Country sees you: A Bapang among Yolngu

Damien Wright

1 November 2020

Damien Wright gets a call from Galarrwuy Yunupingu to start a furniture workshop in the Top End, which teaches him what it means to be a Balanda (whitefella) working with Yolngu

My Yolngu name is Bapang. Djawa Yunupingu gave it to me. I had no idea what it meant. That came later, well after I was accustomed to the ring of the name. Bapang means “Driftwood, floating out in the lonely sea”. Struth!

I arrived in Gunyangara, North East Arnhem Land, to help set up a furniture studio for the Gumatj clan between the outrageous renewal of the wet and the staccato of the dry. It was a cool and calm May morning. A tall man of grace and power with a laugh in his eye, Bonhula Yunupingu took me into his gaze and said,

“The thing about Yolngu is they can see your heart.”

I asked, “Well what do you see,” and got no answer. A few days later—or was it weeks—Bonhula gave me a story. In Arnhem Land, Balanda (that is us whities) are like plastic bags that blow around in the wind. Mostly they fly away to god knows where, never to be seen again. Some get caught up in the trees and get torn to shreds. I loved Bonhula right away. He called me Bunggawa, “the Boss”. Later, after being adopted into a kinship network that I have a shamefully bad understanding of, Bonhula calls me Bapa, (father). And he is my Gathu (son).

I am a man of many names and faces but one heart and two hands. How does he fit together? Who is this “any” man? I look in the mirror and I don”t know that white fella.

Not a stranger, I do recognise him, but he is not who I expect to see. He just looks different: older, rougher, hard ridden and hung up wet. Somehow out of time.

The hands I know, the lines, scars, wrinkles and breaks. I could identify those hands in a lineup. They reveal the story of my life, what I have held and hit, what I have cared for and loved. These hands are actors. I have dedicated myself to getting a grip on them. The future and the past. Recently at a funeral for Uncle Bernie, my father’s brother, Auntie Margaret surveyed the Wrights’ hands to see who had inherited the curved index finger of her mother Veronica. I have it. Turns out my hands look quite like a lot of the Wright-Page clan.

Mates still call me Snowy or Spider, a comic reference to long-gone blond locks and long arms. Snowy exacts a snigger of mirth from my near-adult children. With little visual record available, it is words that paint the scenes of our youth. I retune stories as memories of those times evolve. My offspring have their names. Mostly it’s Dad.

The best their friends can conjure is Damo or even worse, Damos, which requires hard-won restraint not to overreact and insist they call me Mr Wright.

Wife, mother and father, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins call me Dame, full of affection and connection.

 

It is the Bapang guy that leaves me wondering. Somehow it is he that I most recognise when I go looking for myself, unsure whether I am part of the land or the sea; scarred, weathered and worn but beautiful nonetheless.

Where did Bapang come from?

In the winter of 2009, the Gumatj clan leader, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, appeared shivering in the doorway of my Northcote furniture studio. I had some idea that a visit was on the cards but no certainty about when. My father and I downed tools. We stoked up the potbelly fire, put on the kettle and spread out what food we had to share. I had bread, fish and chilli, but Dad had brought the leftovers of his book group the previous night. We feasted on cheeses, nuts and dried fruits. Over sourdough, black tea and mouldy cheese, my life shifted. Galarrwuy Yunupingu invited me to visit his homeland. He explained Gumatj’s forestry interests and his desire to develop a furniture industry. His belief that, as it always had, his land could hold his people and their future against disruptive forces. He thought I might be of use.

When I arrived at the community in the autumn of 2010 the Gunyangara workshop was already operating, in a fashion. Some rusty hand tools, poor quality machinery and a workbench or two. Galarrwuy Yunupingu and the Gumatj clan wanted more.

Gadyaka (Darwin Stringybark) dominates the savannah landscape of North East Arnhem Land. Yolngu have used the tree for an eternity, as a building material, as joinery timber for weapons, for warmth, medicine and musical instruments, for ceremony and art and food.

The trees and the people are indivisible. Gadayka is Yolngu. But for Balanda, it is what is underneath the gadayka that matters. North East Arnhem Land has huge bauxite deposits. For more than fifty years various mining companies have clear-felled the forest, scraped the top three to five metres of bauxite into massive trucks, loaded it onto one of the world’s longest conveyor belts, and moved it to the refinery at the tip of Melville Bay. There it is processed into aluminium oxide and loaded onto containers and the oxide shipped around the globe to be smelted into aluminium.

The trees are bulldozed into windrows and burnt. The land is rehabilitated. But it’s the wasteful burning of gadayka that offended and angered Galarrwuy Yunupingu and the Gumatj.

Galarrwuy Yunupingu knew gadayka was a beautiful, valuable and useful timber. He had no doubt. The doubt is colonial. Our settler society with its engineering prowess, adaptability and ingenuity digs the minerals out of the ground and sends them to market. Yet for fifty years one of the richest mining operations on the planet achieved no better outcome for old-growth hardwood forest than to burn it as waste. To the colonial eye “Darwin Stringybark” is useless, in no way important or valuable or respected enough to compete with our find it, fleece it and flog its extractive frontline.

As Galarrwuy Yunupingu puts it mining companies have “Ripped the land unmercifully.” (The Guardian, Helen Davidson, Garma Festival, 4/8/2019) Galarrwuy Yunupingu wanted to demonstrate that gadayka could be used as a furniture timber. He also wanted to prove that a furniture studio on community could be a sustainable enterprise with both social and economic benefits. Gumatj Corporation had a mill and a crack team of Yolngu workers trained in forestry and breaking down the trees. They had built houses out of gadayka. Sawn dried timber was there, ready to work with. I travelled the 5000 kilometres from Melbourne to Nhulunbuy and, over two weeks, we made a table. To the dance, smoke and song of ceremony, Bonhula Yunupingu, Djalong Yunupingu, Brian Gurruwiwi, Tony Munungurr, Russell Gurruwiwi and I made a table.

The table pleased Galarrwuy Yunupingu, and he asked me to return to run the workshop. I considered his offer,

“If I come back can I bring my family?”

He said, “Manymak ma”, meaning “Yes I approve, and no, I do not need to discuss it further.” I was slowly learning to keep my mouth shut.

 

So in 2010 my family and I moved from the grey of Melbourne winter to the brittle blue of the Gove peninsula and dove head long and open-hearted into what affectionately became known as “Yolngu madness”. With the coats and scarves we no longer needed, I shed layers of redundant self. The daily work of learning and teaching was immense: setting up a house and home, settling kids into a new school, trying to understand what was going on in the community, like stepping into King Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet. The sheer scale of everything was intoxicating. The 800-kilometre dirt road in from Katherine, the ever present sea calling you to jump in and cool off … but wait … look hard for baru and make sure the sun is not in your eyes when doing so! And what is that big brown thing? Oh, that is a four-metre crocodile—baru. It’s a member of the family and it has a name. Gradually we acclimatised to the human drama, at once incredibly restrained and unaccountably explosive.

In these early workshop days, I was visited by the old men and watched constantly.

Judgements were being made. I was asked on occasion to sit with old men. I was either asked to explain my family history, my ancestry or we would sit in total silence. Bonhula was my guide and companion.

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in June, I was quietly summoned to sit with Galarrwuy Yunupingu on his deck overlooking the magnificent bay at Dhanaya (Port Bradshaw). Galarrwuy explained that at Dhanaya “the breeze always finds you”.

Galarrwuy expressed his pleasure at the progress of the workshop. And appreciation for the works we had produced. Over the afternoon as the breeze danced with us the conversation shifted. Galarrwuy began calling me “Rupert”. I told him that that was not my name and with a cheeky smile he said: “I know that Rupert”. Galarrwuy explained in no uncertain terms that I was there at his pleasure and that I was there to learn.

He introduced to me the concept of Bala Ga Lili of “two ways learning” as a way forward for Yolngu and Balanda. And that he wanted the furniture studio to be a place of Bala Ga Lili. He observed that too many Balanda come to his country with the idea that they have the answers, that they can save the Yolngu. Galarrwuy insisted with passion and charisma that there is nothing wrong with Yolngu, nothing that Balanda need ” fix”. And that if I could look that fact straight up and down “level level” Yolgnu would show me “to” the country. Not the other way around. That the country would look at me, at us differently if I was up to it. The country itself was an agent in this lesson. It was an entity with a legal, moral, ethical and cultural persona that I needed to recognise, to give witness. And if my family and I had the courage Yolngu and Yolngu country would “see” us. Country could open me, head, hands and heart. But if I were weak of mind or body, if vanity and myopia got the better of me we would be shot to the breeze like plastic bags.

Bala Ga Lili — two ways learning — became the motto of the Dharpa Djama studio.

(Wood Work studio) Day in, day out we made furniture. I taught men and they taught me.

We did good work. We made tables, chairs, beds and supplied the building crew with decking. We also had days when the men would make things they wanted to make.

Bilma (clap stick), gara (spear) and galpu (woomera). Great days; the most memorable and inspiring of days. The skill transfer was inverted. The value system of craft was not being imposed by the colonist but shared, not post-colonialism but reverse colonialism. I could see and learn joinery techniques and problem-solving.

This was the true exchange. The men expressed a confident geometry, a different relationship to design, to narrative, to the hand, and body, to space and proportion. I started to think of the timber in terms of the way it sounded and started to dream about how the men’s woodworking skills and value system could be expressed through the objects we made. The first thing the men would do when new wood came in from the mill would be to pick two pieces up and hit them together for tone.

They would keen a note to see if the timber had the right pitch. They would set aside pieces that gave them the sound they were looking for knowing we would return to them. As Bruce Pascoe asserts in Dark Emu, “New ideas and new methods will arise out of the very oldest land-use practices.” (Pascoe, B, Dark Emu, Magabala Books, 2014, P148 )

It was months before my friend and wawa (brother by kinship adoption), Djawa Yunupingu, began calling me Bapang. By that time Bonhula had approved the quality of my heart, I was playing football for the Gumatj team, Gopu (tuna) and we owned a boat. The “Arnhem Queen” was a great success. Most days we would launch the boat after work and head out onto Melville Bay. We almost always had some extended family with us. It was such a release after the heat and dust and sand flies of the workshop. To be on the water to look back at the land. Our patterns were obvious so anyone who wanted to go fishing would turn up and climb in.

Eventually, I developed some literacy in the signal language of Yolngu men at least, the women’s hand signs remain a private mystery. Without saying a word, a fella could stand fifty metres away and ask if he and or others could come aboard. He would purse his lips, slap his leg and fling his arm toward the sky, as if throwing a rope or underarm spear motion, and look off past me into the distance. If there was room — and there nearly always was — I would gently nod, without looking the man in the eye. Next thing he was in the boat. If there was no room … “Yaka worries (no worries)”, he would keep on his way. When we returned at dusk, people would watch us and make a different subtle hand gesture — a half rotation of the outstretched hand. Asking: you got any for me? Which we nearly always did. We would hand the fish over and keep just enough for us. It was a delightful piece of the puzzle. A game of unspoken rules.

Of course, this time in our lives had to end. We needed to return to our home in Melbourne, but it was a gutting and traumatic decision to leave. We had fallen in love; we had given ourselves over. Like all love, living in Arnhem Land was complicated by desire and ego. It was confusing, exhausting, exciting. Who knows: did we do more harm than good?

 

There is one story of leaving I hold dear.

Again I was fishing. My wife Clare and the kids were already back in Melbourne. I was mopping things up. It was late February. The afternoon sky was impossibly dramatic. Cumulonimbus clouds dominated in grotesque gothic overstatement. I was desperately unhappy about going home. I felt adrift, cast away. I knew this would be my last chance to get out on the water, to go fishing with the Yolngu family who had adopted us and been so kind to us. My heart was breaking. In the boat was my workshop companion, Djalong Yunupingu, and his wife, Janice, two of their children and another couple I had not met before. As always, Djalong was the skipper. He spent most of the time trying to convince me that I should leave the boat for him. He made a pretty good argument. I was in the bow. The woman I had never met sat next to me. She didn’t say much but that is not unusual. Her husband sat at the stern half out of the boat with his back turned as far away from me as possible. He wouldn’t talk or look at me. If he needed something he would not allow me to pass it.

It was all very strange. Under an explosive sky, we caught plenty.

Back on the beach, cleaning fish, still not a word spoken or an eye met. The new fella was cleaning fish with a knife that my (birth) brother had given me and that I had already promised to give to one of Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s brothers. I was a bit worried in a neurotic way that I was not going to get it back. Worried that this fella I did not know had taken a liking to the yiki (knife) and would keep it. Normally I would not care, but in the state of mind I was in, I was bothered. I turned to Djalong, who from day one had been my most patient teacher, and asked him with my eyes what was going on. He gracefully pointed his elbow at me. The penny dropped. The man with my knife was my gurdi (poison cousin). I didn’t know who he was but he knew who I was and knew exactly where I fit into his family. We had an avoidance relationship. He wanted to go fishing but did not want to disrespect the relationship that bound us.

What I had taken for rudeness was an acknowledgment of place, of belonging of country. I was blown away. Here was the light in my darkest hour. Doubt relieved by being ignored. Silence. I had loved the sense of family and community and I thought all was lost; that I would be just another plastic bag blown out to sea. That I had no place in Gunyangara. And there I was, in a boat on Melville Bay, absorbed into an ancient and beautiful kinship system that accepted me as family. The poison cousin finished gutting the fish, gave the knife to his wife who without a word gave it to me.

Like craftsmanship, avoidance practices require control over movement. A mastery of emotion, creativity, imagination and discipline. To join the head, the hand and the black black heart.

Washed up again in Melbourne, beaten and battered, a continent from Gunyangarra.

Back at the bench with the newest and oldest tool there is Bala Ga Lili—two ways learning. Our future is handmade.

Author

Damien WrightDamien Wright is an award-winning furniture designer and craftsman. He works almost exclusively with recovered Australian timbers, in particular, indigenous hardwood species that are not traditionally used to make furniture. Damien sources his timber directly from farmers and millers in western Queensland, NSW, Victoria and Tasmania. He is acclaimed for his unique ‘whole tree’ approach to furniture design and construction. Damien employs rare joinery techniques such as blind-mitred dovetails and thick veneering. Contracting on a commission-only basis, Damien works either directly with clients or through architects and interior designers. His public commissions include the Federal Court of Australia, theNational Gallery of Victoria, the Melbourne Immigration Museum, Federation Square Management offices, the Koori County Court of Victoria and the Archdiocese of BrokenBay. Damien’s private commissions are represented in family homes and private art collections. The National Gallery of Australia has acquired his iconic piece. Visit www.wrightstudios.com.au and follow @damienwrightstudios/

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