Mowaljarlai Vision and Voice gives insight into bush professor

Published in The Australian, 16 April 2016
Victoria Laurie

It would have been a treat to witness the meeting of the two strangers at a Kalgoorlie mining conference in 1974, David Mowaljarlai and Hannah Rachel Bell.

The lean-framed Ngarinyin law man, then 49, had been invited to tell 500 hard-nosed mining executives about Aboriginal land rights, at a time when the West Australian government remained hostile to any ceding of mineral-rich land. From the whitefella side of the divide was 27-year-old Bell, a sharp-minded adviser to governments on equality issues whose talk was on women in the workforce.

“Neither of us were blockbuster attractions but (we) filled the politically correct ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘women’ inclusivity sections of the ­agenda,” Bell wryly observed years later. She was incredulous to watch how the Kimberley law man held his audience in awe “as he quietly and passionately offered them the fundamentals of Ngarinyin philosophy and beliefs”.

“As conference ‘outsiders’, we struck up a lifelong friendship and worked together for three decades as co-creators of Two Way Thinking initiatives.”

That last sentence only hints at one of Australia’s most fruitful cultural partnerships that began that day over a post-conference cup of tea. It ended with Mowaljarlai’s death in 1997, mere weeks after he finished his last artwork, Big Wandjina — Waderi and while mourning the death in custody of one of his sons. Bell’s work continued as executor of Mowaljarlai’s estate until she died in October last year.

Mowaljarlai Vision and Voice: Legacy of a Bush Professor is the first helping of a generous gift that, in effect, the pair has bestowed to the world. It is also the first glimpse of an impressive collection of Mowaljarlai’s life work that has been assembled by the Berndt Museum at the University of Western Australia.

It contains Mowaljarlai’s paintings, drawings and sketches, along with personal photographs and audiovisual footage, documents and papers. It contains his Order of Australia, awarded to him by governor-general Bill Hayden in 1993, and even the old man’s bush hat.

On film and in photographs, which will go on display next week, the quietly spoken and ­patient Mowaljarlai is seen describing, drawing, gesturing with a grand sweep of his arm, using any means to carry — in curator Eve Cha­loupka’s words — “complex knowledge systems imbued with wisdom, transmitted through eons past, into the future”.

It was a tragic diagnosis of motor neurone disease that prompted Bell to look for a home for Mowaljarlai’s estate and her own substantial archive. She was already familiar with the Berndt Museum, which had opened in 1979 as a home to the archives of anthropologist couple Ronald and Catherine Berndt, who had worked closely with the Ngarinyin people and knew Mowaljarlai well.

In the months leading up to her death last October, Bell worked alongside Chaloupka to document, house and make accessible the collection she had handed over.

Meanwhile, it was essential to ensure Mowal­jarlai’s family approved. Accompanied by UWA anthropologists Sandy Toussaint and Martin Porr, an ailing Bell travelled to meet family members in Broome, Derby and Mowanjum, the discrete community that Mowaljarlai had helped to create in the 1950s after his people had grown weary of being moved from mission to town outskirts.

“It was a fraught trip,” says Chaloupka. “Hannah got very ill on the plane on the way back and saw that she would never be able to fly again. But it was very important to her, and they met with the last of the old Ngarinyin law men.

“To the end, Hannah was working to ensure David’s vision was realised. She made it very clear it was to be in his voice. So there are all these stories with Mowaljarlai as a central figure, a keeper of what Hannah called ‘Mowaljarlai world work’.”

That ‘world work’ had turned the cheerful 10-year-old boy, photographed by early ­researchers at his remote northwest Kimberley mission home at Kunmunya, into an accomplished man with myriad careers. The young bushman helped US forces in World War II locate Japanese airmen who had been shot down; the cultural interpreter led aca­demics and filmmakers to near-impenetrable Kimberley bush sites to admire his beloved Wandjina rock art ancestors; the statesman was invited to Paris in 1997 to visit UNESCO headquarters; the tribal law man stood in waist-high grass, before a gathering of native title lawyers, to argue for rights to his own country.

A small display of photographs — from Berndt’s collection of 650 images — hints at the staggering range of his activities as law man, philosopher, visionary, artist, activist, storyteller and bush professor. Thick piles of documents point to many more activities. Mowaljarlai was instrumental in creating the first Ngarinyin language dictionary, the first translation of the Bible. He helped found the Kimberley Land Council and championed the rights of Aboriginal people at Noonkambah in the early 1980s when drilling rigs moved in.

He gained national attention as a strident advocate for the return of skeletal remains from foreign museums. With other elders, he created a Pathways Project that recorded cultural ­places with filmmaker Jeff Doring; he and Bell set up Bush University, a cultural tour project that aimed to educate visitors to his homelands. They ran workshops on “two way-thinking” in which Aborigine and non-Aborigine would walk together, “two cultures together, side by side, into a co-cultural future”.

Then there were Mowaljarlai’s extra­ordinary paintings; from 1992 on, he produced 60 canvasses recording the evolution of Ngarinyin law from Creation Time to the present. With each canvas came Bell’s detailed written records. Forty of the paintings, and original sketches, have remained in storage at Melbourne’s Kimberley Art Gallery, though Bell hoped they would be added to the Berndt Collection one day.

“In the last five years of his own life, David Mowaljarlai was a bit disillusioned that a lot of his knowledge would be locked away in ­archives,” says Chaloupka. “He felt his ‘deep story’ that had been transferred to him would be lost, that what he’d shared wouldn’t end up ­accessible to all but end up quite academic. He was very passionate about working with other people to ensure it was all documented.”

Mowaljarlai: Vision and Voice reflects the good fortune that he enjoyed in those working friendships. The exhibition owes much to committed filmmakers, artists, writers, academics and photographers who documented his life.

Most palpable is Bell’s presence; the granddaughter of Queensland missionaries, she said that as an 11-year-old she had vowed to become a missionary in India. “Well, I ditched that idea somewhere along the way,” she once remarked. “But I carried that energy I suppose of learning, of (being a) journeywoman.”

Frustrated that bureaucracies didn’t listen, Bell set aside her professional advocacy as an adviser to state and territory governments and lecturer. Returning to the Kimberley, she and Mowaljarlai set up their Bush University and the Ngarinyin Education Initiative, a cultural and educational exchange program through which three dozen indigenous students were educated in Perth’s prestigious private schools.

There were other gifted travellers along Mowaljarlai’s life path. Sydney-based photographer Jutta Malnic spent six years working with him after visiting the Kimberley to photograph rock art. Together they produced Yorro Yorro: Everything Standing Up Alive, a book that publisher Magabala Books describes as “a creation story that reaches back 60,000 years” and “the oldest collective memory of humankind”.

Malnic’s haunting black-and-white portrait of Mowaljarlai has pride of place in Vision and Voice. More momentously, the large body of Malnic’s Kimberley archives has joined Bell’s gift to become part of the Berndt Mowaljarlai collection. It includes 55 audiocassette tapes and transcripts of conversations she had recorded with Mowaljarlai between 1984 and 1987. “When Jutta heard that Hannah was depositing her collection here she said, ‘I want to do the same thing’,” says Cha­loupka. “So within a couple of months we had two really significant collections of Mowaljarlai archives, personal and professional, transferred to the museum.”

Malnic’s transcripts capture Mowaljarlai’s magnetic personality, in particular his natural skill as an educator. In Yorro Yorro, as dawn rose over the King Edward River where they had gone in search of “lost” Wandjina paintings, Mowaljarlai observed: “With this beautiful colour inside, the sun is coming up, with that glow that comes straight away in the morning. The colour comes towards me and the day is waiting … You have a feeling in your heart that you’re going to feed your body this day, get more knowledge.

“You go out now, see animals moving, see trees, a river. You are looking at nature and giving it your full attention, seeing all its beauty. Your vision has opened and you start learning now. In the distance you feel: ‘Aaahh — I am going to go there and have a closer look!’ You know it is pulling you. When you recognise it, it gives strength — a new flow. You have life now.

“Then you put it in your storeroom, in the little room in your brains here. You taped him, you got ’im in there! You are going off now, to see what the day will hold. You feel a different person. One more day is added to your life, you will be one day richer.”

Yet even Mowaljarlai must have doubted his capacity to keep Ngarinyin tradition alive among his Kimberley people and in wider Australia. In a poem in Yorro Yorro he writes:

Once I was past and future,

Now I am only the present,

Today, the moment,

And that is hard to bear,

With no past, no future.

The Berndt collection may inspire a wave of new interest in Mowaljarlai’s “world work”; Chaloupka says her exhibition displays only a small part of the riches that lie in 12 archival boxes donated by Bell and Malnic that have not yet been fully curated.

But dipping into one box, Chaloupka was thrilled to discover a mysterious photograph that seemed to affirm the rightness of Mowaljarlai’s new archival home. The photo shows the Berndts at the museum’s opening ceremony, posing with senior law men from around Australia. Standing prominent among them is Mowaljarlai.

“Seeing that they had kept this photo and knowing how meticulous the Berndts were in hoarding things, I knew there would be a sound recording of the event because I found a written transcript of the speeches,” ” Chaloupka says.

She wondered if Mowaljarlai’s words had been captured on tape. “I found it and had it digitised immediately, and so you can hear him speaking in the show.”

Mowaljarlai’s community and family members will travel to Perth next week to view the archive and attend the show’s opening. Henry Mowaljarlai, the law man’s oldest son who lives in Mowanjum, will not be attending but has given approval for a short video documentary of his father to be aired.

“Aboriginal people talk about images with energy, they have deep meaning,” says Cha­loupka. “And as soon as people come to visit collections like this, they are ‘activated’. So every step of the way there have been checks, checks, checks. I’ve also been making photos available through one of our volunteers for the family to take back, so they know what’s here. It will be a lovely rounding off of this project, knowing that they know it’s here.”

Mowaljarlai Vision and Voice: Legacy of a Bush Professor, April 23 to September 17, Berndt Museum, University of Western Australia, Perth.