Greetings from Beyond the Pale: A Death in the Family
I am still at Nyiripi, way out in the Western Desert. Paul and Clair are the ‘gudia’ (whitefellas) that run the place. The Walpiri reckon gudia are like Toyotas. They go really well to start with, but after a while they burn out and break down and you have to order a new one. But Paul and Clair are showing remarkable resilience.
The art project is going gangbusters. Putting traditional stories on canvas has been a masterstroke, elevating aboriginal art from the dusty realms of the museum to the forefront of the international art market. It is now holding its own with the very latest contemporary abstract art. Many a local talent has been plucked from her hand to mouth existence and sky rocketed to instant fame.
One such fellow, Michael Jacamara Nelson no less, limped into Nyripi one fine day with his arm in a sling and his tail between his legs. He had just sold a painting for $50,000, so of course he went straight out and bought a brand spanking new Toyota, as you would. But alas, on the long and winding road back home to Nyiripi he managed to roll it over and over and over ‘til it came to resemble a scrunched up ball of paper. Michael had emerged from the wreck miraculously unscathed, with no more than a broken arm and his pride in tatters.
Ah well, easy come, easy go.
Another day an old fella came knocking at the door, and though she loved him dearly, Clare didn’t want to see him at that moment, so we kept ‘mum’. He shuffled off, only to return soon after and knock more persistently. We kept quiet ‘til he said, “Miss Clair, I know you’re in there.”
Clair opens the door and says, “How did you know, Jumpajimpa?”
“Well Miss Clair, I follow your footprint. You go to shop, you come back. You go to clothesline, you come back. Then you no go any place.”
Old Jumpajimpa knew the mark of every foot in the whole community. The impression you make on your mother country is your identity (just like our credit rating is for us). We think of the desert as an inhospitable place, but if you live by tracking game it is the ideal environment.
Not long after, old Jumpajimpa died. He was well over fifty so his time was up. You should have seen the palaver that ensued; the screeching, the howling, the hysteria. Death was not a word to be whispered behind closed doors. Solemnity and decorum were not in order. His wives sat slumped in the dust, wailing and crying and moaning and cutting their scalps in a demented frenzy. The blood flowed freely down their bodies and soaked into the sand.
This went on all day and all night. After a week of the most incessant mourning Jumpajimpa’s few worldly possessions were ceremoniously burnt, and his whole family left their house never to return. To this day it remains empty and forlorn, abandoned to the four winds.
Every place old Jumpajimpa frequented was cleansed of his spirit with a smoking branch of eucalyptus. All footprints were swept away. Every trace of his existence was wiped from the face of the earth, and from that day on his name was never uttered under pain of death.
Ben Laycock grew up in the country on the outskirts of Melbourne, surrounded by bush. He began drawing the natural world around him from a very early age. He has travelled extensively throughout Australia, seeking to capture the essence of this vast empty land. In between journeys he lives in a hand-made house in the bush at Barkers Creek in central Victoria – benlaycock.com.au
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