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Photo: Annette Ruzicka/ Guardian
Ngarinyin children playing in a region of Australia that’s reclaiming indigenous place names.

As a fan of efforts to preserve rare languages, I believe that using native people’s names for geographical places is also important. Brian Friel captures the concept in Translations, his play about English soldiers changing place names in Ireland: “It can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of … fact.”

Colonists always try to impose their culture, but in the end, it is unlikely to turn out well.

At the Guardian series “Indigenous Investigations,” Annette Ruzicka reports in a photo essay that the reinstatement of traditional place names in a region of Australia “signals a new wave of empowerment” for aboriginal people called the Ngarinyin.

“Hit the Gibb River Road out of Derby, Western Australia, and you find yourself heading towards the northern Kimberley plateau, a breathtaking landscape of sandstone ranges, rivers and boab-dotted savannah country. About 63,000 sq km of this land is Wilinggin country of the Ngarinyin people and their connection to country dates back 60,000 years.

“One of the first stops towards Wilinggin country passes the Queen Victoria Head – a rock formation bearing an uncanny resemblance to the famous monarch. While it’s a blunt reminder of colonialism, it’s also the gateway to an area that until very recently had far more dubious name – the King Leopold Ranges, named after the Belgian king responsible for grievous atrocities, brutal oppression and enslavement of African people. …

“After two years of work behind the scenes, traditional owner groups made some new headlines with a historic name change to the Wunaamin Miliwundi Ranges. It’s a hybrid name to represent both the Ngarinyin (Wunaamin) and Bunuba (Miliwundi) traditional names.

“Since then, another seven places in this conservation park have changed back to their Ngarinyin name.

“Since the Wanjina Wunggurr Wilinggin native title determination in 2004, the Ngarinyin people have made significant moves to empower their community and return to, and care for, country. One of the first things they set up after determination was an Indigenous ranger program: the Wunggurr Rangers.

“Ngarinyin man Robin Dann was one of the first rangers employed and is now head ranger, living on country in the Ngallagunda community, with his family. His younger brother Kane Nenowatt is more recent addition to the Wunggurr rangers while his wife, Tanya Spider, sits on the Wilinggin board of directors. …

“One of locations changed back to its traditional name is (the formerly named) Barker pool, now Dudungarri mindi. The name refers to the dreamtime story of the Wanjina spirit and the Yawarlngarri jirri (blue catfish) which live in this pool. This represents a rich and ancient history that Ngarinyin people hope to share with visitors alongside the staggering beauty of the region. …

“With it comes a genuine economy: employment and investment brought to the region by the people themselves. With a second ranger group on the way, the determination of the Ngarinyin people to stand on their own is a shining light in an uncertain world.” More at the Guardian, here.

On Facebook, I started following a different group of Australian indigenous people, NPY Women’s Council. The home page says it “is led by women’s law, authority and culture to deliver health, social and cultural services for all Anangu.” In one post, Nellie Patterson reported, “We went to the Olympics so that all the people there would see the strength of who we are. The Olympic experience has made us strong with a resolve that has never been shaken since.

“We did a really important inma (ceremony) in Sydney and we did it with the intention of making a deep impression on the people who saw it and in the hope of better relationships and collaborations with other people in the future. It was a very important occasion.

“My sister carried a great deal of valuable knowledge and she and I made this inma available through Women’s Council for the benefit of everyone across the country.” For more about the council, click here.

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Photo: Damien Finch et al
Mud-wasp “nests go hard and mineralise over time,” reports the BBC. “(1) Dating nest material on top of the paintings gives a minimum age only.” (2) Removing the nest allows researchers to ascertain the maximum age.

Prehistoric cave paintings, it seems, still have secrets for the enterprising to unravel. Researchers, with the active support of the local Aboriginal community, recently learned that calcified wasp nests could help determine when some of those paintings were created.

Jonathan Amos reported at the BBC, “When the veteran telecoms engineer Damien Finch went on a three-week bush walk in Australia’s Kimberley region, he became enthralled with its rock art. On his return home, he tried to find out more about these enigmatic aboriginal paintings and engravings.

” ‘I couldn’t believe how little was known about them; we didn’t even know how old they were,’ Damien said. ‘It seemed disrespectful that scientists hadn’t studied this stuff more; it was downplaying the importance of the culture,’ he told BBC News.

“Now, 10 years on and in his 60s, Damien is putting that right. He’s approaching the end of his doctoral research on the topic, and in [a February issue of] Science Advances journal, has published his own efforts to age the Kimberley’s so-called Gwion figures.

“These feature finely painted human forms, often in elaborate ceremonial dress and carrying spears and boomerangs. It was thought they were painted some 16,000 years ago, but the University of Melbourne investigator has been able to show the likely age is [about] 12,000 years ago.

“Dating rock art is really hard. Aboriginal artists use iron oxide pigments (ochre) which contain no organic material and are therefore resistant to any radiocarbon analysis.

“Damien has got around this by studying instead the scraps of organic matter stuck on top of and underneath the paintings. And for this, he’s working with wasps. In particular, the ones that build nests out of mud. …

“When the female wasp gathers her mud supplies she inevitably picks up fragments of charcoal from the Kimberley’s fire-prone landscape. And this charcoal can be radiocarbon dated. … Material that smothers pigment gives a minimum age; underlying material provides a maximum age.

“A distribution of dates from many locations enables an estimate to be made for when the Gwion style was in vogue. …

“The paintings [Damien] and his team have been working on are, of course, sites of immense cultural significance. All the sampling was guided and approved by representatives from the traditional owners of the artwork.

‘We couldn’t have done what we did without their active support and encouragement,’ ‘Damien told BBC News.

“He’s hopeful the mud-wasp dating technique can now be used at more locations right across the north of Australia, and perhaps at other rock art locations in the Americas and Europe.”

More at the BBC, here.

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Photo: Daniel Boud
“It’s in our Indigenous DNA to use oral stories … to carry culture,” says Stephen Page of Bangarra, a dance company in Australia.

When the new has practically obliterated the old, it’s not a bad idea to co-opt the new and use it for your own purposes. That’s what some indigenous people in Australia are doing as they test the possibilities of virtual reality for passing along oral traditions.

As Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore writes at the Guardian, “When Brett Leavy recently showcased his digital renditions of pre-colonial landscapes in Australia, one Aboriginal man in the audience started to cry.

“ ‘I get tears [from the Indigenous audience] because they feel a sense of loss. … And then there’s also anger,’ he says. Leavy is a Kooma man and founder of Brisbane-based Virtual Songlines: a First Nations interactive design agency whose output ranges from video games to virtual reality.

‘I’m doing this in a fun way – it’s a bit gamefied – but the question I’m asking is: who are the sovereign custodians of the land?’

“For millennia, Indigenous Australian communities have been passing down histories, knowledge, language and customs, largely through oral storytelling. But in a world of digital addiction, where even the most remote parts of the country are being infiltrated by smartphones, telling stories via screens is the new necessary: a way to both preserve tradition and reach out to the young. …

“ ‘There is massive intellectual capital in our community. There is this whole untapped resource,’ Mikaela Jade, founder of the Indigenous augmented reality app Indigital Storytelling, said at a talk in Sydney in 2017. ‘Don’t wait for it to be built and then be given it to us.’

“Stephen Page, creative director of Indigenous dance company Bangarra, is taking this idea seriously. [To] celebrate its 30th anniversary, Bangarra [opened] a free immersive installation, Knowledge Ground: 30 Years of Sixty-Five Thousand [and launched] the company’s new digital archive site of the same name, which contains interviews, photographs, videos and essays about Bangarra’s productions and processes. …

“Of course simply putting content up online – or placing it on a screen in an art show – does not mean it will automatically make an impact, or find an audience.

“Torres Strait Islander filmmaker John Harvey, 44, sees this harsh truth every day at home on the Sunshine Coast with his two children, aged four and 13. Kids, he sighs, are brutally honest. If online content doesn’t ‘feel authentic to them in a way that they can relate to, they will stop straight away. It doesn’t matter if it’s been made by an Indigenous person or not – they will just stop.’

“Harvey is in the process of creating a work for the new permanent exhibition at ACMI [Austrailian Centre for the Moving Image], which opens in Melbourne in May 2020. Inspiration came from seeing the first-ever footage of Indigenous people in Australia: a four-and-a-half minute sequence shot by British zoologist AC Haddon during a Cambridge University expedition to the Torres Strait in 1898. Locals were portrayed as anthropological subjects.

“In his artwork, Harvey wants to counteract this by filming intimate moments at home. Rather than white rich outsiders holding the camera, he’s using his own phone to capture his own people as he sees them, from the inside. It is, as he says, about ‘democratisation of stories and storytelling.’ …

“Virtual reality was not an obvious tool to tell the story. But many of the senior women observed young people ‘increasingly engaging with screens and technology, and so wanted to capture their attention and interest,’ [Angela Lynch, manager of the Ngangkari program at NPY [Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara] Women’s Council] says. ‘They strongly believe that traditional culture and Anangu law holds the answers to the issues and problems of contemporary life in remote communities.’ ”

More here. PS. Please look at the wonderful photoat the NPY Women’s Council Page. It’s protected, and I can’t copy it for you. Made me smile.

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Photo: Jon Cattapan/Dominik Mersch Gallery
The Decade Positions, by Jon Cattapan (2017).

I’ve been reading arguments lately about “cultural appropriation” — both from those who think artists should stick to their own culture and from those who think that artists who imagine how people from a different culture feel are building understanding.

I thought about the controversy as I read this article on Australia’s indigenous dot art by Brigid Delaney at the Guardian.

“For a long time,” she writes, “the dot painting has been synonymous with Aboriginal art. Emerging out of the remote Northern Territory community of Papunya in the early 1970s, the first dot paintings were produced when art teacher Geoffrey Bardon encouraged his Indigenous students to paint their stories in murals on the school wall.

“But long before that, circles and dots were used in ceremonies in the form of body paint or marks on the ground. The Papunya people drew on this knowledge in their art, painting stories, ceremonies and rituals, first on walls and then on canvas and board.

“dot, dot, dot […], a new exhibition at Sydney College of the Arts, tackles some of the issues around the use of Papunya dots in paintings, but also looks at why so many artists – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – are attracted to using dots in their work.

“Curator Janelle Evans, a lecturer at Sydney University, a Wingara Mura fellow and Dharug artist, told Guardian Australia that the exhibition had its genesis in 2006, when she conducted an interview with Australian artist and political activist, Richard Bell. ‘He was talking about Aboriginal art as something constructed by the art market.’ …

“The ubiquity of the dot painting was so powerful that Indigenous artists working in different mediums had trouble attracting the interest of the international art market. At the same time, the market became flooded with cheap fakes and rip offs, alongside mass-produced tack such as tea towels made overseas and sold to tourists. …

“In situations like this, Indigenous people rarely see the profits of their artefacts being used, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and appropriation.

“Queensland MP Bob Katter has taken up the cause, putting a private member’s bill before parliament that seeks to amend consumer law to ensure that profits from Indigenous art and artefacts go back to Indigenous communities. …

“What about artists using the dot who are non-Indigenous? It could be seen as cultural appropriation, although Evans says it’s not that clear cut.

“ ‘Non-Indigenous artists who work with dots can work without appropriation. Within the dot, there’s a whole world that can be created. Artists have always referred to other artists in their work but appropriation becomes an issue when you are copying someone’s style. You need to bring your own inquiry to into what you are doing.’ …

“dot, dot, dot […] … focuses on showing work from artists who interpret the dot beyond the style of central and western desert artists and ‘in ways that are non-derivative,’ says Evans.”

More here.

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