Entry 1: Out of Our Comfort Zones

My expectations for this field school are a little different from the previous ones.

In a few days I fly up to Darwin, where I will meet up with a group of Flinders University students and archaeologists whom I have never met before. Then together we will travel via Katherine to the Aboriginal community of Barunga in Arnhem Land. The purpose of the field school is to learn how to listen and understand, whilst also assisting the community on some special projects.

As a post graduate student this will be my 4th archaeology field school. In previous field schools I have learnt how to lay string lines, dig trenches with really straight sides in ridiculously hard soils, hand draw rocks and trench strata using an offset string line. I have operated the total station, held the prism, carried buckets of dirt, sieved the same dirt, done Munsell colour and soil tests, photographed and drawn the different contexts, recorded and bagged up artefacts and then at the end of the field school returned all the rocks and dirt back into the trenches that we had dug out only a few days before. I have laughed, and at times I have secretly muttered a few swear words to myself, but I have loved it all.

My expectations for this field school are a little different from the previous ones. I feel privileged to be going to a remote Aboriginal community and be able to live in that community for 7 days. Whilst there I am hoping to find out about the people living at Barunga, their stories and connections to the land. As an archaeology student I am hoping to view Aboriginal rock art in situ, art work that was painted hundreds if not thousands of years ago. And as a professional artist I am particularly excited to be working on a project with the artists of the community, that will hopefully enable them to sell their contemporary artwork further afield.

Lastly, I am looking forward to meeting everyone and experiencing some warmer weather. It is freezing in Adelaide at the moment!


Entry 2: Experiences and Challenges

I have learnt in the few days we have been at Barunga that this place is full of important memories for everyone that lives here.

It is sunrise on Day 5 and I am sitting in the sanctuary of my tent, listening.

The birds are singing their morning call, I can hear a crow and other small unidentified birds, birds that are indigenous to this area but unfamiliar to me. The soft morning sounds are broken by the barking of a dog and then more dogs join in, the noise getting louder and more aggressive, until someone, somewhere in the distance yells out for them to stop. Now I hear the blood curdling sounds of fighting among many dogs. Interestingly these sounds do not alarm me as much anymore, the sound of dogs fighting and barking has become familiar to me here at Barunga.

What has surprised me the most, is the loud contemporary music which is often played late at night. I remember on the first night lying in my sleeping bag trying to sleep, but I also found myself tapping along to the booming sounds of Chuck Berry; songs I hadn’t heard for a long time. These old songs brought back memories of London, the 1980s, and the parties we had as 20 something backpackers. It is funny what can trigger memories.

I have learnt in the few days we have been at Barunga that this place is full of important memories for everyone that lives here. It was obvious when we watched the films a few nights ago. There was much shouting, discussing and even laughter amongst the old people when they recognised family members, and important Elders now only with them in spirit.

This is what I have been most surprised by whilst being here, the old people’s openness to tell some of their stories, about their connection to each other and their Country. I am enjoying being here.


Entry 3: Take Away Thoughts

I was amazed that these traditional skills still existed and were an important and integral part of her daily art practice.

Sitting on a plane heading to Adelaide after a week at Barunga, is the perfect time to reflect on this enlightening experience I have just had. There are many things that I have discovered from this trip but firstly and most importantly I have gained a small insight into the life of the Jawoyn people living on their country.

My best experience during the time there was undoubtably being invited to go out with artist and basket weaver Caroline Pamkal to ‘look for colour’. The colour is found in the brightly coloured roots of a variety of different plants, they are later crushed and used in a dye bath which is then used to colour dried pandanas leaves. Later Caroline uses the coloured fibres to weave her beautiful baskets. Not only did the group assigned to the art project dig for the coloured roots, Caroline also showed us how to extract sugar bag honey from an old termite mound and how her father had taught her how to remove bark from a tree. The sheet of bark could then be used as a canvas for bark paintings or even a shelter. I was amazed that these traditional skills still existed and were an important and integral part of her daily art practice.

The focus of the art project was to bring awareness to the vast amount of time and effort it takes Caroline to source her raw materials and weave the baskets. In consultation with, and approval from Caroline, we drafted a folding pamphlet that Caroline could give out to potential buyers that visually explained her techniques. Hopefully this will allow her to feel more confident in asking a higher price than what she charges currently, and thus the potential to make more money that more accurately reflects the time and effort it takes to produce even a small product.

On the final day of the field school I was able to show Caroline a ‘mock up’ of our pamphlet when I met her at the medical clinic after her appointment. She seemed pleased and she said to me that after they are printed she would like to keep the pamphlets to give out to ‘her buyers’ that will visit Eva Valley in the next dry season, when the park is opened to tourists again. This appears to be where she feels most confident in selling her work. She said to me that ‘only sometimes’ she has had work in galleries in Katherine.

After the field school I visited a number of galleries and markets, both in Katherine and Darwin and compared prices for baskets. The price Caroline asks are considerably less, about a third to a quarter of the price than baskets of a similar standard sold in the towns.

The most reputable community gallery in Katherine, Mimi Arts & Craft were happy to tell me, when I asked them: What percentage return do the artists get when work is sold?60% for the artist and 40% for the gallery, to cover running costs. As an artist I am aware that this is also in keeping with art galleries in Adelaide.

It would be wonderful if Caroline has the confidence to ask more for her baskets and weavings. Tourists are more likely to buy from the artist direct if they engage with, and see her at work. It is important that she does not undersell her work.