Roots / Routes is a cross section of visual research Robert Fielding has been conducting over the past 12 months. What commenced as the tracing of his family routes, grew into a much larger project. During a visit to the archives at the South Australian Museum in Adelaide the artist encountered many unattributed objects that were taken from his home of Mimili Community, formerly known as Everard Park Station. The work displayed explores a number of ceremonial objects, whilst keeping cultural protocol in mind. It also engages with the more recent history of the area, which saw the arrival of settlers, the establishment of a cattle station, and the handback of country to traditional owners through the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land Rights Act in 1981. Through the ongoing consultation with local community Elders, the artist has woven together old and new histories of a place, engaging in conversations about the repatriation of sacred objects currently held in museum archives. This exhibition is the first impulse to a much bigger conversation asking what meaningful engagement with our cultural collections could look like.This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.
Courtesy of Linden New Art. Photography: Theresa Harrison
(1) Alta, ochre, tutu, pirampa.
That’s who we are as people.Last year I set out to research my family roots, to find out more about my heritage. My father was part of the stolen generation, growing up in Colebrook Home (SA) without connections to his family on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. I have been reclaiming this heritage since moving back to Mimili 23 years ago, reclaiming a culture and language that – whilst part of me – were not part of my father’s upbringing. Growing up I was moulded by my mother, by Aranda and Muslim practices, practices I have been able to consolidate with the knowledge passed on to me by the Elders of my community Mimili.
(2) I have come to know and respect the maku tree as country, country here in Mimili is this tree. They are relatives, they are so close to one another. As are we.
Whilst many of my peers, friends and family may not have grown up away from country, they were never able to connect with the objects, photographs and histories belonging to their families. Too many roots of culture have been taken from country. Objects, stories and memories are now stacked in archival cabinets in the museums of the city. Whilst some museums strive to increase accessibility for community groups, the objects in the archive remain locked for the majority of time. They are available, but not accessible. Dead knowledge, out of context, hidden in vaults and secured with secrecy. The archives hold many photographs, images collected with little attribution of who or what was being displayed. In some cases, attribution got lost completely over time. There are many objects as well. Objects that have been collected, traded, taken; objects that should have never been removed from country. There are sound recordings that have vanished, and sound recordings that may have been displaced, or hidden by time.Visiting and viewing these objects in the archives can be a first step towards bringing them back to life, making them an active part of culture once again, making sense of them, giving them sense, continuing their story. This body of work attempts exactly that.
(3) The miru (spear-thrower) is an instrument of support, giving direction to the strengths of the kulata. There is no power without direction.
After sharing images of some of the cultural objects in the archive back home in Mimili, I spoke at lengths to my Elders Sammy and Ngilan Dodd. In response to some of the objects held in storage at the South Australian Museum which had been crafted by Sammy’s father and grandfather, Sammy and Ngilan made new cultural objects for use in my art practice. These objects carry within them the direction of the old, and the strengths of the new, celebrating the routines attached to contemporary Anangu culture and the important roles traditional objects and ceremonies still play for us today.
(4) Every branch has its history. Once a leaf has fallen off the tree, its life has finished. But the branch keeps on growing, and another leaf will return in its place. Forever renewing, like our culture.
The archives hold so much more than only objects. Each object carries within many stories, stories of their maker, their origin, their social role, their cultural role. These stories can only be read by few. We might be the last generation that is able to read them. This is why it continues to be important to take the first step into the memories of our own backyards. There is lots of work to be done, if we want to carry these stories on and outwards, and I will carry on following on the path of this research, guided by my Elders, as we continue to connect to the hidden treasures of the unknown.