On their own terms: The Warlpiri Moment of 1971

Kieran Finnane

The rear door opens and we step in from the bright day. Light falls from narrow high windows into this space aglow with colour, flickering with movement. Ochres, reds, white, black, softened by age.  Many large concentric circles, vigorously drawn, linking parallel lines, long sinuous ones, shifting fields of dots, and a multitude of detail I have no time to apprehend. An outpouring.

Thomas Jangala Rice walks ahead. In this side-aisle both walls—one high, one low opening onto the central space – are entirely covered in murals. Jangala pauses, places his hand on one set of concentric circles, walks a few steps, raises his hand to another, pauses. We turn into the centre.  Light streams from a concealed opening in the roof onto a winged wall of quarried red-brown stone, a gentle enfolding.

Yuendumu Men’s Museum, front entrance
Image courtesy Warlukurlangu
Artists Aboriginal Corporation, Yuendumu,
Northern Territory
Photography Greg Weight

Scores of people could gather here, the expanse of floor unencumbered except for a recessed three panelled ‘ground painting’—more an assemblage really, using a downy plant fibre, coloured by ochres, to form its motifs. Jangala gestures towards it, smiling, moves away.

Harry Jakamarra Nelson arrives. He walks straight to the opposite side aisle. He puts both hands onto the low wall and sings, softly, briefly—on the inside face of the wall is a Snake Dreaming belonging to his “mob”.  He turns now, business-like, and soon I am ushered outside to talk, wondering if I will get a chance to see again this enthralling space. I am not Warlpiri and I am a woman, two things making it an open question.


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