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troublemag | June 25, 2024

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Greetings from Beyond the Pale: Nyiripi

Greetings from Beyond the Pale: Nyiripi Ben Laycock, 'Civilization' (detail) 2005, oil on canvas, 60 x 120cm. Ben Laycock, 'Black View' (detail) 1995, gouache on paper, 50 x 50cm.

Ben Laycock

A friend of a friend of mine has a friend living with the blackfellas in a tiny outstation way out west of Yuendemu, the unofficial capital of the Walpiri Nation, 300 kilometres of bone jarring corrugations North-West of Alice. I cadge a ride to Yuendumu with some young fellas returning from a night on the town. In the middle of nowhere we meet another carload heading the other way. Our driver hands his fancy black Akubra across to the fella going in to town, who pops it on his head and cracks a big grin.

It’s a long wait for a ride to Nyiripi. Eventually a Pentecostal Preacherman saves me from the dust and the flies. He appears, at first blush, to be a rather unconvincing preacher: a small black man with a squeaky voice and a shifty look in his eye, who has forsaken his heathen ways and set off with zeal to find fresh converts amongst the unsuspecting pagans of Nyiripi. Most recently he had been attempting to ply his trade in Yuendemu where the burghers of the town had told him to “bugger off”, along with any other undesirables found skulking about the place. Luckily, for us outsiders Nyiripi is far more accommodating. As a consequence the community has a floating population of misfits and ne’er-do-wells in addition to the ever-shifting population of locals, loath to give up their nomadic ways. Quite the contrary, with the aid of the ubiquitous Toyota they seem to be constantly on the move.


Ben Laycock, 'Civilization' 2005, oil on canvas, 60 x 120cm.

Ben Laycock, ‘Civilization’ 2005, oil on canvas, 60 x 120cm.


The nominal population of around 150 can plummet to less than 50 at the drop of a hat, or swell to 300 at rumours of impending cultural activities. In a bygone era of wilful ignorance this peripatetic existence was quaintly described as ‘going walkabout’, when in actual fact these people are fulfilling strict cultural obligations relating to ‘the law of the land’ that cannot be spoken of to the uninitiated. The only sedentary residents seem to be Paul and Claire, the two white administrators, who have chosen this far-flung outpost out of a deep and abiding fascination with Walpiri culture, combined with a love of the great outdoors.

At the end of a long, dusty, bumpy, sandy track we stumble from the vehicle, weary from the journey, and find ourselves surrounded by curious onlookers; a circle of blank black faces. My travelling companion is rubbing his hands with barely concealed glee at so many fresh souls. I am also rather chuffed to have found myself so far from the madding crowd, amongst authentic indigenous people still practicing the ways of their forefathers and foremothers (and soon to become God-fearing Pentecosts if my little friend has his way).

Nyiripi is an outstation. Way back in the late 1800s, all the blackfellas were rounded up and put in what can only be described as concentration camps, while their land was overrun with hoofed beasts. As you can imagine, the blackfellas found the situation less than satisfactory. Apart from the obvious grievance of their lack of freedom, they were also mightily pissed off at being lumped in with every other clan from miles around, as anyone can understand who has an intractable issue with their neighbours that has gone on for several generations.

The Walpiri spent many sorrowful years pining for their homelands. By the time they were eventually allowed to return they had become all too familiar with the wicked ways of the white man, and now preferred to do their hunting and gathering in the supermarket.


Ben Laycock, 'Black View' 1995, gouache on paper, 50 x 50cm.

Ben Laycock, ‘Black View’ 1995, gouache on paper, 50 x 50cm.


In the next exciting episode your intrepid wayfarer gets a ‘skin name’ and meets a Zen Buddhist, while our Preacherman gets ‘the bum’s rush’.

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 –


Ben Laycock, 'Nomads' 2001, gouache on paper 15x50cm.

Ben Laycock, ‘Nomads’ 2001, gouache on paper 15x50cm.


Want more? See all of the Greetings From we’ve run to date.