The art and the dragonfly

As the day fades across the waters of the Liverpool River, the reddening sky with its polished marbled patterns reflect golden in the gently undulating waves. On Mangrove shore where giant crocodiles sleep something remarkable is happening.

"There are so many dragonflies in the air around us that you feel a dragonfly collision is an imminent possibility"

Like the day, the wet season is also drawing to a close. After the hard rains of the last few weeks, softer days of sunlight and a blueing sky return to this land. Of the six seasons, this is Yekke (Yegge), and a time of early morning mists that sit softly on the Spear Grass green land, the mists vanishing in a swift evaporation in the morning sun.

The Arnhem Land bush is at its very best, all glossy and green in the dancing light, the bright blue sky above and the brown green waters below.

We stand on the rocky and sandy shore and the air is full of a million dragonflies (djalangkarridjdjalangkarridj) and the cycle of life in Arnhem Land begins once more.

There are so many dragonflies in the air around us that you feel a dragonfly collision is an imminent possibility. Although the aerobatics are swift, they know their stuff and weave in and out of each other in a kind of delicate and high-speed ballet. There are many species of dragonfly here, a great jumble of life.

Our Aboriginal friends fish for tonight’s meal in the darkening light. The cooling weather makes the fish scarce so there is not much luck tonight. Three hundred metres away a Saltwater Crocodile drifts slowly by. At a guess about four metres in length, the shape of its great and powerful spear shaped head distinct on the patterned surface of the river’s mouth. This really is a great and nature filled place and it is called Arnhem Land.

The next day the sun rises over wetland where the flooding rivers run clear again, both inviting in their cool sparkle and instantly deadly, knowledge is required here. In the wetlands the water is still and decorated with water lilies, many in bloom.

Here the water reflects the world above. In this end of wet season mirrored world of reflections there are two worlds, one above us, and another below our wet feet.

As we stand in this place we think about decades past and what connects us here. The answer is in a painting, a bark painting by Mick Kubarkku, a great artist of the rugged escarpment country of Western Arnhem Land. Mick was born in 1925 at Kukabarnka in the wetland region of the Liverpool River. In 1974 we had found ourselves in a distant land, of which we knew little beyond the clichéd nonsense being peddled by its governments of the 1950s and 1960s. Lots of happy white people, husbands busy making fridges and washing machines, their amazingly happy wives busy in their new kitchens and in their obedience to domesticity. All rubbish of course and a long way from reality and a very long way from us.

A long way from where we stand now, so it was, that early in 1975 and in a mission shop in Melbourne’s Collins Street we saw the bark paintings of Arnhem Land. A shaft of piercing light, here was a reality and something that really mattered. Here was Australia revealed before us. So in that one work of a Saltwater Crocodile and Barramundi on bark, which we purchased immediately, was opened up a new world and a new knowledge about place and meaning, about life and spirituality, about law and knowledge. So this is why Andrea and I owe Maningrida a deep sense of gratitude for opening up new worlds, once so distant from our own.

And just as many Indigenous people travel the world with their art exhibitions we decided to follow our own art trail to Indigenous Australia all those years ago. We think back over the years now past and the many travels with Indigenous people on this continent, all of it just amazing.

Aboriginal people have a skill of making machines work and taking them into impossible places, and do so like no one else can, and so the bush mechanic was born. Vehicles are in the front line here. Observing automotive related activities in Maningrida reminds me that, sometimes, even these bush mechanic skills are not enough.

Many years ago and far from here in the central deserts of Australia, we were just about to head for bed, it was getting late. The heat of the day, long gone, but the sands still warming the night air. The staggering star sky above made you reluctant to close your eyes.

Two elderly women walked in and told us that they had broken down in the bush about 30 kilometers away. Could we go and fetch one of the old men from the car as he was not well enough to walk back? They explained where he was, not easy to get to, desert bush tracks if we were lucky. Tea made, and Andrea stayed with the women, Les, our brother-in-law and I headed into the night and away from Harts Range. We were about 200 kilometers from Alice Springs and in dot painting country.

First problem, Les had some idea where the old man might be but a dry riverbed crossing lay in that direction. Sure enough there was the river, no water of course but we soon found it was full of very soft sand. So the Land Cruiser sank up to its axles in the sand and there was no going forward or back. “Shovel Les?” I said hopefully. “Nope” said Les. “I take it we have got some water in this thing?” “Nope” said Les. "Torch perhaps", "Nope" said Les.

In most circumstances I am very fond of reptiles, love them in fact, but the thought of floundering around in the dark gathering wood from the riverbed surrounded by significant populations of some of the most deadly snake species on earth was not particularly endearing to contemplate. All this filled me with a kind of urgency as in the morning the anvil of the sun would crack us up like it does the mud in the drying riverbeds.

Nothing for it but to dig the 4-wheel drive out with our hands. These dry rivers can and do flood if the wet season further north is a big one. That means meters of water flowing down these rivers, and that means lots of flotsam, sometimes high up in the branches of the trees that line these beautiful river systems.

So we dig out the soft sand and pave our way across the river using branches swept down river on the last flood. At last we are out of there and on our way again. It is now very late. We locate the car in the early morning light, collect the elderly occupant and head back to Harts Range. This time more circumspect when it comes to the river crossing.

In the light of the early morning we return home. “And where have you been!” enquire the women? "Well that is a long story" we say.

Peter Hylands and Dr Alan Kerr, Maningrida

Now back to Arnhem land again. Once small groups and communities of Aboriginal people now rounded up and to live in larger communities like Maningrida (Manayingkarírra) with its real population of around 3,500. There are now several language groups in the Maningrida population, Nakara, Ndjébbana, Gurrgone, Kunbarlang, Burarra, Kuninjku (Eastern Kunwinjku), Kune (Mayali), Rembarrnga and Djinang. Maningrida connects to its 30 outstations, important places for ceremony, keeping culture and art making. The roads are cut during the wet season so you travel by air or by boat. 

So things have changed radically in Arnhem Land over the last hundred years, a kind of ebb and flow of outside interference from governments of left and right. Ideologies and theories about life and how we live in this world, thrust upon an Indigenous world. Our way is better than yours, so this is the new plan. An intervention here, a basics card there, and on and on it goes, special laws and prisons, especially for Indigenous people. Wrong of course and nothing changes in the minds far down south.

What we should all hope for is that Aboriginal people continue to defend their lands in the resilient, vigilant, vigorous, courageous and powerful ways in which they have always done.

In this way, as the day’s end approaches, we will come to see millions of dragonflies as they dance under a reddening sky. And in this way and in this world we can all remain strong.