Photo: Jeni Lee. Courtesy Alexis West, Director, Our Stories: Inside My Mother: Ali Cobby Eckermann (produced for NITV)

Unravelling the past: Barbed wire and campfire learnings

How does one truly unravel their past, stripping the barbs of hurt to create a new vessel free from thorns? For me, it took years of journey, searching for my ideal personal paradise even without a definition of what that could be. When a sense of peacefulness arrived in spurting moments, I did not have the skills to retain it in my life, and mourned each time it slipped away. Always I continued my nomadic travel across this land, through its desert heart of richness, the red sand sweeping my footprints away with its wind of wisdom, only my most recent footprints remaining to be seen. Each time I chose to return to the losses of my past, I had to endure a cyclic reoccurrence of the pain. It has taken me years to lessen those cycles. It has taken years of practice, working on my as‑yet‑unseen footprints, centring toward my future.

One of the most potent cycle journeys I made in my adulthood was to return to the rural region in Australia where I grew up. I had run away at the age of seventeen to Ooldea after being expelled from high school, after catching some girls trying to flush my cousins head down the dunny, and snapping against what I still deem was a racist act, after enduring years at school of that kind of horrid and hurtful behaviour. I hadn’t lived there again, except for a short time when I was again the victim of social prejudice led by the local Lutheran pastor. The stigma of teenage unwed pregnancy resulted in the relinquishment of my first‑born and only surviving child. Over the years I have hated that place. That last time I left I headed to the Northern Territory where I stayed for almost thirty years. Now I was back in the mid north of South Australia and had no idea how I might be received or how I might react.

I signed up for a mortgage and bought the original general store at Koolunga, on the edge of the Clare Valley. It was a beautiful building in need of some repair sited on a quarter acre house block in the main street. Most locals were curious as to why I was back. I had gone to school or church, or teamed against to play tennis and netball with them. In my homesickness for the desert and my people, I decided to set up Australia’s first Aboriginal Writers Retreat to encourage mob to visit. Many visitors did arrive, and we created seeds for new literature and poetry. Ellen Van Neerven and Lionel Fogarty are two of my Aboriginal peers who supported my Writers Retreat. Poets Omar Musa and Bob Holman (from New York) also did residencies there. Bush mob came to spend their holidays with me. These were great days of happiness and healing for me.

The most poignant lesson I learnt was that the past could not hurt me anymore. In those long years away, I had found my mother, brother and sister and my son, and my extended and kinship family. I had lived long and loyal to the desert, including a cherished decade with senior Yankunytjatjara / Pitjantjatjara ngangkari and law women. Now I knew who I was born to be, and was back to unravel the deceit of assimilation and its impact on me. Healing has been an arduous journey. When I was blessed to spend those years in the central desert within the regular company and guidance of those senior men and women, one of the first lessons they recognised I needed to learn was “how to sit”.

When we first met I had little patience, as I had been running everywhere trying to find my place of belonging. Of course, learning “how to sit” has been the right lesson for me. The senior people shared much laughter and story with me, rebuilding my capacity to trust. I trusted them immediately. I needed to learn to trust myself, and they taught me to laugh along the way. Healthy laughter allows the “letting go” and I had so much to let go. The faint voice of intuition grows louder as you practice. Intuition is memory told us by those we cherished beyond love, who are teaching us even after they have died. At least that is what I have grown to believe.

On the farm where I grew up at Hart, not far from Koolunga, there was a paddock my adopted family called “the other place”. It was somewhat separate from the main farm, accessed along a red sandy track lined with eucalyptus and acacia, with patches of wild peach trees. As a child I loved to play there with my siblings, amongst the stone house ruin with an old grey lime-cement horse trough outside. There was always some relic of the past to find and examine. I am grateful I grew up on a farm. I rarely stayed indoors, except to read. My imagination was grown by the invitation to explore everything that nature offers. It was in this same paddock many years later when I first foresaw the potential of old rusted fencing wire as sculpture. I had driven out there to collect firewood with Aunty Raelene, my kinship Aunty who lived nearby. She helped me pile the rolls of wire on top of the wood in the trailer and we drove back home.

Photo: Jeni Lee. Courtesy Alexis West, Director, Our Stories: Inside My Mother: Ali Cobby Eckermann (produced for NITV)
Photo: Jeni Lee. Courtesy Alexis West, Director, Our Stories: Inside My Mother: Ali Cobby Eckermann (produced for NITV)

I learnt weaving at the age of nine, when I spent time in the Adelaide Women’s and Children’s Hospital with a broken leg. A lady came regularly to teach me how to weave using lengths of thin cane. I made two baskets whilst in hospital and was so intrigued I often forgot to do the daily homework assigned to me. I was often in trouble and scolded due to my distraction, even whilst being in a hospital with a broken leg. I realise now, even at that age, the memory of my past was being awakened by the task of weaving, despite my absence from my birth family. Now as an adult, I began making the frames and weaving the fencing wire to the shape of fish traps. Barbed wire became my preferred medium. Maybe it was metaphorical for what I felt I was processing. As I wove the barbed wire it felt like transforming pain into a positive. My life has been filled with so much pain, and was transmuting into a life that required a lot of forgiveness.

Weaving is meditative and encouraged the practice of “sitting”. The longer I learnt to sit quietly in a peaceful mental state, the more I learned that discomfort arrives like the weather, sometimes sunny and sometimes bleak, yet all interlinked and necessary to the day prior and tomorrow. As I changed my view of how I carried my grief and traumas I began to accept the discomfort of my losses. This was a hard step. Art has become the tonic to help me through. When I am away from the desert and my family, I constantly need to sit by campfire. The campfire provides an essential gift of security to me. Sometimes when I sit still I can hear the country talk. Sometimes if I sit still within myself I can see signs the old people are still here. This is where my best art practice comes from. This is also the time of many tears. It is the way I grow into my healing.

I enrolled as an arts student at Tauondi College in 1997, the year I found my mother. This was a short reprieve from the Northern Territory, as I was meeting new family members at a regular pace. Art was so healing for me. I could choose to paint or draw or sculpt both the sunny days and the bleak days, and there was no judgement or scolding of me. Often I burned the artworks I had created, as the memories embedded deep within were just too painful. The medicine of the fire was vital to me during those times of deep emotion. I drove around the suburbs of Adelaide in the night, collecting offcuts of wood from construction sites, as I couldn’t afford to buy wood. Thankfully I didn’t get caught. At Tauondi I majored in photography, under the tutorage of Nici Cumpston. I believe photography also taught me to shift my view, how to look deeper into both the visual and myself.

Fire is my medicine, and also my memory. Whenever I sit fireside I can hear the messages of my old people with a truer clarity. Often when I stare into the flames I can see my grandmothers face. Kami is always smiling. I like to think she is smiling at me, encouraging me along my healing journey. I flourish in the memory of her. Honouring my anger was also a vital key to self-realisation, and it is a deeply humbling process. For me, it was and remains a challenge to convey anger in a manner that holds a positive outcome, either in action or emotion. Being angry is not a sin. Holding on to it longer than I need is an unhealthy way to exist. The campfire is my guiding key. Always new challenges arrive, and I continue to struggle and learn.

I don’t tolerate lateral sadness well. I choose not to call it lateral violence. I feel that lateral violence best describes the invaders and their denial of their treatment towards the First Nations people of Australia. I see the effects of lateral sadness everywhere in society today, which causes new challenges to us all. There will always be new chapters in my healing journey and there will also be many blessings to guide my way. I don’t believe I create for the present day. I think creativity belongs to the past and the future; the historical and the hopeful. The past is mostly more generous, because age provides an easier concept of forgiveness; the present is the constant critic; the aim for the future is to till seeds of hope. I see today as simply a factor of time. I grow better into a mature age the closer I stand in the memory story of my past. Young people fill me with much hope when they seek to chat about my art and the story of my journey. It is important to practice the separation of depression from the past, and anxiety for the future. I find sitting with a sober heart by the campfire allows me to attain this.

It’s been several days and I have been sitting with my campfire, writing this. I wanted to share my learnings in a manner similar that was shown to me. I trust the learnings that are pushed by the medicine of the flames into my memory. All the learnings I implement into my own life, I try to implement in my interactions with others. Of course I am still learning to do this. I will learn till I die. As an artist, I believe I have a responsibility and a right to communicate the campfire learnings of my journey. I will continue to cherish the teachings I was mentored whilst living in the desert. And as an artist and poet it is important to always honour both my anger and my joy.

Photo: Jeni Lee. Courtesy Alexis West, Director, Our Stories: Inside My Mother: Ali Cobby Eckermann (produced for NITV)
Photo: Jeni Lee. Courtesy Alexis West, Director, Our Stories: Inside My Mother: Ali Cobby Eckermann (produced for NITV)


Cover photo: Jeni Lee. Courtesy Alexis West, Director, Our Stories, Inside My Mother: Ali Cobby Eckermann produced for NITV.

Ali Cobby Eckermann is a visual artist, photographer and award‐winning poet. Her family and language group is Yankunytjatjara; her Mother born at Ooldea and her Kami born at Indulkana. In 2017 Ali was the first Indigenous poet in the world to receive a Wyndham Campbell Award from Yale University.