In 1982, when Marcia Langton co-curated After the Tent Embassy she was able to include a vast array of photographs that showed the benefits of sustained struggle for self-determination. A measure of the cultural and institutional change over the ten years since the erection of the first Tent Embassy on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra was the sheer number of photos of Aboriginal people running their own organisations: the Aboriginal Medical Service, Aboriginal Legal Service, Koori Radio, Aboriginal Housing Company, CAAMA, and so on. One sensed these fundamental changes were so powerful that there was no going back to the bad old days of paternalism. The current touring exhibition by Jagath Dheerasekara, Manuwangku: Under the Nuclear Cloud (2012), however, is a salutary reminder that the struggle for self-determination continues unabated.
Jagath’s project dates back to July 2010 when Beyond Nuclear Initiative (BNI) organised a forum in Sydney to inform people of the impact of a decision made in mid 2005 by the Howard government to dump nuclear waste at Manuwangku, or Muckaty as it is popularly known, 120 km north of Tennant Creek. The decision to dump radioactive waste was unacceptable, but it was the assertion by the science minister, Brendan Nelson M.P., claiming the site was in the “middle of nowhere”, that was particularly galling.
Speakers at the BNI forum included organiser Natalie Wasley, Spokesperson for Manuwangku community, Traditional Owner Dianne Stokes Nampin, and Dave Sweeney of the Australian Conservation Foundation. In the audience was Dheerasekara, and the upshot was that Aunty Dianne invited him to visit and photograph the community. This Jagath was able to do with strategic support from BNI augmented by Amnesty International’s Human Rights Innovation Fund- a lucky manoeuvre since it turns out these awards have typically gone to organisations.
Dheerasekara was well placed to undertake the task. In his youth, as a key member of the Students for Human Rights, he photographed and disseminated information on struggles in the south of his birth country of Sri Lanka- activities that led to his own torture, exile to France, a return home after a regime change, and the eventual decision to settle with his family in Australia. Interestingly, he does not use familiar terms such as “documentary” or “committed” photography to describe his practice. Some readers may recall the agitprop imagery of placard-carrying marchers that typified photographic responses to land rights· marches in the 1970s.
Dheerasekara has also used the stark juxtaposition of linguistic sign and people to nail the issue at the heart of the project. But most of his images avoid this visual rhetoric by relying on timing and through-the-lens composition to focus our attention on the viability of the lives of the people at the very centre of the controversy. Australia has some outstanding photographers -think Ricky Maynard, Jon Rhodes -who also recognise the impulse to bring important issues to the attention of the rest of us through strong slogan-free images. Jagath’s word to describe his practice is “justice” photography.
Traditional Owners understand the importance of telling their stories of the feared impact of nuclear waste on their lives and their culture, given the indivisible relationship between land and culture. But whereas activists may aim to spend their days fighting for change, elders return to their home turf where life simply continues. The continuity of life on their land is ultimately what will spare them and their community from the toxic proposals that continue to come from Canberra. For Dheerasekara, it makes complete sense to capture this ordinariness of the everyday, without judgement or romanticism, because !t speaks volumes about the viability of the community remaining in place.
Free to wander and sensitive to the etiquettes of photographing people, Jagath aimed to capture something of the daily lived experience (and to consult with the community on the final selection for display). The upshot is a quality of accepting and being accepted that permeates his images. Beginning by taking a wide berth round the community and wandering over the land to, as it were, get his bearings, the photographer was invited into homes and to participate in activities in and around the settlement, his business of capturing community activities being something that he sought to achieve without overt composition and arrangement.
The most reproduced image for the project shows Bunny Nabarula, Penny Williams and Doris Kelly Nakamarra dancing under a cloud-scudded sky with at least 40% of the image dominated by a huge drum labelled “radioactive” bearing the nuclear waste logo. Undaunted.by its looming presence, the women dance and sing, determined to maintain culture in spite of all. It was recently announced that citizens of post-tsunami nuclear-ravaged Fukushima in Japan can now purchase mobile phone apps that register radioactivity in any locale. The women in this image, ‘however, are unlikely to benefit from this advanced technology, not because it couldn’t work in the outback, but because the Manuwangku people belong to this land: it makes no sense to pack their belongings and head elsewhere. For theirs may be a remote community but the Manuwangku seem as at home collecting bush tucker or hunting, as they do pushing shopping-laden trolleys along supermarket aisles, relaxing at home in front of a giant plasma TV, or taking a pause from domestic duties to smoke a fag. Or just hanging out and having fun. So much for being in the “middle of nowhere”!
So, what do they do? Teenagers, it seems, play pool in the late afternoon, assembled around a vivid blue pool table in a caged-in room in a town camp in Tennant Creek where a number of Manuwangku Traditional Owners have their houses. All eyes are on the tip of the cue: the laconic youth on the left watches his mate in the centre giving the ball his best shot, as does the young boy in the background and presumably the next player entering from the right. Under the warm sun Bunny Nabarula, the eldest member of the community, strengthens a baby through a smoking ceremony. Significantly, the non-Aboriginal baby has been given a traditional Warlmanpa name, Jalinyba, and was seen by the photographer as a genuine symbol of reconciliation. Families pile into cars, kids do supervised activities when they’re not having more fun leaping on the bonnets of rusted jalopies, and there is time to chat with others on walks through the land. There is no mistaking, however, the disadvantage that is neither exaggerated nor romanticised, in a place where resignation is never far from resistance.
Perhaps the really confronting images are not so much the make-do chaos of the home environments that many of us do our best to hide from the public gaze but that here remain visible, because in the end the problem is only trivial anyway. Rather they are images such as Muckaty, where the livid veneer of the table top does little to mask the chasm between the two sides, both working for land rights as signified by the language map on the back wall. With all their equipment at their fingertips, the resourceful, committed young pro bono lawyers no doubt work hard for the community yet ultimately struggle to touch base with the two reps opposite. The difficulties in surmounting the divide between lore and law, between authority invested in cultural knowledge and the bureaucracies and protocols associated with governments, courts, business – and those of us wanting to maintain our unsustainable lifestyles that might financially benefit from nuclear power -is all too dear. And uncomfortable.
Dheerakasara’s first Australian exhibition, Stars Sky Trees Breeze (2011) curated by Djon Mundine, showed an astonishing array of improvised housing solutions that fall right outside ARC-funded guidelines developed by specialist housing researchers and government agencies.2 Just six months later, Under a Nuclear Cloud was curated by Art Here gallery director Sandy Edwards.
First shown in January 2012 at a small community-based Pine St. Gallery in inner city Chippendale, the modestly-sized prints held the attention of a veritable who’s who of activists in Sydney, including Wasley, John Pilger, Larissa Behrendt, Eva Cox, and Bunny Nabarula and Penny Phillips Napangardi visiting.from Manuwangku. On this occasion the images seemed to be admired for their instrumental value in the ongoing campaign to rescind the nuclear waste decision. In May the exhibition reopened in Customs House at Circular Quay on the same night and location as the launch of the heady Head On photo festival, its extended showing (until August), allowing more sustained exposure to debates about its photographic affect and agency.
With the photographer’s consent, BNI is selling a limited number of prints as a fundraiser for its campaign. This is one sign of the images’ efficacy. Another is the exhibition visitor books which record wider rethinking about nuclear waste and its impact on communities. But many of these images are also strong enough to enter our art museums and so continue – like Merv Bishop’s 1975 staged documentary image of Prime Minister Whitlam pouring red sand into the hand of Vincent Lingari -to reach a wider audience who are alert to the integrated politics and aesthetics of what used to be called “straight photography”.
By Dr Catherine De Lorenzo Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, College of Fine Arts, University of NSW and Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, Monash Indigenous Cenhe, Monash University, Victoria.
All-photos by Jagath Dheerasekara in Muckaty/Manuwangku and Tennant Creek region