10 Aug, 2010

Australia’s art of silence

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The history of Australia abounds in absurdity. Australians of whatever derivation have to find ways of celebrating senselessness. Yiwarra Kuju, the current exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, is a case in point. What language is Yiwarra Kuju? I’m afraid I can’t tell you, even though I invested $59 of my own money to buy the catalogue. The English subtitle is The Canning Stock Route. A hint in the catalogue suggests Yiwarra Kuju means “one road”, but to whom I cannot say.

The Canning Stock Route was the ripping wheeze of James Isdell, MP for the Pilbara, in 1905. The Pilbara, in western Australia, had been discovered to be mostly high-grade iron ore. The race to exploit it required hordes of workers, and workers needed beef. The cattle of the East Kimberley were infested with ticks and therefore sick with redwater fever and quarantined, so the graziers of the West Kimberley seized their opportunity and drove up beef prices. Isdell thought (correctly) that if the East Kimberley cattle were to be driven overland through the zero humidity of the western desert, the ticks would dry out, drop off and die.

What was needed was a succession of wells so that the cattle could be watered on the 1,200-mile trek from Sturt Creek in the north to Wiluna in the south. The man chosen to survey a possible route was Alfred Canning, the same man who realised the equally stupid notion of building a rabbit-proof fence across the continent. Canning used local Aborigines to lead him to the right places to sink his wells, by the simple expedient of chaining them together by their necks so they couldn’t run away and giving them little or nothing to drink. One would be released each day and followed on horseback as he went running off to the nearest soak or rock-hole to quench his searing thirst. Of the 48 well sites Canning chose, 37 would commandeer Aboriginal water supplies.

In 1908, after Canning had been cleared by a royal commission into his party’s treatment of natives, the project went ahead. When the first drovers to bring stock along the route were killed at Well 37, a punitive expedition was organised and an unknown number of Aboriginal people killed in reprisal. Even so, drovers were not reassured, and the route remained unused. By 1917, nearly half the wells had been damaged or destroyed by local people, who couldn’t get to the water any other way. The wells were rebuilt in such a way that Aboriginal people could share the water, and finally, in 1932, the stock route came into regular use. By 1960, beef was being moved by other means and the stock route was abandoned.

The whitefella tale has been well documented. The desert peoples through whose ancestral lands the stock route passed have had no opportunity to present the panorama from their point of view, until FORM – “a not for profit organisation dedicated to advocating for [sic] and developing creativity in Western Australia” – developed a project that would involve those whose lives were materially affected by the development of the stock route. FORM is funded by mining company BHP Billiton, as well as by the Indigenous Land Corporation and the Department of Culture and the Arts of the Government of Western Australia, so it was fairly likely to arrive at an upbeat, pro-mining, pro-beef interpretation. For eight months, FORM worked to co-ordinate the project, which culminated in a six-week journey along the route, meeting up with different clans and language groups, remembering, painting, dancing, talking, filming, recording; the product was acquired by the National Museum of Australia, which has made of it a dazzling multimedia event that has just opened to general acclaim.

Amid the jangling array of media, the staple remains painting. The project involved 88 artists from 10 artists’ co-operatives. Women artists outnumber men by almost three to one. All but a very few of the painters are elderly.

The FORM workers hit the road the way carpetbagging art dealers have been doing for a generation, with heaps of canvases and gallons of acrylic paints in vivid colours. The old ladies joined in with a will, dotting their hearts out, reproducing the whole repertoire of signs that we have come to expect from desert artists. The result is exuberant and dazzling, especially as the show is mounted in a dark space and each canvas individually lit. Video, film, audio and interactive games complete the spectacle. It is all great fun.

Then you come upon the single painting by the late Rover Thomas, borrowed for the occasion from the Holmes à Court Collection. When Rover was a little boy, some time in the 1940s, he was picked up by drovers at Well 33. Before he was permanently exiled at Turkey Creek and began to paint, he worked as a drover. His painting is small, austere in its homemade lamp-black and yellow ochre, but it deafens you like the sudden boom of utter silence. The celebratory noise and dazzle fade to nothing. You are suddenly there, among the cattle pads, beside the rotting well, gripped by the black man’s soul-deep grief.

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