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Published onOct 12, 2020


Every time my phone rings, my stomach lurches. Even if I don’t recognise the caller, I assume it’s one of my Yolŋu family calling from a new number. They rarely call only to chat. They call because they need something. Or because they have something to tell me that I need to know. More often than not, it’s bad news.

This week I received a call from one of my father’s brother’s sons. The second-to-last time we’d spoken I’d lent him a few hundred dollars so he could buy bits and pieces for a funeral ceremony. The last time, he’d told me he was in Adelaide with his nineteen-year-old son who was being treated for leukaemia. He was apologetic about not having paid me back; he’d had to give up his job at the Gapuwiyak store for at least three months so he could stay in Adelaide. Now his brother had died in Darwin. He’d been on dialysis and had gone drinking. Family were suspicious because he had seemed healthy, despite his kidney problems. (As usual, sorcery was suspected, though I heard only truncated versions of those stories later.) Lupurru told me he needed to fly to Darwin to organise the funeral. Again, he apologised for not being able to pay me back. I told him he should forget the debt.

The next day I got a call from my sister-in-law, Marrawaka’mirr. She was in Darwin for tests and likely needed chemo. With a little laugh, she said she’d had a heart attack while waiting for the results of the cancer tests. Now the chemo would have to wait until they’d taken a bitja of her heart. She’s a couple of years older than me, in her late fifties. We talked for a while and I was struck by how upbeat she sounded. She told me that she was praying hard and had decided to refuse chemotherapy. I asked what had happened to the bol’ŋu stones with the special healing powers we’d collected together in her country, but she told me that she no longer had any; they’d long since disappeared, having taken themselves back home. She then asked for some money to do the Christmas shopping when she got out. Neither of us felt satisfied with the sixty dollars I transferred through my phone.

Each time I answer these calls I feel drawn into a world wider, deeper and somehow more alive than my university-focused life could ever be; a world of need, demand and generosity; a world that routinely confounds my expectations, and my capacities with its dynamics of relentless death and robust humour; a world in which, despite the impositions of colonial bureaucracies and assimilationist agendas, people remain stubbornly, often playfully, attentive to priorities and values that are of a distinctly different order to the insidious administrative agendas that shape my desk-bound days.


Over the past twenty-five years, as I have collaborated on art and media projects in Gapuwiyak, I have been instructed—directly and indirectly—about the priorities of kinship and so been tested in my capacities to live it, and write about it, in ways that are adequate to the intensities, obligations, reciprocities, unruly eventfulness and oblique refusals that these familial bonds entail. I have welcomed this shared project of yuṯa anthropology as the means by which to refigure my own often awkward relationship with the discipline for which I’ve been trained. This is a discipline of audacious reach, slow-won insights, intrinsic limitations, but, nonetheless, as we have argued throughout Phone & Spear, significant participatory potential. However, in writing this book I have found myself wrenched by competing bursts of enthusiasm and apprehension; ambivalence is too mild a word to describe the lurching uncertainties that have repeatedly undermined my sense of purpose.

Countless times over the past decade, I have felt profoundly disheartened by what I cannot help but see as a deepening and irreversible social crisis unfolding in Gapuwiyak and its surrounding communities; despite the efforts of many, many brilliant and energetic artists, educators, musicians and political figures who have modelled forms of two-way living, Yolŋu society is undergoing a relentless transformation that I fear will have devastating consequences for current and future generations. The effects are incremental and hard to shake. I am not alone in thinking this; over the years that we have been working on this book two members of Miyarrka Media expressed their own worry that ‘rom is collapsing’, meaning living in so-called remote communities is no longer a viable option; they mostly blame drugs, though they also identify other forms of pressure and distraction, including the phone.

And throughout the compilation of this text I have worried that our emphasis on the ancestral affordances of mobile phones has been at the expense of providing a bigger, and messier and much-harder-to-do-justice-to picture. I realise that one reason the texts in Phone & Spear have been assembled in fragments is because I don’t know—how to pull the pieces of the yuṯa world together into a coherent whole that includes not only mobile phones, but hip-hop and petrol and Coca-Cola and profits and welfare reform and casinos and mining and the fine art market and anthropology and renal dialysis and superannuation and boarding school and an education curriculum that fails to attract, let alone keep, the kids at school.

At such moments, the forms of connectedness we have celebrated in this book have seemed much too flimsy and fleeting; the sense of optimism expressed in these funny and poignant works seems extremely vulnerable in the face of relentless loss and change. Yet each time I lost heart and put the project aside, I found myself called back by the images themselves, repeatedly compelled by their tender beauty—and the ways that they produce small, yet transformative, moments of affirmation and possibility.

Such are the quiet and incremental effects of dhäkay-ŋänhawuy rom.
But what then?
Is it enough to locate solace and purpose in moments such as these?


Last year, as we talked over a cup of coffee in Cairns, while the others headed out to hunt mangrove worms in the muddy tidal zone behind the house, I put these concerns directly to Gurrumuwuy. I told him that balanda already have a picture of places like Gapuwiyak from the media, and that they have the idea that the yuṯa generation is having a hard time finding a way forward, that they already have their own bitja of remote Aboriginal communities as sites of lawlessness, substance abuse and the breakdown of authority. I told him that I was worried that it might appear like we are deliberately ignoring this part of the picture by emphasising the social effects of using the phone ‘in a good way’. The unsentimental certainty of his reply continues to shock me, even after all this time:

‘I know what you mean, gäthu. I can see that the future is wrecked for the young people. I see that everywhere. I hope it doesn’t come true.

‘But for Yolŋu it doesn’t matter how far you go, or how long you run, you are still in the foundation. You are walking with your identity, with your pattern, it’s in your blood… It’s all around, the pattern. Whether you are coming from yapa [your sister clans], or whether you are coming from märi. Your clan, your sacred objects and design, your ŋäṉḏi. Still there are connections. Links.

‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to live with your manikay and rom, that madayin is still there. Your dhulaŋ [sacred designs] are still there. Your bäpurru still there. It is like a jigsaw puzzle. You might jump out, you might get lost with petrol sniffing or drugs, but that rom is always pulling you back in. Even through the phone.’

I nodded, then double-checked that my phone was recording.

As we were both well aware, this was a public declaration by the most senior member of our collective. His tone was convincing, his message compelling and well in keeping with the ways that other Yolŋu talk about the irreplaceable significance of country.

Yet to my ears, Gurrumuruwuy’s certainty sounded disconcertingly optimistic. It seemed to fly in the face of all accruing evidence. (And here I could refer to the grim statistics that constitute the gap in life expectancies between Yolŋu and balanda in this country, or I could call to mind the backlog of bodies, young and middle-aged, waiting in the morgue for their turn to be buried in the clan lands in, and surrounding, Gapuwiyak. In another vein, I could refer to the mounting literature in anthropology that variously identifies the dynamics of structural violence, intergenerational trauma and social transformation1 that is resulting in Aboriginal people across remote parts of Australia becoming physically and ontologically dislocated from their ancestral homelands and traditions, with complex and socially destabilising effects.)

One could, of course, argue that Gurrumuruwuy has no other grounds from which to speak, quite literally. One could also say that without such stubborn certainty, nothing of substance remains for future generations; that without such ontological conviction, all is lost. There is no foundation, no djalkiri, no anchoring point in both time and space, no place from which to engage with the demands and possibilities of contemporary life, while actively recalling the past and imaginatively projecting oneself into the future.

But, of course, Gurrumuruwuy’s point is that it is actually not simply a matter of belief: for him it is a matter of recognising and participating in the forceful agency of a self-assembling world; a more-than-human constellation of pattern and moral force that provides the template for its own renewal.


Herein lies what I sometimes continue to experience as a profound irreconcilability in our expectations and outlooks, one that I first pointed towards in the Introduction, and that I think has been made evident at multiple moments in the text. It is in such moments that our shared project of yuṯa anthropology threatens to buckle, at least for me, as I feel a kind of moral responsibility arising from my own intellectual traditions and with that an urge to reach for explanation and analysis of a different order: to point to resilient colonial hierarchies of power and historically specific dynamics of social transformation that threaten to profoundly displace the ordered power of place and ‘the old people’, and so, in the process, to offer insights that might somehow pre-empt the wreckage to come, though I admit at this moment to having no conviction here with regard to my own capacity, or even old anthropology’s potential as a discipline, making a lasting contribution in this respect, even if moments of recognition and ‘shared feelings’ of the kind we aim for here are achieved in the terms we hope for.2

Melinda Hinkson is less equivocal in her call to action. She identifies ‘[t]wo vital tasks confronting anthropologists wherever precarity is apparent’,3

(a) the documentation of the coexistence of differently ordered and contested modes of orientation to places and their interlinked forms of engagement with the world and (b) an accounting, where possible, of the historically contingent nature of newly emergent classificatory forms, or their absence, so as to reveal what is at stake in these transformations for the peoples with whom we work. Adopting an interpretive framework that assumes openness and eschews hierarchy at the outset risks misrecognizing the multiple forms of constraint at play in any situation [my emphasis].

Yuṯa anthropology, in its overt attempt to creatively mediate against precarity, hums along with the kind of anthropology advocated by Hinkson, even as it refuses to make the frictions arising from ‘multiple forms of constraint’ and ‘contested modes of orientation’ its primary orientation. The point, rather, as we have shown, and as I remind myself again now, is to claim vision (as part of a relational sensorium that prioritises a synaesthetic attention to the world) as socially generative—and so an essential aspect of Miyarrka Media’s ongoing concern to invoke, nurture and renew an always-necessarily-shifting constellation of intergenerational and intercultural relationships. Our yuṯa anthropology recognises ways of seeing as cultural, historically contingent and yet nonetheless still potentially generative of new forms of relationship. The whole point of this book has been to demonstrate that it is possible to see past gaps, dissonance and dislocation through deliberate acts of showing, seeing, recalling and envisioning. Rupture, difference and disarray are not being overlooked—this is all too easy to perceive (especially for balanda). Rather, active seeing and receptive feeling is the djäma that matters here. The pleasures and satisfactions—as Guruŋulmiwuy told us right at the start—lies in the active process of finding and seeing connections that emerge from beneath a surface logics of appearance.


Like I said, the Yolŋu world is like a jigsaw puzzle. Everything fits together. It doesn’t matter how long you run, how far you drift. The wäŋa itself will pull you back. Gurruṯu, your family connections, will pull you back. That is the picture I’m giving out.

For balanda, we want you to see this too. To feel what we are sharing with you. Somehow. There are many layers in our Yolŋu world, many things that you will never be able see, or hear, or know, and I realise that it can be hard for you to understand everything that we have been telling and showing you here. That’s why we try with this yuṯa anthropology to give you a taste of dhäkay-ŋänhawuy rom.

Everywhere you look these days, everyone is sitting with phones in our pockets and satellites overhead. Yolŋu and balanda. We can connect. We can learn from each other. We can share life. Why not?


Why not? In an attempt to draw this text to a close, I once again return to the images and reflect on the ways they have reshaped my own appreciation of the power of ancestral homelands as they continue to shape the push-and-pull of Yolŋu life. What this book has charted are ‘inside’ places that satellites and GPS can never map; places that exist and flourish in the hearts and minds of kin who arrange themselves to manifest this patterned existence; sites inscribed in mulkurr and ŋayaŋu that provide an experience of emplaced belonging and becoming-in-relationship that exert an urgent and yet stabilising force, even if one has never actually visited particular sites ‘in the flesh’.

As I hope is clear by now, this is not intended as a testament to the mobile phone as a locative technology in any simple sense. If Gurrumuruwuy’s certainty is located in the power of the wäŋa itself, it is a certainty affirmed through incremental moments of becoming-in-relationship to kin of many kinds, kin living in disparate places—in cities, homelands, in boarding schools and jails, in interstate training facilities and those who reside in spirit in forests and bushlands of the region—giving rise to experiences that accrue in affective traces of memory and recognition, that rise and settle on a ŋayaŋu through a lifetime of dhäkay-ŋänhawuy rom.

Recognition in this case is not simply an act of acknowledgement bestowed by one person or group upon another when categorical expectations are met. It is the product of a two-way process: the result of a social transaction instigated by acts of showing by someone or, in this case, entire families, who by entering the field of visibility are deliberately making themselves a public figure inciting response from the viewer. In this figuration connection is always ongoing and dynamic, shifting scales and orientation according to the context. Relational worlds like those that matter to Yolŋu are always taking shape. Acts of separation are therefore integral to the ongoing work of finding, forging and recognising connection anew.

If the phone has demonstrated the immanent relationality of the digital world in this book, what these photo collages and their accompanying stories of phones and spears and family make clear is that Yolŋu, like so many other social groups, are using the technology to reinscribe priorities and perspectives and so renew the Yolŋu world as distinctive and resilient. Even as they actively participate in the creation of a global world of digital connection, they resolutely refuse a call to assimilation, jumping through the phone and bringing back new materials for world-making, to insist on the durable vitality of a world structured by a bounded and differentiated set of values and social expectations.

And so this book puts out its call for a greater recognition of exactly this. At the very least my co-authors would hope that readers might now recognise that even when Yolŋu take up the technologies, the beats, the images and the consumer paraphernalia of a globalising world, Yolŋu should not be automatically seen to be assimilating into a global homogeneity. Look again. They are finding their own dances, their own style, their own gakal. Therein lies life.


Worlds of pattern are only possible if the pieces that make them up remain in motion and if those who seek them out remain open and alert to the shape of the next encounter, and the play of call-and-response it puts in motion, the associative resonances that come from seeing-as-if one thing is another. Vision Yolŋu-style means that each person gets to look out from where they are to see the world and locate themselves in shifting and always emergent patterns of relationship yothu-yindi, märi-gutharra, Yolŋu-balanda. Therein lies the liveliness, the grounds of continuity and possibility: a dynamic of social aesthetics capable of affirming foundational sacred depths and outward openings, depending on the patterns of association that get pieced together to make life as moments of coalescence, one bitja after another.

This Yolŋu mode of seeing is given a specific force and direction as dhäkay-ŋänhawuy rom is adapted to the intercultural work of relationship-making. Instead of relying on the moral force of country and the emplaced constellations of responsibility and connection embedded within it, the book seeks to activate and transmit affect and understandings stirred from inside Yolŋu hearts so that this might become palpable to others, moving beyond the pages in which it has been embedded, to stir the hearts and minds of readers, before settling down as a kind of accrued capacity to open and participate in expanding and interconnected worlds of relationship. (Though I would note that our collective expectations of the efficacy of this book in the terms we have outlined are cautious; we are curious rather than wildly optimistic about the reception of this work.)

Nonetheless, as we have shown, the mediated experiences of the kind we describe in this book are the means by which one participates in the shaping and reshaping of the world. It is this practised capacity to mediate connection (and so, necessarily, also deliberately enact decisive moments of disconnection and separation) in located bodies open to, and transformed by, relationships that my Yolŋu colleagues offer up as a form of a knowledge that can be of value to others, even as they undertake their own urgent, imaginative work of seeing past difference and separation as it manifests between the generations now growing up in troubled communities, drawing on the cheeky vitality of the new to re-make an ancestrally ordered world that now co-exists and interacts with the relentless demands, distractions and opportunities of other worlds, now evermore close to hand.

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