We are driving late at night along a highway that crosses the remote Kimberley region of northern Western Australia. We are in an area known as the Fitzroy Valley, about 3,500 kilometres north of Perth, Western Australia’s southern capital city, and a similar distance east from Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory.
Australia’s capital city and home of federal government, Canberra, is about 6,000 kilometres to the southeast of where we drive, and Broome, a town known to attract tourists to its renowned coastline and socio-cultural mix of people and lifestyles, is 400 kilometres to our west. The contrasts in distance, density, cultures and environments are vast. We leave Broome in the afternoon to travel inland to the river country, broadly an area where people from the Bunuba, Gooniyandi, Nykina and other language groups have sustained traditional Customary Law relationships for countless generations.
Our aim is to be in Fitzroy Crossing, a town through which the iconic and extensive Fitzroy River flows, by nightfall.
Amy Ngurnta Nuggett sits in the passenger seat beside me. Her daughter, Marminjiya, sits in the back seat with a young granddaughter. Amy is a senior Juwaliny-Walmajarri woman and I have known and worked with her and her family since the 1980s.
Amy is known locally as an artist and a traditional owner in native title Customary Law. A widow for many years, and now in her late sixties, Amy has five adult children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and an extended family that resides in Kimberley and Western Desert communities and towns.
We continue driving and eventually reach the town of Fitzroy Crossing, then travel a little further to the Bayulu Community where Amy now lives.
We unload the vehicle – bags, water bottles, some food and several swags, or bedrolls, and large striped, plastic bags filled with clothes. These are vital resources for families living in remote settings. When I return to the Bayulu Community two days later, Ngurnta tells me that she needs to visit Mangkaja Arts to see whether any of her paintings have sold.
She is keen to see whether she will have enough money to pay for food (tinned milk, bread, tea, flour, fruit, sugar, tinned fish) and fuel to travel inland to visit her traditional desert homelands. Such a trip will require strong four-wheel drive vehicles, and good drivers to take family across jilji, or sandhill, country and safely back to Fitzroy Crossing.
We visit Mangkaja Arts, where Amy learns that payment for her painting is not ready for her to collect. We then meet up with Marminjiya who is on a lunch break from her work at a local Aboriginal resource agency. We also meet Amy’s eldest daughter, Wayawu, who is employed on a part-time basis as a journalist and broadcaster with the local west Kimberley-based radio station, Wangkiyupurnanupurru, and Amy’s mother’s sister, Wapi. We have lunch together sitting under a tree not far from the Bunuba-owned Ngiyali Roadhouse.
We talk during lunch about a number of things: the circumstances of Amy’s ngawaji, or grandchildren, Mangkaja, a prospective trip to the desert, and the high cost of clothes at the local store. We also start telling stories, including several about Amy as a young girl. A thoughtful quietness comes over Wayawu who suddenly says:
Let’s write a book about Amy, about her life, let’s talk about Amy’s stories … She’s got a big mob of stories, and she does painting …
It is from this moment that a small literary and artistic seed is sown, one that is later referred to thematically as visual storytelling.
Amy makes it clear that she likes the book idea, in part because it might assist the young people, especially her grandchildren, to learn more about her life as a Juwaliny-Walmajarri woman who married a Walmajarri man, both of whom left the desert with their families to eventually live in the Fitzroy Valley’s river country.
Amy also makes plain that she wants the story to be inclusive, rather than narrowly focused on her, as a way of explaining the significance and interconnections of family life, culture and land over time. It is this interconnected emphasis on family, storytelling and painting, rather than particular details about Amy’s personal life that sit at the heart of the project.
We work intermittently on the book and the exhibition by visiting, being, and talking with each other during time together in many desert and Fitzroy Valley settings, and in Perth. We also talk on the phone and occasionally by email: re-telling stories, finding and sorting old and new photographs, conversing along the way with Aboriginal, or piyirn, family members, and kartiya, or non-Aboriginal, friends. Aboriginal family connections are obviously continuously sustained by Amy and her children, but we also re-kindle friendships from the past with non-Aboriginal people.
I look through many of the Kimberley field notes I recorded throughout the 1980s and 1990s up to the present, and am reminded that they contain stories and ethnographic interviews, conversations and observations that I have recorded by, about or with Amy and other family members during the past three decades. Many of these were for anthropological and community-inspired projects, but none can be compared with how I work with the family on Ngurntakura Wangki.
Each of us has other demands in our lives but we remain loyal to the idea of visual storytelling and Amy as inspiration, and we experience both shadows and joys with the work. Joyfulness and heartfelt emotion emerges when a significant gesture results in artefacts made by Amy’s late husband being returned to the family.
Shadows include the sorrowful reality when loved ones pass away, coupled with a significant health scare for Amy. Our collaboration extends across time, place, culture and emotion but we continue to work together and stay focused because the book and exhibition matter.
We submit a few proposals seeking publishing and exhibition support and receive a mix of responses.
One of these includes the view that the storytelling in the book lacks attention to systematic chronology; another is that Amy’s art might be included in a “group show” rather than a solo exhibition. While puzzled by these responses that, in many ways, reveal a naïvety about Aboriginal storytelling and art, we continue to work together on an idea that first sprang from, and was regularly guided by, Ngurnta’s family.
Several years on both book and exhibition find a home. We work closely and collaboratively with Mangkaja Arts and Perth’s Gallery Central, although the contrasts in distance, density, cultures and environments remain vast. We gain encouraging funding support from the Australia Council, UWA and the Department of Culture and the Arts.
I reflect on the way the Ngurntakura Wangki book and exhibition grew from a small literary and artistic seed in a remote setting that was regularly watered and illuminated by the thoughts, words and ideas of a Walmajarri family as we worked collectively together, often through difficult and complex circumstances. We are not certain that either book or exhibition will attract wide interest, or that they should.
But we are comforted in the knowledge that the stories the book contains and the artworks created by Amy have been given life in a way that matters most to family, country and culture.
* Main article image: Pirnirni refers to a significant body of water and land in the Kimberley’s southern desert country. It is the site senior Aboriginal Traditional Owners, including Amy, identified as the place where the Ngurrara Native Title Determination should occur in 2007.
This essay appeared in the Griffith Review 46: Cultural Solutions.