May, 25 2010
Parnngurr Waterhole
William L Fox

Around four-thirty, an hour before sunset, we drive out to the Parnngurr Waterhole where the last group of Martu living on the land was discovered by Len Bedell while building the Talawana track. The people were subsequently issued an invitation by the anthropologist Robert Tonkinson to move to Jigalong, which they accepted, but in the late 1980s the families were given the opportunity to move back into their country. The Martu still forage and hunt, but subsist more now on subsidised food, which is full of starch and sugar, a diet dangerous to indigenous peoples around the world as it encourages diabetes. Slowly things get better, in part because the paintings allow the community here to gain some financial independence from the subsidies. They are re-learning how to eat more healthily, but still the death rate is high and life relatively short.

Thelma Judson and several of the older painters join us as we take a three-by-five metre painting of country off the top of Gabrielle's truck. We've been asked to photograph it for the community before they ship off this portrait of their country to one of the national museums. The waterhole has a large and singular ficus tree growing up the left side of the cliff, and in front of the little pond an abandoned children's metal slide lies on its rails. We rock hop around and behind the water in order to carry the painting into sunlight on other side of cliffs. Tim and Gabrielle climb up with it to unroll and drape the canvas down the short cliff, everyone making jokes about how this will make me, in my role as a museum curator, wince. And I do. While Tim and Gabrielle manoeuvre the painting into the best position, I clamber up the rocky hill on the other side of the waterhole to watch the proceedings. The sun is going down, the painting catching last light on the cliffs above the waterhole, the near-full moon rising, Thelma watching everything--and it is a breathtaking and sad and proud moment all at once.

The next morning we mostly watch the painters in the shed, the guys taking portraits of the artists at work. The half dozen or so senior women sit by various paintings of country, using the butt end of brushes as well as the bristles to make dot patterns representing trails and streams and waterholes and plant communities. Sometimes they sing quietly to themselves as they bring up country, remembering what place follows next along this route, or what kind of plant was found there. The songs, the dances, the paintings, and country are all one to them, and I wonder how our pictures and writings are also part of country, even when we're unaware of that profound connection. You can't write about, or take a picture or make a painting of a place without it constructing our understanding of it. That's what culture is, whether it's Aboriginal or Euro-Australian. How we use the images diverges, but the baseline is the same.

In the afternoon we spread out under a copse of trees in a savannah-like valley with several elders and two dozen kids from the local school. Part picnic and part history lesson, the women practice with the kids how to catch and cook the wood-eating larvae of moths known as witchetty grubs. They're about the size of my forefinger, white, and taste like nuts when roasted. You root about in tree trunks with bent wires to snag them, then roll the grubs quickly through a tiny fire of twigs on the ground to cook them. Tony and Les and Peter hand out small cameras to the kids, then walk off to take pictures with them, while Mike works with an older student to deploy his video camera and a microphone boom.

This time when the women sing up country at the end of the day it's a song needed before the 15-year-old boys will go off  in a few weeks with the male elders to be “taught law,” which means receiving instruction in how to take up adult responsibility for their actions. The foraging for food, the singing, and the painting all integrate into a robust, even stubbornly resistant way of assimilating oneself to the conditions of the environment, a complex way of knowing that we outsiders only glimpse.

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