WORDS by KIERAN FINNANE with FIONA WALSH.
PHOTOS by ERWIN CHLANDA.
Last updated 2 December 2019, 9.38am.
This is not about me, it’s about our tribe, said the man at the centre of it all, David Nixon.
The film-maker, editor, ardent supporter of the arts, father and family man, fine friend to many is facing a life-threatening illness well before his time, and his community responded.
The diagnosis is scarcely more than a month old. In that time the wide circle of people who have come to know and appreciate him over his three decades in The Centre have rallied to do what they can to support him and his family.
On Saturday this manifested in the Festival of Dave, the effort of numerous volunteer friends, coordinated by Georga Red as overall event manager. It was a tribute to his life and gifts, a fund-raiser, and a multi-faceted healing ceremony, devised by his partner, artist Franca Barraclough, with many collaborators, planned with careful attention to detail and meaning, yet open to the unexpected.
Left: Dave with his children, from left, Tom, Nellie and Monty.
How do you achieve the numinous? Cultures have explored that question across the centuries and millennia. Their answers are found in their sacred songs and rituals and in their arts. Our hybrid culture in The Centre is young and evolving, with its greatest strength growing from its response to the country we live within and to its ancient indigenous cultures.
On Saturday, at the end of a relatively cool and cloudy day, all of this – country, people, cultures – intermingled with an exceptional grace. Impossible to orchestrate, quite possible to be open to.
As hundreds of people poured through the gates of the Art Shed – at the end of Crispe Street, one of those cul-de-sacs that edge the town into the bush – a sprinkle of rain seemed to bless our heads.
A sitting circle had been prepared, red earth, patterned in stone, rimmed with River red gum branches and desert daisies, laid with rugs and cushions. A beautiful hill rising behind. More rugs and cushions all around for people to get comfortable on.
Amelia Kngwarraye Turner and others from the Akeyulerre Healing Centre were preparing the smoking ceremony about to take place.
Yarran Cavalier blew on a conch shell to call everyone together.
Dave was the first to pass through the cleansing smoke, his whole body gently brushed with the branches of healing plants – Utnerrenge (Emu bush) and Apere (River red gum). The illness has taken a visible physical toll, but his spirit was strong and alert. He seemed full of the joy of being there, fully present to the people gathered, to the ceremony, the sights and sounds, the small movements and moments. Qualities that have made him such a fine film-maker and so well-loved.
His family and nearest loved ones followed him through the smoke, and then slowly, so did everyone present.
As this was happening – with Dave settled in the circle, facing east, his children, Monty, Tom, and Nellie, their mother Jo Nixon, and Franca all around him – a rainbow appeared in the eastern sky. Gasps of awe and cheers.
Then its fainter rainbow twin appeared. Amelia would speak more than once of this mpwelarre atherreke-atherre – rainbow two-at-a- time.
In the west, a sinking sun was partially veiled by cloud, its soft light setting the hillside aglow. A Hill kangaroo bounded down the slope, crossed the road between the parked cars and disappeared up into the hill on the other side. Birds – Whistling kites, a Cuckoo shrike – flew overhead. A Butcher bird sang.
Left: Greeting the double rainbow, from left, Franca, Tom, Nellie, Jo, Dave, Monty.
The sense of blessing was replete.
Two Arrernte men made their way forward to the edge of the circle and entered it. They are Angangkere – traditional healers or “Sacred Doctors”, as Margaret Kemarre Turner (MK), mother of Amelia, explains this term.
They knelt down by Dave and ministered to him, with their hands, with Utnerrenge branches. Two grown men laying their hands on another, two Arrernte men so gently caring for a white man whom they did not personally know.
Amelia also stepped inside the circle. At times she raised her hand towards the men, palm facing outwards.
Something else was also at work. They seemed to have put it to work, relaying to Dave the love and care of everyone in those inner to outer circles. You could feel it, in the stillness, the complete concentration, the silence.
Occasionally, there were utterances in Arrernte, from the women to the men. There were bird calls. Murmurings from babies and small children. Otherwise, silence, deep and sustained.
Eventually Amelia spoke. Her beautiful words will be part of the documentary made about the Festival of Dave. I didn’t record them, but I know she told us that this was the first time that non-Indigenous people had asked for healing in a public event. She described the healing as relieving suffering and pain. She said some non-Indigenous people had sought healing privately from her mother, but this public ceremony was the first.
She spoke of the work Dave had done with her mum, MK, and of the friendship that Franca has with the people from Akeyulerre. This may go some way towards explaining that when a smoking ceremony was suggested to be part of the proceedings, Dave, and by extension everyone present, got so much more. Franca had had no idea that the Angangkere would come and so generously offer their knowledge, skill and compassion.
Amelia also told the gathering that Arrernte people really appreciate the growing understanding amongst non-Indigenous people of the healing power of the land.
That was what we were witnessing. Their knowledge and skill was drawing on the power of the land.
This is how MK describes it in her book, Iwenhe Tyerrtye:
Healing comes from the Land itself. When we’re sick or in mourning we go back to the Land to feel better, and to really deeply relax … To go back and smell the smoke and the air of your own country, hear the birds singing and talking, watching the stars at night, and seeing the sun rise and the sun set. And also talking about those things at night when you’re looking at the stars. Seeing what the stars tell you. All that just gets into you and heals you.
There was more to the ceremony.
At each cardinal point of the outer circle, four women stood, protecting the space within. Dressed in in the colour of sun-bleached grasses, as was Franca, they carried symbols of the four elements, earth, fire, water, air.
At Franca’s direction, there was dancing in circles around Dave, three or four circles, moving alternately clockwise and anti-clockwise, everyone holding hands, Dave dancing in the middle, brave, generous Dave.
When he lay down, four non-Indigenous practitioners of body work, two women, two men, ministered to him again, seeking to feel the energy flows within his body, to move and soothe them, connecting the vitality of country and community to him and to everyone present.
There was a meditation guided by a sound healer, Lucia, her beautiful singing and instrumentation drawing from another culture again; everyone, at her suggestion, placed one hand on their hearts, reaching towards Dave with the other.
In all this Amelia and the Angangkere participated. In the matter of ceremony, a rare two-way exchange.
The light was getting low by then, the sun almost touching the horizon, when it suddenly burst through the cloud, full and strong.
You’ve done well, the sun seemed to say.
Brief biographical note: David Nixon has made films in Alice Springs, Central Australia and across the country for more than thirty years. Arriving to take up a job with CAAMA, he continues those working relationships to this day.
He works mostly in documentary, for corporate and cultural services industries. His Vimeo page has 148 videos made through the 2000s; his Youtube page, 90 videos. He collaborated on hundreds more through the 1990s, particularly as an editor. Thousands of people feature in or flicker through his films.
Country looms large in his work, never more so than in Tjungunutja, in which he and his collaborators demonstrated the depth of central Australian film-making arts. For this film Dave won “Best in show – multimedia” at the Museums Australia Publication Design Awards 2018.
His videography in Franca Barraclough’s The Visitors, currently showing at Araluen, shows his skill at using the camera not merely to record but as a way of seeing.
His contribution to screen culture in Alice Springs has included his tenacious promotion of the Story Wall (above, in 2007) and he has played an exceptional role in support of desert artists across diverse media. This was acknowledged in 2012 when he was awarded the Lofty, an annual prize recognising high endeavour in the arts in central Australia.
He is a photographer and an artist too. His edgy 2013 exhibition, Verisimilitude, using randomly collected Instagram imagery, showed him working at the cultural forefront – Instagram was a new social media platform at the time.
As a Producer for ABC Open, Dave also extended himself as an instructor of media studies, a fine teacher of students in small groups.
Declaration: All three contributors to this report are long-time friends and colleagues of Dave Nixon.