Uluru Revisited

A chance phone call from the regional mananger of ABC  Alice Springs Radio 783, Stewart Brash, has stirred my memories of attending the handover of Uluru back to the traditional owners in 1985. Stewart traced me after finding  on the internet some photographs I had taken at the event, thirty years ago. To commemorate the occasion, Stewart is collating some photographs for the station’s Facebook website, and a shot I took of a banner being dragged across the sky by a light plane on the day, proclaiming “Ayer’s Rock For All Australians” caught his eye.


The intrusion of that plane, at the moment of high excitement as the ceremony peaked, was intended to register the offence which some took at the hand-over, although some interpreted the message as a positive one.

A day before the ceremony I was having a beer in a pub in rural Mount Barker in the Adelaide Hills, when I saw an announcement on the television news about the handover. I immediately determined to get there, though both time and money were short. There were no direct commercial flights, busses or a train which could get me there on time it seemed, but somehow I stumbled across the possibility of scoring a ‘standby’ seat on a Fokker Friendship, departing Adelaide for Yulara Resort the next morning, a Saturday. With my backpack, a sleeping bag and a camera, and the payment of $70, I found myself flying low and slow over the mesmerising desert country on the way to Uluru.

Every trace of past rainfall and water-course was etched in patterns on the landscape, and the shadows of fluffy white clouds showed dark and sharp below against the vibrant coloured panorama. I wanted to shake my fellow passengers from their idle chatter and newspapers and to share the experience, but it seemed I was the only one captured by the magic.

Hours later, we tilted around Uluru and touched down on the tarmac of Connellan Airport. I stepped from the plane and into the warmest of sun, the brightest of colours, and an incredibly strong feeling of belonging.

I have posted on this blog previously my observations of the handback, so I won’t repeat them here, except to say that I got in a good position to take photographs, and was deeply moved by the occasion. After  couple of days exploring the rock and Katajuta, I managed to get a ride into the Alice, board the Ghan, and trundle back to Adelaide. I caught a cab to Glen Osmond, stuck out a thumb, and was picked up by an old school mate, who dropped me at my home in the hills.

Five years later, after spending two years as the arts organiser at the Yuelamu Community in the Tanami desert, I was back at Yulara, selling artworks from the community at the Sheridan Hotel as they explored the potential for a new gallery in a closed down bar. I spent a lot of time at Yulara over the next few years, during which time I visited either the rock or Katajuta on a daily basis. About this time I got hold of a copy of Ayers Rock, by Charles Mountforda seminal study of the creation myths of Uluru when knowledge of the stories was still very strong. This book confirmed what I had learnt during my time as an arts organiser; that every physical feature of the countryside was shaped by the adventures of the dreamtime ancestors, and that certain ‘skin’ groups had the ceremonial responsibilities for delegated sections of the land. Uluru, as revealed by Mountford, has a story for virtually every physical feature; rocks, caves, groups of trees, water stains and rock-holes, gashes in the surface, and the birds, plants and animals who frequent the region. One vivid tale tells of the evil spirit dingo, Kulpunya, sent by a tribe offended by a lapse in ceremonial protocol to slaughter the hare-wallaby people of Uluru. (Shades of the Chamberlains?)

I would explore a section of the rock on each visit, often sitting in a cave and contemplating the same view ancient eyes had taken in over millennia. It is sobering to realise that this whole great land mass was, a little more than 200 years ago, stitched together by song, dance, and ceremony.


Today the great monolith towers 350 metres above the surrounding desert oaks and sand dunes, while the Minga (ants) from the Yulara Resort to the north visit in their thousands, forming a line of tiny specks as they journey to the top. The Anangu watch from their third world settlement in the south-eastern shadow of Uluru, and observe the 21st century intrusion of their land. Their observation, from frowning brows, is analogeous to the view Uluru has. The stories are locked into the land, and the Minga an insignificent distraction; but the keepers of the ceremony are fewer in number, as the stories fade into infinity.

The culture is precious, and its preservation, paramount.

History of the Western Desert Art Movement

In 1971, a young school teacher named Geoff Bardon arrived at a remote Government settlement north-west of Alice Springs, called Papunya. Papunya was established to enable government agencies to provide essential services to various language groups of Aboriginal people, increasingly dispossessed by the incursion of white invasion, and struggling to maintain the hunter-gatherer way of life they had pursued for some 50,000 years.
Geoff Bardon at Papunya, 1971
Listen to my 1990 interview  with Geoff Bardon.

Completely lacking in any understanding of Aboriginal culture, their relationship to their land, and the complex rules for living and relating to each other, the Government built rows of tin huts for the people to live in, mess halls, workshops, and a school. Language groups which would rarely associate with each other except on ceremonial occasions, were thrown together. ‘Avoidance’ relationships and traditional family groupings were placed under extreme pressures.

Out of this unhappy beginning, Geoffrey Bardon helped to begin a movement in artistic expression which is today very much the face of Australia to visitors and collectors from around the world. Bardon’s stay was relatively short, in no small measure because of the opposition he encountered from those who lacked his caring and inquisitive nature, but his legacy is enduring, and the Papunya Tula Artists organization he established flourishes to this day. Importantly, and to some extent because of the ‘evidence’ of the art proving relationship to the land, the Aboriginal people are increasingly moving back onto their traditional country, and establishing ‘out-stations’, more in keeping with the family groupings of the past.

An artist and an art teacher, Bardon encouraged his pupils to draw on their own culture for artistic expression, rather than imitating the ‘white-fella’ in style and content. As the children began to use symbols, tracks and circles to portray the stories of the creation and in particular their own ceremonial attachment to particular regions, he became increasingly excited. He encouraged the children to paint a mural on the school building, but this was too large a scale for them. It did however, attract the attention of the older men, who were intrigued by this strange white man who showed an interest in their ways. Delighted by the results of the mural painting, and fascinated by the accompanying stories which explained it, Bardon began supplying the men with acrylic paints and canvas boards. From this inauspicious beginning, the art of the western desert emerged to educate the wider society about Aboriginal culture and lifestyle, in a manner which far surpassed previous efforts to bridge cultural chasms formed during the preceding 200 – odd years.

The western desert art, encompassing a wide area of central Australia, is an extension of ceremonial expression, with ancient symbols representing the Tjukurpa, or Dreaming; the time of creation when ancestral beings rose from the featureless earth, and wandered across its surface. The adventures of these ancestors, who displayed all the traits of human frailty and heroism as they fought, hunted and made love, not only established the Law, under which all of life was structured, but physically shaped the landscape. Although without the written word to pass on these laws, the Aboriginal people had their songs, ceremonies and oral traditions. They also had the land itself, with every feature, from the loftiest mountains to the tiny honey-ants, as evidence of the ancestor’s travels and as ‘tablets of stone’ to ensure correct living.

These creation stories were executed as rock art, with ochres, clays and charcoal. The same materials were used to decorate the body during ceremonies, or to adorn weapons, shields, and sacred objects.

The stories were also depicted during elaborate ceremonies, including initiations, as huge ‘ground paintings’ , were created using the same colouring ingredients, mixed with feathers, tufts of grass, and sand. The elaborate configurations, carefully prepared over many days, were used during song and ritual to pass on knowledge of the Dreaming, and would be effaced by the dancing, and eventually, the forces of nature. It was this art, omnipresent for the Aboriginal people throughout their lives, which was first put into a portable form by the far-seeing Geoff Bardon, and which has given the artistic expression of Australia its unique face.

‘TJukurpa’ translates as ‘dreams’ in the Pitjantjatjara language groups, but while it is said that much sacred knowledge is passed on during dreams, there are many other language groups which use a word which does not translate directly as ‘dreaming’, but still refers to the creation period. Although the artistic depiction of this period is expressed differently in other regions, the cross-hatching and the x-ray depictions of fish, birds and animals of the northern coastal areas for example, the Dreaming binds each person to particular parts of the land, and to particular plants and animals.

In the desert regions, the place where a person is conceived or probably more correctly, where the woman realises she is pregnant, determines that person’s totem. A person conceived in a region created by the kangaroo ancestor for example, will be related to the kangaroo in spirit and in ceremonial responsibilities. There are other ways in which people relate to the land. The ‘skin grouping’ of the tribe in some regions, also passes on direct responsibilities via the father/son line. A Jabaldjardi man has a Jungarai son, who has a Jabaldjardi son and so on. Thus Ngarlu, Old Cassidy’s country, is referred to as Jabaldjardi/Jungarai country.

There are eight ‘skin’ groupings, Jabaldjardi/Jungarai, Jabanardi/Jabanunga, Jambajimba/Jungala, Jabarula/Jackamara. Every inch of country is covered by one of these father/son lines. These skin groupings also relate to women, but with an N depicting women as against a J for men. A Jabaldjardi man has a Nabaldjardi sister for example.

Also crucial are correct relationships. If the Jungarai man does not marry a Nungala woman (a Jungala’s brother) their offspring will not be of the Jabaldjardi (male) or Nabaldjardi (female) skin, and the complex ceremonial webs will disintegrate.

The physical sites of the landscape depict the journeys of the ancestors during the Tjukurpa. These stories are usually told in song, in which every detail of the the part /animal/human/plant creature’s journeys are repeated. It is not surprising that these ‘songlines’ can last for days. These songs are so evocative, that people could find their way across country hundreds of kilometres away, which they had never seen, but which they knew about because it was linked to their country and depicted in the songs. It is these epic journeys, sites and spiritual symbolism which is encompassed in the magnificent paintings which have emerged from the desert. The art is the very soul of this ancient continent.

The last of a group of the Pintibi tribe who had never seen a white man emerged from the western desert in 1984.