Tuesday, February 22, 2011


We finished the first section of the Aboriginal Australia course today, with a screening of Kim McKenzie's 1980 film, "Waiting for Harry." It records the (third and final) funeral of an Anbarra elder on a beach in Arnhem Land, and in just an hour manages to capture the joy, complexity and the longueur of the process. Many people from many clans gather for the ceremony, but various parts of it can only be performed by particular people - for instance: each animal on the hollow log coffin can only be painted by someone who owns that image, possibly managed by his sister's son. This includes some island people who speak a different language and have only a trading relationship with the Anbarra, and the dead man's sister's son Harry, who is hard to find. By the time it finishes, and we see nothing but the painted coffin upright in a sand-sculpture on an abandoned beach, we have seen the remarkable interweavings of kinship, Dreaming performances (painted, sung, danced) and contingency which constitute Yolngu tradition. I hope the class recognized a lot of what was going on, and noticed that they were recognizing it.

Our journey through Yolngu traditions has taken a rather quixotic course. We began with the film "Ten Canoes," then read the study guide to it prepared for Australian schools, and watched the making-of docco "The Balanda and the Bark Canoes." There followed three essays about the film, two by a historian of material culture (here's one) and the third by an important film critic, and another film shot in the same environs with some of the same people performing, but in every other respect different: "Crocodile Dreaming" is the work of an Aboriginal (though not Yolngu) film-maker, and uses genre conventions of horror films rather than documentaries. We finished with accounts of Yolngu ethnography, religion and funerary culture by anthropologist Howard Morphy, paired with the website "12 Canoes," an analysis of Aboriginal kinship systems (Walbiri rather than Yolngu but similar in important respects) from an ethnomathematics textbook, and, finally, "Waiting for Harry."

Reviewing these today (the most media-heavy teaching I've ever done, let alone the most media-reflective), I explained why we'd not started with Morphy's masterful ethnographic overview (something a few of the students had said they wished we'd done). I told them I wanted them to have an experience more like immersion, and also wanted them to have to wrestle with issues of representation, collaboration, authenticity and indigenous reinvention without the easy comfort of a road map, a master plan, an objective scholarly analysis and synthesis. My sense is that climbing around in the tree of which "Ten Canoes" is a twig gives a more authentic picture of the ongoing vitality of Aboriginal traditions, and of the challenges facing Aboriginal communities today.

Our next section's on "storytracking" representations of Australian Aboriginal religion in western theories of religion - more familiar turf for me, though who knows, after this sojourn among the Yolngu, it may seem unfamiliar, too!
Image: a Yirrkala bark painting representing ganma,
the coming together of sweetwater and saltwater rivers,
and a metaphor for intercultural understanding in Australia. (Source)

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