March, 8 2010
William L Fox

When we reach Roebourne later in the day, we learn a little about the creation of local stories. The Aboriginal arts centres of Australia began to be established in the 1970s as a place for local people to preserve and remake their culture. The Roebourne Art Group is a recent centre, established in 2005, and as with its sister organizations, the people here aren't trying to recreate a traditional culture that began to erode the minute William Dampier sighted the coast in 1699. Instead, they're using a variety of visual arts, including acrylic painting, to preserve some elements of the Dreamtime stories while encoding more recent knowledge as a living culture.

The traditional Aboriginal culture on the Pilbara coast is a mess. Shane had told us that most of the elders near Dampier wouldn't even come out onto the Burrup Peninsula anymore. It makes them fatally sad and they see ghosts everywhere in the land. The rock art cemetery is well-name, and the consequent split between the generations is intense. I wouldn't say the elders or kids are deliberately abandoning their traditional culture, but that the two groups don't have a lot of respect for each other in many cases, and everything is just falling between the cracks. Barry and I had been talking about the similarities with what we'd seen in the contemporary Inuit culture in the Arctic, where we have also worked, and he said that some people up north describe the situation as their children standing on the doorstep. “Father says go outside and learn to hunt, mother says come in, close the door, and do your homework.” As a result, the kids are caught in between--they can't make a living the old way, but don't fit in our society, either. The result is a lot of alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and suicide, just as it has been here in Roebourne.

A huge difference in Australia for the future of indigenous culture is that the local women make art, and a fine example is Loreen Samson, a 37-year-old Ngarluma speaker from Roebourne. The law system of the Traditional Owners is inseparable from the land and its stories of creation, and the Dreaming here is called Ngurra Nyujunggaamu, which might be translated as “when the world was soft.” Its story says that when the spirits created the world, they lifted the sky and ground out of the sea. Loreen works in a style using the incessant markmaking seen in much acrylic work by Aboriginal artists, dots and strokes in hypnotic patterns layered in sombre earth colours on a black background. Her marks evoke the shape and story of the land, its waterholes and Dreamtime tracks, but in several recent paintings her signature central band is a black void occupied only by a train filled with ore, in essence broken pieces of country. How ironic, that a land conceived of as having been brought forth from the sea is being transported back to the sea for shipping to China and other countries.

Samson's paintings, which are based on traditions shared with the Burrup rock art, are evidence of how we continually make new stories in order to create anew our relationship with the natural and built world. She writes: “Every day the iron ore train passes through Ngarluma country... We see our country on the back of the train... with the richness of our land and the knowledge of our ancestors.” She also says “I want to give them (young people) knowledge to understand and respect their land and their culture.” Her work thus links generations in a way that the older stories and rituals can no longer accomplish.

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