In 2008 the introduction of Telstra’s 3G mobile-network generated a wave of creative energy across the bush communities of Arnhem Land. New genres of video, photography and performance flourished. Travelling lightning-speed via satellite and Bluetooth, this digital culture rode the energy of the new and the cheeky. Moving hand-to-hand, kin-to-kin, community-to-community, it drew inspiration from both the Internet and the ancestral. It was made to be watched, to be shared, and then deleted to make way for the next. So began a new era in Australian Indigenous media, a period of intensified communication and creativity in which phones provided to access new, multimedia vectors of connection, and, in so doing, enabled Yolŋu to take their place in an increasingly digital world.1
I wrote these words a few years ago for the catalogue of an exhibition of mobile phone media curated with my Miyarrka Media colleagues. They catch something of the excitement we wanted to convey—the sense of the speed, the energy of the new, the pleasure Yolŋu found in the young people’s self-confident wielding of what they often still refer to as ‘balanda technologies’.2
Right from the early days of the blocky Nokias, and long before smartphones and social media apps, my Yolŋu friends and family used rudimentary, pay-as-you-go purchased from the local store to put these relational dynamics into play at an aesthetic register. Personalised ringtones created from snippets recorded at ceremonies were used to orchestrate a deeper call to connection, to project themselves back to country, and so activate the forms of identity and belonging that are the foundation of Yolŋu rom [ancestral law]. My friends would describe to me how, when they heard their ringtone, they could, for instance, feel the wind, or hear the sea birds calling. They immediately felt themselves to be back amongst family and the spirits of the land. In this way, they used their phones to not only locate themselves within specific constellations of relationships, but to acknowledge the draw of country as the locus of an ancestrally ordered sense of belonging, each time the phone rings.3
Later came phones with cameras and, later still, phones with Internet access and touchscreens. For most Yolŋu this was the first time that they had access to the means to make, edit, and circulate digital imagery (and of course to view, download, and remix images made by others).
Initially at my urging, but with a growing sense of shared purpose and pleasure, we collected and curated material for the exhibition that became Gapuwiyak Calling: Phone-made media from Aboriginal Australia. We installed it, in various guises, in national and international museums and galleries. We designed the show hoping to stir an interest in strangers, not only through our use of a variety of new media, but the transformative possibilities of the new itself.
Gapuwiyak Calling enacted a call to relationship offered with an openness and optimism that I have come to see as distinctly Yolŋu. From the very first we wanted to ‘share Yolŋu life’, not to display ‘Yolŋu culture’. This formulation, arrived at by Gurrumuruwuy and his family and prominently announced in the introductory wall texts of our exhibitions, emphasises the ways in which my colleagues have continually chosen to position our work as an invitation to engage in forms of experiential encounter, rather than an as a project in which difference becomes the defining—and so distancing—conceptual framework.4
This phone-made media made the playful and creatively elaborated qualities of Yolŋu life visible like never before. Locating individuals within patterned worlds of connection, they showed how Yolŋu see in overlaid biographical, historical and ancestral patterns of relationship, revealing attachments that anthropological kinship charts—or, for that matter bark paintings5—simply cannot. With their pixel-smudged charm and a look-you-straight-in-the-eye confidence, they offered new ways for others to appreciate the resilient values and imaginative urgencies of life, Yolŋu-style.
Compiling this book has offered a chance to slow things down a little. It’s allowed us to draw breath and ask questions, to dwell a little longer with the tensions, as well as the satisfactions and new social horizons, that mobile phones variously bring to our lives.
These days we sit in our little communities in Arnhem Land and we can see what is going on around the world. All through the phone.
The view of Gapuwiyak from Google Earth is too still, too quiet and too distant, no matter how close I zoom. You can’t hear the crows, the diesel motors, the gasp of air conditioners pushed to the limit. You can’t smell the dry season fires, or the forty-eight-dollar-a-pack cigarettes inhaled with urgent pleasure. You can’t hear the TVs, the video games, the snoring, the sneezing and the asmathic coughs, the skinny dogs, the squeal of barefoot kids, or the laughter tickled loose by drawn-out stories and giant cups of sweet tea. You can’t see those mobile phones everywhere. You can’t hear them ringing.
What also elude the satellite eye view are the ways that Yolŋu increasingly find communities like this uncomfortable places to live. Though it depends who you talk to, I have a sense of growing dissatisfaction and disquiet. The people I know best describe Gapuwiyak and neighbouring Yolŋu communities as dangerous and judgemental; as places where the youth has lost their sense of direction and purpose, where kinship and the structures of relationship that underpins all social relations are becoming frayed; a place where malicious sorcery causes the death of young people. Phones play their part in this too.
When Gurrumuruwuy and his family are in Gapuwiyak (not in the city or his outstation Yalakun) they live at Lot 68. A concrete brick house with two bedrooms, lime coloured walls and an unfenced yard; it’s been his family home since Yolŋu first settled down in Gapuwiyak. Long-time residents, both balanda and Yolŋu, still call it the Yellow House, although these days it is painted green, at Gurrumuruwuy’s request. This is the colour of his mother’s mother’s clan. His märi. This is the house where Gurrumuruwuy’s wife, Yangathu, gave birth to her youngest daughter Barraḏakanpuy, in the shower, not realising she was pregnant (she nicknamed her the Coke-can baby, for her size and the red colour that links her to the Dhaḻwaŋu clan of her father); the house that is in the same place as his father’s camp when Gapuwiyak was first settled in 1968 by missionaries and Yolŋu working together to establish a timber mill; the house where we held the body of his wife, Yangathu, for more than a week before flying her to Yalakun for burial.
Yolŋu sometimes describe the intergenerational change they are experiencing in terms of ‘losing culture’. However, paying attention to how they speak provides clues to understanding what’s at stake. In these discussions the powerful and constitutive role of the senses often comes into sharp focus. For instance, Bäŋgana Wunuŋmurra, the first Yolŋu man I collaborated with, characterised the threat of foreign media in terms of a cumulative assault on the sensorium. As he described it, music and film from elsewhere threatened to make Yolŋu deaf and blind to their own songs and the communicative call of their land. For this reason, he said, it was crucial to make video that would stimulate ‘Yolŋu ways of seeing’. Likewise, when Gurrumuruwuy tells me that one reason he is interested in making new media and exhibitions is because ‘our culture is fading’, he is talking about how colour, sounds, and images can stimulate a sensorium that extends beyond human bodies to include a sentient landscape populated by spirits of generations past. The media we share in this book are likewise concerned with the power of perception, innovation, sensuous stimulation. And the work of assembling the Yolŋu world in relation to what Gurrumuruwuy and others call the big picture.
When we started, I imagined that the book would be structured in a dialogic manner, arranged as a kind of critical exchange between myself and other members of Miyarrka Media. However, how we have arranged the texts is not dialogic. Our discussions did not unfold in the order they appear here. And this, again, is part of the point.
As far as my Yolŋu collaborators are concerned, the images, songs, and performances that inspire this book already tell their own stories. Gurrumuruwuy’s instructions were to the point: ‘It’s all about colour, and pattern, and making things lively’. In other words, our methods must be aesthetic, texts and images had to work together.
This became even clearer as we went about selecting screenshots from GIFS, slideshows, and videos to include. A process of muting and stilling that made me worry that we might be killing the very things we loved. We lost so much: the sound and the movement, the lyrics, the tunes, the jaunty beats. We surrendered the glow and super-saturated colour, the tactility too—that ability to select and move, to resize with our fingers—not to mention the capacity to instantly send on to others. But perhaps above all, we lost the glorious malleability of it all: the sense that one image begets the next. (This open-access, screen-based version of Phone & Spear helps to recover some of these elements, at least to a certain degree.)
At this point I realised that Phone & Spear might provide an opportunity to experiment not just with the relationship between text and image, but with the production of text as image. While still writing and assembling the words, we asked the young designers who had worked on the New York exhibition of Gapuwiyak Calling to join the design process. Words and images alike needed a poetic approach: an attention to rhythm and to repetition; for repetition, as Yolŋu know, need not deaden with its sometimes-rote insistence. Repetition can be the source of life itself, recursive creativity can enable processes of renewal. And so, the making of this book became a loving labour of playful pattern-making. Rather than seeing it as a purely writing exercise, I began to treat the curation of texts also as a form of assemblage (in the old-fashioned art sense). As well as recording and transcribing the input from my Yolŋu colleagues, I wanted to find ways to intercut, and even interrupt, my own written analysis and stories.
In order to find our hum, we had to generate a multi-layered aesthetics of resonance—across media, across generations, across cultures and across individual differences. It had to hold us all, and to satisfy us all: in spite—or maybe, exactly because of—our differences. Not wanting difference to be denied, or otherwise overcome. On the contrary. It is as integral to the very possibility of resonance.
And so Phone & Spear became something more than a project of polyvocal ethnography. It became a shared experiment with book as gamunuŋgu, an experiment that takes pattern as the source of life and futures—a form that with its fluctuating pulse and patterns that might just hold us all as waŋgany:6 story, images, disparate ambitions, interwoven lives, hidden agendas, not to mention sacred knowledge withheld—all this remixed in a humming space that allows for both resonance and dissonance—the push and pull of life and kinship intensified, sameness and difference, past and present, here and there, Yolŋu and balanda.
Yo [yes], you can see this book like gamunuŋgu. It’s just another way of telling stories.
Sometimes I think that what we are trying to do here with all these bitja and dhäwu might be too much. Too much for balanda to understand. But I want to get it clear so that people everywhere, even in the States or Germany or Japan, anyone can understand. That’s my aim. That’s why we’ve worked so hard on this book. Polishing up these dhäwu. Giving you the story and the picture. As clear as we can. Every picture, Dhuwa and Yirritja, we have to give a clear picture to balanda. That’s why we’re doing this djäma, this work.
At the same time, we need to keep those Yolŋu back at home happy. We can only use the bitja if everyone agrees. We want them to feel proud. Because with this book these bitja can be there for a long time. Maybe the next generations might be interested. Maybe they will read this book.
Some Yolŋu might be nervous about doing this kind of work. Because it is a responsibility, everyone can see that you are showing the world something new.
We need to ask people to use these bitja. We need authorisation. Otherwise people going to ask, who’s doing these things?
You can't just talk roughly when it comes to things like this, sometimes talking over the phone won't work. You have to make it straight, so family will agree to give these pictures to our project. That’s why I had to fly over to other communities, and sit down with family there, so that everyone can understand.
Otherwise there might be a fight at the card game, or bad feelings coming up. Some Yolŋu might be frightened to do this kind of work. But my family, we like it. I am used to this kind of djäma.
We are proud. We want to share. We are putting anthropology through a Yolŋu djalkiri [foundation, anchor].
Most other Yolŋu won’t care about this book, they’ll just have a look and throw it away. But balanda will want this because it is new, new pattern, new dhäwu, new … where it’s coming from. Not like the anthropology from the 80s or 90s. It will make balanda excited.
Even museums, or government departments, or universities will want this because from here you can explore more and more. Because balanda like to concentrate. Tourists can grab that book and go home and read. And with that book they can make a decision about where to go next, to explore this kind of information in a deeper way …
Matharamamirr. That means like peeling a fruit, or scaling a fish.
Sometimes we talk the about the ‘old days’, back in the 1990s, when the community was happier, less chaotic. Gurrumuruwuy’s children describe how they grew up at a time when everyone fitted together: ‘people were not running in whatever direction they felt like.’ They worry that Yolŋu are becoming like balanda because they are ignoring the rom.
They complain that people today are only following their own djäl, or desire.
With this book balanda will get feelings that will make them come come bala-räli. They will read and be drawn close. Yolŋu and balanda will have to recognise each other.
When an outsider moves to a Yolŋu community they find themselves, if they are open to it, drawn into relationships turn on the twinned possibility of mutuality and difference. (Such invitations are by no means exclusive to anthropologists). On being adopted one is always positioned in a matrix of relationship that runs across time and space. You are invited to become wangyangy with Yolŋu , and people will choose to see you that way, within the patterning of kinship and obligation, even though everyone knows that you are, and always will be, balanda.
Yolŋu and balanda. Together, but not mixed up.
Why do we do this work? Because the anthropologist wants us to work with her. The Yolŋu life stays in that one position and anthropologists come and ask “Can you work with me?”. Like Jennifer asked mori and ŋäṉḏi, my Mum and Dad, ‘Can you work with me?’ And she found the truth with mori, my dad. And she found it with our mum, who worked with us too, before she passed away.
We call ourselves Miyarrka Media. Miyarrka is the name we call this region that includes Gapuwiyak and the outstations around here. We chose that name so that it could include all the clans who live in this community.
I’ve been doing this kind of work my whole life, first as a dancer and then an actor. After that I toured around managing a group called the Yalakun Dancers. All over the world. Paris, Germany, America. Asia too. So in this yuṯa anthropology, this new anthropology, we want to make it so that anyone even people in the States or China can understand our lives by reading the book. With this djorra'.
Here I am dancing at my father’s funeral, showing myself as Wurrumba with a shark liver in my mouth. The fat [liver] tells about the waku born from Gurruwiwi people.
The four sharks represent the mother Wurrumba. Wurrumba lives in the clear, shallow water. That water calls himself gapu darrtjalk. Underneath this water lives Witij, the rainbow serpent. If you watch carefully, when you see that shark moving in the water you will see the rainbow colours.
The stars here are the glistening water, the same effect as the light that dapples and shines on the shark’s head from the water.
The fat represents the yothu. At funerals the mothers of that person who’s passed away will have that fat painted on their bellies, around their belly button.
If they need to fight then Gälpu people call themselves Wurrumba. They show themselves as an angry shark. Becoming Wurrumba like that lifts you up to be a hero. It pumps you up. It makes you ferocious. Powerful.
This one is beautiful to me. From a distance especially, it looks like maḏayin, that’s our sacred possessions and our deep and secret knowledge. If you look closeup you can see myself and my sister, together with our two brothers who have passed away. But the way Yolŋu can see it, we are not sitting there alone. All of life is there. Stories, songs, ceremonies, feelings, movement … the richness of life.
In ceremony, the dhalkara who leads the singing calls the special names of our country, it brings old people bubbling up, out of the water to be with us. Through the ceremony we flow together. You can feel the old people, you can even see them standing there amongst us. And that’s what I see here, in this bitja. There’s deep meaning bubbling up here. More pattern, deeper feeling, more connection. This is where we come from. And this is how we live.
The first time I saw the kind of bitja djäma, I thought ‘wow’! When we put this altogether, it’s like talking to you. But only through outside pictures. Through photos and that kind of stuff like frames and colours that the kids find on the Internet.
But, still, through the colour and patterns the old people can see more, they can see deeper, they can see the maḏayin and all the connections that an image like that can hold. Old people are smart up here, you know.
These patterns bring out more energy; our bodies are connecting to the land and sea.
When you see a pattern from a long way away, it catches your eye. It makes you come close. Like this pattern now. First you might see only the pattern and the colour, you might stop and think, this is lovely, or this is full of energy, but when you look closer can you see the people, the stories, the deep connections. If you come really close then you can see everything. It pulls you in.
This one now has more meaning and more connections by bringing in the Marraŋu people with their honey and bees. I’m the djuŋgaya for this clan. We’re connected through the land and through my own mother too.
My kids call Marraŋu mother, they have responsibilities for this ceremony. This is how we live. Not just one way. Balanda live only one way, they have only a small family, like with mum and dad and kids, brothers and sisters, maybe grandma and grandpa. But Yolŋu got more relationships. Our family spreads out. Out and out.
Looking at this picture you can see all the life. Spreading out and going deep.
Collaborating with Yolŋu means working with the irregular rhythms of lives shaped by stress of many kinds: poverty, welfare dependency, ill health, premature deaths, constantly shifting assimilationist policies, and other forms of bureaucratically-driven disempowerment and loss—all this strips meaning and purpose from the day-to-day. It is not just death that is relentless, it is the way that various accretions of loss, fear and disappointment shear away life itself. People are living very different lives to their fathers and grandfathers in over-crowded concrete houses in communities starting to sprawl beyond the size that once made them comfortably intimate. The urge to find a means to relax is strong, whether through marijuana, or kava, or card games, or the lulling routines of bubble-shooting games played on the phone. Sometimes, when things just get too much or perhaps disappoint too often, the best-laid plans (and the people who make them) go awry. Often in extreme ways.
As effects accumulate, the rhythms of life become erratic. Sorrow and frustration take an enormous toll. And yet—and this is harder to talk about without sounding naïve, especially in the face of public discourses that consistently figure remote Aboriginal communities in terms of a back-sliding metrics of disadvantage—there is also a robustness to life in Arnhem Land that I find extremely compelling. People shape their days with a certain resilient vitality that is generous, funny, and often wickedly clever.
Part of what I love about these creations is the way that they disrupt my, at times, overwrought tendency to figure their days as either sorrowful or vital, frustrated or happy, impoverished or funny. What I value most about these photographs is the ways that they allow strangers to apprehend something about Yolŋu life as it is made, and remade, framed as neither traditional culture, nor assimilation. In the process, a quiet politics of affirmation is played out.7
Jennifer’s Yolŋu name is Bununuk. That’s the name her märi gave her when we adopted her. She understands our life, but not everything. She still gets confused sometimes. So we help her and she helps us. We’re a team, working together with waŋgany mulkur, waŋgany ŋayaŋu. One heart, one mind. That’s what you have to do to get things done. Otherwise you are alone and nothing happens.
The word for maternal grandmother is märi, and this is perhaps the most important ritual relationship that Yolŋu have. If the calf is the part of the body assigned to one’s brothers and sisters, your belly signifies your mother, your märi is your backbone, because the märi carries her grandchildren on her back.
Despite my best efforts, I often make mistakes in my work as an anthropologist. These can be at the level of language and its transcription, or how I piece together a story out of the bits and pieces that people have given me over the years. Sometimes, I only recognise my mistakes in retrospect, once I’ve learned more. Unfortunately, Yolŋu are used to balanda getting things muddled. Though it must be extremely frustrating, I sometimes think that they find it a reassuring marker of the depth and complexity of what they hold dear.
Members of Miyarrka Media have known me long enough to know my limitations—linguistic, intellectual, emotional. I know theirs too. These understanding texture our relationship, and our anthropology. I work with people who implicitly understand that my perspective, no matter how soft-chested, will always necessarily be partial and positioned.
None of us are quite sure about how our yuṯa anthropology will be received by readers with whom we will likely never share the intimacies and struggles of daily life side-by-side, face-to-face and ‘in the ‘flesh’.
Together, but not mixed up: this statement indicates more than the potential of our shared anthropology. As we will see in the chapters to follow, it is a statement about how Yolŋu approach the possibilities of being Yolŋu, Australians, and participants in a global digital culture. As the phone brings new proximities, new relationships must necessarily be forged.4 The global did not pre-exist, it must be made.
Anna Tsing, thinking about the global from a very different vantage point, writes beautifully about collectives and assemblages. “Assemblages … are open-ended gatherings. They allow us to ask about communal effects without assuming them. They show us potential histories in the making …Thinking through assemblages urges us to ask: How do gatherings sometimes become part of “happenings,” that is greater than the sum of their parts?”8
It’s interesting to show our culture. To share us. They’ll give us and we’ll give them… What do balanda give us?…Wait, wait … respect, ŋayaŋu, dharaŋan, recognition. We don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings. We have to respect balanda and they will respect us. Because they want us to learn and we want them to learn with us. What Yolŋu life is really. It’s a way of encouraging us.
Everybody loves these bitja and all these new colours. So now in this book we are doing something new again. We have collected these bitja from our close family and then used the computer to make bitja with even more pattern and meaning. In this way, we can show how these bitja spread out to connect all Yolŋu families.
In this book we are remixing the bitja to make new patterns. This brings more energy, more colour, more deep meaningsm and more deeper richness of feeling, using new technologies that give us new ways to show the patterns and stories that make us who we are and where we belong and how we connect, whether we are walking around with a spear or with a phone.
Given my Yolŋu colleagues’ appreciation of the ways that telling stories and showing images are deeply social and political acts, they are acutely concerned not only about undue revelation of sacred sites, sights, and stories, but about the potential to shame individuals and families, and so contribute to a fracturing of relationships rather than a unification. Their emphasis on performativity, aesthetics, and social politics helped me to recognise the potential of this book in terms quite different to the social science I have been trained to produce.
As the person responsible for the way the text came together for a balanda audience, my task lay in finding a means to allow for our different perspectives, ambitions and understandings to become (and remain) legible, even as we claimed a unifying purpose. I needed this to be a shared anthropology that made room for sometimes being at cross-purposes and misunderstanding one and other.9 It was not enough to demonstrate the epistemological push-and-pull inherent to our work; my responsibility lay in finding a way for our voices to work together and so to enact the potential of becoming waŋgany that motivates us. After many months of false starts, I finally began to understand my role was not simply to write, but to be a curator, a cut-and-paste text-maker involved an ethical-aesthetic art of assemblage.
Dubudubu is the name of this eagle. It’s the name of this Ngurruwuthun boy too. He has eyes like an eagle. See? Sharp eyes. Here they are in the sky together, high up where they can see anything, even small things, moving on the ground.
This boy follows the Eagles football team. He’s the best player in his own team too. See the medals round his neck? They’re from school sports.
This little boy recently started boarding school, because he’s smart, smart, smart. The bird represents his muḻkurr [mind, head]. And he got a certificate with the eagle on it, because it represents the way he sees things from a long way away. He’s smart.
This picture is about my youngest sister and her cousin-sister, Relda Malaguya Wunuŋmurra, growing up the same.
These two Datiwuy clan brothers call themselves shark boys. That’s their identity and song. They know how to dance this and can be fierce and angry like the shark when he’s speared, or when he smells blood and starts turning and thrashing in the water.
There’s a special name for that splashing, shining and bubbling water the shark makes when it rises up. We call it djarraran bunmirr.
At the moment, these boys each live with a different grandmother in different communities. But here they are together again.
This man, Michael Yawundjur Nunguldurpuy, is named after the crocodile. When you look at this photo through culture you see his special fire glowing in the mouth of the crocodile. You can see the strength of that man too.
That bäru [crocodile] from Baykurrtji gave the fire to other Yirritja clans. He flicked his hands and the sparks we called nilngnilng spread the flame to every place. There are only three people left from the Baykurrtji Mardarrpa clan. He sometimes feels very alone.
The boys are surrounded by the colours of their homeland. Gordon’s is blue for Lungutja, the island near Yalakun. Shadrick’s is red, the colour from the Dhaḻwaŋu clan homeland of Gurrumuru. The stars are the Yirritja evening star, Djulpan.
Marrawakamirr’s daughter Laypu’ named this file SMM_JBW before she sent it through to me in Cairns. Marrawakamirr and I are painted up with ochre to dance at the funeral in Gapuwiyak of my sister’s son who was murdered on the quiet suburban streets of Nhulunbuy.
The initials JBW stand for my Yolŋu name, Jennifer Bununuk Wunuŋmurra. We thought about using these throughout the book instead of JD, but we decided against an additional layer of potential confusion.
Balpatji adopted our designer, Santiago Carrasquilla, on the rooftop of his apartment in Brooklyn after we’d worked together on an exhibition installation. Balpatji gave him a Gurruwiwi name that means rainbow and the kin relation of gathu [son]. Santiago had come up with the idea for the large collaged patterns that we displayed on large plywood boards at the American Museum of Natural History. They had worked so well as analogues for bark paintings that we decided to elaborate them further for this book.
That Djari is too clever with his computer. If you look at these new patterns he made and squint your eyes a little, they look like gamunuŋgu, like the ancestral designs that Yolŋu make. Just like those bark paintings that some Yolŋu sell in art galleries. Or give to musuems. This way of showing the bitja brings more meaning, and deeper feelings. It’s new and it’s really manymak, really good and beautiful. And Yolŋu will love them.
Gurrumuruwuy’s colour, pattern, lively directive has meant making a commitment to work with a publisher who could enable us to publish in colour. To publish these images in black and white would have been to brutally disavow the very processes of enlivenment that we champion—and the materialisation of relationships that the colours themselves enact.10
None of the images in this book are within the usual 300dpi range of acceptability for printing. That posed a significant challenge for the design, which we attempted to solve through the use of collage and gridded repetition. Occasionally, Santiago became concerned that we were pushing the tiny images beyond their capacity to hold their own. For instance, the file size of the ‘Shark Boys’ image was technically too way small for the double page spread we ended up giving it. Santiago’s impulse to solve this dilemma was to work the image further through additional processes of scanning and digital effects. While the resulting deliberatedly-pixelated image looked cool, it felt profoundly removed from the original. Santiago acquiesced but asked that I acknowledge his misgivings about the reproduction of that image and the large Elvis spread at the end of the book.
We spent quite some time on the cover design, creating a number of options to eventually settled this version as the best way convey the book’s content, themes, and aesthetic intent. Initially, I was concerned that the gridded arrangement of phones might be seen by other anthropologists as an yet another iteration of our discipline’s long-standingd and much-critiqued tendency towards to collection, categorisation, and display. These worries were allayed in discussions with Gurrumruwuy and others who reminded me that this book refracts a visual economy with its own sophisticated sense of pattern, arrangement and allure—and its own located politics of strategically authorised revelation.
For Gurrumuruwuy the priority was to come up with a cover that would attract potential readers. He liked this cover for the way for the relationships it invokes, seeing it as an apt ‘background’ for the deeper understandings to be disclosed inside the cover.
Balanda are interested in knowing about us. Through this anthropology we’ll teach them what is Yolŋu life. Because anthropologists are teachers for balanda. If balanda don’t know about our lives, they might go anywhere, ceremony or business side. So we are working to teach balanda: not just Bununuk, but all balanda, so that when they get to our community they already know and don’t walk around everywhere, going where they are not allowed and maybe bumping into men’s ceremonies.
We want to show how wide and how deep Yolŋu can see… Maybe that way you can see something new too. Because when you look through your phone with Google or YouTube or any of those bitja and video and games, you can see that we are all together in a global world.
In keeping with the spirit of remix and recombination that drives us, some texts that appear have been published elsewhere in different configurations. Similarly, the words have been assembled from of various sources, including audio and video recordings.
But as my Yolŋu colleagues made clear from the start, this would be a book for balanda, not Yolŋu. They therefore saw no reason to produce a bi-lingual text. In the transcriptions based on our discussions have retained the original Yolŋu matha.
With encouragement from Gurrumuruwuy, I took ideas and phrases from one source and added them to others. Listening to me read the resulting texts—sometimes over the phone and sometimes when we met in person—he endorsed this process. “You patch it together and it becomes reality. It sounds strong. Brings more. Stronger.” At times he would add bits, or change the wording of his own statements. He would point out where I had got things wrong and we would find ways to fix the error. He understood that there are long sections written from my perspective as anthropological mediator, sometimes using dense and unfamiliar language as well as references. In keeping with the Yolŋu cultural logic of ‘seeing for oneself’ and ‘speaking from one’s own perspective and level of authority’, it was agreed at the outset that we would all contribute to this book from our various points of view, as long as we did not say or show anything that might upset or shame relatives.
As we share this media—originally made for circulation amongst family members and never intended for display—we have tried to respect the personal and layered narratives they contain, providing detail enough so that the depths of the kinship they promote might begin to show themselves to strangers whilst staying within the realm of ‘outside’ knowledge. At the same time, we have tried to do justice to generations experimenting with ways to learn, connect and thrive, as they inhabit worlds of sensuous force and inside meanings, worlds that far exceed the registers of what the eye can see, the camera can capture, or, indeed, what this anthropologist will ever know.
Walŋa is the Yolŋu word for alive. We are making an energetic djorra [book]. Not dry or boring! But powerful and alive, what we call ganydjarrmirr.
Simeon used his phone to turn Wayne Guywuru into a movie star. See all the people sitting in the audience looking up at him? Guywuru is a Dhaḻwaŋu boy, he dances the red flag like his brothers and his fathers. That red flag has deep meanings for us. That’s where his power comes from. See the heat in the letters? That shows his connection to that Dhaḻwaŋu place called Gurrumuru
Guywuru is a big boy now. He’s in Alice Springs doing a rehab program, getting away from waymi [grass] and bitrul [petrol]. His momo just came back from taking him down there. She still loves that Red Flag Boy bitja.
Red Flag Boy is gone now. He passed away.
We took this photo at the opening of Gapuwiyak Calling exhibition in Cairns. The bitja shows Garkman, the green frog, who is the märi for all of us. Märi is the backbone for gutharra. Because märi carried our mum. Without märi you can’t see the world.
Märi is the boss for everything and through the maḏayin [men’s business] märi is boss for gutharra. Or, the gutharra will control the märi. Märi will give permission to gutharra and then they will handle all the ceremonial work. So the märi is strictly controlling and watching over everything. For all Yolŋu.
The Gumatj clan sing that special fire [gurtha]. Lots of different clans have fire, but Gumatj people have this one, with their different gakal [style] and different meanings. They put themselves in the gurtha because they belong to that gurtha and their grandfather. Not only gurtha, but bäru [crocodile] and maranydjalk [stingray]. It tells straight away that they are Gumatj.
See the ways the gurtha shines in their faces? It looks like they’re facing their father. And that’s got meaning. The faces shining, reflecting the fire. It’s their identity and their power.