Groote Eylandt Art and Communities …pt1

The art of Groote is very distinctive and very beautiful reflecting the history of the people, their lifestyle, beliefs and interactions with other peoples and cultures over the years. At the Art and Cultural centre, a lovely airy building of large glass louvres with wood and steel panels and supports cut out with shapes of stingray and dugong, fish, crocodiles and birds, paintings on bark and canvas hang alongside woven pandanus baskets, dilly bags made from peanut vines, carved and painted canoes and birds and shell work threaded on twine or small shells glued in patterns on larger shells. Bark is still collected in the traditional way stripped from particular trees, ‘burned’ to soften and straighten it then more burning and rolling to flatten it…all requiring I would think asbestos feet and serious arm muscles judging by the hot coals and tree trunk rolling pins involved. Young, fresh Pandanus leaves are collected from the centre of the plant, stripped, dried and dyed in pots of  colours collected from red stemmed lilies and the Morinda tree roots from waterholes and the beach.

The themes are totemic beings and their journeys, fishing and hunting stories the once  simpler more traditional styles being replaced  by more figurative works of fish, turtles, dugongs, birds and flowering and fruiting plants incorporating incredibly intricate crosshatching and repeating patterns. The introduction of Christianity and ‘the Gospel’ with the arrival of the Anglican Church Missionary at Emerald River in 1921 brought a new subject matter for some artists and nativity scenes are now included in some of the art in a curious combination of religious iconography in the natural setting of the island and a far cry from kings, stables and ‘no room at the inn’.

Elayne takes me out to Angurugu and we visit the church there, a spacious, open sided high raftered building surrounded by trees and grass containing a collection of slatted benches on a pressed earth floor. The town is a collection of older houses on stilts and newer corrugated iron and cement single story dwellings in a variety of colours with the trappings of modernity, aluminium dinghies, bikes and endless cars filling yards and streets. We speak to a couple of older woman, loose floral dresses fanning around them as they sit and talk with an easy grace well suited to a humid heat battering at the door…this, in the linguistics centre where stories are translated from Anindilyakwa to English and the reverse for documents and business to do with the mine and I guess general administration. In the shopping centre signs are in English and Anindilyakwa, encouraging smokers to quit and use shopping trolleys safely!!  Earlier in the week we travel out to Umbukumba in the east of the island on the edge of a blue water bay rimmed with beaches and mangroves. Shady tamarind trees with bright green leaves and lumpy podded fruit serve as meeting places and I have the opportunity to sit on a veranda with a land council executive member. After she and Elayne have done their talking… and exchanged a Bollywood dvd…. she tells me about her granddaughter and family, the medicines she must take since having a heart attack and in the same breath about some bush medicine she used to heal a badly cut foot bound initially in a pocket from her floral dress. Her garden is cool and green and ENORMOUS clam shells line a small pathway and bed of yellow and red flowers.  Members of her family come and go and Land Cruisers drive by with stereos booming while dogs of assorted sizes, though looking to have a similar ancestry, laze in the shade or trot purposefully through the dust.                                                                                                                                                                                        

 Angurugu and Umbukumba are two of the three indigenous communities in the archipelago, the other on Bickerton Island  though small communities chose to live in smaller out stations on the island. We pass one on the return to Alyangula..the mining town on Groote…and at night the settlement is lit up like a Christmas tree, well the surrounding bush is, with powerful lamps illuminating the bush preventing’ black magic’ from entering while on the outskirts of Angurugu a small cemetery sprouts red earth mounds dotted with colourful bunches of flowers, crosses and tributes. The mixture of Christianity and cultural beliefs comes to the fore when a death occurs in the communities  and the motherland and/or fatherland of the deceased is closed to all but family  until after the funeral and ceremonies and singing the stories and songlines of the deceased…though I’m not sure that’s the exact terminology. It’s complicated and while being a nosy ***** at the best of times asking a lot of questions just doesn’t seem appropriate.

Back to the art and earlier this week we drove out to see one of the cave painting sites, Wurruwarrkbadenumanja, along a very soggy road and fording a river no less where the current tumbled and foamed over pebbles and small boulders into a deep swirling pool no doubt heaving with crocs!!!..real Indiana J country…. and low range was the order of that moment bouncing out of the river across yet more boulders. Judging by the arthritic wheezing of the truck on the journey home it wasn’t just us being jostled around like ping pong balls. The cave is a steep climb over gleaming white outcrop sitting proud above the land, sharp edged and crunching underfoot. The ceiling of the cave, a round, smooth bellied boulder is covered in imagery of dugongs ,turtles, crocodiles and fish some in clusters and others layered upon each other in red and yellow ochres, white clay and black, probably manganese powder that is mined on the island. There is an outline of a prau, a sailing vessel and not a small one at that weighing in at about 25 tonnes,  in which Macassan fisherman came to Groote centuries ago bringing with them canoes to harvest trepan from the seas and  bringing that knowledge of the canoe to the Aborigines, an influence reflected in some words in language connected to praus, canoes and items associated with them. The cave retreats cool, damp and deep into the rock and again not knowing the etiquette of exploring such places we stay at the cave mouth, the imagery disappearing into the gloom.  Travelling further into the forest along now very slim, muddy tracks potholed with deep caramel coloured water spraying upwards and around smearing the windscreen and getting deeper with every metre, the taillights on Nick’s leading vehicle brake red as it’s now water all around. A seventeen point turn between paperbarks and pandanus with ever increasing arthritic wheezing and we return back to Alyangula, to sweating beer bottles , sunset and homeward bound clouds of bats taking up noisy evening residence in the mango tree.

Ship’s Log January 2nd 2011

‘After much carousing, eating  and drinking strong liquor on the eve of the new year and much sleeping and not drinking strong liquor on the first day of the new year, the vessel is victualled, watered and fuelled and lowered into the waters of the Bay of Carpentaria on this  the second day of the new year. Joining us on this expedition of discovery to find the coastal waterfalls of Bickerton Island fellow carousers have too lowered their boat into the waters and equipped with small map, gps co-ordinates and mobile phone conversations with a prior adventurer now on island Tasmania we head west.’

And what a day of discovery it was. Travelling west towards Bickerton we passed south of Connexion Island, site of the Queenie adventure into very open water though land was still in view….. we were now closer to Australia’s mainland, the Arnhem Land coastline, some 8km away than we were to Groote, 13km to the east.  Abel Janszoon Tasman, after whom Tasmania is named journeyed around the coastline of the Gulf of Carpentaria in1644 and though no account of the journey remains a map does indicating that he passed between Bickerton and Groote Eylandt during that voyage naming the ‘Big Island’.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Bickerton Island, Amakalyuwakba to the traditional owners, was named by Captain Matthew Flinders during his 183 circumnavigation of Australia ‘in compliment to Admiral Sir Richard Bickerton’ also mapping and naming Connexion but not because it lay between both islands but ‘because my survey around Groote was connected by its means and made in a great measure independent of the timekeeper’…whatever that means!!

Ocean is like desert with  ‘miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles’, horizons and big skies to match. Skies and the rainy season are a quickly changing feast and ahead blossoming white clouds are turning increasingly greyer and darker. We find a small crescent beach in North Bay, run the boats to the shore and I chose to hop out over the bow rather than risk a stinger doing the wading thing. Stingers are very nasty, jellyfish with long tentacles that wrap around whatever they touch and Nick from the other boat has felt the effect of such stings around his legs. Carrying vinegar on board helps apparently as does wee if there is no vinegar around but the way to go is to rip the head of the jelly fish and squeeze it onto the tentacles and stings….alrighty then…. oh and there was a 2 metre shark showing off a fin and cruising around the rocks so another good reason not to wade. Climbing the sandstone outcrops which in North Bay drop sheer to the ocean and beaches in search of the waterfalls, rain and ocean have carved caves and overhangs in the rock faces and big lumps of pink quartz and rounded black and orange pebbles stand out on the crusty surface like crystallised fruit in a badly mixed pudding.                                                                                                                                                                                                                     No sign of the waterfalls and with weather closing and the mainland now invisible in mist, fire is lit, meat is cooked and the rain arrives preceded by a fish eagle catching the thermals in upward spirals, then silence, then wind and finally the heavens open. Having scuttled under an overhang to join equally scuttling hermit crabs the six of us eat lunch as water dribbles slowly first and then in streams over and through the shelter. There is evidence of charcoal and bones, a dugong rib perhaps???, in the sand in the little cave and Robyn shows us how to coax a hermit crab out of the shell by blowing a soft breath of whistling air into the opening. Sure enough out come dangling legs and an inquisitive pair of eyes on stalks and a ready made crunchy snack to be scoffed down in a suck and a slurp.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      With serious rain pelting, a once graceful connection of pools and reeds turns into a  torrent sculpting a new path into the bay dumping sand and water in opposition to the tide now belting up the beach. One of the boats is turning side on to the other and we girls…the lads have gone to do the search and explore thing over the cliff tops…stand knee deep in a sandy soup of river and tide pulling on ropes and pushing on a couple of tons of aluminium to keep them apart in now seriously serious rain!! ‘Survivor Bickerton Island…bring it on!!!!’

The rain finally eases and  disappears in a dark squall, lads reappear and with boats relaunched it’s onto another bay and discovery of a waterfall, rock pools and a clear bottomed billabong draining through mangrove and skinny paperbarks to the sea. The pools are warm, dark and green and working on the principle that crocs would need crampons and pitons to get to them we swim and then climb to the top of the falls where pandanis palms grow in spiky clumps laden with nobbly green fruit.

Back on Groote and a storm has raged with all the trimmings, lightning, black skies , wind and monsoonal rain reshaping part of Front Beach. The bats in the mango tree must have had a wild old time of it being tossed around like prayer flags and are circling over the house in a noisy holding pattern before settling down for the evening bout of cackling and squabbling. A flock of darting red and green parrots I haven’t seen before swoop through the vegetation and a couple of pink and greys, galahs, waddle around on the grass picking up seeds and perhaps berries that have fallen during the storm.