An yuk ngeena’, koon ku’antaman umpana’?
In the in Aurukun, I am asking some of my relatives what wood they are using to make the teeth in their award-winning dog sculptures, recently exhibited in Melbourne at NGV’s Past Legacy, Present Tense exhibition.
Gary, Bevan, Leigh and Lex Namponan, Vernon Marbendinar and Roderick Yunkaporta were treated like rock stars when they opened the Melbourne exhibit late last year. They laughingly observe that zeros keep getting added to the price of their sculptures the further they travel from home.
But the dogs themselves are no joke – they are sacred totemic beings, an introduced species that has earned its own Dreaming alongside the dingo over deep cycles of time. I often wonder if settlers viewing these elegant/disturbing/humorous carved canines experience a deep-down longing to find a Dreaming of their own here in the same way, someday.
The iconic camp dogs are carved from milk-wood, and painted with a mixture of earth pigments and polymer paints. The synthetic paints prevent the ochre from crumbling and making a mess in indoor environments. There have been many such changes over time to these sacred objects, to accommodate the needs of the marketplace. Originally they were clay sculptures displayed only in ceremony, but with the introduction of wood-carving workshops by missionaries over a century ago, they became wooden products for a niche market. Today, there are still more changes to deal with.
Puulway nungkaram, kathway ngatharam, I am told, (your father-side totem, my mother-side totem), establishing our kinship connections to the dog sculptures. We talk about homelands on the Kendall River that I haven’t visited in years, and I am told that climate change and industrial activity have impacted it dramatically since then. The thanchal (milk-wood tree) used for the dog sculptures has stopped flowering in many places. The flowers are a sign of peak fat time for oysters, and those oysters are just not getting fat anymore.
I tell them I visited the exhibit in Melbourne and they express concern for my baby daughter, that she might get sick from being near the sculptures. Ya’a, ngay awalang thee’anga’, I reassure them that I put my armpit smell on her before and after, to protect her from the strong spirit of those sacred objects. I have a sudden thought then, and ask why the general public does not get sick from viewing these totemic objects.
I am told that there are too many made now, and with so many people viewing them, the story is not as strong, the power of the sacred image diminished as numerous eyes move across it. This weakening of spirit prevents most visitors from being affected.
However, private collectors enjoy a very different level of experience with the sculptures. They are protected because they are entrusted with a sacred story and ceremonial image that is shared with them by the artists. They take on a kind of custodial role for objects that are ringing with the power of story and totemic spirit. While I sit and listen as the artists call out the names and locations of the people who have bought their sculptures, it feels like those collectors have almost become part of the story, alongside a Dreaming that is not just a thing of the past, but unfolds in the present as well as the future.