Flood plains, plants and other matters

Today we discover how nature binds artists together and so we reflect on the work of Mulkun Wirrpanda and John Wolseley and what is now becoming a lengthy collaboration of friendship and kinship and art making.

"All these amazing plants, they are there still in Arnhem Land but in the rest of the world we are just getting rid of them all"

And so, on an unusually wet day in Victoria for early February, we drive from Melbourne to spend time with John in the Whipstick Forest and to look at the progress of a momentous and immersive work for an exhibition by Mulkun Wirrpanda and John Wolseley at the National Museum of Australia.

We all come together here because of our love for the flood plains of Arnhem Land and the spine tingling cultures that live there. These are the Aboriginal cultures that carry with them their deep knowledge of Australia and its plants and animals and their connections to time and sacred places. On this occassion it is the Yolngu of East Arnhem Land.

Mulkun prepares a bark

As they work, the artists are often distant from each other, John in the south and Mulkun in the north of the Australian Continent. If you fancy a drive it means 4,000 kilometers on the road, and much of the drive through remote and remoter places still.

Mulkun Wirrpanda carries with her the knowledge and the wisdom of her people. She is the daughter of the great Yolngu leader Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda and an elder of the Dhudi-Djapu clan from Dhuruputjpi. Mulkun is acknowledged as a leader and her knowledge of the plants of East Arnhem Land has been handed down to her through the generations of Aboriginal people living in this land.

For John, the story begins in a very distant land and at the edge of Exmoor in Somerset. For England this is probably as country as country can get in a small and crowded land. Today we think of John in a very different landscape and in the nature of Australia.

As we fly across Australia as we have done so often over the last 45 or so years since we first visited the Australian Continent, I like the idea of looking down on the Australian landscape and imagining John Wolseley down there somewhere. His trusty 4 wheel drive loaded high with the essentials of the artist, the Arches paper, the water colour paints and the occasional good bottle of red supplied by son Will. 

Left to right: Andrea, Jenny and John

Looking down on this land, snug in the cabin of the aircraft, there is a sense of disconnection to place. We pass by unknowing of what is really down there, all a kind of metaphor for modern life. So who cares? Why do we have to worry? Piece by piece and mile by mile, the vast array of plants and animals that we speed over are the building blocks of our world. They provide the mechanisms that sustain us.

For John, down in and within that landscape, there is a very different experience. 

The noise and colour of the Australian bush, a pandemonium of Parrots overhead cry out to the landscape below, the mournful call of the Australian Raven mingles with the powerful smell of Eucalypts in the summer heat. A lizard darts across the sand and into a delicate mat of small plants. The land shimmers.

Back in the far north of Australia and as we sit watching Mulkun paint on bark in the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala the conversation and the work in progress bring us all the way back to John in his studio in the Whipstick Forest so far away. Today in John’s studio, Mulkun’s bark paintings and Larrakitj are gathered here as reference and affirmation. Mulkun’s art stories tell us of her clan homeland of Dhuruputjpi and we think again of our friendships there as our thoughts are carried back to Yolgnu places.

So here we come full circle and to connection to this land as two artists from two very different places become one through nature and the art. In this collaboration there is something for us all to share.


And we listen in to ccRADIO as we set up to film John discussing his new work and the plants within it.