Wardlipari Homeriver: Vulnerable observations

Ali Gumillya Baker, The Two Become One, Aldinga, 2019, digital photograph. Courtesy the artist
Ali Gumillya Baker, The Two Become One, Aldinga, 2019, digital photograph. Courtesy the artist

Wardlipari is the homeriver in the Milky Way.
Purlirna kardlarna ngadluku miyurnaku yaintya tikkiarna.

The stars are the fires of people living there. Yurarlu yurakauwi trruku-ana padninthi Wardlipari.

Yurakauwi the rainbow serpent goes into the dark spots in the Milky Way.
Ngaiyirda karralika kawingka tikainga yara kumarninthi.

When the outer world and the sky connect with the water the two become one.[1] 

“Situated knowledges are about communities, not about isolated individuals. The only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular.”[2] 

“I can’t help but pull the earth around me to make my bed.”[3] 

There is no word for horizon in Kaurna language. Instead of horizon there is a reflection of each vastness into the other, a merging of the sky and water, the two becoming one. There are many examples of this; the Adelaide Plains are also understood as wetlands of the earth reflecting the wetlands in the sky, the Wardlipari, meaning the homeriver/Milky Way.

Knowing these ways of looking at the world changes everything.

It is through our intimate connections to place, through our respect for and responsibility to specific countries that we can observe the humanness of our collective vulnerability. As Donna Haraway has beautifully articulated; “Location is about vulnerability; location resists the politics of closure, finality.”[4]

Ali Gumillya Baker, Local Colour, Aldinga scrub, 2019, digital photograph. Courtesy the artist
Ali Gumillya Baker, Local Colour, Aldinga scrub, 2019, digital photograph. Courtesy the artist

Walk the land, know the country, let the country know you.

Uncle Lewis and I meet in Port Adelaide, Yarta Puulti; named in Kaurna as a place of grief, a place of sleep. This place has always been a place of grief even before colonisation and it is an appropriate place to grieve other places. Before the city of Adelaide was built there were networks of mangroves throughout the Port and in the thick sticky mud sometimes the fish would die. The fish would sleep forever. We are not asleep here though, we are still awake in the land of grief.[5]

“Before the construction of the South Western Suburbs Drainage Works, [the river] spread out into lagoons near the site occupied by the Adelaide airport. The river was once a permanent stream fed by springs and prodigal in breeding fish and yabbies. Its banks were the natural habitat of possums, ducks, lizards, snakes, birds and insects: kangaroos and emus and also wallabies, moved freely among the river gums and grassy woodlands of the plains.”[6] 

This place of beginnings where fresh water springs give forth to wetlands is where the trees carry the marks of the time before; trees marked during the long lawful time; the time before the concrete rivers and polluting engines.[7] We speak of Kaurna Yarta, of the many colourful sands of Southern beaches and the gendered rainbows, of places where the whales come to die; Tangkakilla, smelly place. We speak of peacemakers and firekeepers, ancestors who are spirit birds, Tjilbruke. We speak of the ongoing racism and the environmental destruction of the planet, how this destruction can be seen here as the continuation of colonial processes into the present.

Uncle Lewis Yarluburka O’Brien presenting the opening address with the Unbound Collective (Simone Ulalka Tur, Faye Rosas Blanch, Natalie Harkin and Ali Gumillya Baker), Bound and Unbound: Sovereign Acts II, 2015, State Library of South Australia. Photo: Tony Kearney
Uncle Lewis Yarluburka O’Brien presenting the opening address with the Unbound Collective (Simone Ulalka Tur, Faye Rosas Blanch, Natalie Harkin and Ali Gumillya Baker), Bound and Unbound: Sovereign Acts II, 2015, State Library of South Australia. Photo: Tony Kearney
Uncle Lewis Yarluburka O’Brien presenting the opening address with the Unbound Collective (Simone Ulalka Tur, Faye Rosas Blanch, Natalie Harkin and Ali Gumillya Baker), Bound and Unbound: Sovereign Acts II, 2015, State Library of South Australia. Photo: Tony Kearney
Uncle Lewis Yarluburka O’Brien presenting the opening address with the Unbound Collective (Simone Ulalka Tur, Faye Rosas Blanch, Natalie Harkin and Ali Gumillya Baker), Bound and Unbound: Sovereign Acts II, 2015, State Library of South Australia. Photo: Tony Kearney

In 2015 Uncle Lewis worked with the Unbound Collective at the inaugural TARNANTHI Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Flinders City Gallery, State Library of South Australia, the South Australian Museum, and the Art Gallery of South Australia. Tarnanthi is the Kaurna word meaning to rise, a new beginning, this word also speaks of the first light of the day, a magical time of the dawn’s indigo light.

The Unbound Collective emerge beside the white marble modernist architectural pillars of the back entrance of the State Library building with Uncle Lewis Yarluburka O’Brien wrapped in his kangaroo skin cloak over his black suit. Uncle Lewis speaks as the light in the sky disappears he speaks to the audience gathered around us he says:

Light Horse Memorial Trough on the corner of North Terrace and East Terrace, recognising the role of horses in the First World War. Ityimaiitpinna lived in the Botanical Gardens in winter. His name means father of mushrooms. Mushrooms are white. Royal Adelaide Hospital has a Light Ward. Colonel Light was the surveyor of Adelaide, they painted him White but his complexion was dark.

Adelaide University Sub Cruce Lumen meaning the light of learning under the southern cross. The Braggs won the Nobel Prize for Crystallography in 1915 using X-ray. They attended Adelaide University. Lawrence Bragg taught light was a wave for three days, and light was a pulse for two days at the Royal Institution in London, then he taught it was both. Lawrence Bragg is the youngest Nobel Prize winner at 25 years of age.

The Festival ran Northern Lights in 2014 and lit the buildings on North Terrace. The Library is a place of Enlightenment as is the Museum. Today we have the Kaurna word Tarnanthi meaning first light, to appear. A new beginning.

In his address Uncle Lewis reflects on the whiteness of the cultural precinct of Adelaide; the absence of any formal acknowledgement of his ancestor Ityimaiitpinna in the Botanical Gardens or anywhere along North Terrace. He reflects upon the absence of physical signs of Kaurna, but just as light is a wave and pulse, the long histories of Kaurna on this country cannot be erased, these stories re-emerge. “The grand narratives of nineteenth-century historicism on which its claims to universalism were founded – Evolutionism, Utilitarianism, Evangelism – were also, in another textual and territorial time-space, the technologies of colonial and imperialist governance. It is the “rationalism” of these ideologies of progress that increasingly come to be eroded in the encounter with the “contingency” of cultural difference.”[8] From the seat of the Adelaide establishment on North Terrace, we can view the colonial architecture as civilizing progress: knowledge /power /aesthetics/ governmentality.

These buildings are quarried and painted with “Heritage Colours” from the ochre and sacred rock of Tarndanyangga and Kaurna Yarta. The remaking of these ideas again and again. The colonial outpost of “sly civility”,[9] our new cultural-precinct, with buildings copied from the mother-monarch-coloniser, all in a row, along the grid of the map of the constructed city enclosed by parks. How to build a city. On Kaurna Land now North Terrace; Hospital, University, Church, Train Station, Casino, Parliament, Government House, (more statues of old-dead-white-men) War Memorial, Library, Museum, Art Gallery, University, Botanical Gardens.

Behind these buildings stand other buildings; of significance to Kaurna and other Nungas from South Australia: Ration Buildings; buildings to starve you, buildings to administer your children being taken away, Protector buildings, Physical Anthropology buildings; buildings to dissect bodies and take bones and blood samples, buildings for mounted police to ride out from, to protect the white settlers, to create the representation of civilisation where we now stand, to push Aboriginal people outside the perimeters of the buildings, past the gardens and the park lands, push us out into white administrative world, the wild world of stolen lands, where if you trespass you are shot. Buildings built on top of ancient fresh water springs. We mark these buildings with our performance, we mark these buildings with our resistance, we mark them with our stories, our memories.

Unbound Collective performing Sovereign Acts III: REFUSE, 2018, at the Vitalstatistix Climate Century Festival, Port Adelaide. Photo: Tony Kearney
Unbound Collective performing Sovereign Acts III: REFUSE, 2018, at the Vitalstatistix Climate Century Festival, Port Adelaide. Photo: Tony Kearney
The Unbound Collective, Sovereign Acts V: CALLING, installation view, Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia. Photo: Sam Noonan.
The Unbound Collective, Sovereign Acts V: CALLING, installation view, Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia. Photo: Sam Noonan

When we think about light we also think about dark spots, the black holes in the cosmos. You can’t have one without the other, this is reflected in our word Yara: to be an individual you have to have reciprocity (give and take) twice-both, one to another, same and different. Uncle Lewis’s speech at TARNANTHI is also a meditation on the colour white, his thoughts about light and enlightenment which speak clearly to the colour white being a colour of mourning and death in Kaurna culture, of old bones, salt-worn shells and grief. Lightness and enlightenment speak both to knowledge gained and what we have collectively lost, of old exclusions and recent insights. What does the shift from the collecting of “primitive artefacts” to collecting “art” in the institutional classification of Aboriginal cultural production mean for us?

When we speak of colour amongst Aboriginal peoples often it is referring to ideas of skin and whiteness and blackness. These ideas of racialised colour have shaped our lives and the experiences of the “assimilated” world imposed on us by the colonisers. Uncle Lewis remembers a time when he was a child on Yorke Peninsular mission at Point Pearce when the anthropologist and ethnographer Norman Tindale measured the size of his head with calipers, during a data collection exercise; “he measured me to attempt to measure his own superiority.” What is the colour of our collective intergenerational grief? Is it the colour of the grey concrete across Tarndanyangga, the concrete used to make the wetlands of the earth into concrete drains?[10] Is it the colour of poorly designed carparks covering ancient freshwater springs?[11] Grey clay goes white, white clay for death, our colour for grief is white.

It is appropriate that a festival on Kaurna country be named TARNANTHI, as it is a new beginning for the Art Gallery of South Australia. This Festival is a long way from the first painting AGSA acquired in 1881, Evening Shadows, Backwater of the Murray, South Australia by Henry James Johnstone, which you could easily argue is a beautiful piece of Social Darwinist propaganda depicting a false demise or last light of Aboriginal culture in the backwaters of history. When we reflect on the backwaters today, the many streams and wetlands of the Murray/Darling we see the millions of dead fish and the pillaging and mismanagement and inappropriate use of waters that should flow into the Lower Lakes and Coorong of South Australia.

Local colour, local grief, a wave and a pulse. At this time when we consider the future of the planet and our collective crisis, these local knowledges, these long histories bring us back to the places where we are born, the places where we will die, the smell of the earth, the ferocity and kindness and the memories of our rivers and large trees. We must continue to care for our old stories and with them our country. 

Henry James Johnstone, Evening Shadows, Backwater of the Murray, South Australia, 1880, oil on canvas. Collection: Art Gallery of South Australia, Gift of Mr Henry Yorke Sparks, 1881
Henry James Johnstone, Evening Shadows, Backwater of the Murray, South Australia, 1880, oil on canvas. Collection: Art Gallery of South Australia, Gift of Mr Henry Yorke Sparks, 1881
Nici Cumpston
Nici Cumpston, Ringbarked II, Nookamka, South Australia, 2011, archival inkjet print on canvas, hand-coloured with watercolours and pencils. Courtesy the artist

 

Footnotes

  1. ^ Uncle Lewis Yarluburka O’Brien, the Kaurna Warra Karrpinthi, Language committee, words gifted to Flinders University, 2016.
  2. ^ Donna Haraway, “Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective,” Feminist Studies 14:3, Autumn 1988, pp. 575–99.
  3. ^ Florence Welch and Tom Hull. Florence + the Machine, “Ship to Wreck,” released 9 April 2015.
  4. ^ Haraway, p. 590.
  5. ^ Words performed by Unbound Collective, Sovereign Acts III: REFUSE, Port Adelaide, Vitalstatistix, 2018.
  6. ^ Alison Dolling, The History of Marion: On the Sturt, Adelaide: Peacock Publication, 1981, p. 2.
  7. ^ Words performed by Unbound Collective, Sovereign Acts III: REFUSE, Port Adelaide, Vitalstatistix, 2018.
  8. ^ Homi K. Bhabha, “In a spirit of calm violence,” After Colonialism: Imperial Histories and Postcolonial Displacements, (ed) Gyan Prakash. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001, p. 326.
  9. ^ Ibid., p. 326.
  10. ^ See, for example, the South Australian Parliaments (1959), South-Western Suburbs Drainage Act, Version: 5.3.1971.
  11. ^ For example the Tjilbruke freshwater springs that are located under a carpark at Kingston Park, despite Kaurna protests.

Uncle Lewis Yarluburka O’Brien is a Kaurna Elder and scholar. Yarluburka means old man of the sea. He has been working all over Kaurna Yarta and has travelled the world as a ships engineer. He has worked as an educator, and contributed much work on the reclamation of Kaurna language for a significant part of the last 80 years.

Ali Gumillya Baker is a Mirning person who has grown up on Kaurna country. Ali’s maternal family are from the Nullarbor and the West Coast of South Australia. Ali is senior lecturer in the College of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University and an artist, writer and member of the Unbound Collective.

The Unbound Collective, Sovereign Acts V: CALLING, is on exhibition at the Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia, 25 April - 19 July 2019.

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