I am always wary of whitefellas identifying themselves by skin …

Comment on Yuendumu writes new chapter on the beginnings of contemporary Western Desert art by Dave Price.

I am always wary of whitefellas identifying themselves by skin name. It can indicate an unjustified claim to insider knowledge beyond the ken of lesser mortals. It can also be used to establish a kind of mysterious anonymity. I was given a skin name, along with everybody else working at Yuendumu at the time whether they knew it or appreciated it or not, 39 years ago. I use it with those Aboriginal people who know me because it fits me into their social universe, not because it gives me any special status. It can be used to show affection and respect but also to admonish me and remind me of what they regard as my obligations to them that I often refuse to recognize because I want to avoid bankruptcy. I don’t use it with others, who don’t know what it means, just to impress them. That often backfires. We had a joke in the old days. ‘There’s a special ward in Alice Springs Hospital where whitefellas can go for a skin change.’ There are those who change the name to suit their changing relationships with serial partners. You can’t take it all too seriously.

You are wrong about so many things Japangardi. I have a feeling you weren’t around in the seventies or you wouldn’t write such nonsense. Kieran has rightfully pointed out your more obvious errors. I was at Yuendumu on the weekend and discussed some of your comments with some of the Warlpiri residents. They were not happy and bluntly denied that the establishment of the Men’s Museum way back then had anything to do with what was happening at Papunya. Everybody I spoke to has close relatives at Papunya. Rivalry between these language groups is contrived and used politically by malcontents with an axe to grind or something to be gained from provoking unnecessary conflict.

Harry Jakamarra Nelson was at the opening of the museum, like all other dignitaries, dressed in suit and tie. His brother Michael has had a central role in the Papunya Art movement. My father-in-law, Dinny Japaljarri France, was also there similarly dressed. He was immensely proud to be involved. He was born within a stone’s throw of Pintupi country, spent a lot of time at Haast’s Bluff in his younger days and never failed to acknowledge his close kin and cultural relations to the people to the west and the south. The relationships between the communities form an unbreakable web. Even if the Yuendumu mob were trying to emulate those at Papunya this would make sense because of the close kin connections between the two communities. The Western Desert Art movement moved very quickly beyond what Bardon did and involves dozens of communities. Rivalries should be left on the football and softball fields where they belong.

I arrived at Yuendumu in 1976. The first painting I acquired was by a Papunya artist, some works from Papunya were being sold at the ’76 sports weekend. The next several art works I acquired in that year and soon after were all by Warlpiri men who were painting boards and artifacts for sale regularly. Men were in it from the start and still are. There is nothing ‘ephemeral’ about the Warlpiri art movement. As for the funding of the museum to compensate for the ‘sins of Assimilation’ I can tell you that many of the expatriate staff at the time were unreconstructed assimilationists, several were, what we called, ex-PNG mafia. A change of policy at the top doesn’t imply a change of heart at all levels. I don’t trust the post modernist critic who looks down on us from above with a God like eye knowing our motivations better than we know them ourselves. Japangardi not only knows the motives of the funders better than they did themselves but also the motives of the artists at Papunya. Forget cultural renaissance, it was all about the Almighty Dollar.

As far as I could see then and from my continuous contact with the Yuendumu community since, Warlpiri and Pintupi/Luritja men and women have produced art for the same reasons that anybody else, in any culture, does, it’s an intensely enjoyable activity, it’s seen as preserving or highlighting at least some elements of culture valued by the artist and a living can sometimes be made from it. Whoever is giving Japangardi insider advice on what goes on at Papunya has a jaundiced and cynical view of humanity. The bane of Aboriginal politics is jealousy. Rather than praise or encourage the productive efforts of others there are always those who will try to bring them down and denigrate their achievements. If you have anything to do with the Aboriginal art industry you’ll notice that this attitude soon infects some of the non-Aboriginal operators as well. Or maybe they were already like that and didn’t need to be infected. Kieran’s article has not tried to do that in relation to the art movement at Papunya. Why is Japangardi trying to do that in relation to the art movement and museum at Yuendumu?

Dave Price Also Commented

Yuendumu writes new chapter on the beginnings of contemporary Western Desert art
I had the privilege of being shown around the Men’s Museum when I lived there in the seventies. And I was shown ceremonies and some sacred sites in the area as well. In those days the required secrecy was maintained but there was always a great openness, a willingness to share in a dignified way. The old Warlpiri I knew were keen to educate us kardiya, to try to somehow make us understand their notion of sacredness and its expression. They have always tried to maintain a balance between the secrecy on which sacredness depends and the public expression of a people’s collective soul. It is a truly wonderful thing that the Men’s Museum has been renovated and will be open to the public. Beneficial adaptation to new circumstances is not only possible but is being done. The people of Yuendumu and the hard working staff of Warlukurlangu Art Centre should be heartily congratulated.

Recent Comments by Dave Price

Jimmy Cocking: Council not an ideological pedestal
I agree completely with you Jimmy on almost everything you’ve said.
But drawing attention to past politically inspired actions and their consequences and asking questions relating to significant issues is not smearing, it is asking for honest responses.
The divisions are already there and the campaigning for allies make those divisions worse.
A supporter [of a party] abused a young woman today bringing her to the point of tears. Now that’s divisive.

Politely passionate: council candidates front invited guests
You are right Evelyne I don’t know for certain who is behind this disgraceful action but my experience of the behaviour of Labor supporters in the last NT election makes me pretty confident that I’m on the right track. I have been told by another candidate that she has had the same happen to her posters but doesn’t want to talk about it. I condemn whoever is doing it to anybody’s posters.

Politely passionate: council candidates front invited guests
Somebody has started stealing or vandalising Damien Ryan’s, Jamie de Brenni’s and Jacinta Price’s posters around town.
Worse was done out bush during Jacinta Price’s mother’s campaign last year. Her property was also vandalised, vicious graffiti appeared, her life was directly threatened.
She was advised not to do anything about it by the stalwarts on her side of politics and so the perpetrators got away with it.
We are urging our supporters not to react by vandalising and stealing the posters of the opposition. We condemn criminal behaviour and we are almost as tired of seeing our loved ones locked up as we are of burying them.
Respect for the rule of law is the only way we can heal our community and allow it to thrive.

Politely passionate: council candidates front invited guests
Two Greens dominated local councils in Melbourne have abolished Australia Day at the request of a tiny minority of radicals who want to tear us apart and destroy our culture.
Jimmy Cocking is not a member of the Greens but his list of preferences will show you how close he is to them.
The Greens have put up Barb Shaw, our resident loud, cranky protestor, as a candidate in the past.
She and her friends have gone out of their way to close down those with views different from their own.
It is totally reasonable for the voters in this town to know the views of each of the candidates on whether we should celebrate Australia Day or not.
As one commentator has already said it would make sense to sort this issue out in the NT rather than in inner urban Melbourne.
We are already hearing protests from Aboriginal leaders in Melbourne and Sydney that they haven’t been consulted and are happy to celebrate Australia Day.
If it comes up in a meeting of an Alice Springs council dominated by the Greens and their close friends I would like to know how the candidates would vote.

Surprising conservative on council: Jacinta Price
All of this kerfuffle over a few words. You are spot on John. The terms left and right, usually interpreted by the lazy media as really nice and very nasty came from the beginning of the French Revolution.
We could probably come up with some better terms all these years later. I would have called myself progressive for most of my life, now I am happy to call myself conservative because I want to preserve the planet but I don’t want to destroy our economy in the process. I want Aboriginal people’s lives to vastly improve but I don’t think they are going to do that without changing some of their worldview to make it work better. I am keen to preserve the bits of my own culture, and theirs, that still work well. And I don’t think that getting rid of Australia Day is going to help.
When I was a ratbag, overconfident youngfella, I called Noel Fullerton a racist in public and had a stand up argument with him because I was a newly arrived ignorant idealist.
If he were still around I’d apologise to him and tell him that I now agree with what he was saying at the time. I was wrong.
My conservatism, like that of my mate Jamie de Brenni and his wonderful hard working wife Alice, is of the “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” kind.
And I believe that if you’re going to make big changes do it carefully so that you don’t cause more problems than you fix – like the 1968 equal pay law.
You can’t argue against the principle of equal pay but did they have to do it in such a way that it took away the jobs of around a third of the Aboriginal workforce across Northern Australia?
I think they should have been more careful.
To me conservatism is about common sense, which, as my Mum used to say, ain’t all that common.
People very quickly forget that it was conservative coalition governments that gave Aboriginal Australians the right to vote in 1962, repealed the Aboriginal Ordinance in 1964, that made my parents in law and their family, including my wife, citizens for the first time.
It also gave them the legal right to destroy themselves with alcohol, the world’s most damaging drug – put the much lauded, constitution changing referendum to the people in 1967, gave Aboriginal people equal pay in 1968 and passed the NT Land Rights Act in 1976.
And during that period they thoroughly dismantled the White Australia policy. Not a bad record for a bunch of predominantly middle aged, white, male conservatives that Labor would rather we forgot.
The ALP was the last political party in Australia to formally give up the White Australia Party.
When I was a young Lefty I underwent union training as the Teacher’s Federation Rep at Yuendumu. One of the old union stalwarts told a group of us assembled faithful that we should have shot all the blackfellas when we had the chance.
At the Worker’s Club in Darwin I was told by another old union stalwart that they sent Bob Collins off to the Senate because the NT wasn’t ready for a Chief Minister with a gin for a wife.
That was in the seventies and that’s when I started to think about changing my political loyalties; it took a while after that though.
I would see Martin Luther King as a Christian conservative.
He insisted on ridding the US of the hideous perversion of racism and wanted to bring back the essentially conservative Christian value of the equality of all of our species despite the fact that many Christians ignored that value at the time.
My proudly multicultural family take him very seriously when he taught that we should judge people by the content of their character rather than by the colour of their skin.
Some of my best friends are white males and my daughter actually lives with one – a left inclined Margaret Thatcher hating Scotsman who puts his family first in everything.
We don’t mind conservatives of any colour and agree passionately with many progressives in relation to some issues.
What we don’t like is being called names and threatened by those who call themselves progressives but who would deny us the right to disagree with them.
I have disagreed with many things that Steve Brown has said and agreed with others.
We have managed to have conversations without resorting to name calling and threats, I can’t say that about many who position themselves on the extreme left who act as if they speak for all Aboriginal people and any don’t hesitate to call anybody who disagree with them racist.
My wife’s and daughter’s lives have been directly threatened many times. Those doing that think of themselves as indigenous activists, and anti-racism warriors. They have never been threatened by genuine racists, who tend to be a mentally ill and cowardly lot rather than a real threat to anyone.
Oh, and another thing. Considering that two Greens dominated local councils in Melbourne have now decided to abolish Australia Day maybe it’s about time that journalists here asked the local Greens if that is what they intend to do here if elected. Just a thought.

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