There was a festival in our town this past weekend, celebrating Indigenous cultures. Claudia and I, having turned into rural people, get a bit overwhelmed by crowds. There were a ridiculous number of cars parked in the gardens, and strangers roaming the aisles of our little supermarket, just looking. “The aisles are too small for trolleys, anyway,” said Claudia. “Why do you need to hang onto a trolley and not buy anything?” But we’d probably do the same if we were in a remote part of Mongolia.
But also part of the visiting crowd were my parents. They are retired now and, hence, connoisseurs of having a good time. It was a treat to experience some of the festival events with them. There were stalls selling vibrant Aboriginal art, set up by community art administrators and artists from all around the APY Lands. Cool t-shirts, painted gumnut necklaces and wooden sculptures were also available for sale. But it was the paintings that stole the show: desert artists have a uniquely astral perspective of the landscape, and their canvases, spread on the ground like brilliant carpets, portrayed that perspective. If you’ve seen the desert art and flown over this continent, you’ll know what I mean. Central Australian Aboriginal artists often create their paintings from drawings made in the red dust during storytelling. Symbols for waterholes, campsites and animals paths are laid out on the canvas, making it look like a topographic map.
Each artist at the festival was exploring the meaning of the Dreaming Beings’ relationships and consequent land formations (mountains, rivers and plains) in the country the artists are entitled to paint about. Think of it this way -- in pre-industrial Europe you could be born to the Manor or born among the serfs. Your relationship to the land was waiting for you — either coaxing labour out of peoples’ bodies or (much more often) being one of the bodies put to work to produce food from the earth. Pre-industrial Australians had a different relationship to the land. Aboriginal “Dreaming stories” are deceptively simple, public narratives about how the land was created, how it should be maintained and how human society should reflect this. Beyond these are the deeper meanings. The elements of the earth, the weather, the animals and plants are like books in a library – to be used and cared for and returned, over and over again. Desert art is a glimpse into each artist’s life and journey. The stories the paintings illustrate are layered with intriguing secrets.
After cruising around the stalls, my family and I joined a modest audience in the local amphitheatre for a concert. We were mostly locals; the tourists were watching a heavily-advertised sunset. From where we sat, we could see the sky turning pink and mauve. A white full moon rose behind the stage as dancers, musicians, singers and storytellers entertained us. We had cashews and chips and drinks from the shop. I got up to join the girl drummers troupe when invited, enjoying my maraca greatly. Later I danced with an old friend. I hadn’t danced with her for years. She was stoned as usual. It didn’t matter.
The next afternoon we all went to the football at the town oval. We sat on the grassy mound under the circle of shady eucalypts. Australian Rules Football is athletic and sometimes graceful. There’s the familiar piling of bodies on top of each other that we see in Rugby or Gridiron, but with less brain and neck damage. The local team played against a team from the neighbouring community. It was a fast, rough game, fun to yell at. Many of the strong young men playing ran without boots, some in socks. Children played boisterously in front of us, impressing my parents (who are active great-grandparents) with their robust physicality. The local team just won, by scoring the final goal. The game may have been so close because some of the home team players had been recruited from the neighbouring community anyway.
On the final night of my parents’ visit my mum treated us to a visit to a local art installation. The Field of Lights was set up by town volunteers and even (I’ve heard) by some guests at Her Majesty’s pleasure (that is, from the jail, a long way up the road from here). Implementing the design of artist Bruce Munro could not have been an easy job in the extreme summer heat. Now autumn has come, the result of all that labour is an expansive display of 50,000 solar powered lights, which change colours in a subtle rhythm. They light up the undulating earth like a field of poppies or tulips. Being out in the desert at night is a pleasure, especially at this time of year, when the evenings are cooler and the reptiles have gone to sleep. We wandered along the sandy path, enjoying the spectacle. Dad wondered what would happen if someone was lost in this field at night. One of the workers reassured us that no one had got lost. “There was a pack of dingoes bothering some of the people one night,” he said. “We had to call security to chase them away.” I thought of my friends who work in security and smiled at the thought of them heroically shooing the stoic wild dogs. Another worker reassured me that the tonnes of plastic that made up the installation would all be taken away after the exhibition ends. Later, astutely, Dad explained how the lights worked like fibre-optic lamps. “There’s a power box in the middle and the lamps are spread out at the ends. Do you remember those lamps they had in the seventies? Those white lamps that were like a bush of fishing line, changing colours. Look, see how that bundle there changes colour? And then all the globes connected to it change colour too.” The different colours slowly changed across the whole field. I admired my Dad’s observation. Each part of the installation was like a giant octopus or sea anemone.
Turning to my mother, Dad said, “So you see, it’s not magic.” Mum responded, “I don’t even know what magic is.”
It’s the kind of discussion I’ve heard them had once or twice before, where the scientific gets conflated with the rational and the poetic mistaken for the chimerical.
I have a healthy respect for both science and magic and am happy to be made that way. I smiled to myself as we walked through the dark, surrounded by the benign Field of Light.