much time researching the stories and ways of life that should have been passed onto her. Jocelyn and Pearl share aspects of these for the sound recordings I gather.

With the sinking of the sun, I finally head on my way. I am full of respect for the strength and courage of Pearl and Jocelyn, and so many others I have met like them on this journey; And with sadness for what they have endured.

I hope with each sharing of the sadness, the weight can somehow, in some small way, be reduced; the apparent cloak of invisibility surrounding this sadness when one lives a day-to-day life on the affluent east coat of Australia, removed; and respect for Australian Aboriginal people and their rich culture increased.

(A link to information about Aboriginal Art has been added to the Australia Digital Resources page of the blog)

Day 29, The Importance of Belonging for Personal Wellbeing

grass-plains-australia

21 August 2013

I drive the kangaroo marathon to Barcaldine again today. I have learned to drive after 8am and return before 5pm to avoid the chance of meeting one of these great animals head on. I scan the far horizon to the sides of the road, not just for the kangaroos, but also the emus that can appear from nowhere and dart out in front of the car.

But in the middle of the day the biggest problem is the carcasses that litter the road; the ones not yet pulled to the side that can appear too suddenly from under the vehicle ahead.

I arrive in Barcaldine and make my way back to the now familiar Red Shed. It is a warm and homely welcome that I get on meeting the team again.

Darryl shows me his painting of the Southern Cross and Rainbow Serpent. Rings of dots, to represent the waterholes that the Rainbow Serpent has created, are in the position of the constellation of the Southern Cross. The Rainbow Serpent is spiritual to Aboriginal people. It is the creator of the waterholes and rivers and land formations of Australia.

“I like being on country”, he says. “I’d feel weird if I wasn’t”. On country, he explains, means being on the land that you are from, where you have been brought up. If you are off country you know that you are on other people’s land.

Darryl explains how the Iningai people of this area were slaughtered, and if they weren’t slaughtered they were moved onto the missions, like Cherbourg nearer the coast. It affects him daily, he says. He still thinks about it. “But we are still here”, he says, “strains of us”.

I learn a lot more of the Native Title Claim by the Iningai, and of what it is to live as a Bidjara Person in Western Queensland, as people generously share their thoughts and stories for the sound recordings I am gathering.

I leave feeling confused by the details of the Iningai claim on land that is currently under Bidjara custodianship, but understand that my confusion reflects an existing confusion resulting from historical removal of people from their land.

As Donna tells me, “I thought I was Bidjara but my family has told me I am Iningai. We have to find out who is the rightful owner of the land. Perhaps some Iningai escaped from the massacre in the cave. There’s a lot of Bidjara around and we thought there were no Iningai, but now I’ve been told I’m Iningai and we don’t know anything about ourselves. Thinking I was Bidjara and being told I was Iningai, I was confused. It took me forty-one years to work out who I am and then they tell me I’m a completely different tribe. You just don’t know who you are. You have to work out who you are to be the person you are.”

(On the Australia Digital Resources Page of the blog I have now added articles on language resources for Central-West Queensland, Iningai Keeping Place and Searching for the lost Iningai)

 

 

Day28, The swag

stockman swag australia aboriginal

Jack

20 August 2013

I meet with Jack this morning, at his pensioner unit near the hospital, which he keeps in perfect, sparkling order. The front door is open awaiting my arrival. His movements are slow and gentle as he comes to greet me; his eyes are kind.

Jack worked all his life with the stations, like many of the Aboriginal men: as stockman, drover, horse breaker, horse tailing hand, and camp cook. He tells me stories of droving the cattle from Alexander Station in the Northern territory; his longest journey to the Cooper Country was 19 weeks away. They covered 8 – 10 miles a day, resting when the cattle needed to rest, before they reached the small creeks and plentiful feed of the Cooper Country. On a night watch Jack would ride around singing or whistling to prevent any dozing cattle from taking fright and causing a rush.

But when the trucks came in, many drovers lost their jobs; and with the helicopters, motorbikes and 4WDs for mustering, many of the horse workers and horses were also lost. Jack tells me of the time they led the horses to the meat works, gathering more along route, so that by the time they got to the meat works they had eleven hundred head of horses.

He gets up from his chair and signals me to follow. Opening the wardrobe, his neatly rolled swag is revealed, still lying there.

Day 27, Consequences of a massacre; And a rodeo

rodeo stockman horses australia

16 August 2013

I am perched on the patchwork quilt that covers my little bed, the Calico curtains tied up in a knot to calm their mad flapping in the breeze. The wooden veranda doors are pinned back and I look past my verandah to the latticework and a dusty street beyond. My portable air conditioner hums, cooling the room that sweats under its tin roof despite the hot breeze flowing through. Everything has the feeling of being coated in a layer of dust; even the air has a certain gritty quality. Something in the environment does seem to leave a vague gloss of chaos over how events evolve here, but most of it does seem to happen in its own way, and after various incarnations of how an outcome might be reached. I follow these threads to wherever they might lead. Right now, I am preparing for some photography workshops I am running here as part of the residency, which has been achieved by bringing together many organisations to help fund it.

In the afternoon I meet with Tony Weldon, custodian of the Longreach area. Tony was brought up on a sheep and cattle station west of Longreach. He left home at 14 to work on stations, doing fencing, ringing and droving before leaving the bush to work for Telstra.

Tony tells me of how a map was once drawn, marking Longreach as Iningai territory, but no Iningai people have been found in and around the town. He talks of the massacre in the area that wiped out the Iningai population, and subsequent removal of the bones to a museum in England. At least the bones have at last been returned to their keeping place in Longreach.

As Custodian of Iningai country, Tony is involved with Aboriginal health and housing, and helping the young people into the workforce. Aboriginal people can be shy and find it hard to communicate, he says. If there is any disturbance and police are involved, the police might get angry at these young people for not talking, and want to lock them up. Tony intervenes to help the young people communicate. But there isn’t much trouble, he says.

He tells me he was brought up in a white man’s world. “I’m lucky”, he says. “It is easier for me to fit in. For others who have come from smaller communities to the town it is much harder for them to adapt. But they are talented and strong”.

I am saddened that the adaptation seems to only be one way; that these young Aboriginal people must adapt to the dominant culture; this just seems to be taken for granted, like a rosy woolen blanket obscuring other possibilities. I can’t help but feel that the dominant culture has much to learn from the Aboriginal communities. But such an idea seems lost in the heat and the history and the marching forwards of every-day life.

Like Tony, many Aboriginal men worked as drovers and stockmen in their adaptation to colonisation, riding the horses with the cattle. And tonight is my opportunity to see these skills in action as the rodeo is in town.

The oval in Longreach is small but that is good as we can get up close. Around the oval are stalls of salty popcorn; dazzling red and green, iced slushies; hot dogs and burgers. A bar area is sectioned off from the ring. Along one side of the oval is a raised terrace of wooden benches. Many bring their own fold up chairs and sit pressed up against the oval fence – a solid wooden base supporting wires, widely spread for visibility, but strong and thick. Country music is jangling loudly through big black speakers. And the air… dust settles on everything.

Beside the stalls where the horses and bulls are kept, cowboys in dusty jeans and battered hats lean against the fence of the floodlit oval, or swing their legs over to perch on the wires, intently cupping their face in their hands for a better view, spurs hooked along in the wire. Under a shimmer of dust their faces are swarthy and strong, fixed with a determined set or breaking into a sudden grin. They stand straight and lithe, these men of the horses.

I never really expected to enjoy the rodeo but I do. The music matches the fierce energy of the horse and rider as they burst through the metal gate and into the ring; bucking horses and bucking bulls, men thrown and rolling away from reared hind legs, the clowns who rush to the ring to divert a bull away from a fallen rider, dust flying, and Lockie, the compère, calling the women in the crowds to fever pitch over the masculinity of these rugged young men.

I move around the fence for different vantage points and settle after a while opposite the gates from which the riders burst forth. A sudden pull of a rope from inside of the ring releases the riders, and is quickly followed by a leap back over the fence by the puller of the rope.

I am positioned next to an elderly couple with their fold up chairs pressed tight against the fence, when an almighty horse comes hurtling through the gate and gallops like the wind in a dead straight line towards us. Looking through a telephoto lens it is not long before I am running up the bank in the opposite direction, and I am alarmed to see this old couple do not even flinch as the horse crashes its sweating bulk into the fence in front of them, the rider thrown from its back. He grabs the fence to gracefully somersault and twist his body, avoiding the laps of the elderly couple, who are still sitting smiling in their seats. A great pile of dust comes over the fence with him and covers my camera bag, abandoned at the scene, in deep red.

I stay until midnight.

(For more reference links visit the Australia Digital Resources page of the blog)