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APY Law and Culture Council Approves Ngintaka Exhibition and Book! 13.05.2014

The Ngintaka dispute  has been resolved by Aṉangu under Aṉangu Law.

Anangu Elders of the APY Lands Law and Culture Council have spoken; 

the Ngintaka traditional owners rejected the objections to the Ngintaka Exhibition raised by Yami Lester and Nicolas Rothwell in the Australian;

the Ngintaka traditional owners fully endorse the Ngintaka Songline research project, exhibition and book. The Songlines project operates under Aboriginal governance.

Resolutions of the APY Law and Culture Meetings

at Umuwa in May and November  2014

1.That there is nothing secret or restricted in Ngintaka exhibition.

2. Ngiṉtaka exhibition went ahead with proper permission from the right TO’s.

3. The Ngiṉtaka story is not only for us. It is OK to share the Ngiṉtaka story with people all around Australia and all around the world.

4.The court case should finish now. It has been resolved by Aṉangu under Aṉangu Law.




Tragic Confrontation in the Desert

By Jeremy Eccles | 08.04.14, ABORIGINAL ART DIRECTORY

Gallery: Ananguku Arts & Culture Aboriginal Corporation (Ku Arts)

Anyone reading the usually-reliable Nicolas Rothwell in The Australian newspaper a couple of weekends ago (The Review 22/23 March) in a major essay entitled 'Culture War', would have come away convinced that an exhibition designed to reveal the extent of the 900 kilometre Ngintaka Tjukurpa/Songline as it meanders through the Western Desert was a serious breach of Indigenous cultural protocols, with a group of elderly Traditional Owners (TOs) of the Tjukurpa sorely distressed.

Indeed, both the SA Museum - hosting the exhibition – and the SA Supreme Court took the article and the distress so seriously that it looked as though the show would be denied an opening, and conceivably then shut down by court order.

At the end of a tense week, though, this threat was lifted – to the delight of the many artists, TOs, art coordinators and anthropologists who'd spent the past 3 years attempting to make sure that everyone at the seven art centres across the Anangu Pitjanjatjara and Yunkunytjatjara (APY) Lands was comfortable with the exposure of all the public elements of the Songline. Everyone, that is, apart from Yami Lester, the blind, Woomera atomic bomb-testing victim from Wallatinna. He'd let The Australian know a year before that he wanted no part of this exposure – causing a check to be made of all the other communities on the Ngintaka's travels as to their continuing enthusiasm.

And enthusiasm there ought to be for a project which has the potential to bring some of the complexities of the oldest surviving culture in the world in from the deserts to institutions like the SA Museum and, hopefully later, the National Museum in Canberra. It may be unfashionable in the Aboriginal art world to say this, but I believe many buyers of the apparently abstract canvases from tribal Australia do so in part from the belief that there's an unfathomable meaning that lifts them far above the drips and splashes of Western abstract art. They don't need to know all the details, but they do want the sense of the numinous that an exhibition like 'Ngintaka' offers.

Indeed, I think there should be a permanent institution in every capital city that offers such opportunities to locals and tourists alike. The art market will only gain from such insights.
In this case, the story really matters more than the art. The Perentie Lizard Man, Wati Ngintaka is a Creator Being from the Dreamtime – ancient myth and living legend : “My father's grandfather is the Ngintaka” declares David Miller, “speaking for my father's Country near where the Ngintaka threw the seed away”. Miller is also Chairman of Ananguku Arts, the body that advises and brings comfort to the APY Land's seven art centres.

For, as with so much Aboriginal lore, this is not just a moral story. It's a practical one relating to the water nomads needed to survive in the desert, the seeds people ate to thrive, and the trading of the best grindstones in order to make those seeds edible.

I'll attempt a brief summary of the Ngintaka Story. The Perentie Lizard Man (Varanus giganteus) is living near Irrunytju, just over the border into WA today – and there's no decent sandstone for hundreds of miles to make a grindstone which will sift out all the chaff from the seed needed to make a scrumptious seedcake. And it's a man's job to supply his wife with a good grindstone. So, when he's hunting further east, and he hears on the wind the magical sound of a perfectly smooth grindstone, the Ngintaka knows what he must do. Find it, and steal it!

Four hundred and fifty kilometres from home, he eventually tracks the sound down – at Wallatinna, home to distant relatives, the Nyintjiri or Black Lizards. Eventually, he gets to taste the perfect seedcake – which slips down without touching the sides. It's so good! Cunningly, the Ngintaka then injures his foot so he can't go out hunting with the men or gathering with the women – and swallows the grindstone so completely that when the Nyintjiri catch up with him time and time again during his journey home, they can't find it.

That return journey is much more significant than the original hunt for the grindstone; for every stopping place seems to have been recorded and many of them involve sites for increase ceremonies - the Ngintaka's role having been to introduce various seeds and berries into the landscape by over-eating on them and then sicking them up. Part of a tribe's responsibility for Country today is to head out as Spring arrives to rub the rocks associated with each food source left behind by the Perentie.

Back at the Songline's turning point in Wallatina, the giant Perentie has disguised his escape route by creating a rainstorm – and the Ngintaka Inma dance today involves a headdress of clouds – and has magically changed his size so his footprints aren't identifiable. But much of the detail has to be missing from the exhibition because of Yami Lester's resistance to showing any images of his Wallatinna part of the story. Lester's own 1993 aitobiography, on the other hand, had told the whole story without seeking permission from its more Westerly rights-holders.

But these TOs can now tell the whole story – it's been in the public art domain since 1974, and the APY Lands Council approved a recording of the Inma in 1995. In fact, way back in 1940, Moanya, the scion of the Brady family who've been keenly involved in this project today, told anthropologist Charles Mountford the story, allowing the academic for the first time to recognise the essential link between Country and myth. The perspicacious Moanya, in return, recognised “the white man with his flour is killing us”! Unfortunately, Mountford couldn't resist publishing photos he'd taken of the Ngintaka sites along the Perentie's homeward route in his last work, Nomads of the Australian Desert without permission, resulting in legal action by the TOs in 1976, which got the book banned.

Greater care has been taken this time by ANU anthropologist Diana James, Ananguku CEO Liz Tregenza and the fifteen male TOs who've been backing the project – itself part of a bigger Songlines Project involving the National Museum.

And while Nicolas Rothwell presented his case basically as one of the old men feeling that they were losing authority to both Desert women and 'White do-gooders'; going so far as to quote the saintly Hector Burton as saying, “These (Aboriginal) women doing this exhibition aren't our sisters. They're white not black. They have another skin. Go back to the other side of the sun. Don't interfere and take what's ours”. Accompanying this brutal statement of denial is a moving picture of four old grey (and white) beards sitting proprietorially in the long grass at Amata with the Musgrave Ranges in the background. They are the lawmen and artists, Mick Wikilyiri, Hector Burton, Willy Kaika Burton and Ray Ken.

But, as Diana James pointed out to me, all these man seem to have come to their negative views only after Rothwell visited the community. “They changed their minds after a visit by Rothwell, who then wrote an article claiming the men at Tjala Arts had drawn a ‘line in the sand’ against the Songlines Project. Rothwell’s claim that Mick Wikilyiri is against the Ngintaka exhibition is particularly mystifying as Wikliyiri insisted on being recorded on film telling the Ngintaka story for the exhibition when the Songlines team travelled through Amata in July 2013. Wikilyiri’s wife Paniny is a senior traditional owner born at Arannga where Ngintaka dies. Her painting is in the exhibition and she supports the Ngintaka project”.

And, as Wikilyiri's health has subsequently declined, the photograph of Mick in The Australian cannot be a recent one. Both of the Burtons, James points out are Owners of the Caterpillar Dreaming, not the Ngintaka. And when a meeting was held as recently as 6 March at Amata, the Burtons and Ken had no serious cultural concerns about the project, raising only the ancient Biblical concern as to whether contributors had sold their birthright for a mess of pottage.

But all this name-calling by one side has produced equally vituperative responses by the other. In a scorching statement on the eve of the project finally being realised, Yami Lester described the Ngintaka Project as unethical and a "Trojan horse into forbidden ground". Michael Williams, “who has great authority on the APY lands”, according to The Australian, supported him, saying Mr Lester is "fighting for his land and Tjukurpa (Dreaming)".

And the response by the Project's TOs: “Yami Lester may have some authority to speak for a small area around Wallatinna. Michael Williams may have a link through family, but his birthplace is elsewhere and we have told him in a previous meeting at Amata in 2012 that he has limited knowledge of the Ngintaka Tjukurpa.” Take that!

Despite this, the Council of the SA Museum had to take a legal letter on behalf of a body calling itself the APY Council of Elders seriously – postponing the opening until just two and a half hours before it was due to happen. As did the SA courts, which placed a temporary injunction on the exhibition's videos and opening Inma – though too late for that; the dance had triumphantly taken place.

Over the following week the Council of Elders was discredited as a responsible body compared to the APY Land Council, particularly, its Law and Culture sub-committee. And the concerns of the Council of Elders members regarding the videos were address by letting them see them. “By Friday, we were vindicated”, Diana James exulted.

We have to see these events in the context of various other exhibitions, starting with the unfortunate 'Icons of the Desert' in America, where a variety of non-Indigenous-sourced interpretations were placed on early Papunya boards, and Alison Anderson (Rothwell's partner), then the NT Minister responsible, declared that “white people are stealing our culture because they have none of their own”. Subsequently, the NGV with 'Tjukurrtjanu', covering the same art history, and 'Ngurru Kuju Walyja' (the great Canning Stock Route show at the NMA) have taken inordinate care over their interpretations of artworks.

Which is exactly what was attempted with Ngintaka – and its partner project, the Seven Sisters Songline exhibition, which has been postponed until 2017 because its extensive coverage of the country from the Martu in the far West, across the deserts into the lower NT, requires much travelling, filling in of gaps now uninhabited, and diplomacy.

But how important it is to get as many levels of these stories as is appropriate out into the wider world. So I questioned Diana James about the wacky morality of an oft-repeated legend that begins with greed, is followed by theft and ends with the 'perfect' grindstone being smashed and its abductor killed; was this something like white Australia's Gallipoli legend with its capacity to extract national character from death and defeat? “I see so many parallels to the Hindu and Greek gods”, she responded; “humans writ large, naughty and arrogant. But also essential for bringing humanity rain and seeds; and the Ngintaka was such a clever man that his opponents could never find where he had hidden their grindstone”.

In conclusion, I find Nicolas Rothwell's bald assertion that the APY women are “ritually subservient to the men” - and therefore should bow to their will in such matters as the Ngintaka Tjukurpa – so powerfully denied by the Story itself. For, as archaeologist Mike Smith points out in the exhibition catalogue, the clear message behind the narrative is that APY men and women were inter-dependent – the men needed to develop both the technology and the trade routes to supply the grindstones for the women to use to produce the necessary sustenance from the seeds they'd gathered.

This scientific line in the sand brought the recent ABC TV series 'First Footsteps' back to mind. That series of encounters between the Tjukurpa of various Traditional Owners and the science of archaeologists and anthropologists is such an effective way forward in our fuller appreciation of the First Australians.


Image above: Ngintaka Tjukurpa – Perentie Man Story, 2012 by the Tjala Arts Collaborative – Paniny Mick, Tingila (Yaritji) Young, Tjungkara Ken, Freda Ken, Marinka Tunkin and Sandra Ken, Synthetic polymer paint on linen, 197 × 198 cm. Courtesy Ananguku Arts Community. Photo Iain Morton

For more information: Ananguku Arts & Culture Aboriginal Corporation (Ku Arts)
Alive with the Dreaming! Songlines of the Western Desert Project


Ngintaka’s long road to Adelaide

By Bob Gosford | Apr 04, 2014 10:00AM

The “mortal threat to traditional law and culture” to Aboriginal culture posed by the Ngintaka exhibitionappears to have evaporated into the thin desert air.

In two dramatic articles published in The Weekend Australian of March 22-23, Nicolas Rothwell painted a vision of a internal cultural war the likes of which we’ve not seen before.

According to Rothwell, the Ngintaka exhibition at the South Australian Museum was viewed throughout the vast APY lands of South Australia’s north as a fundamental and “mortal threat to traditional law and culture.”

Move forward to a week ago on the afternoon of Friday 28 March at the SA Museum. A large crowd gathers along North Terrace, many of who have driven for days to get to Adelaide.

The Ngintaka Inma is sung and danced and the exhibition opened.

But not before some drama and a flood of negative publicity is splashed on news websites across the country.“SA Museum forced to postpone Ngintaka exhibition featuring songline from the APY Lands,” “Songline exhibition pulled over culturally sensitive material,” “Aboriginal ‘songline’ show hits sour note” and ”Indigenous culture exhibition postponed by dispute” are typical headlines in response to the Museum’s decision.

Those headlines are right – the Ngintaka exhibition had been postponed – but only for a short time.

On 25 March the SA Museum received a letter threatening legal action from a group of senior people from the APY lands that claimed the exhibition should be shut down because it revealed information of a secret and sacred nature that would contravene Aboriginal law if shown publicly.

This was a bold – and very serious – claim that the SA Museum took on face value. The Museum submitted to the threats and postponed the opening.

Soon, dozens of the traditional owners that had travelled from their homelands in the state’s north and west voiced their unanimous support for the exhibition to proceed. On late Wednesday Ananguku Arts, the organisers of the exhibition received a copy of the letter – not from the lawyers but from the SA Museum – seeking the closure of the show. The next day local solicitors Johnston Withers were engaged to write a “please explain” letter to the SA Museum.

According to Graham Harbord of Johnston Withers for Ananguku Arts, the claims were without basis and the decision to give in to the threats and postpone the opening should not have been made by the SA Museum, which had not been involved in the exhibition’s development and was merely providing the venue for the show.

In his view, any decision to close the exhibition was one for the organisers or Courts, not the SA Museum.

Museum director Brian Oldman folded and the Ngintaka opened as originally planned at 6pm on Friday 28th.

Earlier that afternoon a lawyer from Adelaide firm Berg Lawyers fronted Justice Malcolm Blue of the South Australian Supreme Court and sought a temporary injunction to prevent the performance of the Inma and the showing of audio-visual elements of the Ngintaka show to the public.

That application for an injunction was granted ex parte (“by one side only”) – notwithstanding the presence in Adelaide of many traditional owners supporting the exhibition and those involved in its production who could have guided Justice Blue in his deliberations, which were considered a “brave call”, particularly, as The Northern Myth understands it, that no evidence was led in support of the injunction.

The injunction was in force until 5 pm on Monday 31st of March.

On Monday 31st Justice Blue decided that he could not hear the matter and it was stood over to the following day.

On Tuesday 1 April Chief Justice Chris Kourakis of the Supreme Court of South Australia, appeared on the bench to hear the parties. Eleven plaintiffs were originally listed in support of the injunction.

Ronnie Brumby was removed as a plaintiff following the receipt of a fax stating he had not been consulted or agreed to his name being on this list.

Mick Wikilyiri’s daughter was incensed that her aged father’s name was on the Plaintiff list, Tingila Young insisted that he is an old man suffering from dementia and in the full care of her family at Amata and that his name was used without his knowledge or consent.

After extending the interim injunction to allow for further consideration by the Court, Chief Justice Kourakis adjourned the Hearing to allow those plaintiffs present in Adelaide to attend the exhibition and better identify those elements of the audio-visual material they found offensive. Five of the seven allegedly offensive videos were subsequently cleared for public broadcast.

It is important to note that at this point no official pleadings of their case had been provided to the Court and no specific details of the allegedly offensive material in the audio-visual presentations had been provided by the plaintiffs.

None of the plaintiffs had seen the exhibition before issuing proceedings and only two of the plaintiffs, George Kenmore and Michael Williams, saw the exhibition at all. Williams saw the show at 7am yesterday. Kenmore was offered a view on the Friday of the opening but did not visit it until Tuesday this week.

Neither had Rothwell seen the exhibition, though he was confident enough in his knowledge of the show sight unseen to declare that it was “a motley affair” consisting of “mid-grade works with lizard themes.”

Following Kenmore’s attendance at the exhibition on Tuesday afternoon two items of apparent offence were identified.

The first was a video of an Inma performance by Tapaya Edwards, a young man widely regarded as a rising star across the APY lands and the grandson of respected elder Teddy Edwards. The second apparently offensive video was of Harry Tjutjuna, senior Ngintaka traditional owner who was shown telling his story to a large group including his family, his children and grandchildren and assembled women and men.

Affidavit evidence was led in Court that the images and sounds on these videos were uncontroversial and had been in the public domain for many years.

In the case of the Inma performance by Tapaya Edwards, the Court was told that he had performed that dance – with the approval of elders and his community – many times at venues in Australia and internationally.

With regard to the story told by Harry Tjutjuna, anthropologist Diana James (who has made her own commentary on this matter here) presented the following affidavit evidence to the Court:

I was present at Pipalyatjara when Harry Tjutjuna was filmed telling the Ngintaka Tjukurpa story from his homeland Atarangu to Wallatinna and return to Arannga … It was the open version of the Ngintaka Tjukurpa.

Harry Tjutjuna has told me that he was born in the bush and he went through Pitjantjatjara Law before he ever saw a white-man. He is a very revered elder who I have known since 1980.

James notes that substantial elements of the Ngintaka Tjukurpa story, including places and incidents across the entire songline, has previously been published by Yami Lester in his autobiography, Yami, published by IAD Press in 1993.

Lester, a Yankunytjatjara elder from Wallatinna, a homeland on the eastern side of the APY Lands, was represented by family during the Court proceedings and is presented as a key source for the issues raised by Rothwell – and this 2012 article in The Australian by Stuart Rintoul.

In James’ affidavit she noted that in May 2012 Yami Lester had issued a media release criticising the Songlines Project. James says that Lester:

… refused to talk with anyone from the Songlines Project to discuss his concerns … a meeting was arranged by Andrea Masson for representatives of the Songlines Project and Yami Lester to meet and discuss his concerns at Wallatinna, While he initially agreed to meet he then declined and the meeting was cancelled.

Following consideration of the evidence, Chief Justice Kourakis noted that the Courts had been reluctant in the past to interfere in religious or spiritual matters and dismissed the application for an interim injunction.

He noted that while it was conceivable a judge might find that there had been a disclosure of confidential information,  it would be unlikely that any permanent injunction would be granted if the matter proceeded to trial, given the strength of the opposing views.

The “mortal threat to traditional law and culture” to Aboriginal culture posed by the Ngintaka exhibition appears to have evaporated into the thin desert air.

For shame, Nicolas Rothwell

By Dr Diana James, Senior Research Associate, ANU

Bob Gosford | Mar 31, 2014 8:28AM |

Nicolas Rothwell shows extreme disrespect of Anangu governance by referring to the traditional owners of the Ngintaka songline who have led the project as ‘plausible-seeming desert leaders’. Who is he to judge their traditional knowledge or status?

This is a response to Nicolas Rothwell’s article Culture War, published online as 2 pieces, Songlines suffering: desert men in pain when secrets on display and Songlines project sparks indigenous culture war in the Weekend Australian, 22-23 March 2014.

Nicolas Rothwell’s claims in the Weekend Australian that the forthcoming Ngintaka Exhibition at the South Australian Museum will reveal secret sacred information are simply not true.

The Ngintaka Exhibition is a collection of paintings, carvings, ceramic pieces, photographs and films that illustrate the Ngintaka songline story as told traditionally round the fire to children.

This version of the story has been used by Anangu to document their artworks in gallery exhibitions since 1974. The story and song have been taught at the Angatja in the Mann Ranges to tourists and school children since 1988 and is still taught today to Indigenous and non-indigenous children.

The Angatja experience is championed as a flagship of reconciliation by Catholic Schools who include the trip in their Leadership for Reconciliation programme.

The senior men from Amata, Hector Burton, Willy Kaika Burton and Mick Wikilyirri that Rothwell quotes as being in ‘bitter opposition’ to the Songlines Project all attended several consultation meetings with the Project Partners and not once raised the issues or opposition Rothwell refers to.

The most recent of these was a meeting on 6th March this year called by senior Ngintaka traditional owners Robert Stevens and David Miller to listen to any issues Amata community had regarding the Ngintaka exhibition. None of the issues Rothwell refers to were raised at the meeting and there was no explicit or implicit request from these senior men to close the exhibition.

Who is generating then a story that secret information is being revealed?

The Songlines Project has been consistently clear that the story and song versions being used in the exhibition are those recorded at Angatja and approved for publication by the APY Council in 1996. The complaint that the Ngintaka exhibition contains information about sacred men’s law has only been made in The Australian newspaper.

Senior Anangu at the regional governance meetings of the APY Council, Ananguku Arts and the NPY Women’s Council have not made these serious accusations nor have they been raised at the Songlines project meetings open to members of all APY Lands communities.

Nicolas Rothwell shows extreme disrespect of Anangu governance by referring to the traditional owners of the Ngintaka songline who have led the project as ‘plausible-seeming  desert leaders’. Who is he to judge their traditional knowledge or status?  

He is denigrating senior men in their 80s including the leading artists and cultural leaders Andy Tjilari, Harry Tjutjuna, Sam Watson, Alec Baker and the memory of those recently deceased leaders Tjilpi R. Kankapankatja and Tjilpi T. Edwards.

He pours scorn on the wisdom of the elders who recorded the Ngintaka songline at Angatja in 1994; these elders included Nganyinytja, Ilyatjari, Sandy Mutju, Tjulkiwa, Tiger Palpatja and Muwitja, Paniny Mick, Mick Wikilyiri and recently deceased Mr B. Wangin.

Rothwell is also denigrating those who learnt from these elders and carry on teaching the story, song & dance today: Robert Stevens, Fairy Stevens, David Miller, Sammy Lyons, Rini Tiger, Leah and Lee Brady, Inawinytji Williamson, Janet Inyika, Mary Pan and Tapaya Edwards.

The Anangu and researchers working together on the Ngintaka project are seriously concerned that misinformation about the nature of the exhibition has been circulated causing great distress to senior Anangu artists of the APY Lands.

Hector Burton and Mr Wangin (deceased) of Tjala Arts were so excited about the Ngintaka project initially that they collaborated on a large Ngintaka story painting for the exhibition.

They changed their minds after a visit by Rothwell who wrote an article claiming the men at Tjala Arts had drawn a ‘line in the sand’ against the Songlines Project.

Rothwell’s claim that Mick Wikilyiri is against the Ngintaka exhibition is particularly mystifying as Wikliyiri insisted on being recorded on film telling the Ngintaka story for the exhibition when the Songlines team travelled through Amata in July 2013.

Wikilyiri’s wife Paniny is a senior traditional owner born at Arannga where Ngintaka dies.  Her painting is in the exhibition and she supports the Ngintaka project.

In response to Yami Lester’s complaints referred to in Stuart Rintoul’s article in The Australian in May 2012 the Songlines project coordinator Dr Diana James and members of Ananguku Arts Board with interpreter Josephine Mick held meetings with all communities across APY Lands.

People were asked openly and freely if they wished to stop the Ngintaka songline project. All communities except Wallatinna (Walatina), Mr Lester’s community, strongly supported the project and exhibition.

Directors of the Songlines partner Aboriginal organisations Ananguku Arts and NPY Women’s Council together with the National Museum of Australia and the Australian National University have offered to meet with both Nicolas Rothwell and Yami Lester on several occasions to discuss their concerns regarding the project and both men have declined.


In so doing, it appears that they would rather talk with those not involved directly in the Project and draw conclusions based on rumour rather than fact.


Image above: Ngintaka Tjukurpa – Perentie Man Story, 2012 by the Tjala Arts Collaborative – Paniny Mick, Tingila (Yaritji) Young, Tjungkara Ken, Freda Ken, Marinka Tunkin and Sandra Ken. Synthetic polymer paint on linen, 197 × 198 cm. Courtesy Ananguku Arts Community Collection.  Photo Iain Morton.     
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