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HomeIssue 25The social value of art in desert communities

The social value of art in desert communities

ANNA GEORGIA MACKAY on the Desert Mob Symposium 2013
Desert Mob, now in its 23rd consecutive year, is Central Australia’s leading art exhibition claiming national and even international attention. But if you were looking for an exploration of the work on its walls, of formal practice and aesthetic choices, then this symposium was not the place to find it. Titled Faces, Places, Spaces it was not immediately concerned with the exhibition, but with art production as a socially valuable activity.
Left: Ngamaru Bidu, Nola Taylor, Muuki Taylor and Gabrielle Sullivan during the Martumili Artists presentation. Sullivan’s photograph behind them, Marra (Catch It), shows Kumpaya Girgirba and Ngamarau Bidu hunting. 
In different ways across each of the eleven presentations, art was celebrated for its role in Aboriginal cultural preservation and promotion. As well, the art centres were honoured for their critical facilitating role. As Jane Young, artist, senior Arrente woman and chairperson of Desart, pointed out in her opening speech, “People come to Desert Mob from all over, who don’t know about art centres. And it’s good they can learn about art centres and what we are doing.” The Desert Mob festival, its symposium showed us, is not only here to exhibit the art itself, but is also about illuminating the ways that the art is produced. 
The symposium audience was thus treated to a highly varied and philosophical meditation upon the relationship between artistic production and social, cultural and psychological health. Across the day, we saw art valued as a vehicle for telling personal or local Aboriginal histories, for its emotional healing capacity, as an educational tool for passing down knowledge to younger generations, and as “an important conduit through which the world can appreciate and understand our desert cultures”, as put by Philip Watkins, CEO of Desart. The ultimate subject of congratulation, though, came back to the Desert Mob festival itself. Providing the chief gateway between central Australian Aboriginal art and the global audience, “Desert Mob,” said Jane Young, “is an important way that we share our stories with the world, and make a bit of money too.”
The capacity for art to “keep culture strong” was central to the presenting artists from Martumili Artists, Warakurna Artists, Mimili Maku Arts, for the Tjanpi Desert Weavers and for Myra Ah Chee from The Many Hands Art Centre. The art created by these people told historical or spiritual stories, or passed down practical knowledge to younger generations about language or hunting skills – “this is how we do to teach the young ones,” one of the Martumili artists said.
Many of these artists have developed ways of reinventing their work in a digital medium. These supplementary works are effective in making the educational content of the original pieces more accessible both to younger generations and to non-Aboriginal people.
In the short animation, Cannibal Story, for example, Martumili artist Yunkurra Billy Atkins (with the help of animator Sohan Ariel Hayes) has used the imagery of his beguiling paintings to enliven the “dark narratives” about Martu country embedded within them. Animating the painterly elements of his work with eerie audio sound effects and Yunkurra’s own spoken narration (with English subtitles) combines to affectively evoke the “dark heart of Martu country … where cannibal beings [still image above right] live beneath the surface of the salt lake, a place where Martu fear to tread.”
The Mimili Maku film Kinara Pulkapakani (The Rising Moon, still image below left), and Lynette Wallworth’s immersive video installation We are Still Here, Still Walking Around – of which we saw excerpts – are similar innovations. In these film collaborations between non-Indigenous filmmakers and the local artists, outsiders are invited to better understand the cultural references contained in the artists work while remaining firmly in the realm of the poetic. Indeed, the challenge of effectively conveying the stories contained in the paintings demanded that the film defy the literal. They were more than supplements to the artists’ original work; they stood alone as works of art.
Here, some acknowledgement must be made of the non-Indigenous collaborators. Such moments of exchange – when “people engage in actual dialogue, be it at a supermarket check-out or in a film co-production” – have been famously promoted by Marcia Langton for their capacity to build cross-cultural understanding. Particularly in Aboriginal film, Langton says that these dialogues are uniquely valuable because they produce new perceptions of the other person, “but both the Aboriginal subject and the non-Aboriginal subject are participating.” That collaborative element went conspicuously underappreciated in the symposium presentations, and perhaps this is where its social framework could be expanded in the future.
The question of art’s relationship with practical utility is relevant here. Where do we draw the line between making art and social therapy? Possibly, it is when the functional agenda motivating the therapeutic exercise compromises the creativity of the artist and the quality of the art. This imbalance was reflected in the “happy sad painting project”, which was run at the Papunya Tjupi art centre by people from the Melbourne-based Dax Centre, which promotes mental health and wellbeing through art and creativity. The idea was to get artists to work collectively on canvases to create two different categories of work –paintings about what they feel really good and strong about in the community” as Papunya Tjupi coordinator Kasumi Erjiri explained, “and paintings about what they feel really sad and worried about in the community.”
The basic assumption underlying the project is a strong one: talking about our suffering (whether in words or in pictures) can help to relieve pain and generate ideas about how to solve continuing problems. But by asking that the artists comprehend the world through such simplistic terms as “happy” and “sad”, the project compromised the sophistication of both the healing and the artwork. The prescriptive framework did not allow for the possibility that some situations might evoke both “happy” and “sad” emotions; it did not allow for the possibility that many sad things in life are also good and beautiful; and it assumed that the artists working on the paintings held a unanimous view of what were the happy and sad things in their local history and their community.
I wondered what these happy-sad paintings meant to the Papunya Tjupi artists (some of them pictured above right, during the symposium) who created them; did they hold therapeutic value only, or artistic value too? There was no attempt to mediate the content of the paintings to the audience, and I sat with my curiosity: where had the artists located events associated with white settlement and post-colonialism within those two lumps, ‘happy’ and ‘sad’?
The tendency to interpret central Australian history through the lens of trauma and victimization was evident in the way that Charlotte Kristy of the Dax Centre contextualized their project with Papunya Tjupi: “When we came and spoke about what we do and a project we did a long time ago with the Holocaust community, about different generations talking together about trauma through their artworks, the artists here became really inspired.” This ready comparison between the experience of Australian Aboriginal people and victims of the Nazi Holocaust surfaced again in the solo presentation given by Yhonnie Scarce.
Explaining the significance of her visit to Berlin, Scarce said “Berlin and Germany, and Poland and that too, have kept some of the [concentration] camps available to visit. I found that really interesting, and really emotional I think too…because for me, as an Aboriginal person, we share the same history as such.”

Scarce is an internationally successful glass artist born in Woomera, who lived in Alice Springs from when she was ten until she was twenty. Although she now lives in Melbourne, her identification with traditional Aboriginal culture fuels her work; “A lot of my art revolves around that emotional attachment to land and bush food,” she told the symposium.

Scarce’s installations using glass-blown bush bananas and yams (she is pictured showing an example above), family photographs and domestic objects, are both intellectually and aesthetically moving. However, she could take her work further by expanding the single dimension of ‘victim’, and introducing questions about responsibility and intention.
Scarce’s concern with highlighting the persecution of Aboriginal people during the assimilation era was inspired both by “family stories and stories that my mother had told me” and by what she found through independent research: “In my honours year I researched a lot about displacement and removal of Aboriginal people.” (A detail of an early work exploring these themes is shown at right). Perhaps the decision to focus on Aboriginal victimhood is also motivated by Scarce’s keenness to affirm her Aboriginal identity, since it is something she has always had to make explicit: “I was getting tired of – cos I’m a fair skinned, blue-eyed black fella – I kept getting referred to as something else, like I might be Italian, or European, or Chinese.”
One of her most successful pieces, Burial Ground, consists of 224 handmade glass yams that sit inside a transparent box in the shape of a coffin: “it references every year that an Aboriginal person has died as a result of genocide since 1788” and “was inspired by the memorial to the murdered Jewish people in Berlin.” At the symposium, and in interviews elsewhere, Scarce uses the words ‘genocide’ and ‘colonization’ interchangeably. This association is not without basis; however, to view these as identical experiences only flattens the significance of both. Though perhaps a more difficult task, drawing out the differences and nuances of each historical experience would lend her work more profundity.
Interestingly, it was in the following discussion between Peter Taylor and his sister Myra Ah Chee that the symposium heard an alternative response to the assimilation era as a lived experience. The siblings were representing the Ngurratjuta Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre, but their presentation took the form of a conversational and often funny reminiscence about growing up in the 1940s and their respective artistic careers. What became immediately clear was the peace with which both spoke about their upbringing in Colebrook Home, a mission in Adelaide. Referring to a slideshow of personal photographs, their commentary was warm: “…you can see us there at Adelaide zoo, that was our day out…” “…and those two old ladies, they didn’t just bring us up, they brought our elder brothers and sisters up….” “…those – the girls in the home – we were in a netball team…” “…that’s the Koori kids paintings…” “…That’s me there, that’s the Harbour Bridge…”
One of Peter’s first oil paintings, a portrait of the two sisters who raised them, seemed to symbolise this amity with the past. The fondness with which Peter’s painting cradled those elderly white women (shown behind the siblings, left) was arrestingly beautiful – the more so, perhaps, because of its contrast with Scarce’s denunciative memorialisation of that same era. Neither experience of colonialism is more or less authentic; the fact of their equal legitimacy only serves to highlight the problem with a singular view of Australian history, or a “happy and sad” framework for comprehending Aboriginal experiences.
In allowing such a variety of memories and perceptions about the past to be presented, the Desert Mob Symposium succeeded in fulfilling Phillip Watkins’ hopes that it provide a window through which non-Aboriginal people can engage with, learn from, and further understand Aboriginal culture.
RELATED READING: Never ending story: Desert Mob 2013 (Kieran Finnane’s review of the exhibition.)
Anna Georgia Mackay was born in Alice Springs in 1990 and spent the first six years of her life here, before moving with her family to Canberra. She has completed a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney, developing a strong interest in both visual and written forms of expression, which fuelled her studies of History, Philosophy and Cinema. She recently returned to Alice Springs to do internships with the Alice Springs News Online and the Central Land Council. She hopes to embark on Philosophy honours at the University of Sydney next year.


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