A White Woman’s Guide to Indigenous Art

1 November 2012

When you first arrive, the doors are shut,
Big white doors, space off limits, nothing
To see here, wrong day, wrong time,
Interior closed to outsiders, go home.

She is somewhere in there, you are not.
When you return, a second coming, the passage is clear,
Navigable, free open spaces,
Place open for business, welcome.

You enter.
Wandering around, you search for her name,
Carol Maanyatja Golding: part of it easy on the tongue,
Part of it

A planet apart, a language away,
Untranslatable, unsayable, other.

Title: Muruntjarra munu Walu, you don’t even try,
Too many consonants, too many vowels:
This journey is for the eye.
And immediately you feel it, you think you can feel it, the power

Of polymer coloured like earth
Placed onto canvas in patterns.
But there it stops. These furrows and dots worth
So much to someone— curlew song? kangaroo tracks? the slow burn

Of ancestral campfires?— build to a darkening loss in you,
A hunger, a famine, black spots before the eyes.
Where is the world? You cannot make sense

Of her dreaming, her signs, no sense
Of the story within the lines, can surmise
Less than naught in her pointillist design, hitherto

You have rarely felt whiter.
Give me two eyes, a nose and a mouth smiling out of a possible face,
Give me a door, a window, a roof.
You want to erase
All that is wrong here, want your heart to feel lighter,

Safer, less random, less subject to discomfort, this.
You need something stronger
Than two hundred years, an age or two longer
Than six generations of see how it goes, let me in, let me out, hit and miss.

Welcome to country. Take off your shoes, take
What you want, take it, take all of it, it is yours.
And then, when there is none of it left anymore,
Nothing you want, you can take the memory
and break

It to bits, and bring all the pieces to a Federation Square exhibition
Like this, and take her ticket, and invite her in, both of you nearing extinction.

A background of black. Clusters of dots— orange, yellow, pink, white—
Beneath a lattice of lines. You screw your sight
To a magic-eye hope that a picture you recognise might just pop out
But it won’t. You watch waves of indigo, blue swirl about
And try to imagine a sea in a desert but you can’t. You stand there,
Stupid, and call her name Carol! Maanyatja! Golding! You stare
At the painting, white noise in your head, crying Speak! Speak!
But she doesn’t. You flip the catalogue for clues, some kind of critique

But this work is not included. She has a black skin,
You have a black heart, but you can’t seem to join the dots. If some
Kind of inherent relationship exists, a code or secret
To allow you in, a connective thread, no matter how thin,
Linking her land to your own childhood home
(Melway ref. 47, F1), face it, you just cannot see it.

This place is pleasant, Heave away, haul away, isn’t it.
White-washed walls, an-apple-a-day, a surfeit

Of everything, for everyone! everyone! Bought from the Crown
At an acre a pound in 1841, the German orchardists cleared the bush
To plant new trees in pleasingly logical rows. You are six years grown,
You have what you need, plus a dog and a bike to push.

This suburb has been here forever. Weekdays you learn
To count numbers, read rhymes, you can sing your alphabet
Backwards. Weekends you wander with unconcern,
Piano and tennis and Sunday School, the television set

Black and white. Yes, childhood is all that childhood should be.
And losing yourself among the Koonung Creek edges
And hearing your mother’s voice Jordie! Jordie!
You follow your name, all the way home, back to cold chops and three veg.

You never did see an indigene
Dad, what does Koonung mean?
Until you were twenty-one.
She was drunk on a curb in Bruns-
Wick Street, cursing and screaming Please! Please!
And you drove her straight up the road to St V’s
Where she promptly gave birth on the linoleum floor
By the Male Toilet door
Right there and then
In front of the men
Going in, coming out
Her baby came out
A pale brown newborn son.

When you rang the next day she’d gone.

There is a place called Walu, way off the Melway,
A waterhole in sand-hills near a large salt lake
Between Warakuma and Papulankutja
(The east Gibson Desert of Western Australia to you).

This is where she was born.
Language: Ngaanyatjarra
Skin: Panaka
Year: circa 1930

Two ancestral men and a little boy were camping at Walu rock hole.
The men went hunting and left the little boy behind.
The men returned with an emu and pulled out its heart.
The boy was holding the heart and blood spilled onto the rocks.
The boy ran away with the heart and turned into wind.
The blood stained the rocks and can still be seen today.


You fly home over agitated bones, you will sleep
Among doors and windows and rooves,
Recite stories about little girls and big bad wolves
From the spires of a Europe steeped
Within, and the traffic jams up like cattle
In your heart, you are stalled, there is ceremony beneath
The neon and tarmac and ten percent off, small relief
As the centuries start to do battle
And you drive way, way out of your way
To the place where the avenues cross,
The peach trees and pear trees you climbed as a kid are lost
Under lawns, and the people, where are they,
Who is left, who is gone, where have we gone.
Where has history gone.

You look down the wide black road
with the thin white line
And don’t know which bone to move.
You need a song to sing, a chant, a stick to hit
But you can’t, you don’t know where to begin. It
Gets you then, This is longing, This is love,
This is life, This is death,
call it dreaming. Call it design.

And you deepen your breathing, endeavour to silence
The mob in your mind, quiet the science
Of statistic, attitude, aptitude, god, everything you have been taught.

You empty your head of all thought—

— And slowly, so slowly, the clamour recedes.

And slowly you enter country…

You take the first step to undo your heart,
That you may finish,
that you may finally start.

When at last you arrive, the painting is open,
Wide and open as a poem in a book,
Come in, sit down, have a look.
Your story may not be Ngaanyatjarra clan

But perhaps it is here, part familiar, part other.
And perhaps you will read of a long lonesome
Voyage. Of leaving behind the knowledge of home.
Of seeing the arms of your grandmother’s grandmother

Wave, diminish then fade to the white Cornish fog.
And perhaps you will read of the babies and bones
That tell you you are no longer alone.
That your story is one dot of many in time, a moment, prologue

Of earth, sky, fingertip, door.
A possible face, even yours.

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