With Darwin 550 kms to the west, Maningrida was established as a trading post after World War 11. A coastal settlement in central north Arnhem Land, it is now the gathering place for approximately seventeen different language groups of people. Families live in, care for and are cared for by, some of the most pristine lands in the world and a person may speak several separate – comparatively local – languages with, increasingly, Australian English on top.
We’ve flown in to visit Maningrida Arts and Culture. The west side of the airstrip steps back from the Liverpool River – slithering away like the neighbouring crocodiles – and sports a westerly sea breeze. The eastern end of the strip hails the prevailing easterly winds so either way landing is usually with a tail-wind; not ideal in the Cessna 180 tail-dragger aircraft who behaves far better with a wind on her nose.
Grizzly Carl from Europe lives in one end of the small terminal building and growls at people the other end when he’s not refuelling aeroplanes, or tending his beloved flowers prettily spread about the apron. Secretly he gives treats to the children from behind his stable door that doubles as the receipt counter.
Maningrida Art and Culture’s space is voluminous. It needs to be huge as sculptures the size of trees and weavings as big as walls gather to await documentation, curation, purchasing, packing, and with the fortnightly barge, shipping.
Periodically vehicles loaded to the gunnels arrive from distant outstations with painters, sculptors and weavers descending on this their own Art Centre. The artists sell wholesale the barks, baskets, carved creatures – plenty of wild and magnificent spirits here – and Lorrkon (Hollow Logs) before stocking up on supplies with everyone, nearly, eagerly heading back home. An artist or two may stay; an engagement abroad perhaps, instead catching the twin turbo-prop ‘plane to Darwin for departure to Paris like John Mawurndjul, or for Nicole Kidman to meet with Crusoe Kurdal, again.
Leila Nimbadj runs the local plant nursery, a thriving business. She takes us to discover which trees are good for fibre, those for barks those for sculptures. Rocking in the back of a 4WD ‘troupie’ we pass grasses and gums, flashes of bright-water pools and bird-wings as they skim past trunks and burnt black stumps.
Not far from the dusty track lay the tangled leaves, fresh young shoots and crispy twigs of miles of undergrowth every-which-way below the tell-tale trees talking of fire and rain over again. Standing still to inhale the Eucalyptus perfume filling the air is pure heaven. A fly rushes past with the noise of a racing car. Each step seems to step on preciousness and the birds tell each other of it.
With expert hands Leila peels back a quickly sliced-off sheet of bark (brachychiton megaphyllus, pictured above) and pulls apart moist sinewy strands with the gentle force of experience. Spliced and twined this fibre adds to life; baskets for food, babies or fuel; mats for shelter, insect protection and to lay upon. And boundless artistry. The colour dyes used in designs are a whole world of their own in the making and owning in themselves. You may like to read the book ‘Twined Together’ by some of the Arnhem Land weavers, edited by Louise Hamby.
A place of creation and cultural continuation, of challenge, change and determination, Maningrida is a multi-layered community of achievements, set-backs and re-invention. But we only have to see the art in our National and State Galleries and Museums, or meet the people, or come to Mangingrida Arts and Culture, to see that Maningrida and surrounds is truly a place where marvels live and are made.
This article first appeared on www.palya.com.au 4th December 2016.
Helen Read is an artist and former nurse-pilot for the Pintupi Homelands Health Service in Walungurru (Kintore), Kiwirrkurra, Gibson Desert, Central Australia.
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