Sunday, March 23, 2014
Songlien (n.) A songline bought on the never-never.
Songlines (n.) Title of a 1986 Bruce Chatwin book that depicted a romanticised, present-day Central Australia.
Never-never (n.). The sparsely-populated bulk of the Australian landmass, in which a few urban areas and mining settlements aside, the Indigenous population will outnumber the settler. Also, to buy something on credit, when it is improvident to do so, or it entails paying an excessive interest rate.
I love a good secret business story, particularly when most of the real drama is at the heart of my own culture – educated, urban, predominantly white Australia.
Such is the backstage story behind Nicolas Rothwell’s (itself a backstage) double-story in yesterday’s Australian.* The about-to-open SA Museum “Ngintaka” show is not something I have any direct familiarity with or stake in. But its divisiveness, as chronicled by the clearly partisan but factually meticulous Rothwell, is like a newly-installed public sculpture in a prominent place – a cultural disaster ripe for the picking. I’m aware of how white-fella unceremonious this may appear; when the “unveiling” has yet to happen, it would ordinarily be polite to suspend judgment, particularly on the eve of the opening (which for “Ngintaka” is Friday 29 March). But it is only the full-frontality of Rothwell’s spoiler that makes it a “long and complicated”** white-fella drama; a post-opening “review” (meaning an opinionated, timely backgrounder) would mostly be just a tale of two Pitjantjatjara factions and which way the white-fellas were lining up.
Reading Rothwell’s double-story, I get the feeling that it was the latter, less incendiary path that was actually his intention, until quite near yesterday’s publication deadline, with his main story apparently written to run on the day after opening, Saturday 30 March, but his accompanying page 1 splash story written later (or if not, just sub-edited) to expressly run six days before the opening. Some secret white-fella business here then, just for starters. Maybe Rothwell was corralled by the powers that be pointing out that a Saturday 30 March print date would still be more pre-emptive spoiler than loose “review” – and that since the gloves were going to be off, anyway . . .
Dates are an odd feature of Rothwell’s story, particularly in its cannibalisation of a May 2012*** Stuart Rintoul story (that itself has a large trace of Nicolas Rothwell authorship within it, although Rothwell is not formally credited). The plot thickens – did Rintoul simply lend his name in May 2012, in order for some flak, at least, to bypass Rothwell – a remote Australia specialist, with apparently impeccable access credentials?
Either way, Rothwell’s recycling of Yami Lester’s May 2012 words seems lazy and uncharacteristic. Mind-you, some of the recycled words are choice indeed:
“White do-gooders among us need their boundaries defined.”
Ouch! And rather masterfully, Mr Lester doesn’t say by whom – if you need to ask this, you need to go back to clearer bounded territory, perhaps.
Never one to miss an opportunity for a scolding chime-in, if I may suggest a coda – one more pedantic than profound – to Mr Lester’s edict: “and white sub-editors among us need their photos of me, Yami Lester, more transparently captioned”. If you look up the 10 May 2012 story, you’ll see a picture captioned “Yami Lester, in wheelchair, and Mike Williams yesterday at Wallatina, in the far north of South Australia”. Fast forwarding to 22 March 2014, a strikingly similar photo was captioned “Yami Lester, in wheelchair, and Mike Williams”. Both were by Kelly Barnes. While yesterday’s photo didn’t say that it was a recent one, most readers would assume that it was, and it is a puzzle why the caption couldn’t have just added “in May 2012”. In the body text, Yami Lester ironically invokes Indigenous intellectual property rights; shabby captioning of Indigenous subjects, while not a serious violation, is still a point on a continuum of abhorrent practises, in the recent past, regarding film and photography of Indigenous persons and material culture.
As I’ve previously written in another context, there is a big problem in how to contain, and then possibly physically dispose of and mentally forget, a mountain of visual (and textual, to a smaller extent) material, the capturing, storage and/or publication of which it can be presumed no informed consent was given to. Some of this material may be obvious, captioned “secret ceremony” or similarly, and if so, often be found in only in specialist academic, rare, and/or quasi-banned publications. Most such content, however, is found in generalist publications, and with non-controversial captions. We (meaning white and Indigenous Australians both) need to do something about this, or, at the very least, talk about it. Funnily enough, I have a strong hunch that what’s at the bottom of the SA Museum “Ngintaka” show being claimed as a serious cultural violation concerns one chapter of just such a generalist book, and perhaps more particularly, just one photo within.
Certainly, yesterday’s story is oddly unspecific about what the actually offensive “bits” (to use an inelegant term) were (the May 2012 story was also unspecific, but then it was presumably early days as to what might actually end up on display). I recognise that naming and shaming particular paintings, objects etc may potentially be counter-productive (by attracting a prurient interest), but a couple of clues suggest that it is the attention that the “Ngintaka” show may give to a particular 1948 book that is the biggest problem, rather than the show’s primary content (I am assuming the show makes no more than guarded references to the 1948 book). If so, I think that this source of contagion has to be identified, despite concerns over attracting prurient interest.
Ominously in hindsight, I think, in May 2012, one of the lead white-fellas said: “[Anangu/Pitjantjatjara] people wanted to tell the ‘open story’ that had been documented”. The trouble with this approach is that uncontestably “open” stories are, I would have thought, already told to death – or at least would be thin pickings for an expensive major museum show. “Documented” stories, on the other hand, can be many things, but it would be a clear breach of Yami Lester’s “boundaries”, I would have thought, to conflate “documented” with “open”.
Rothwell yesterday picks up this thread:
“They [the lead white-fellas] pointed out the Ngintaka story had long been public; it had been recorded by an amateur anthropologist in 1948”.
As well as not naming the particular white “do-gooder”, Rothwell – curiously, I think – chooses not to name the “amateur anthropologist” despite his identity being obvious to anyone with a slight acquaintance with mid-20th Century publications on Indigenous Central Australia. In a probable over-abundance of caution, I am not going to name him either. I will note, however, that in my opinion he does have a chequered reputation at best, with his magnum opus being a quasi-banned book (that I have held but, duly warned, never opened). To base the “openness” of an exhibition’s broad premise on the foundations laid by this ethnographer/film-maker/photographer 65 years ago thus seems ludicrous – or a prosaic greedy quest to the Oodnadatta area for fine flour**, at least.
Speaking of Oodnadatta, I recognise that geographical precision is another fraught zone – just as paintings can be sold with their inner meanings encrypted, stories can be told with GPS co-ordinates withheld, as it were. I would hate to be the putz who naively name-dropped Oodnadatta as a cultural site of significance for anything more than the Pink Roadhouse – and the 1948 book has specific Ngintaka sites only way back west, in the tri-state conurbation.
Zooming out to the bigger picture, I do think that the Western Desert may have been “sung” enough in recent decades for white-fella edification, clean through to the Indian Ocean, and that going south-east from the beating heart would be a nice change of songline direction, if you like. Which is to say, a paying back of the songlien. If the damage of obscenity in the stored visual record is to be undone, first we take Oodnadatta – then we take CM.
Update 1 April 2014 – Ngintaka exhibition off, then on again, and “OMG, I’ve turned into ‘Gym Bore’/‘Kidder’”
Diana James, in a terse reply to Nicolas Rothwell, defends the thorough consultation processes of the Ngintaka “Project Partners”. But Rothwell had already conceded that there was an exhaustive such process over recent years – and for all this, for a handful of dissidents at least, still not enough; or perhaps too much. More interestingly, James details a chain of events, going back four decades, to assert the openness of the Ngintaka story in general; or in industry-speak, its provenance.
Just as Subhash Kapoor had to invent pre-1972 ex-India provenance for his looted antiquities (from that year, a blanket export ban was imposed by the Indian state), James is aware that there is a time-frame into which her “openness” provenance must not cross. While the date here is not hard and fast, plainly she can’t go back to the problematic 1948 book. Neatly, she fixes 1974 as the earliest date in the chain of “good” title – a year by which the Bad Old Days of cultural expropriation by anthropologists and others were implicitly over, and a nascent fine-art industry in Central Australia was giving Indigenous artist-custodians the power and finesse to disclose their stories to whatever degree they chose. From her 1974 jump-start however, James seems to have to clutch at straws:
This version of the [Ngintaka] story has been used by Anangu to document their artworks in gallery exhibitions since 1974. The story and song have been taught at the [sic] Angatja in the Mann Ranges to tourists and school children since 1988 and is still taught today to Indigenous and non-indigenous children. The Angatja experience is championed as a flagship of reconciliation by Catholic Schools who include the trip in their Leadership for Reconciliation programme.
Thus, many people, mainly schoolchildren, have already seen and heard the story; indeed, it is something of a set-piece. This should not be taken to mean that the cultural content is relatively trite, although the SA Museum publicity does emphasise that the exhibition is intended primarily for children. The bigger problem here is the Project Partners’ seemingly reckless presumption of scalability – that a remote community’s in-situ “experience” can be respectfully and meaningfully recreated in a prestigious big-city venue. The acute danger, of course, is that extra “sizzle” will be needed in the greatly-enlarged version, sizzle of which the SA Museum has plenty in its vaults, including a large number of secret-sacred objects, photos and films that came to it via the “amateur anthropologist”.
Rothwell’s article made it clear that the SA Museum’s role in the exhibition was mainly as a room for hire, so perhaps there is some consolation in this fact. Nonetheless, the fact that it is Rothwell, rather than James, making it, speaks volumes. As do these strong words from a lawyer for the pro-exhibition faction, referring to an unsuccessful last-minute legal challenge# to the exhibition going ahead:
“SA Museum has been accused of ‘caving in’ to the demands of the tribal elders by Graham Harbord, for Johnston Withers lawyers representing Ananguku Arts. Mr Harbord said SA Museum should not even be involved in the dispute”.
- Tim Lloyd, “SA Museum decides to proceed with opening of Ngintaka dreaming exhibition despite legal threat from some tribal elders”, Advertiser 28 March 2014, 4:35pm
Ah, “caving in” – an English figure of speech that may, I suspect, have an unfortunate (if unintended) set of other meanings in the translation. But that’s white Australia’s trouble with keeping Indigenous secrets; we feel trapped and suffocated inside that black box.
Meanwhile, onto Bruce Chatwin’s provenance. Re-reading Songlines after posting the above (and about 26 years after I first read it), my mind followed a quite different track from my late 1980s self (who would have been on “team Bruce”, all the way). The character of ‘Gym Bore’, or ‘Kidder’ – who Chatwin apparently based on the real-life Phillip Toyne – stood out, and for reasons opposite to the petty-villain role he plays in Chatwin’s book.
But first, let’s start with Kidder’s rap-sheet: he’s a rich young man, originally from Sydney – rich enough to have his own plane, the use of which as an (presumably) unpaid taxi to and from remote communities is apparently the only reason that Kidder is tolerated (by white or black) in his job in the Aboriginal land-rights industry. Kidder’s crass departure from a party at a private house in far south-eastern Alice Springs in February 1983 – in an over-large and new 4WD, shining harsh headlights over all and sundry – is possibly the earliest confirmed appearance of the Yuppie Wanker in a 4WD (in 1983, a species far from the plague proportions they were later to assume). It may help here to know that Chatwin and “Arkady” had walked the 5km or so from central Alice Springs to the party house, almost in eerie anticipatory negation of Kidder by their most un-Kidder like (and un-Alice in general also, I would suggest) behaviour.
Chatwin’s basis for calling Kidder a “Gym Bore” is similarly loaded; nowhere in the book does Kidder talk or behave like a vain or body-obsessed man, but we definitely know that any deliberate act of fitness or muscle-building is Not Something That Bruce Would Do. Chatwin admits to going for a pre-breakfast jog in Alice Springs once – but he takes care to inform us that this was only because his motel did not start serving breakfast until 8am. Personally, I would not have forever after condemned Chatwin as “Runner Bore” on the basis of a single instance of a jog, however egregious, but Chatwin has much higher standards than me, obviously. Such high standards, in fact, that his unnamed motel’s breakfast start time of 8am would make it completely unsuitable for most tourists doing bus-trips out of town (in my experience, which albeit is in recent years and not c.1983, almost all bus-tours will be on the road by 8am). But no doubt having a breakfast without the clamouring tourist hordes would have been all the better for Bruce’s erudite and considered notebook jottings. That morning, as Chatwin tucked into his post-jog repast, he may well have thought about how fortunate he was to be naturally lithe – and “Arkady” naturally hunky – in contrast to that horrid, artificially-sculpted colonial, Kidder. And thus been inspired to write this note for himself: “Important: explain that my jog was only because of compulsory late breakfast, and that I normally spend my mornings as languid as Sebastian Flyte”.
Early in the narrative, “Arkady” sums up Kidder as “bad news”. Unusually for a romanticised “faction” book, there is no later big pay-off to this standard plot device – a single instance of being a Yuppie Wanker in a 4WD is as bad as Kidder ever gets to be. Other than Kidder’s (possibly drunken) words about Aboriginal intellectual property, that is. These offend Chatwin to the core, for some genuinely strange reason – they are indeed left-field, and may be impossible to achieve in practice, but their idealism cannot be faulted, I would have thought. So why does Chatwin so despise Kidder’s idealism, or was it really just what he (Kidder) was wearing (grey marle) that infected his whole persona?
Anyway, I’m going to put up my hand to get me some of Chatwin’s deepest contempt myself, by agreeing with Kidder’s ideas about Aboriginal intellectual property (this may also mean disowning my late 1980s self, but if the grey marle fits . . . ). The entire corpus of presumptively stolen Aboriginal intellectual property in non-Aboriginal hands, on my guesstimate, could be bought back for a few million dollars (or even better, just donated). This is small bikkies in comparison to land rights. This figure does not include physical tjuringas, etc, the repatriation of which are often – for good reason – dealt with under a loose heading of intellectual property. But there are also meaty issues of proper custodianship to do with any physical property, and, in deference to Chatwin, I prefer to keep the issue here naturally lithe.
Chatwin’s provenance for his best-selling “Central Australian Anthropology for Dummies” is difficult to fault, as befits a man who previously worked in the high-end art trade. Most of his insights come second-hand, from impeccably credentialled whites like “Arkady”; thus side-stepping the who, why, and for how much issues of the supply of the original story. Chatwin is no pre-1970s anthropologist, greedily vacuuming up content from the source, and making only token payment for this. He airily, and in 2014 presciently, takes his content from the “cloud”, and not the cave.
Further update 2 April 2014
It turns out that earlier media reports that the Ngintaka exhibition opened for business as usual on Friday 28 March were incorrect (or at least my reading of them was). In fact, due to an injunction, the exhibition opened on a partially-closed basis. Most of this injunction was lifted yesterday, but “two videos, featuring song and dance” remain off-display, for now. See Mark Schliebs, “Aboriginal Exhibition to Go Ahead”, Australian, 2 April 2014.
My guess is that these two "videos" are pre-1970s film footage, possibly taken by that ubiquitous “amateur anthropologist”. The legal proceedings are ongoing, it seems: “Arguments over the consultation process will continue in the Supreme Court tomorrow” (ibid).
* Nicolas Rothwell “Songlines suffering: desert men in pain when secrets on display”, and “Culture war”, both Australian 22 March 2014.
** Quote from 1948 book, Ngintaka story chapter. As ever with this author, “famous first words”. [Second reference is an element, hopefully innocuous, of the Ngintaka story, as recounted in 1948 book]
*** Stuart Rintoul “Songline at heart of secret men's business”, Australian, 19 May 2012 [Note that 22 March 2014 “Culture war” story wrongly dates this as 20 May 2012]
# Verity Edwards, “Songline show on after legal assurance”, Australian 29 March 2014