Drawing the Warlpiri history
How can looking at Warlpiri peoples’ history of displacement throughout the 20th century allow us to think more meaningfully about the issues that currently face Indigenous communities around the country?
Associate Professor Melinda Hinkson is a social anthropologist with wide-ranging interests in the faultlines of settler colonial Australia, in the relationships between people and images, and in the ways images shape our approach to each other and to the world around us.
She has worked extensively with Warlpiri people in Central Australia, a large Aboriginal community whose country is northwest of Alice Springs in the Tanami Desert.
Warlpiri people had their land rights conferred on them in the 1970s and are the outright owners of a very substantial part of their country under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory), but their history is tainted with memories of dispossession and displacement right up to the most recent times.
“As a PhD student I was fortunate enough to undertake a research project with Warlpiri people exploring their use of new media communications at the time, living with one particular community for just short of two years.”
“I acknowledge that there’s something clichéd about the white, metropolitan PhD student going off to the Centre, as opposed to Melbourne or Adelaide or Sydney in particular, where the largest population of Aboriginal people live. But I was very much drawn to the desert. I loved the country, I was completely gobsmacked by how different the world felt from that vantage point, and the incredible ways in which a Warlpiri attitude to the world diverged from the attitude to the world that I’d grown up with.”
“… there’s something clichéd about the white, metropolitan PhD student going off to the Centre, as opposed to Melbourne or Adelaide or Sydney in particular, where the largest population of Aboriginal people live. But I was very much drawn to the desert.”
“It’s a fantastic opportunity and a very humbling opportunity to be among a community of people who see the world differently to the way one has grown up to see the world.”
A Warlpiri cultural enquiry
Her current research project, ‘Place and displacement in Aboriginal Australia: A Warlpiri visual cultural enquiry,’ is funded by an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship. The first stage of research explored eight decades of transformations in Warlpiri life through the prism of drawing. The second phase of the research, also conducted with Warlpiri people, examines displacement in the present.
“Warlpiri people are known in wider Australia as being remarkable football players, as well as for their production of pretty vibrant and fabulous acrylic painting.”
A collection of artworks that A/Prof Hinkson has worked closely with is the Warlpiri Drawings, dating from the 1950s, just months after the artists had been forcibly relocated by the government to a settlement in Hooker Creek (Lajamanu) hundreds of kilometres away from their own country.
“The Warlpiri Drawings themselves were prompted by anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt who turned up at Hooker Creek in 1953 just months after Warlpiri people had been trucked into this settlement. He was particularly interested in ceremonial activity and in men’s sacred knowledge, and in the process of doing his research, he invited the men who he was working most closely with to draw on paper. Effectively to elaborate in the drawn form, aspects of the ceremonial knowledge that he was coming to terms with in his discussions with people and in his observations of what was happening on the ceremonial ground.”
“The remarkable thing about these drawings is that a number of these men, and some women, took to the opportunity of drawing with great gusto and great creativity. The drawings become, if you like, a very precious time capsule for us to look back on what was going on in that place at that time, and to just get some glimpses of what people were seeing with their own eyes, what they were thinking about and what they cared about.”
“The drawings were nominated and accepted onto the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, which is a wonderful recognition of their significance, but in a much broader sense they also bring out a previously unknown chapter in the very rich history of Aboriginal Central Desert art.”
Informing the present
“The history of settler-colonial Australia has forced relocation absolutely at its heart.”
A/Prof Hinkson believes that looking at Warlpiri peoples’ history of displacement throughout the 20th century allows us to think more meaningfully about the issues that currently face Indigenous communities around the country.
“In the last decade in particular, there’s been a series of new government policies that have even further shrunk the possibilities for remote-living Aboriginal people to be actively involved in the running of their communities. The Northern Territory Intervention, the replacement of community governance with regional shires, and the introduction of programs such as income quarantining, which restrains where and how they can spend their money, are just a few examples of a whole series of related surveillance technologies and modes of governance brought to bear upon remote living peoples.”
“In the last decade in particular, there’s been a series of new government policies that have even further shrunk the possibilities for remote-living Aboriginal people to be actively involved in the running of their communities.”
“Over time, throughout my career and working closely with Indigenous people in diverse parts of the country, the variety of ways in which history has born down upon different Aboriginal communities has become a pressing interest.”
“At a time when many Aboriginal communities are struggling with the cumulative effects of policy programs that entrench rather than alleviate their impoverishment and marginalisation, we need to learn from our shared histories and ensure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. This includes recognising not only what failed, but also what was succeeding and deliberately brought undone.”