Never ending story: Desert Mob 2013
By Kieran Finnane, 9 September 2013,
Published on: Alice Springs News Online

At Antara a woman was trying to build a shelter. Things were going wrong.
In her frustration she swore, she spoke of men’s business. A man was watching her…

“I was feeling cold,” the singer chants, and continues her story:

The man killed the woman with a spear to the heart… He cooked her on a fire.
He speared her… I was feeling cold… he speared her and she fell down…
He was standing up, he was watching her, he speared her…
That spear went into her heart and she fell down…
She was swearing. He chased her and he killed her.

This story of transgression and violent retribution and the contrasting impressions of the high, sweet voice as the story was sung, scenes of the sunlit bush, a secluded valley, scenes of the artist Betty Pumani at work, explode my viewing of her striking painting, Antara.

Its blood-red core is no longer an intriguing aesthetic choice amidst a pale field of finely dotted motifs, but a representation of specific violence – the upward thrusting, elongated red form no doubt the spear, the red trail to the edge the woman’s blood as she died. It’s also a story of a specific place, a sacred place, Antara, a permanent reminder of a crime and its punishment, more chilling than any clause of our Criminal Code.

The repeated refrain, “I was feeling cold”, may well be referring to the woman’s need for shelter but it also sent a shiver down my spine as the song’s story unfolded and seemed to suggest something of how the artist might have felt as she laid out the fearful story in paint.

The lyrics as quoted above may not be a perfect transcription; they are taken from hastily scrawled notes of the subtitles running on a short film shown by Mimili Maku Arts at the Desert Mob symposium last Friday. Matching up the film with Pumani’s painting hanging in the exhibition was a revelatory experience and underlines the power that a film like this has in communicating with an Aboriginal artist’s public.

Desert Mob incorporates hundreds of works and it is no doubt beyond the resources of the art centres, Desart and the Araluen Arts Centre who present the exhibition in partnership, to provide more interpretive materials, though the lack of even one reflective essay in the catalogue is regrettable as was the absence of a meaningful speech on opening night.

The occasion of Desert Mob is one of the most significant interfaces between Central Australia, particularly its Aboriginal people, and the rest of the world and as such it deserves the moments taken to honour it in a speech. Such a speech doesn’t need to be lengthy but does need to be thoughtful and uplifting. The next night at Raft Artspace curator Dallas Gold was able to strike the right note and received a deserved ovation (his short speech is quoted in full at the end of this article)…[Read more]