REVIEW by KIERAN FINNANE
Early in her second book of memoir, Position Doubtful, Kim Mahood writes of “my country” as the “primary relationship” of her life. She doesn’t mean country as in nation, but the desert country of her childhood, so entrenched in her psyche that nowhere else can compete.
For some, such attachment might manifest in wanting to own a piece of land, reside there, work it. Mahood was born into this kind of relationship with country, daughter of pastoralists Joe and Marie Mahood who pioneered running cattle on Mongrel Downs, in the western Tanami. Her adult life has traversed a period of tremendous change in the desert, with the recognition of Aboriginal land rights and native title. Today her childhood home, renamed Tanami Downs, is once again in the hands of its traditional owners.
She long ago left station life, in an active sense. In the eastern states, she has practised as an artist and taught. The desert re-inhabited her after the death of her father. She returned to the Tanami to scatter his ashes, the journey which triggered her first memoir, Craft for a Dry Lake, published to acclaim in 2000.
She has been coming back ever since. Early trips had art-making as their focus, providing one of the strands of this new book, tracing both her artistic collaborations with Pamela Lofts, a kartiya (whitefella) artist like herself (as well as unlike in important ways), and more recently with Walmajarri artist Veronica Lulu.
It was through the remote community art world that Mahood finally got an opportunity to satisfy “an itch” she had to scratch, which was to immerse herself more fully in contemporary Aboriginal community life and through that to open herself to a greater understanding of Aboriginal belonging to country. After a period of volunteering at the art centre in Balgo, she accepted work in the tiny Walmajarri community of Mulan, on the shores of Paruku (Lake Gregory), spending half of each year there, the other half in NSW.
At one level, this experience with the Walmajarri profoundly challenges her own attachment, while at another level it deepens it. For she comes into the desert with history and relationships as well as hardiness and skills that can respond to its rigours. She and her family are remembered fondly by the Aboriginal people who once worked on Mongrel Downs and their descendants. Mahood (at right) renews these relationships in a context that is utterly changed.
Describing the ground she covers in binary terms, of past and present, of rupture and bonds, of yapa and kartiya, confines what she achieves. Her chapter titles give a sense of her dizzying journey, from the early “Vertigo” to the later “Obscured by light”. Each new experience, exploration and offering helps fill in the over-arching “position doubtful” of her book title, but at the same time it is endlessly expanded. It’s a zone for the remaking of relationship that will resist resolution for some time to come.
A key motif in the book is the map. It has old seeds in Mahood’s mind – the maps inherited from her father, products of the exploration and colonisation that is her family heritage. She sees in it new possibilities when at the Balgo art centre she observes local Aboriginal people responding to a satellite photograph of their country. They recognise it, track across it “with long articulate fingers”, naming sites, describing them, singing fragments of their songs. Later when she agrees to establish a women’s centre in Mulan, she initiates collaborative work on maps as a way into cultural work. They become the ground on which yapa and kartiya understandings of country can overlay and jostle against on another, creating some kind of anchoring point for reflection.
For the Walmajarri of Mulan, these maps are also a way of remembering and documenting their country, its geography, its history, its dreaming. For the kartiya reader one thing they dispel is the idea of a ‘position doubtful’ in the Walmajarri and other desert peoples’ world. Where a kartiya map might show vast stretches of sparsely named (and by implication sparsely inhabited and little known) country, the yapa maps of the same area are dense with sacred grounds, camps, hunting and gathering grounds, soak waters. Walmajarri elder Bessie Doonday, Mahood writes, “carries her country as an embodied map, laid in when she walked around the lakes as a child in the company of her grandmother.”
Left: ‘Sturt Creek’ collaborative painted map, Jaru traditional owners & Kim Mahood, 2006, page 136.
For Mahood the realisation is profound: “In putting together these two ways of conceptualising the same place, I experience a cognitive shift from which I will never entirely recover.”
The process also works in reverse, at least to a degree. The Walmajarri actively engage with archeologist Jim Bowler’s expedition around the lake and what his excavations reveal about its history in deep time, meshing it with their own knowledge, which Mahood transfers to a huge map, adding bits of canvas to accommodate the places in their jurisdiction which don’t fit into a square.
“To have the ancient geography interpreted simultaneously through modern science and the Waljirri, or dreaming, lays down a template of country infused with multiple meanings,” she writes. “… They complement rather than contradict each other.”
The maps also become practical tools, part of the annual work plan for the development of the Paruku Indigenous Protected Area – used to show the impact of fire on country, the declining water levels of the lake, the changes wrought by different modes of land management. But the ones that people are most enthusiastic about are the family maps, showing in detail the sections of country for which different families are responsible, becoming “statements of identity”.
The map as motif is one of the ways in which Mahood holds her disparate narrative together. Another is through the account of her relationships with the five women to whom she dedicates the book, all of whom die in its course. When it comes to people though she is a somewhat reticent writer, allusive rather than fully entering into the ‘heart of the matter’.
Right: ‘Paruku’ fire map, by Veronica Lulu, Anna Johns, Shirley Yoomarie & Kim Mahood, 2008-11. Photograph by Mahood, page 198.
Fittingly, given that her “primary relationship” is with country, the richest emotional passages arise when she is seized by its presence. The accumulated loss of her friends is most acutely felt and expressed towards the end of the book as she camps alone on the shores of her “beloved” Lake Ruth, Mangkurrurpa. These beautiful pages provide the emotional climax of the book while also making retrospective sense of its weight. We have moved mostly forwards through its two-decade time span, without knowing the grief that awaited the writer, which drove her, out of the “responsibility to remember”, to give her experiences form.
There are other strands. Anyone familiar with Mahood’s essay, ‘Kartiya are like Toyotas: White workers on Australia’s cultural frontier’ (available on the Griffith Review website), will expect and be rewarded by plenty of sharp, often very funny and moving anecdotes and observations about community life, in particular the interface between yapa and kartiya. There is also a lot of historical, scientific and philosophical information and reflection, including oral histories, of which an account of a massacre from the late Boxer Milner is particularly memorable. Mahood matches her unusual life with a corresponding intellectual energy and curiosity, readily travelling down unknown roads just as she does out in the desert, with only her dog for company.
She also offers a detailed account of her art-making and thinking and, with particular interest for Alice Springs readers, of her trips and work in the Tanami with Lofts, who died in 2012 and is one of the five friends for whom she grieves.
The map-making with the Walmajarri has strongly influenced Mahood’s painting in recent years. The illustrations in the book, small and in grayscale, are inadequate to giving a sense of either but, on the basis of showings in a number of exhibitions in Alice Springs, her paintings do not accomplish the richness of expression and inquiry that Mahood achieves in her writing.
By contrast, her writing about Lofts’ work remains somewhat in the shadow of the difficulties of their collaboration. These arose especially from their very different relationships with the country, Mahood’s so intimately laid down in childhood and bound up in long-standing histories, while Lofts came to the desert as an adult with some strongly developed intellectual and political ideas (feminism, post-colonial critique).
The best of Lofts’ work, however, transcended these frameworks and, like the best of Mahood’s writing, was infused with layers of meaning, mystery, poetry and acute observation.
This is a book for reading and re-reading, a revealing excavation of our place and times, grounded in the desert, but of broad relevance to all Australians who think about our relationship to country, to its Indigenous peoples, to our shared history and to one another.
Mapping landscape and memories
By Kim Mahood
PHOTO AT TOP: Mahood as ‘Violet Sunset’, a persona created in a collaboration with Lofts that left Mahood feeling “subtly coerced”. Photograph by Lofts, reproduced on page 84.