Kumantji and the Contemporary Curator

Across much of Aboriginal Australia the announcement of a death is followed by profound communal mourning, the removal or destruction of the deceased's belongings and most significantly a prohibition on the use of the deceased's name.

Across much of Aboriginal Australia the announcement of death is followed by profound communal mourning, the removal or destruction of the deceased’s belongings and most significantly a prohibition on the use of the deceased’s name. In the Papunya/ Kintore area people and objects with the same name as the deceased are referred to as Kumantji.[1]

As the work of artists from Papunya and other remote Aboriginal communities has entered the mainstream the output of individual artists has become known and loved. The potential for a collision of cultural values following the death of a senior and highly respected artist is intense. Just at the moment when traditional law may require that the artist’s name must not be mentioned in his/ her community, the outside world suddenly realises its loss. The European urge to commemorate the death of a person with eulogies, obituaries and epitaphs is anathema to the Aboriginal communities of Central and Northern Australia. The tensions that exist in the art world about the death of Aboriginal artists are seldom openly discussed. What follows is a series of anecdotes that I hope will open up this debate so that curators, documentary filmmakers, historians and the commercial art sector will engage more honestly with the certainty of death, rather than lying low and hoping that nobody dies when they are organising a gig.

I began working with Aboriginal artists at Papunya in 1977 as a visual arts graduate in my early twenties. The experience was overwhelming and has informed most of my professional development since that time. While Papunya Tula Art was barely known in the ‘big art world’ I was aware that the artists I was working for were powerful, persuasive and above all totally confident in the rightness of what they painted. Most of the artists at Papunya were twice my age and several were already in their sixties and seventies. While none of the major artists died during the three years I was at Papunya, death was a regular visitor to the community. On the nights when the grog runners came to town with cases of flagons the whole community (which was then 1000 strong) would erupt. After the worst nights, dawn would break with a chorus of wailing. Eventually someone would come around and tell me in whispered tones that such and such had lost their cousins. Establishing the identity of the deceased was a matter of elimination which for a whitefella with a loose grip on genealogies could take hours or days, and occasionally was confirmed only when a younger man went through my photos and either destroyed the print or cut  out the shape of the person who had just died. The informants of death would never be of the deceased’s direct family, but they worked to ensure that close relatives would not be confronted with an image of their beloved, or have to hear their name.

In 1984 I returned to Central Australia after having travelled overseas for several years. The political climate had changed considerably and the fledgling Aboriginal organisations that had emerged in the seventies were now very aware that the telephone and television as well as printed media were impinging of the relative isolation of the Central Australia communities. One of my first jobs at this time was to negotiate on behalf of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) the rights to broadcast the stories of several senior men who lived in and around Yuendumu. They included Jimija Jungarrayi, Paddy Jupurrurla Nelson, Darby Jampijinpa Ross and Larry Jugarrayi Spencer; men who were just beginning to emerge as Yuendumu’s foremost male artists. Among the questions asked was:

“What should become of your tapes when you die?” Each of the men I interviewed was insistent that their histories and their names should be preserved and most went on to say that their grandchildren should know their stories.

In 1989 when I was doing research for an exhibition East to West : Land in Papunya Tula Painting I interviewed each of the seven artists featured in the show. They were Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Maxi Tjampitinpa, Johnny Warangula Tjupurrula, Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, Uta Uta Tjangala and Anatjara Tjakamarra. I asked each artist what should happen to the material collected for the exhibition following their deaths; each wanted it kept. Then I asked how I should handle their names and photographic portraits following their deaths; again the artists were unanimous that their images should not be separated from photos of their work in the catalogue, Clearly these artists were proud of their individual artistic achievements and they wanted their images of themselves perpetuated along with reproductions of their artistic output. By this time the artists were very familiar with the books and magazines that presented their work to the world and they like what they saw!

While the discussion of the inevitable with an artist can clarify an individual’s position of their representation after death, it remains for the living to negotiate the present. In Central Australia the identity of the deceased is repressed for a finite period. The closest to the deceased observe this respect for the longest period, in my experience the use of a reference like Kumantji to mask the identity of the deceased is used conscientiously for about two years. While the artist’s relatives may wish to immediately withdraw the artist’s work from exhibition, other options may be available especially if the gallery geographically is a long way from the artist’s family. Clearly all the books that represent images of a dead artist do not disappear and inevitably relatives of the deceased are occasionally confronted with these images. While living in Adelaide I was often visited by friends from Papunya Tula who wanted to look at my books and photo albums in the certain knowledge that they would see images of deceased relatives. Somehow away from direct community pressure or several years after an individual’s death these books became a valued resource for recollection and re-connection.

While repression of the use of the name of a recently deceased relative was a common feature across Australia, the systematic destruction of Aboriginal culture in the south east and extreme west of the country has meant that this kumantji factor is no longer in use. However in southern South Australia the power of the ancestors on the contemporary lives of Nungas is still apparent. This was first brought home to me while preparing a calendar for the opening of Tandanya, the Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide, in 1989. My colleague Kerry Giles and I had selected a painting by Ngarrindjeri artist Jacob Stengle. He had depicted spirits rising out of a burial ground at Teringie (Big Hill). Many Ngarrindjeri people told us not to use the image as it depicted the ghosts of ancestors, so we sought advice from a senior custodian of the site, Henry Rankine, who instructed us to use it saying:

“This painting is showing people that this hill is sacred to the Ngarrindjeri people, that we are still connected to the land and the land to us.”

The debate could equally have gone the other way.

In 1991 Kerry and I began to work with another Ngarrindjeri artist, Paul Kropinyeri. Paul had re-invented the methodology for creating traditional Ngarrindjeri spear fighting shields from the thick bark of red river gums. At the time he was well aware that his ongoing diabetes and heart condition was a threat to his life, however his ambition was to create a Murray River bark canoe. A canoe of this type had not been made on the River for at least ninety years. Despite his ill health Paul achieved his goal and prepared a canoe for exhibition at Tandanya in March 1992. Paul died in May of that year despite his individual commitment to the canoe project and his expressed with that her be personally acknowledged for it, the actions of several people have worked to blur what for the creator was one of the major achievements of his life. Following his death, images of Paul Kropinyeri working on the canoe were removed from the canoe installation at Tandanya. Later a relative worked against the reproduction of the same images in a magazine published by the National Maritime Museum who had commissioned the work. While these actions were taken as a mark of respect for the artist as a knowledgeable elder of the Murray River, they ran counter to the wishes of the deceased for whom the creation of the canoe was a very strong and public statement of his connection to his culture.

Now that Aboriginal artists are in the forefront of Australia’s cultural realm, issues concerning their death and its recognition at both local and national levels will have to be confronted. It is now not just an issue for relatives nor can the hard questions be shifted entirely to the new generation of Aboriginal curators. Aboriginal artists are represented in collections’ Perspectas, surveys and Biennials. While contradiction abound, issues following the death of Aboriginal artists should be acknowledged and responded to openly, not simply feared as too complex.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Kumantji, kumanytjayi, kunmanu, kunmanara are synonyms in western desert languages that are used as a substitute name when the name of a person is the same, or sounds like, the name of someone recently deceased.