Sunday, 17 December 2017

‘Country and culture will be protected by men with many spears’

On Thursday 7 December I was in Canberra for a talk at the Australian War Memorial (AWM) about a new painting with this title commissioned from artists living in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands. The talk was to be given by AWM head of art Ryan Johnson but he has been acting as assistant director and was otherwise occupied. In his place a woman talked to the 30 or so people assembled in the building’s entrance hall in front of the painting. You can click on any image below to see a magnified view of it.

Nowadays, many of the matriarchs and patriarchs of Anangu culture are translating and telling Australians and international audiences more broadly about their culture, which they want people to know is still alive. “The language and culture is still very much alive,” said the speaker, “through painting on canvas.”

She wanted to talk about the fact that Aboriginal art more traditionally is perhaps not just a language that needs to be decoded. “There’s a lot more than that. There’s a lot about cultural exchange and sharing culture and I hope in some way to convey a bit of that to you today, talking about the painting.”

We were told that APY language and culture has come from a tradition a lot earlier where men would go out and paint onto the landscape using putu, or natural pigments. They would paint designs and symbols onto the landscape, and onto bodies during ceremonies and dancing. This tradition is now being translated into oil painting. “They’re a very vibrant, inspiring bunch and they seem to be very quick to embrace new technology as well.”

We were told that the AWM’s new painting refers to the strong link of the Anangu people to their country and how the idea of defending country is also looking after country, so you’re caring for those sites not just through war but also through your knowledge.

“And so you can see various rock holes and sand lines, and also the tree. So the tree became a very important motif for this painting, this central tree here [pointing at the painting] was painted by one of the senior artists, Peter Mungkuri from Inwantja Arts. And for Anangu, it’s around a dreaming of a protective story of the tree. Trees sort of act as a sentinel within the landscape, Anangu spirits are said to remain there, as well, to defend country – I don’t know, I’m not privy to the complete ins and outs of the story – and also the tree is the source of the spears, so the material that they harvest to make the spears.

“And the spears down here in the left [pointing at the painting] which are painted by Witjiti George, are not hunting spears, they’re a type of spear that were used by warriors. And again [it] refers to that tradition of passing down cultural law around the campfire and protecting community. 

“It’s interesting – I know some of the painting styles of the different artists – and it’s interesting to see how they negotiated aesthetically, melding their two designs together. So up here [pointing to the top of the painting] you’ve got the work – the horizontal, kind of beautiful, creamy pink and white bars – by Ray Ken, who is a very senior artist – and he here is meeting the work of Keith Stevens. So, this black drawing line [at the top right of the painting] is Keith’s work here. The concentric [indecipherable] here represent a community gathering, either for inma [song and dance event or ceremony] or for hunting and they’ve kind of tried to work out, to meld the two styles together.

“Many of the artists’ work – they grew up together, they worked together as stockmen and then later contributed to winning land rights in the APY lands in the 1980s, and now they paint together. 

“And this is particularly true of these two artists down here on your left, so Witjiti George and – they’re both artists that were very pleased to be able to work side by side – and you have his, the two different countries that are connected that they’re painting together – so I’m sorry, these are notes that I’ve gleaned from the arts centre [looking through papers in her hands] – [then finding the name in the notes] so it’s Taylor Cooper, and his black drawing here is meeting Witjiti George’s introduction of the colour green. They’ve been working together since they were teenagers in Nyapari and from Kalatjiti Arts. And so their drawings in both of the paintings are linked. So [in] the other [painting] that [the AWM] also [has] they’re both linked as well. And it was interesting here that the reason Witjiti George decided that he was going to paint the spears was that Alec Baker who is a senior painter with Iwantja Arts, had started painting the little spear trees that you make the spears from. And so he was, ‘Well Alec’s painted those so I’m going to paint in the spears to match that story as well.’ 

“The text through the middle is in Pitjantjatjara and it’s by [Mumu Mike] Williams,” a senior artist from Mimili Maku Arts. “Mike is also making a huge name for himself in contemporary art incorporating a lot of language and text into his work, reappropriating objects like the huge postal bags, sacks, that go out to the communities, and turning them into contemporary artwork. And really his purpose was he wants people to see and to know that Pitjantjatjara language is still very much alive. And so through the middle here he’s titled it, in a way, and it’s that ‘Country and culture will be protected by men with many spears’.”

The decision to source a painting from the APY lands was taken by AWM managers. Here is why:
In 2009, of the 38,000 artworks that we had in the collection here at the Memorial only 10 were by Indigenous Australian artists. Since about 2012 – between 2012 to the present – close to 60 have been added to the collection through a program of active acquisition. And this comes about through purchases, donations, but also through an active targeted commissioning program.  
[In] 2016 we launched a special exhibition, ‘For Country, For Nation’, which was a milestone project for the Memorial and one that went about beginning a conversation of acknowledgement of Indigenous military service more broadly. And it was following the opening of this exhibition that Dr Brendan Nelson, the director of the Memorial, tasked the art team with commissioning a major painting that would talk to Aboriginal defence of country from an Indigenous perspective, and in a way pick up on many of the conversations that had been started in ‘For Country, For Nation’ but in a way that could be permanently in the galleries once the exhibition closed. 
Obviously, it was a very broad brief that we received and many of you might say, ‘Why did we go with APY lands?’ 
The APY lands are in the north of South Australia, probably in an area close to the size of England, there’re about [100,000] square kilometres, but they only have a population of about 2500 people – whereas the UK obviously has 50 million people living there – largely dotted around in smaller communities.  
The people that come [from] there are known as Anangu and they speak Pitjantjatjara generally. And for many the establishment of the missions in the 1930s – 1937 with Ernabella Mission – was the first contact for a lot of people living in that region.”
She said that recently the APY lands have come to prominence within the Australian art world. 
They’ve been very active. Especially through the work of the patriarchs and matriarchs of those communities. The senior men and women, elders of the community, have really made a name for themselves, both nationally and internationally, in holding onto, celebrating and teaching about their culture. One of the main ways that they’ve been doing this is through painting on canvas.  
And as early as 2010, even before the ‘For Country, For Nation’ exhibition we were very much aware of an elder generation of men there wanting to pass on the kulata tjuta, the story about the spears, which is a tradition that’s been going on for generations there of elderly men sitting around campfires, building spears and passing on their cultural knowledge and law, I suppose, to the younger generation.  
And they presented a fantastic, huge installation piece in the Adelaide Biennial of Art several years ago which was an installation of 1000 spears, a cloud of spears. And so this idea of defence of country was something that was coming from that, anyway. They also have started to work collaboratively. Because I guess the one concern we have with this commission was how do you take one voice to represent the many nations of Aboriginal Australia. But here was quite a broad region that was pretty much in the heart of Australia who had already been considering this kind of history within their work.  
So, in December 2016 Ryan [Johnson] approached the elders working through the APY Collective and invited them to see if they would like to make a picture for the collection. And they in return invited Ryan and the team from the Memorial to go and visit Anangu land. It’s an unusual commission in that it’s not simply you “dial a commission”, [or] ring up a gallery and say, ‘We’d like you to make this painting’ and you go and do it. It’s been very much a process of cultural exchange.  
So Ryan travelled to the APY lands with Diana Warnes, a former colleague of mine who was a curator of art here, and Chris Kerehona, who was also a former colleague at the Memorial, he went along as a film-maker to document that visit and that process. They were there for nearly two-and-a-half weeks, I think, and they visited seven different art centres. They met a lot of artists and sat around and talked a lot about – they were taken out to have a better understanding of Anangu culture and history – they went out to several sacred sites with owners, they went to the wave caves that are in the Seven Sisters exhibition. They went to [indecipherable] sites in the area for the Seven Sisters Songlines.  
And it was quite a successful trip and then we invited a group of artists to come back to the Memorial in May this year, so 13 artists came from many different art centres, to come and have a look at the Memorial. I was able to be part of that and it was actually very moving, and it was a beautiful experience to see the men come to the memorial and talk about locating Canberra within the Seven [Sisters] Songline connection, and linking us up with the meeting place.  
It was a chance for us to show them the Memorial and I suppose exchange information about one of our nation’s sacred sites, in a way. They were very moved by the story of one of the First World War Indigenous veterans, William Punch, who was also the sole survivor of a massacre, who went on to join up and serve in the First World War. And it made them happy, a lot more excited and engaged with the project than anyone who had initiated it had really imagined. And particularly in the Hall of Memory. Mumu Mike Williams, who was also a pastor, was there, and he was moved to sing a prayer in Pitjantjatjara.  
The artists then went away and as with all their work there was a lot of discussions about what they might do. And they planned to have a painting camp, so that July following the visit in May, 19 of the senior artists from seven different centres got together and sat down to do the painting. And it was pretty quick, I think it took four days for them to paint two paintings. (We actually ended up being offered two [paintings], because they weren’t sure which one we would like the best.) A lot of discussion goes into working out who’s going to paint where, so a lot of – to put it kind of crudely – a lot of the real estate is already decided prior to the actual painting. And then it takes place in quite a concentrated, almost ceremonial, style where the men sit around and they sing songs while they’re painting and talk about their country and kind of tag in and out each other on the canvas over the period that it’s being made.”
The APY lands painters are active in Australia’s art scene, producing works that demonstrate the vitality of their culture.
This year at Tarnanthi, Keith Stevens, who is one of the elders that worked on this also worked on a project to take younger Anangu men out onto country, onto the sacred sites, and to paint directly onto the landscape as his ancestors would have done, in white natural pigment. And then they produced a beautiful series of photographs of these images in situ so that people could then actually – they wanted people to see the majesty and the beauty of that landscape as well as just what people know from the painting.  
And I also believe they’re now working on a movie as well, where they want to document and record a collaborative film about ceremony within communities. That’s going to involve everybody, women and children, they want to document all the costumes and more from different centres to different centres as another way of translating that culture.

Again, the title of this new APY lands painting at the AWM  is 'Country and culture will be protected by men with many spears’.

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