Four old Warlpiri women artists, and their daughter, granddaughter and great- granddaughter, came down to Sydney from Lajamanu on the edge of the Tanami desert, for a workshop to paint their jukurrpa.
We set them up in a studio on the top floor of the College of Fine Arts, with a deep balcony and a view to the harbour. They had yards of Belgian linen, litre bottles of acrylic paint, brushes and bamboo skewers with which to make dots. They were paid by the hour and the resulting paintings they retain as a collection.
This research project invited them to share some women’s business though painting some of their traditional designs for our instruction. This idealism was perhaps honoured more in the breach. My enduring lesson from this intercultural event was how we turned out to be whitefellas, with all the complicated responsibility and shame that should bring home.
How little I got to know them. I know they like chicken and chips, but not the trendy Portuguese type – ‘Too spicy, Napaljarri!’ – and lemon soft drink, and they did repeatedly ask to go shopping. Not an unnatural request when you’re in the Big Smoke and you’ve just been paid.
I took them shopping to Bondi Junction, but the mall was overwhelming, with its five floors of fashion stores and a tower of moving escalators in the atrium. Myra wouldn’t chance them, she remained marooned on the top floor and we had to rescue her via the lifts, which were out the back. Then we spent fifteen minutes, out on the street, waiting for a taxi that would pick up blackfellas.
The studio space of concrete and glass took on a little of the look of a desert camp, with paintings unfinished being walked across on the floor, and tea brewed in a billy, and the quiet intentness of concentration going on in the middle of a parade of people walking in and out – to use the urn or the sink, to have a smoke on the balcony – and the tide of other obligations – to pick up the school-age children or pacify the toddler or move the cars so they wouldn’t get booked.
We had plenty of kids, but no dogs, which I gathered was a short-coming. Lily told me about her dogs over lunch of chicken and chips, and she showed me on her tiny spindly calf how they would bite. She and Rosie told me about lots of other things that lunch time, but most of them in Warlpiri, and I repeated, as my contribution, ‘I’m sorry I don’t speak Warlpiri. I’m afraid I don’t really understand’. Lynette said later: ‘Them old ladies, they really funny. They been hit over the head too many times’. She said it with a classical Aboriginal dryness that makes me laugh.
We were given skin names to smooth the interaction with the Aboriginal group, names given by the old ladies. They called me Napaljarri, making me a grandaughter to Lynnette, an aunty-niece with Myra and Lily, and mother-daughter with Molly and Rosie.
My son was given the Warlpiri name Jupurrurla. His English name was, coincidentally, kumanjai – that is, shared by a relative who had recently died and was thereby subject to the Aboriginal mourning practice that the names of the dead not be pronounced. Protocol required he not be called by his ‘real’ name in the hearing of the Aboriginal people, because it may give offence.
This edict hurt me in an explicit but surprising way. I found myself cut off from a vocalising that expresses my special connection to this child, and which carries the practice of love. The effect was the feeling that my son and I were being separated, and I resented it viscerally. My hurt showed up in my inability to adequately pronounce ‘Jupurrurla’. While I learned to say many other Warlpiri words, I could never say Jupurrurla without stumbling over it. This became an embarrassment, as I stumbled and Lynnette begged me to use his English name: ‘Don’t worry!’, she cried.
This small experience hurt more than I would have credited. So I feel dreadful when I hear stories of the stolen children, who had their names changed so they would forget their mothers. They didn’t. Instead, they cried themselves to sleep in dormitories at missions like the one at Moore River.
My son picked up on my affect, and complained that he didn’t like ‘that silly name’, and didn’t want to be called that. I tried hard to persuade him it was a cool thing, and a special honour, to have been given a real Aboriginal name, but he wasn’t convinced.
It may have been the right thing nevertheless to insist on customary lore in this exchange, even though it hurt my feelings. Giving offence, or taking it, is a necessary risk when cultures meet.
About many of my responses at the time of the painting workshop, I now feel unsure. We are used to taking our feelings as indicators of some kind of truth. This is an axiom, especially of feminist thinking, that I had previously inhabited comfortably.
But the workshop made me profoundly uneasy. Perhaps I had not expected to recognize all the feelings displayed by the artists, but I had expected to go on using the compass of my own.
In the event, I felt comfortable with the way Lynette and the others occasionally remarked on how they felt. Their affection, generously proffered, was easy to reciprocate.
But I couldn’t account for my anxiety at what seemed to be extraneous and peripheral stresses. The heat bothered me, the tasks of amusing children while hanging out in the studio as a ‘Chief Investigator’. I was uncomfortable ‘in my skin’, as they say.
Which is, on reflection, the most expressive I could have been. I felt uneasy in my white skin, for the many small ways in which the workshop, and our larger project, as an emblematic whitefella activity (knowledge acquisition) collided with ‘the Indigenous Other’. Politely, thoughtlessly, self-servingly, well-meaningly.
And I was squirming in shame for all the ordinary white middle class habits that have made my body a white body in a postcolonial country.
Read more! This essay originally appeared in ‘Mud map: Australian experimental women’s writing’
TEXT Special Issue 17, Moya Costello, Barbara Brooks, Anna Gibbs, Rosslyn Prosser (eds.) 3