a week in Yirrkala

I’m pretty thrilled with my new blogging app. I foresee lots of blog posts!

Ok, so first of all I’m inspired to finally put up the pictures of my week in the Northern Territory, when I was fortunate enough to get to spend time in the Yirrkala Buku Arts Centre as part of my degree in cultural heritage conservation.

First night, driving to the township where we were staying. This is a blurry shot out the back of the van, where 7 of us were bouncing around (2 more up front).

First morning, inspecting a selection of sculptures that have just been sold and need to be shipped… not easy when you live far in the outback!

Learning how to pack them…

I love them, they look so sad! I wish I could find my notes on what they are and their meaning, I will have to come back and add in more details.

Break for lunch. I was staying with three other girls in government-provided shipping containers. It was very luxurious, we all had our own bathrooms and a/c units.

In-filling cracks using sawdust and glue.

(I have stolen some of my classmates’ pictures when I feature in them; this probably shows due to the sudden leap in size and quality. I haven’t asked for permission as I am loathe to raise awareness of this blog, but humbly beg your forgiveness if you are reading this now and spot your stolen pictures!).

Sanding down larger cracks so they are easier to in-fill.

Manini, one of the artists, taught us how to make the ochre-based paint, as well as the fine paint-brushes used for the delicate hatchings in Aboriginal art.

The brushes are made from human hair, and fine, strong, straight hair is very much a prized resource in the artist community.

After sharpening a skewer, the hair is wrapped around with fine thread. I pointed out it was like hair wraps from the 90s, but just about all the other students were born in the 90s, so they didn’t get the reference.

Here is my finished brush. I’m really proud of it (in this picture I hadn’t yet trimmed the skewer-end of the hair, it looks much neater afterwards).

Manini showed me how to practice hatching on my own forearm, to get a feel for the brush. I think this small aside, when she was helping me, was one of my favourite moments of the entire trip. I won’t make it cheesy and lame by waxing lyrical, but I don’t want to forget this either.

After our day of doing our conservator thang, moving and packing and mending…

…we got to go to the beach. We couldn’t actually go in the water because of the crocodiles and stingrays, but it was excessively beautiful. I’ll try to limit the number of pictures, but I took so many, I just couldn’t capture the magic in the light and the air.

The surface of the water truly was opalescent, shimmering like mother-of-pearl – so many greens and blues and yellows and colours I can’t describe.

Driving back to our digs… blurry snap, but I wanted something to remember how the red roads always look so intense against the green of the bush and the blue of the sky.

Sunset at what was later to be named by us as Optus Rock, the only part of Yirrkala where there was a signal for those of us on the Optus network.

The next day when I look at my picture folder, I almost exclusively have many, many photos of a series of artworks by the artist Wukun Wanambi. I fell in love with it at first sight — a series done on foil-laminated insulation foam, teaming with small fish. I don’t feel comfortable putting photos up as my studies have taught me that Aboriginal art and sacred patterns shouldn’t just be put up whenever you feel like it, wherever you want, without permission from the artist. But one of the series was nominated for a Telstra Aboriginal Art Award this year, so you can go look at a sample and read a little about it here. Anyway, I spent a lot of time assessing the condition of this series and photographing it, with a view to making it a research subject, but in the end it took me in another direction — Aboriginal art on Found materials, which I became slightly obsessed with and ended up writing two different papers on (hit me up if you want to read them!).

Back to more traditional materials in Aboriginal art, we were able to go bark-cutting. Driving out into the forest, looking for suitable trees, I naively hadn’t realised the tree dies after the bark is removed. Here is a barkless one from a previous expedition.

Target identified:

Removing the first strip:

Cutting around the bottom and top with an axe:

[the removing of the bark was documented by video, so I could capture the sound it makes as the bark comes away from the tree… but videos are even more of a challenge than pictures, sorry… ]

Inspecting the bark after removal.

Naked tree.

We had a few more barks to collect. I got to participate this time… I remembered being quite adept at swinging an axe back in 1994, when I used to amuse myself by cracking kindling (and mostly making a mess) in the woodbarn at home. It was NOT the case 20 years later.

Making an inelegant fool of myself.

Whilst the bark-cutting was happening, the grandson of one of the artists who had come with us, Charles, spotted signs of something interesting beneath the ground (he’d already spotted croc tracks on the road, I have to say that made me just a wee bit nervous).

He dug carefully…

Bush nuts!

We gathered a few more barks and a few more bush nuts, and then headed down to the beach to set up a fire. The wind blows in fiercely off the ocean and this helps get the fire roaring!

The barks are placed over the fire, with the outer rough bark down on the flame and as they heat up, the moisture evaporates and they slowly relax and flatten out.

Then you rip away the smouldering stringybark in strands. This is also great fun (that is me below with the white hat and the terrible posture and the iPhone tucked into my bra strap, mucho eleganto).

To my dismay I don’t have any pictures of the bush nuts Charles and his grandmother cooked in the embers of the fire… they tasted somewhat like hazelnuts.

The next day came one of my favourite moments as a budding conservator — we got to clean mold off a huge crocodile carcass that hangs in the Art Centre. I’ll try and keep the number of photos down; you’ll have to forgive me, it’s not every day you get to clean crocodiles and I personally just love seeing these photos.

Close-up of croc-in-my-face.

Same croc, different day:

Okay, last one.

The first “crocodile day”, I also met and fell in love with my first serious art purchase. It means so much to me, for a number of reasons, not least because I came to Yirrkala with a very limited understanding of Aboriginal art. I certainly did not expect to leave with a bark painting of my very own. As an aside, it took me several days to settle down after buying it; I lived in constant anxiety due to its inherent frailty. Bark paintings are notoriously ephemeral and I knew before I even purchased it that it has a limited lifespan. But I love it so much, that I hate to think of anything happening to it. And yet it had to fly back first to Cairns and then to Melbourne, in the hold of the planes as neither Air North or Jetstar would let me take it as carry-on. I was so scared it would get damaged, cracked, dropped, hurt somehow. Then once I got home, I inspected it twice daily in case my living-room’s fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity were making its existing cracks grow. Two months in and I’m much more relaxed (and the cracks haven’t shifted, I don’t think!). I am looking at it on my living-room wall now, and just as it did the first time I set eye on it, it brings me immense joy. It’s a crying shame I do not have a better picture of it yet, sorry…

All too soon our week was almost up. More walks on the beach on our penultimate night in town. I’ll spare you the multiple beach pictures, this post is already so long!

On the last day, I made this little basket whilst waiting around for things to get started. I learnt how to make random-weave baskets in Cairns (new post coming up soon on that, I promise, now I have all this photo-blogging under control!), and consequently I was keen on learning more about traditional basketry skills, still very much part of the Art Centre’s offerings.

One of the Yolgnu ladies (I think her name is Eunice, this is the frustrating thing about leaving it months before writing things up) was generous enough to come along to give us some insight. First she showed us how to gather fresh pandanus leaves, using this hooked stick.

You use the stick to drag down the topmost freshest leaves from the top of the tree. Then you give them a tug and gather up the ones you want. When I did this I ended up with little thorns in my hands and legs, but Eunice didn’t seem to notice them herself. There are no photos of me trying to do this gathering process, fortunately, as I sucked at it.

The others went for a dip in a water-hole certified “probably croc-free”. I am not a coward, I genuinely wanted to sit with Eunice and learn how to prepare pandanus leaves, but knowing I was thereby less likely to get attacked by a crocodile did make it more enjoyable.

Dear reader, it was really freaking hard. Eunice made it seem really easy, when she split the upper layer from the bottom layer of each leaf.

When she handed me one so I could try, I discovered there was no “top and bottom layer”, as far as I could ascertain. I started out happy and graceful…

Rapidly becoming frustrated… Eunice kindly said that these were not very good pandanus and that’s why they were so hard to peel, but really… I don’t think it was the pandanus.

There’s a trick whereby you grip and fold and press super hard… my wishy-washy hands (already offended by thorns) found this very difficult. I laughed at my uselessness as I shredded stem after steam. My classmate was also struggling, and we rapidly realised that there wasn’t going to be much weaving of pandanus today.

I offered my little basket to Eunice as a thank-you, and we laughingly compared it to one she was working on at home… ah well there’s always next time.

I think that brings me to the end of my Yirrkala trip. We flew out the next morning, and I came back to Melbourne with exactly 3 weeks to write my assignments before starting my new job!

Once again, the stark absence of Aboriginal artwork in this post is mainly due to the fact that I prefer not to post anything rather than risk posting something I shouldn’t without permission. I also am very grateful to the artists and their families who are glimpsed throughout this blog post, and have tried to limit pictures to preserve their privacy. It’s such an insane privilege to get to spend up in Yirrkala, to get to meet and spend time with these incredibly kind and generous people, who are so patient with us when we say and do foolish things. I mentioned above how much I love my bark painting, and among the many emotions I feel when I come home to it each evening, is that of gratitude for being allowed to learn about it and understand it, and appreciate it, and meet the artist, and carry it off home to Melbourne.

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