A year ago, the older ladies asked me to try to find a way to speak about everything I’d learned on Country. I couldn’t do that through Jukurrpa stories or songlines, because my family are not Warlpiri– but many ideas conveyed through those stories on Country are universal truths. There’s this idea, for example, that a soul is connected to Country by an invisible string or electric wire. If they leave their Country, the string can’t feed them electricity anymore. Those of us who have a strong affinity with the landscape, no matter what our racial or cultural background might be, can relate to that. We are weaker in the cities and stronger back home, under trees.
For a long time I was afraid to speak of these things. I was afraid people would accuse me of not being black enough to speak about Country. I thought I’d be dismissed as a mongrel– too white to speak about the land. But gradually I realized I had no option but to articulate these truths– that every time I opened my mouth, this was the truth I was speaking. I raised this with the old ladies, telling them of my fears, and one lady laughed at me outright. She asked if I thought she would waste ten years telling me stories that I had no right to carry. She told me that being an Aboriginal person had nothing to do with the percentage of Aboriginal blood a person carries, you know – 1/8 or 1/4 or whatever. Aboriginality, for her, is more about the way someone sees the world, how they choose to live – a conscious choice.
Around the same time, my friend Wanta Jampijinpa said something to me that changed everything. I was complaining that, because my family concealed our ancestry for so many generations, I would never now have the chance to know their dreaming stories or even their language. And Wanta reminded me that Country chooses its own relationships. Tribal people are custodians of Country, but they do not control Country– the sentient land makes its own decisions, its own connections. Everything had its beginning somewhere, he told me – all the first languages were modeled on the sounds of birds or rivers, all just attempts to find a way to talk to Country. He encouraged me to consider how I might do the same thing.The old Warlpiri ladies are amused, satisfied and exasperated by my work. They love that I have listened to them so carefully and how I am putting what I’ve learned into practice. One senior painter, Myra, once suggested that if I just painted (instead of making lumachrome prints) it would be faster, and I could spend more time learning to hunt blue tongue lizards for her lunch! But Myra has also given me hours of mentorship and guidance.
JB: I’m interested in the gestation and realization of your images. Do you start with an idea and then develop it by looking for the physical elements (the cadavers, plants, minerals etc), or does the story start with the wildlife?
JC: I never begin with an idea. Whatever Country gives me will become the material of the work. Once I walked for hours finding nothing and my dog ran up with a kangaroo foot in his mouth! When I find a dead bird, an animal or lizard, or sometimes plants, I spend a long time looking at it before beginning to work. The exposure times are very long – 30 to 50 hours sometimes, and moisture appears at different stages. Condensation, blood, rain… every hour I brush the moisture into the page with a paint brush. Layer by layer, over 50 hours, the brush strokes build up.
I respond to whatever is happening in the moment– if the sun creates a strong shadow I will often accentuate that. When flies and beetles come, when they walk over the page, I will echo the lines they create with their tracks. I am always responding to Country, never asking Country to respond to me. In this way, this invented way, I am teaching myself to listen to Country. The most valuable thing I learned from Warlpiri women is how to listen. If I listen long enough, and well enough, maybe I will begin to understand how a shared language can be constructed.
JB: I read about your work with young indigenous people in trying to reduce suicide rates by reconnecting them with their ancestral culture. How is this project developing?
JC: Kurdiji 1.0 is out now and downloadable from Play Store. This app is one of the most beautiful things I have ever worked on. I encourage you to look at it – it’s not just for Aboriginal people, and not just for people at risk of suicide. Kurdiji 1.0 is an introduction to Warlpiri cosmology and Warlpiri ideas about resilience. I won’t speak about it too much because those stories belong to Warlpiri people and they tell them in their own words in the app. But I will say that those ideas have kept me strong when times became very difficult – the ideas work. The only reason we have the chance to access these ideas through Kurdiji 1.0, is that a handful, really just a handful, of elders fought to keep culture intact and transmitted their stories and ceremonies to their children. A few years ago the laws on sharing this information were changed. The view across Warlpiri communities was that saving lives had to be prioritized, and Milpirri festival was established to share these valuable ideas with the wider community. Kurdiji 1.0 just increases the reach beyond that festival. Everything in the app has come from Warlpiri elders and is their gift to Aboriginal Australia.The generosity of that act, when you think about our murderous history as a nation, is truly humbling. I still find it difficult to comprehend the warmth and generosity of desert people.
JB: Finally, how do you see your work progressing and developing?
JC: I will continue to explore Country – specifically what it could mean to care for Country, to understand Country and to be understood. And I believe that these analogue, camera-less techniques I’ve been exploring are the best way for me to do that. We are becoming so complex in our art creation, so removed from our natural state, and maybe photography has moved further into abstraction than most art-forms. We use digital cameras, process in photoshop, print in a machine… and at no point in that process are we forced to really use our hands. The eye can do it alone – the eye and the brain. We don’t need to be physical in our art making anymore.
May 2019 James Burnett MONK