We break from the heat in Roebourne by driving over to Port Samson for a lunch of blue fin grouper and chips, then head back out to the collection of upright sticks in the mud that we now know are collectively titled The Clay Pan Project. Here's the story. The artists Arif Satar and Audrey Fernandes-Satar, a couple from Fremantle, were selected by the Ngarluma elders from the Roebourne Art Group to make a public artwork, and were asked to deploy a fish motif; although it was not a traditional local symbol, fishing was the essential local story linking the far past, the present, and the future, as well as connecting both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the community. Arif and Audrey arranged for some 400 children from Karratha, Roebourne and Wickham to be bussed to the flat over several days in June 2009, and set them to work forming dots on the land with clay in cups turned upside down. The work can really only be seen in its entirety from the air--or in aerial photographs--where the design of a fish inside the fence and surrounded by swirling lines of water becomes apparent.
The piece was meant to be ephemeral, and it's already melting away, some of the sticks falling, the heaped mud subsuming back into the red claypan. It's like a story that's told and then evaporates in the air, but lives on in the memories of the participants. Artists can't defeat entropy. Every physical manifestation of our thoughts falls apart over time. But we maintain creativity as a way of reinventing our responses to the changing world over time, and that's true whether we are Aboriginal painters or contemporary land artists. And just as the women of Roebourne have taken on new roles in the handing down of culture to younger generations--a deepening process--so the inclusion of new Australians (Arif is from East Africa and Audrey of Indian descent) helps widen the transmission across cultures. And the fact that the project was funded, in part, by the mining company Rio Tinto makes the story all the richer. The stories created here in WA, old and new, are part of a social fabric that allows people to live in a harsh environment, but I remain convinced that they are just as important to understanding the human ecology of life in arid regions around the world.