Archival cultural materials held by the South Australian Museum were conveyed to their Wik, Wik Waya and Kungu traditional owners from Aurukun on western Cape York in Queensland to jolt the memories of the old and create them freshly for the young.
A group of these far-flung elders, artists, community members and youth have now brought their new knowledge and new images back to Adelaide to create the exhibition – Oonyawa: From Museum Back to Country.
That a large strand of their history lies in Adelaide and not Brisbane is the first fortunate coincidence and is due largely to two extraordinary anthropologists and linguists. One is the late Ursula McConnel from Queensland, and the other is the remarkable Dr Peter Sutton, author and senior research fellow of the South Australian Museum and the University of Adelaide.
Ursula McConnel puts Daisy Bates in the shadows as an intrepid adventurer living and learning among the Aboriginal people. She walked vast distances through the 1930s, was an expert horsewoman, a linguist and photographer who recorded the people of the vastly isolated world she shared with them.
Although from Queensland, she had Adelaide links among academe and in particular her close friend the distinguished Dr Helen Mayo,. So she chose to bestow Adelaide with some of her photographs and collections of sacred Aboriginal artifacts.
Later, Dr Peter Sutton, who will open the exhibition on 13 December, walked in her footsteps among the people of Aurukun and Oonyawa. He not only lived among them through the 1970s and beyond, learning their languages and recording their culture, he was also adopted by them.
As an Adelaide-based academic, he brought back and gifted photographic and oral records to the museum.
And then one day a tin trunk appeared at the museum. Full of Ursula's photographs and written records, it had been brought in by an insightful developer who found it while demolishing a suburban property where it had languished forgotten since the death of Ursula's niece.
With remarkable serendipity it fell into the hands of none other than Peter Sutton. And thus, Adelaide's collection of Oonyawa records grew and was studied and nurtured amid the South Australian Museum's nationally significant holdings of Australian Aboriginal history.
In the final coincidence, linguist Louise Ashmore and artist and art therapist Gina Allain had made more recent connections with the Wik, Wik Waya and Kugu people.
Gina lived in Far North Queensland to teach art at the behest of her husband Guy Allain, who was running the art centre at Aurukun, and also had become deeply enmeshed by and devoted to the people.
Knowing of the South Australian Museum’s collection, it made sense to the women to bring past and present together.
They copied photos and tape recordings and reunited the Aurukun people with the voices, stories and images of their relatives.
And it moved them to move, to go back to Country, which was Oonyara, a mysterious place where people no longer lived. And there to share old knowledge and record this extraordinary converging of past and present.
The experience spurred them to paintings and more storytelling.
Traditional Owner Ada Woolla explained that hearing the recordings of her father telling stories right there in the land where he told them was very emotional, almost “like sleeping next to him”.
“It has made us happy to hear the old people telling stories. We treasure everything that Back to the Country has told to us. At Aurukun our culture is very very strong.”
Ada, an Aurukun Shire Councillor, a Family Responsibilities Commissioner, and a member of the Domestic Violence Taskforce, brought her granddaughter on the trip to Adelaide where, apart from the exhibition in the museum, the group explored yet more of their culture's archives held in the museum's archives.
She believes this special exposure adds a thread of continuity. Her granddaughter has heard her tell stories of her Country and now she can hear them as told by her grandfather. She will now carry greater generational connections which she, in turn, can pass down.
Paintings have been a rich dividend of this beautiful cross-cultural project. Many of these works are in the exhibition.
Gina Allain explains that some older women have painted for the first time. Some have worked in collaborations. Granddaughters have prepared the canvases ready for mothers, aunties and grandmothers to work on depicting their stories and then and now connections of Oonyawa, which is known as a mysterious place, a place of ghost stories.
Other artists, such as Mavis Ngallametta, whose works have been snapped up by state collections all around Australia, also are represented in this exhibition.
Oonyawa: From Museum Back to Country opens at the SA Museum on Saturday 13th December and runs until February 28.
Artist talks will be held on Sunday 14th December.Jump to next article