Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Continuing Connections, Animating Collections and the Exhibition Little Paintings, Big Stories: Gossip Songs of Western Arnhem Land

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Continuing Connections, Animating Collections and the Exhibition Little Paintings, Big Stories: Gossip Songs of Western Arnhem Land

Article excerpt

Introduction

The Berndt Museum's exhibition Little paintings, big stories: gossip songs of Western Arnhem Land, researched and curated by the Berndt Museum's Archivist Eve Chaloupka and Associate Registrar Kelly Rowe, was held at The University of Western Australia from June through to December 2013. (1) This memorable body of work, presented as an audiovisual experience to the public for the first time, would not have been possible without the support of the Warruwi community members--let alone the generosity, insight and foresight of their forebears, the Mawng (2) and Kunwinjku storytellers, composers, performers and artists of South Goulburn Island (Warruwi) and the nearby mainland--who worked with Catherine and Ronald Berndt during their visits to the Methodist Overseas Mission settlement between 1947 and 1964.

This paper reports on the exhibition process over the 12 months from the initial idea and decision to hold an exhibition dedicated to early collection material originating from South Goulburn Island (currently part of the Berndt Museum's collections). It provides an overview of the exhibition and history around this remarkable collection, and includes an account of the curators' initial visit to Anuru Bay on the Namunidjbuk Estate and subsequent visits to Warruwi to discuss and develop the proposed exhibition with the traditional owners and cultural authorities, along with other community members. It concludes with the Berndt Museum's participation in a community celebration at Warruwi with a replica exhibition, following the exhibition opening at The University of Western Australia in Perth, and feedback the museum has received since, regarding renewed interest and focus on the stories and paintings that have evoked intergenerational memories and continuities within the community. This paper pays tribute to the Mawng people, their forebears and their descendants--the community of Warruwi on South Goulburn Island.

The exhibition

The semester-long exhibition Little paintings, big stories: gossip songs of Western Arnhem Land and its associated public programs held at The University of Western Australia were designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, drawing on an array of materials in the Berndt Museum collections--bark paintings, carvings, fibre-bound sculptures, sound recordings, photographs, musical instruments and archival papers, including correspondence and publications relating to Catherine and Ronald Berndt's early fieldwork activities conducted on the Goulburn Islands and in neighbouring areas of Western Arnhem Land.

Throughout their early fieldwork in the area--recording and photographing--the Berndts amassed a unique and highly animated collection of small bark paintings, rare visual narratives that support the stories and songs of Western Arnhem Land. The exhibition's focal point was on one of these song stories in the open song-dance genre, a sound recording of the Marrwakara (Goanna) story, composed and performed by John Gwadbu (deceased), including the tiny bark on which he painted the sequence of dramatic events taking place in the song. An animation based on the original bark painting's depiction of events was created for the exhibition with the permission of the artist's family, and was synchronised with the entrancing, melodic sound recording and then enlarged and projected onto one of the gallery walls.

The song was based on events that took place in a dream conveyed to the songman by what Ronald Berndt refers to as the songman's two spirit-familiars, and it concerned people who lived on the Goulburn Islands and the nearby mainland of Western Arnhem Land. This description and particular song featured in Ronald Berndt's paper 'Other creatures in human guise and vice versa: a dilemma in understanding', which was released in 1987 with an accompanying cassette recording of the song. Featuring animal creatures with human characteristics, this particular story about infidelity, deceit and subsequent punishment referred to an indiscretion within the community while protecting the identities of the central characters through this disguise. …

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