Way Outback: A story for the eyes

I went to Ernabella to learn about Anangu story telling. Their myths and fables represent an oral history stretching back generations, connecting the people to the land and their ancestors. By learning their cosmology I hoped to reflect on my own culture from another angle. The excitement of learning from other cultures often leads me to better understand my own sense of place and tradition.

In the lead up to the trip I fostered the idea that I would go there and record people telling their stories. Holding this quaint idea, I failed to realize that the people might not want to share their stories verbally. After all, why would they tell me? I am white, I am young, and I am an outsider. All three of these qualities disqualify me from most conversations about Anangu culture. I learned from friends in the community that to be included in any conversation is a gift that comes infrequently. It takes years for the community to trust a new member with cultural information.

My westernized assumption was that stories are meant to be told. I fell prey to the idea that the strength of a story lies in the telling. This is often true in our globalized society but Anangu culture is only 70 years removed from an isolated nomadic lifestyle. For them, a key aspect of a story's power is its ownership. Specific people have rights to specific stories. Men possess certain stories, and women possess others. Some are told openly in the community while others are only to be shared in the privacy of one-on-one communication. The stories aren't secret but they aren't for the outside world.

After a month in the community I can't say that I heard one story from start to finish. The most direct things I learned about stories came from reading exhibition catalogs in which aboriginal people agreed to be interviewed. It wasn't that I asked and wasn't told. They didn't hide anything. In fact the stories were accessible and ever present. They live in the paintings, the pots, and the sculpture that was made during my time there. They can be seen in the art, but they aren't often heard by outside ears.

I went to learn how Anangu embedded story into their art, and in the end I received the perfect learning scenario. Instead of being taught I had to observe. At first this change of plan frustrated me. Then it became a challenge. Each art work was a puzzle that I knew had meaning but lacked discernible pieces. It became my job to look for connections in imagery. After a month I am hooked wanting to know more.

I have included a few images to introduce you to a small portion of the Anangu aesthetic. The Anangu are spread over a great geographic distance leaving their aesthetic splintered into many subgroups. The bottom image shows Derek, a talented young clay artist, working on a Kangaroo platter. This animal is at the core of many Anangu stories. The next post will be about the representation of animals in Anangu decoration.

This post functions as a restart to the series Way Outback. My ideas about the community have changed dramatically during the last two months so I need to restart with a disclaimer. From here on you won't see many photos of the Anangu as there are prohibitions about sharing their image publicly. Any individuals who appear in this series have graciously given me permission. Images are not to be reproduced in any way without permission from the individual pictured. I want to publicly thank the Ernabella community for letting me be there and for the artists who worked along side me in the studio. 

Way Outback chronicles my time in the remote outback town of Ernabella, South Australia. I am spending a month here collaborating with aboriginal artists. For more information on the project you can visit the Kickstarter page that helped fund this project by clicking here.

Click below to read the other posts from the series
Way Outback: The Road to Ernabella
Way Outback: Night Writing
Way Outback: Chasing the Light
Way Outback: A Story for the Eyes
Way Outback: Animal Kingdom
Way Outback: Paint, Money, and Land
Way Outback: The Red Walls of Uluru


  1. Your description and feelings from your trip bring a mystic to the work the Anangu are doing. I as a reader can't help but respect their wishes and rightly so, so much of our current culture is influenced by the virtual and visual world and experience and process by the individual within a culture or society I am learning is the purest form of art.

    1. Hello Linda, It as really interesting to see how they approached outside culture vs. their own culture. I found there were great extremes between their perceptions of other cultures and the reality of other cultures. One man asked me in all seriousness if vampires lived in New York. I was blown away until I realized he had no context to compare what he saw in movies to what is real.

      My experience living there was relatively easy when compared to the experience they would have coming to live with me in Shanghai. Most of them have never even been to Sydney. Some have never been in a big city at all. Kind of amazing that I can travel all of the world but they often dont travel more than a few 1000 km.

  2. I am so glad you have these visuals to share--I think I could stare at them all day and "listen" to the stories they tell. Can't wait to see and hear more. --j
    p.s. I am still thinking about that wild turkey platter. . . gorgeous.

  3. Immersing yourself in another culture, even for a relatively short period of time, is a great way to appreciate the many ways that God made the world with similarities and differences among people. We come to understand our world better by looking at another way of life. Thanks for sharing your impressions and well written images in words.