Young pranksters trigger art landmark

2563 Yuendumu Doors etching 9By ERWIN CHLANDA

 

Young rascals wielding spray cans are mostly regarded as nuisances unless they grow into noted urban graffiti artists. Warlpiri kids at Yuendumu in the 1980s did not.

 

Yet they triggered a now world famous episode in the region’s rich cultural life.

 

It became the focus of a rescue mission by the South Australian Museum. It had art dealing vultures circling with wads of $50 notes in their pockets. It is the subject of a book by Philip Jones  and is now celebrated by etchings based on the jukurrpa works by some of the Western Desert’s greatest painters: The Yuendumu Doors.

 

2563 Dr Philip Jones OKThese etchings were the subject of a presentation, in association with Yuendumu-based Warlukurlangu Artists, at The Residency last week by Dr Jones (at left), senior curator at the museum, and a key figure in the rescue of the artworks. The etchings, he says, are a new iteration of the Doors, not reproductions.

 

2563 Yuendumu Doors etching 8Before the region north-west of Alice Springs, centred on Papunya, exploded into the global limelight with its dot paintings in the 1970s, the anthropological interest was moderate yet sustained.

 

In the 1920s the museum and the University of Adelaide conducted what Dr Jones described as salvage ethnography, expecting that “culture and people themselves would disappear”.

 

These missions were conducted by “men in suits, ties and hats”. Several were medical anthropologists, with their recording devices, usually on expeditions lasting a couple of weeks.

 

Dr. Norman Tindale OKOne member of an expedition to Mt Liebig in 1932 was anthropologist Norman Tindale (at left) who recognised a young Warlpiri man called Paru Paru whom he had met the year before.

 

Dr Tindale, in a casual tone, asked him what he’d been up to lately.

 

The answer was astonishing: The young man recounted 330 names of places to which he had been during that year. Dr Tindale, who had noticed that Paru Paru now had tribal scarring, wrote them all down.

 

“This young man had been on his grand tour after initiation,” says Dr Jones.

 

“These names were imprinted on his memory because of the rigour of that experience. Many of those names crop up in the doors.”

 

2563 Yuendumu Doors etching 3What does all that have to do with spray can brandishing young rascals? Lots.

 

Cut to the early 1980s. The Yuendumu men’s museum, which had opened its doors on 31 July 1971,  saw a resurgence of local interest led by Darby Jampijinpa Ross.

 

Meanwhile the headmaster had a problem. Every night graffiti appeared on the school doors. Every morning Paddy Japaljarri Stewart, destined to become one of the town’s outstanding artists, as well as working as the school’s janitor and bus driver, had to paint over them.

 

The solution evolved in a series of community meetings, “senior women, Paddy Stewart, his colleges, his kin, men and women” says Dr Jones, including teacher Edith Coulshed (now Coombe) who had a background in Aboriginal arts: Painting the doors would become a privilege for the adults, not the kids, and those paintings would stay.

 

Dr Jones says headmaster Davies expected “just a decorative thing. He had no idea that the heart and soul of these artists would be poured into that project.”

 

But painting doors became “a bit hard on their backs”. The doors had to be taken off in the morning and laid on the ground, and put back on for the night.

 

“This was no mean feat,” says Dr Jones. “They were heavy, metal-coated doors.”

 

All this was just happening, no-one took particular notice, he told the crowd at the Residency.

 

But by 1985 “the word had spread, it reached Canberra. A book was made. A photographer came up, Gerry Orkin, and took beautiful transparencies of the doors.”

 

Weathering became a problem. Children’s initials resurfaced as graffiti.

 

The SA Museum, which since field work from 1931 had a good relationship with the senior men, received a call that they seriously wanted to sell the doors.

 

2563 Yuendumu Doors etching 5The story may be apocryphal, says Dr Jones, but apparently at least two art dealers “with $50 bills bulging in their pockets” showed up, offering between $2000 to $4000 per door.

 

The threat was that the doors would be spread all over the world, going to the highest bidders.

 

Preventing that was “testament to the senior men” who had conceived the project as a suite, as can be seen by the etchings.

 

“They did not want them broken up” but no-one was making an offer for the full set.

 

Some doors were peeling, a few were extremely damaged by weathering.

 

The graffiti had become part of the story by then: “We wanted to reveal the designs. That was something we wanted to do.”

 

However, the museum did not have an acquisition fund.

 

By 1996 Mission Impossible was achieved: The doors went to Adelaide, the school got new doors and the senior men got two Toyotas.

 

Mission Accomplished? Not quite: The doors have a place of pride in the museum but “the challenge of conserving the doors is still going on”.

 

Says Dr Jones: “I met a young boy. I was in front of one of the malu doors, where you can see the track of the malu kangaroo going through the country, and there was big lot of graffiti in the middle.

 

“I asked this boy, he was only about seven, what is this? What do you see there? He read off all the graffiti names.

 

“And then around the corner at that moment came Paddy Japlalarri Stewart, and I asked him, and he started telling the sites.

 

“And then he got to that mass of initials and graffiti, he couldn’t see what was there, he said I can’t tell, he knew the names but he couldn’t tell the visual reference.

 

“Here are two worlds, they do come together.

 

“That boy would now know that story, and he may be even painting it. This is what the initial project was all about.”

 

NEWS JUST TO HAND: The last of the original five artists working on the doors, Kumantjai Curtis, died on June 5 and will be buried at Nirrippi on Saturday. He was an Aboriginal Community Police Officer at Yuendumu in 1987.

 

 

 

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