Violent dreams of development: A food bowl in the north‑west of Australia?

Alana Hunt, Faith in a Pile of Stones, 2018. Commissioned by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
Alana Hunt, Faith in a Pile of Stones, 2018. Commissioned by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Courtesy the artist

Do you know what lores I have had to learn while you play in everything they protect?… Do you understand that when you write the kangaroo the wallaby the bilby the bandicoot the cockatoo the blacksnake the waterlily the brush the bush the sapling the ghost gum that you are puppeting your hands through my ancestors?

Evelyn Araluen, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in the Ghost Gum, Sydney Review of Books. [1]

In the largest non-nuclear explosion in Australian history, a mountain was blasted apart. These smashed pieces of stone were destined for a dam wall that now incarcerates a once‑roaring river at a capacity of twenty times the size of Sydney Harbour. Today tourists marvel at its grandeur and apparent beauty. But violent dreams shadow this development. In December 1971 the West Australian Wildlife Association launched Operation Ord Noah, a stunt as absurd as its title and the tragedy of the “operation”.

As the waters of Lake Argyle rose for the first time, a few white Australian men spent over a month whizzing around in tinnies rescuing animals from the waters that submerged huge tracts of Miriwoong country permanently. Colonists marvel at these images—which have entered the lexicon of local settler-history—just as we marvel at more recent photographs from 2019 of teapots and windmills and power lines submerged by Lake Argyle at the old Durack Homestead. Kununurra, whose real Miriwoong name is Goonoonoorrang,[2] is a town established in the 1960s to realise colonial dreams of a northern food bowl fed by this monumental lake.

But what of the cultural knowledge, homes, graves, crops and food stores that belonged to Miriwoong people, now submerged by these waters of “development”, distinct trade routes forever cut off from one another? More than 3,000 square kilometres of Miriwoong country and parts of the surrounding Gajirrabeng, Gija and Malgnin countries were impacted. Both the top and bottom dam walls were built on Ngarranggarni (Dreaming) sites; one culture’s dreams of development inundating an entirely different kind of Dreaming. At the official opening of the top dam in 1972 Peter Tonkin, then Premier of Western Australia, said the dam wall was as “unobtrusive as a goanna on a rock”.[3] At this same event, Miriwoong people were crying as though they’d lost a family member.

Shirley Purdie, Goowoolem  Gijam-Gija plants, 2013–16, ochre on canvas. Collection: Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia © Shirley Purdie/Copyright Agency, 2019
Shirley Purdie, Goowoolem, Gijam-Gija plants, 2013–16, ochre on canvas. Collection: Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia © Shirley Purdie/Copyright Agency, 2019

The richness of the food bowl, this dam, farmland and town impacted, can be glimpsed in the work of Aboriginal artists across the east Kimberley. In 2014–16 Gija artist Shirley Purdie produced Goowoolem Gijam (Gija Plants), an encyclopaedic collection of 72 paintings depicting the habitats and uses of individual trees and plants across her country. Miriwoong artist Ben Ward’s depictions of Bilbiljeng, a site now partially submerged by Lake Argyle, contains knowledge of how grasshoppers—rather than being a pest—were called upon by Miriwoong people to provide a food source that attracted other animals which could then be hunted. Kitty Malarvie’s work shares locations of salt production and methods of harvesting girleng (tomato). Mejerren (black plum), daloong (green plum), wooloo‑wooleng (white current), joogoorroong (orange) all feature in the late Judy Mengil’s work, while her daughter Gloria Mengil hones in on the nyinggiyoogeng (peanuts) she collected as a child.

Peggy Griffiths’ engagement with her daughters and granddaughters see them collectively depicting gajarrang (spinifex), garrjang (water lily), ngareng (honey), jilinybeng (cucumber), and gerdewoon (boab) across a range of mediums including canvas, ceramics, block printing and animation. The collaborative work, Bush Medicine Recollections and Remedies (2013) produced by many of these artists at Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, runs along a 30-metre wall at the Coolibah Health Centre in Kununurra. These works, and so much more, hold valuable information about the sustainable food production of this region.

Bush Medicine Mural at Waringarri Arts, with artists Bryan Murielle, Philomena Armstrong, Kittey Malarvie, Louise Malarvie, Gloria Mengil, Mrs Mengil, Mrs Ningarma, Peggy Griffiths, Agnes Armstrong.
Bush Medicine Mural at Waringarri Arts, with artists Bryan Murielle, Philomena Armstrong, Kittey Malarvie, Louise Malarvie, Gloria Mengil, Mrs Mengil, Mrs Ningarma, Peggy Griffiths, Agnes Armstrong.

How is it that no one—Government or individual—has found a means of exploiting this area to its capacity before this?

Kimberley Durack, Developing the North, 1941[4] 

In the first half of the twentieth century settler‑colonial anxieties, influenced by an active White Australia policy, fed dreams of agriculture in the north-west. A 1941 report by Kimberley Durack, called for a research station to explore the potential of agriculture as an alternative to the dwindling pastoral industry. Fears of a potential invasion from Asia were subdued by the promise of a soon-to-be populated north within reach of international markets. At a moment when global decolonial movements were at their peak, Australia was still active in consolidating its then feeble grip on the “frontiers” of the continent through projects such as the Ord River Irrigation Scheme (ORIS).

As Arundhati Roy wrote of her related work with the Narmada Valley in central India, “Big Dams are to a Nation’s ‘Development’ what Nuclear Bombs are to its Military Arsenal.”[5] Both, she continues, are twentieth-century emblems that mark a point in time when human intelligence outstripped its own instinct for survival. While Lake Argyle birthed Kununurra, the dam also holds the seeds of the town’s destruction when, eventually, the wall faults. This is the absurdity that hovers over our faith in this pile of stones. 

At its inception, there was no legislative acknowledgement of any Aboriginal tenure or connection to land and no communication with Miriwoong people about the permanent changes inflicted on their country. The scheme had a far more catastrophic impact on Miriwoong people than the introduction of equal wages for Aboriginal station workers in the late 1960s, which is commonly blamed for the “second displacement” of Aboriginal people in the east Kimberley. A 2004 report from the Kimberley Land Council describes this as a “resilient stereotype” that only reveals part of the story. The report reveals that the profound impact of ORIS is akin to a natural disaster, only worse because there is no recovery process. The trauma of this irrevocable damage to country, cultural life, social relations, economies and food production manifests itself across successive generations. And the consequent influx of colonists into the region continues to marginalise and erase Miriwoong people on their own country.[6]

Alana Hunt, Faith in a Pile of Stones, 2018. Commissioned by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
Alana Hunt, Faith in a Pile of Stones, 2018. Commissioned by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art

But colonial dreams don’t often end well. The ORIS has been dependent upon government subsidies and plagued by a curious course of failures. Despite being the most “efficient” dam wall in terms of its capacity to hold water, Lake Argyle is also the most under-used lake in the world. Dam the Expense, a 2017 research paper from the Australia Institute, states: “Attempts to develop northern Australia by subsidising capital‑intensive industries like irrigated agriculture have a long and unimpressive history. An example is the Ord River Scheme which currently supports just 260 jobs despite $2 billion spent and decades of effort.”[7]

In 1959–91 there was a financial return of seventeen cents for every public dollar invested. Since 2009 a further $364 million was invested creating 60 more jobs at a cost of $6 million in government funds per job.[8] Like the 1905 tick infestation that almost destroyed the burgeoning cattle industry, in the 1960s and 1970s cotton never received economic yields, in part due to an inability to control insects despite prodigious amounts of chemicals. Rice failed because magpie geese ate the shoots quicker than they could be planted. Sometimes I imagine these experiences are linked to a form of ancestral revenge enacted by the Miriwoong people, whose world in which the magpie geese and insects and ticks are a vital part.

Today the prime crop of this “food bowl” is the inedible sandalwood tree, grown primarily for perfume; ironically, based on the pungent fact that the true food bowl preceded this irrigation scheme. Miriwoong people, like their countryman across the continent, know well how to sustainably make use of this land. Bruce Pascoe’s groundbreaking book Dark Emu has evidenced this, while also disclosing the intellectual arrogance of the British colonists as the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding, moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.[9]

Alana Hunt, Expansionist Dreams, 2019 ongoing. Documentation of the development of a government-funded road for a prawn farm that does not as yet have financial backing. Courtesy the artist
Alana Hunt, Expansionist Dreams, 2019 ongoing. Documentation of the development of a government-funded road for a prawn farm that does not as yet have financial backing. Courtesy the artist

While the agricultural aspirations of the ORIS continue to fail, calls for more land are met with more investment as the scheme moves from the initial Stage 1 to Stage 2, and the looming Stage 3 or 3a. It is no small irony that the development of the north, once driven by fears of Asian capitalisation of the land and economic opportunity, is now supported by Asian, in particular Chinese, investment. Expansionist dreams spill across state borders while the unremitting evidence of failure is concealed by the ongoing process of colonisation—a massive investment in self-deceit.

Australian historian Patrick Wolfe argues that the same logic that initially informed the frontier killings continues in these present-day modalities. To this formulation I would include art, visual culture, and the (social) media-promoted economies of leisure and tourism. One of the basic tenets of Miriwoong culture is that you don’t depict or range uninvited into another person’s country. But that is precisely what colonists do. Recently on Instagram a fitness enthusiast filmed herself climbing an escarpment in the Keep River National Park. After panning the camera across Miriwoong country she beamed euphorically into the lens, “Isn’t it incredible? No one is here except me.” I find myself contrasting these words with Alexander Forrest’s first European description of the region in 1879 as being densely populated with campfire smoke in every direction.[10] Still no mention of the genocide that implicates us all.

Alana Hunt, A Different Kind of Theatre, 2019. Courtesy the artist
Alana Hunt, A Different Kind of Theatre, 2019. Courtesy the artist
Alana Hunt, All the Violence Within This, 2019. Supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund
Alana Hunt, All the Violence Within This, 2019. Supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund

Our practices of representation are underpinned by the deceptively benign assumption that we have a right to be here, to build a home, and to depict places, people, plants and animals. These assumptions lie at the heart of the colonial superstructure, the dynamics of which are brutally apparent in the place that I live. My part in this is something I cannot undo. Reckoning with it has become an increasing focus of my work, which is undergoing processes somewhat akin to an anthropologist who turns the lens back on herself.

On driving past a gravel pit along the Victoria Highway near our home my partner, Chris Griffiths, uttered something shattering: “I feel so culturally insecure.” His voice, normally warm, was cold and muted with anger. This from a man commonly seen as a cultural leader, whose country has been recognised through Land Rights and Native Title, whose late father led a landmark native title compensation case—the most significant since Mabo—and whom many assume is culturally secure. Chris was under the impression the pit’s expansion had been brought to a halt at the request of a traditional owner. But there it was—now expanded, still extracting.

This is just one small example of a barrage of developments connected to housing, mining, pastoralism, aquaculture, agriculture and enabled by the abundant expansion of roads, bridges, fences, dams and towns. Guarded by impenetrable bureaucratic processes, they claw at my partner’s world without end. When we first met, Chris said that he hated agriculture more than mines. It took me a while to understand how growing food could possibly be as violent as the extractive nature of mining.

Wolfe and the political scientist James C. Scott articulate what my partner has long‑known: that agriculture is central to colonisation and the rise of modern nation states. As Wolfe explains, invasion needs to be understood as a continuing process rather than a past event, in which the acquisition of land and the elimination of Indigenous peoples are essential.[11] It is a process that exhausts Chris—as it did his parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, displacing him further from his parents’ world and his children, and our children, further from his world.

Judy Mengil, Binjin Fruits and Bush Body Wash, 2014, natural pigment on canvas. Courtesy Waringarri Arts. © Gloria Mengil/Copyright Agency
Judy Mengil, Binjin Fruits and Bush Body Wash, 2014, natural pigment on canvas. Courtesy Waringarri Arts. ©Judy Mengil/Copyright Agency

Footnotes

  1. ^ Evelyn Araluen, “Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in the Ghost Gum”, Sydney Review of Books, 11 February 2019.
  2. ^ Mirima Dawang Woorlab‑Gerring Language and Culture Centre
  3. ^ Jay Arthur, “An unobtrusive goanna” in Deborah Bird Rose and Anne Clarke (eds), Tracking Knowledge in North Australian Landscapes, Northern Australian Research Unit, 1997, p. 45
  4. ^ Kimberley Durack, Developing the North (1941), Kununurra Historical Society Transcription (2015) KHS archive number: KHS-2015-1-H-BD, p. 16.
  5. ^ Arundhati Roy, “The Greater Common Good” in The Algebra of Infinite Justice, Flamingo, 2002, p. 122.
  6. ^ From Dispossession to Continued Social and Economic Marginalisation: An Aboriginal Social and Economic Impact Assessment of the Ord River Irrigation Project Stage 1, Kimberley Land Council, 2004, pp. 11–12 and pp. 86–89.
  7. ^ Matt Grudnoff and Rod Campbell, Dam the expense: The Ord River Irrigation Scheme and the development of northern Australia, The Australia Institute, May 2017.
  8. ^ Ibid., p. iv.
  9. ^ Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu, Magabala Books, 2018 (originally published 2014), p. 229.
  10. ^ Alexander Forrest quoted by Jessica McLean in “A Geography of Water Matters in the Ord Catchment, Northern Australia”, PhD thesis, School of Geosciences, University of Sydney, 2010, p. 115.
  11. ^ Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native” in Journal of Genocide Research (2006), 8(4), December, pp. 387–409. Also see, James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, Yale University Press, 2009. 

Alana Hunt is an artist and writer who lives on Miriwoong country in the north‑west of Australia and has a longstanding relationship with South Asia, particularly Kashmir. In 2019–21 Alana will be working with International Art Space on Spaced 04: Rural Utopias.

Waringarri Arts is the oldest wholly Aboriginal owned art centre in Western Australia and one of the oldest in Australia. Based in Kununurra, the art centre represents Miriwoong and Gajerrabeng people as well as artists from language groups in the greater Kimberley region displaced by colonisation. Waringarri Arts also supports the small art centre, Kira Kiro Artists, in Kalumburu, north-western WA.

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