Speaking with Country

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One clear night, Lilian followed the Milky Way out toward Orion. All her life she had stared up at Betelgeuse, the giant red star, and felt it staring back. Lumachrome Glass Print and chemigram. Roadkill Australian Masked Owl on fibre paper. Two printings– 32 hours and 21 hours under perspex in full summer sun and starlight. 

A lot of painters, John Wolseley comes to mind with his influence from Seamus Heaney, have made visual works that respond to poems. 

I am doing both things at once. I see it like a sculpture – you can look at the form from one side (image), or walk around and see it from the back (poems). 

JB: You have said, “Talk to Country, my Warlpiri friends urge me, and Country will talk back”. Do you see your images as you starting the conversation, or are they Country talking back to you?

JC: Country always begins the conversation – certainly in my case, but also for every Warlpiri person I have spoken with. There was a beautiful painter I knew in Lajamanu, she is kumanjayi now (passed away), but she was one of the most important Warlpiri women elders – and a custodian of bush turkey Jukurrpa stories. Anyway, she explained once that she left her canvases outside for months before beginning to paint. Dogs would sleep on the canvases and they’d end up stained with bird shit and red dust. Then one day she would pick them up – the marks Country left on the canvas would be the beginning point for her painting. I loved this idea. I have always struggled with the arrogance of the artist’s role – the idea that my will should be imposed on the canvas, the way we have always thought about “masters”.

Biddy ‘Short Skirt’ and Judy, taking a break on the fire fields, before resuming their hunt for goanna and black-headed python. It is 46 degrees today and the desert is still smouldering with hunting fires. It’s easy to accidentally step into the burning roots of spinifex grass. Biddy and Judy walk for about 12km carrying crowbars and axes – and return with a sand goanna.
Melissa singing from inside the storm, over Brown Mountain, lulling white eucalypts to sleep. Lumachrome Glass Print, Cliche Verre, Chemigram. Roadkill Eastern Brown snake, sticks, dried leaves, shed python skin, and clay on fibre paper. 32 hours in full summer light. 

I hate the anthropocentrism of that, the dominant narrative of humans at the centre of the natural world – but the idea of a shared language with Country really appealed to me. Warlpiri culture is matriarchal and the roles women play are quite different to the roles they have in white society. Death and birth are at the root of what it means to be a woman. So over the decade of my friendship with Kumanjayi Nungarrayi, we spoke about this – where women’s power comes from, how women connect to Country, how they keep the balance. I decided to follow her example, and to begin my own work by inviting Country onto the page. In my case this was done through honouring the creatures that died on the Country where I live. 

JB: A related question: with their connection to the environment and the history that the Warlpiri people have with the land, what do your Warlpiri friends think of your images?

JC: Warlpiri people in Lajamanu, particularly Wanta Jampijinpa, Henry Jackamarra and Jerry Jangala, as well as a number of incredibly generous lady painters (Myra Nungarrayi, Kitty Napangardi, Kumanjayi Nungarray, Agnes Napanangka and others) rescued me after I’d searched for my Aboriginal ancestors for years but had almost given up. Last year that search finally came to an end, so I know my family comes from Bpangerang Country, but at the time I was really despairing. The Warlpiri took me in and spoke to me about what it means to be an Aboriginal woman – they gave me a bush name, skin name, all of that, and with enormous patience guided me through hunting, ceremony, talking to Country and so on. They passed no judgement on me for my mixed ancestry – being Aboriginal is a choice they told me.

2 thoughts on “Speaking with Country

  1. Beautiful haunting interview that reveals the secret river of the history of indigenous peoples of Australia through the sensibility of the photographer and the sensitivity of Jim Burnett. Repays attention. Opens up felt understanding. This realises what an imaginarium conjures up.

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