The small Aṉangu community of Mimili, which rests just below the Everard Ranges, 645 km south of Mparntwe (Alice Springs), is home to around 350 Aṉangu people.
Located in the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in South Australia, the Mimili residents speak a mixture of Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, Ngaanyatjarra and Luritja. The community occupies land that was previously part of Everard Park Station and was established in the early 1970s with the station’s closure, when Country was handed back to Aṉangu traditional owners. Mimili is Country dominated by terracotta-red sandstone ridges dotted with boulders and stony landscapes that hold water. It is home to the maku Tjukurpa (witchetty grub dreaming) from which the Mimili Maku Arts studio takes part of its name. In 1998 the artist Robert Fielding, accompanied by his young family, made a return to this place, his father’s ancestral Country.
Robert’s father, Bruce Fielding, was a Yankunytjatjara man who was not afforded the opportunity to grow up on Country. At age three Bruce was forcibly removed from his mother in 1931, and taken 900 km south to the institution Colebrook Home in Quorn, South Australia, as part of the government’s then practice of assimilating Aboriginal people. Bruce never returned to his homelands. Since Robert’s move back to Country, he has discovered his place in culture and learned the stories of his people and land. In his role as an artist, Robert creates works that recall stories of Mimili and its residents, but also the stories of him as a person. He is passionate about the role that art can play in keeping his culture alive.
In May, during the national COVID-19 closures, the Art Gallery of NSW invited Robert to produce three video works for an online exhibition project as part of Together In Art. The videos focus on Mimili’s history, it’s landscape and, importantly, it’s people. Responding with three video works, created in collaboration with Tuppy Goodwin, Ngilan Dodd and Partimah Fielding, Robert celebrates snippets of memory, short stories, and the act of remembering.
I like art that is deliberately inaccessible, keeping some of its maker’s secrets, along with art that produces profound feelings. And that’s exactly what Robert Fielding’s new work Wiṟuṟa kanyini does for me. In these three short films – Milpatjunanyi, Manta and Walytjaringanyi – Robert reveals stories of old Everard Park Station and Mimili, whilst questioning the viewer, and so too his people: ‘Do [you] hear the voices of our Elders resonating from the trees, from the rocks, and from the earth?’ Sharing abstract views of manta (earth) and then taking us out across Country, Robert turns the unknown and unknowable into something incredibly powerful. He celebrates the many ways we can hold onto, look after and share stories of a place, and reflects on how storytelling and memories can bring us all together.
Robert says, ‘I am exploring different aspects of what it means to hold millennia of knowledge within, of becoming part of Country. In Pitjantjatjara we say “walytjaringanyi”, translating to “becoming the owner of something”. There is no English word to express its true meaning, which is closer to “becoming family with something”. We don’t own, we become part. We observe change, and we feel it in spirit. We observe the wildflowers and bushfoods wither and worry about our family’s futures. We hold the stories of our homes within our bodies for our lifetimes, and return them to the earth when we transition, for the next generation to pick up once they have learned to become part of Country’.
As part of the Australia Council for the Arts Signature Works program, Robert has been working with materials from state and museum archives, such as photographs, letters and publications, to consider their loss of context. Wiṟuṟa kanyini brings together the different narratives that Robert has been working with over the past few months. His video series was informed and influenced by the research for this greater program, so it is interesting to view them in light of the conversations around knowledge-holders on the Lands, and those who hold ‘official knowledge’ in the form of objects and cultural material – mostly city-based museums and archives.
It is also integral to Wiṟuṟa kanyini that you consider the context in which Robert made these short documentaries, and that they would not have happened without the world being forced into this unusual time of reflection. It is important to recognise that without this pandemic, Robert would not have been able to tell this story of Mimili in such a way, with the generous stories of old provided by these minyma, Tuppy Goodwin and Ngilan Dodd. While one can certainly sense a feeling of togetherness within the videos, they become altogether more powerful with the knowledge that these matriarchs – the two remaining Elders of Mimili – felt that this was the moment to get these stories out there by sharing their time, this place, this space, this song, these dances, and their languages. Robert was given charge to bare their souls to us.
Milpatjunanyi means to mark the earth with a bent stick or wire to tell a story, and that is exactly what Elders Tuppy Goodwin and Ngilan Dodd do in the first video. Sitting on the floor of the art centre, Tuppy and Ngilan recall to Robert their memories of a landscape, and the stories that are eternally present, held within the earth itself. The wire is an old way of storytelling and is itself an important object; it was once a strainer, it was once a fence, it was a physical part of Everard Park Station.
Milpatjunanyi is the story of the wire: beautiful and graceful hands enter the frame here and there, hitting and marking the earth with authority. We look at the way these hands manoeuvre the wire and earth; they are in control, each movement is precise, and we hear a rhythm and sharpness to the mark-making. That thrumming and rhythm, the steps 1, 2, 3, 4, become a corroboree, and we are invited to listen to the story play out. Deeply connected to the land, this is a rhythm and movement that Robert hears every single day.
The second film, Manta, is about the earth: the earth from which we come from and the earth to which we return. Tuppy is the sole storyteller of this work. She reflects on the early mission days on Everard Park Station and calls us to stop and listen and appreciate the unknown stories that travel throughout the land. With hands that draw on Mimili’s collective memories and creativity, Tuppy strikes the earth whilst orchestrating songlines for us, as bold text in English gives us a glimpse into what she sees when she looks at Country. To prepare for this work, Robert read archival letters from the mission days to Tuppy and he recorded her speaking to the landscape at the old Everard Park Station homestead. This is a work about recognising how important it is for the earth to tell us stories; that you must respect the earth; that regardless of how our Country transforms, this is the lands that we have danced on, performed on, and sung on for tens of thousands of years.
The final video of the series, Walytjaringanyi, or ‘becoming related to something’, anchors the previous stories of Tuppy and Ngilan with Robert’s own voice as author. He questions what it means to be a part of a place, of Country, of community, and how we interact with the past, present and future, binding us to ancestors and culture. Here, Robert speaks about his process and the importance of storylines to his daughter Partimah, as they drive through Country. There is a beautiful tension to the work as we witness harsh and destructive man-made machinery disrupting Country, but at the same time, we recognise that Country will always be there – no matter how it looks. The punu (trees), the earth, the infrastructure, the buildings, the scenery comes alive. Robert encourages us to see that regardless of new roads coming in, the Tjurkurpa, the story, the song, the dance, will always remain the immediate priority of Aṉangu.
For Aṉangu, COVID-19 has given Robert, Tuppy, Ngilan and Partimah the opportunity to showcase the importance of storytelling and the earth. Their videos express their relationships with the earth and to it, ideas of belonging, and the connection you have to the place you come from. The three moments are exactly what they need to be, with Robert bringing a snippet of manta to the uru (ocean) and back again. These beautiful works are the embodiment of what Mimili has given to Robert and now to us, and there are many stories for us to still learn.