Are We There Yet?

By Judy Hamilton

Are we there yet?
No, not yet.

Approximately twenty-two thousand kilometers of roads connect places in the Northern Territory to other places. One connects the Western Desert to the rest of Australia. The Western Desert region is not often thought about by Australians. It’s a remote place by any standards. The people who live there don’t even speak English. The 2006 census says that 2648 people speak a Western Desert language instead.

To this place in 1971, came an idealistic young man named Geoffrey Bardon. He’d left Sydney in his blue Kombi van and literally driven ‘into the sunset.’ He left the city and suburbs, rolled on through the open savannah country of the graziers and negotiated the rough gravel roads of the outback until finally a dusty track led him to a ramshackle collection of huts – home to a collection of aboriginals. Welcome to Papunya.

Are we there yet?
No, not yet.

No, but he’d come a long way. This is out where the desert oaks look like skinny Christmas trees until the time their roots reach the underground water table and they are able to spread their elegant canopies over the red dust. He’d been appointed as the art teacher for the school at this unprepossessing site. Obed Raggett worked as a translator for him. ‘What now, Obed?’ The children wanted to draw cowboys and Indians. Bardon wondered about their culture. Was it dead? Let’s not go there.

So he sat on the ground with them and together they drew in the sand – footprints of people, snakes, dogs, emus and kangaroos. Then they drew in the classroom. They printed their drawings onto cloth. ‘What’s it about?’ ‘We don’t know but we’re allowed to draw these things even though we are only children.’

Are we there yet?
No not yet.

More drawing in the sand. ‘What are these circles?’ ‘What are the ‘U’ shapes?’ ‘What do those wavy lines mean?’ Questions, but no answers.

The Elders watched as they watered the gardens; meaningless tasks assigned them by an uncaring government. Their children no longer learned the old ways from them. A usurper of knowledge was stealing their children’s minds. Bardon protested. ‘I want your culture to live,’ he told them. ‘Then we must be responsible for teaching our children our ways,’ the elders told him. Together the teacher and the aboriginals drew in the sand with their fingers. The desert wind blew.

Are we there yet?
No, not yet.

‘We’ll paint a mural,’ said Bardon. ‘What’s a mural?’ replied the children. ‘What’s a mural?’ asked the old men. ‘It’s a painting of a story done on a wall,’ explained the teacher. ‘It will last a long time.’ ‘It won’t blow away in the wind?’ queried the old men. ‘No.’ So the old men said, ‘Let us paint so our children will know our stories. Let us paint the Papunya Tula – the honey-ant dreaming.’

Are we there yet?
No, not yet.

The children painted in the classroom because the teacher asked them to but the men painted out of a need to reaffirm their connection to country. They enjoyed the experience of painting their stories and every afternoon they would gather in front of the Papunya Tula and sing the old songs of their culture. They felt their culture was no longer dying. They were making it live again. Everyday the men would come to the art room looking for painting boards on which to paint their stories. Each had his personal dreaming that was his alone to paint. The paintings piled up in the art room. Bardon took their paintings into Alice Springs. He sold them all. Shops bought them thinking they might be able to sell them to tourists – maybe. Back at Papunya, the art teacher doled out the cash to the artists – five, ten, twenty dollars. So much money.

Are we there yet?
No, not yet.

Pride returned to the community. ‘See! White man, we have a culture. We were here when you white fellas arrived in this land.’ Bardon respected his fellow artists – his friends. One day, a new man came to join the painting, yarning circle. My brother, ‘Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri,’ said Bardon’s friend, Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri. We are the custodians of the Warlugulong, the Bushfire Dreaming. The paintings continued to sell. Five, ten, twenty dollars.

Are we there yet?
No, not yet.

White fella vultures descended on the edges of the settlement. ‘Hey. Got any of those painting thing-a-ma-jigs,’ they whispered. Some of the men heard them and sold their paintings because this was quick money. No waiting for payday. The authorities also began to take notice of Papunya. The self determination shown by the Papunya artists did not please them. A co-operative is obviously needed, they decided. Paternalistic white bureaucrats were appointed to look after the artist’s affairs. Bardon and the artists rebelled. Their association based on mutual respect was denigrated. Bardon had to leave Papunya and the painting room was closed.

Are we there yet?
No, not yet.

But what Bardon had begun continued unabated in his absence. The men kept painting their stories – sometimes secret stories – sometimes sacred stories and none of them was better at disguising the secret-sacred than Clifford Possum.

Are we there yet?
No, not yet.

The Story moves to the year 2007. It’s a cold July day, far from the red desert sands where the aboriginal men sit and paint. Clifford Possum died years ago from alcoholism. The Story is now comfortably settled in the stylish surrounds of Southeby’s Auction House in downtown Melbourne. ‘Warlugulong 1977, a fine example of the Western Desert dot painting tradition,’ announces the auctioneer. ‘What am I bid? One million dollars?’

Are we there yet?
No, not yet.

‘Two million, four hundred thousand dollars – all done then – all silent? Sold! A new Australian record, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your attendance.’

Are we there yet?
I don’t know. Where did we want to go?

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