Since the early days of European settlement there has been a tradition of heavy-footed artists drawing and documenting parts of the continent about which they know little. As for myself, when I arrived at Banyala I was just plainly discombobulated! Here I was with Yolgnu artists of such distinction and with such brilliant ways of expressing in paint their vast knowledge about the place that I thought – goodness me – I’m starting from scratch here!
In these etchings I may have found a way of making ignorance a virtue – or even a valid stratagem for drawing. There I was on the edge of the sea with a blank unmarked etching plate and an empty mind. At least a mind ‘trying’ to be empty. I watched the ebb and flow of the waves and how sometimes the energy and openness of the sea would deposit some leaf or coral to add to the random scatterings at my feet. As I drew each fragment, carefully mimicking the placement of each one as it rested on the sand, I was fascinated by the idea that there was a hidden order in the pattern of disparate objects as they rested on the sand.
Djambawa told me that a mangrove leaf (Aegialitis annulata) with an odd resemblance to a sting ray was used by children at play when they are re-enacting the mythic stories about a giant ray which created some of the landforms of Baniyala. Glenn then identified some little water chestnut corms as Biwiya, (Eleocharis spacelata). Sprouting from these important edible corms are the slender leaves which figure in the marvellous paintings of the Garangalli flood plains by Mulkan Wirrpanda. Howard then told me that a feather I had found was that of a Brolga, and how those magnificent birds play a significant role in the great creation stories about Garangalli. And then Glenn said that Brolgas feast on these Biwiya. When I showed him a Koel feather which blew away before I could put in my etching he said they say here that when the Koel sings it is ripening the black Plums (Vitex Glabratus). Each day as we all worked in the centre these gems of information -given so generously – mediated our printmaking. And as these images of small things slowly spread across the dark velvety ground of my etching plate I felt as if some invisible ordering force was at play. Now when I look at the finished etchings I hope that I may have learnt just a little bit about some of the mysterious systems of correspondences and interconnections which are a part of the Yolngu cosmic understanding of the nature of the world.
On the last days I took a number of sheets of etching paper to an area of recently burnt Sand palm and Stringy bark scrub. The papers were firmly clipped to a board and I moved them over the burnt stems and twigs of the charred trees. The black fingers and flanks of the trees drew themselves on the paper. They made grazings and stipplings, skid marks and staccato dots. Each species made different marks – the little palmate hands of the sand palm made filigree versions of themselves; while the crocodile scales of the cycad stems caused more sonorous blotches. Then I took the papers to Basil Hall’s amazing print workshop and we floated passages of my other etching onto them. The etched images of the sand palm bits and burnt cycad nuts I had picked up on the beach then found themselves next to the carbon marks they had unwittingly made further inland – and these combined to tell their own story without I hope too much interference from a discombobulated artist.
John Wolseley 2010