Blue, Sydney blue, blue sky, blue sea

Through the glass, a flash of blue. Material calling out to be touched, a frock waiting to be slipped into. Though it is composed of different fabrics, they shimmy together, stretchy t-shirt cotton and scalloped silky edges. Deep indigo, patterned like African prints, and delicate ribbon inserts: A splash of burnt orange and a streak of perfect ultramarine. You could wear it to the beach or to the opera. A Sydney frock, incarnating the blueness of Sydney.

We are in the Queen Victoria Arcade in Sydney, a flaneuring paradise, ornate and elegant. We have moved from Yum Cha in China town into this late Victorian Romanesque phantasmagoria of delights. I am in search of a shop called Von Troska which was not there when I went this time to gaze in its window in Oxford Street. The door and windows were closed, the interior empty. Oxford Street: once glitzy and gay and buzzing, old-fashioned greengrocers rubbing shoulders with shiny bars and bookshops and old pubs and chic boutiques and the aroma of coffee. Now Oxford Street is tawdry and sad, I presume because of the gigantic Westfield mall built in Bondi Junction. When I lived in Sydney here is something that often happened: after seeing a movie in the Chauvel cinema located in the old Paddington town hall, or visiting Ruark around the corner, and gossiping and arguing with him, and before hopping on the 380 bus and heading back to Bondi, I would find myself before Von Troska, gazing in the window. Then, skating on air, I would shimmy in to fondle the fabrics, bury my face in luxurious silky folds, try-on-for-fun dresses designed on the cross, falling in folds, or cut austerely, marveling at how Von Troska conjured unlikely colors and textures into a simple frock or scarf. I have a silver jacket from Von Troska, bought long ago, it shimmers, at once excessive and austere, singular, no adornments or tricky curlicews. Now I find that Von Troska herself died of cancer a few years ago, but her shop continues, relocated to the Victoria Arcade. And there is a sale. So Julie and I peel off from the large China town yum cha gathering and after a stop for Julie to purchase dried pandanus leaves at a Thai market we enter the fray of hopeful, pugilistic shoppers thronging the streets. It is Boxing Day and thousands are fighting to get to the sales. In the Victoria Arcade the crowds are slightly subdued and when we find and enter tiny Von Troska it is like entering a shady luxuriant fern canyon.

I try the frock on, it’s perfect. I look in the mirror and see a blue woman who has never known a day’s illness in all her long life.

Sydney blue, quintessentially captured in Brett Whiteley’s painting, Sydney by Night, also called The Balcony 2 (1975). You might say it represents a scene, a sort of seascape, a bay view. But it’s blue, the blueness of Sydney, that the painting lets rip. Blueness flies out of the painting into the world. “Windsor and Newton Deep Ultramarine oil colour has an obsessive, ecstasy-like effect upon my nervous system quite unlike any other colour,” said
 Whiteley. And he found a way—through lashing on the paint, in this work over a base layer of black—to effect a transfer, to transfer effect into affect. When I visit the Art Gallery of New South Wales to see another show, with Rosemary, I sneak a peek at Sydney by Night, overwhelmed by its hugeness and by the way that in the flesh, framed, the blue is concentrated and distilled. Wherever I live away from Australia I have a postcard of this painting propped by the computer, but the colors are fading in the San Diego light and so in the gallery shop I buy a new supply to take home.

Sea and sky – a continuous saturated blueness. A heron zips across the blueness of Whiteley’s painting, leaving a trace, a flurry of whiteness. A small wrought iron balcony protrudes into the frame suggesting a perspective, someone looking out from inside, out at the water, beyond the skyline. No sense of direction. Though if you know Sydney, if you know that feeling of looking out on the harbour perhaps you imagine looking south east.

I replenish too my Margaret Prestons, postcards of her woodcuts, “Harbour Foreshore” and “Sydney Heads.” Preston made these woodcuts in 1925 after a visit to Japan to learn the craft of wood block printing. She quotes Hokusai and others in her blue washes but against the subtlety of the Japanese model her blueness is intense, visceral. “The colours,” she said “should not be put on subtly. It is better to use them in simple crude masses to match the key blocks.” Norman Lindsay accused her of “violent crudities of pure colour.” Where Whiteley’s painting is huge and made for a gallery wall, Preston’s woodcuts were small, sold at a price that flat dwellers could afford. As postcards the Whiteley and the Prestons are the same size.

I grew particularly fond of Whiteley and sought out more of his oevre as I got to know Thirroul, a lovely seaside town on the south coast of New South Wales. Whiteley topped himself here in a seedy motel in 1992. Then Thirroul was just a name to me, but some years later a friend had a shacky cottage on the cliff where I would go to write. And now Sarah and Derek live close by and so I got to spend a night there in December, to watch a sulphur-crested cockatoo attacking with great vigor the magnificent Gymea blooming in their garden, to walk down to the beach past chickens for a swim before breakfast.

I was introduced to Margaret Preston by Meredith Counihan who took me to see her (her prints and paintings) in the National Gallery of Victoria when I first came to Australia in 1976. This is where I saw my first Gymea, Australian rock lilies, wheelflowers, Manly pines, flannel flowers, banksias, Sturt’s peas, Waratahs, Australian Ti Trees, Western Australian Gum Blossoms, Australian coral flowers, Australian Glory Flowers, Christmas bells, bottlebrushes and angopheras—not in the bush but in the prints and paintings of Margaret Preston. The harbour paintings represent one tendency in Preston’s work: a modernist tendency that looked to the city, its industry and views as well as to the domestic realm. But there is another tendency that existed in tension with this, against the internationalist and urban impulse of modernism, a turn towards the nationalist, to Australianness, to an affiliation with the bush, a desire to bring the bush into the apartment. But above all, manifested in an increasing incorporation of what she perceived to be Aboriginal colors and designs. An unusual embracing of indigenous culture this, at that time in white Australia. But not without problems, and over time this impulse for incorporation, viewed as an act of appropriation, has provoked considerable criticism.

“It’s like speaking in a French accent without speaking French. The accent is there, the intonation is there, but the meaning is not.” This is what Hetti Perkins, the curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the gallery, says about Preston’s borrowing of images. “The narrative [in Preston’s work] isn’t clear for an indigenous person.”

I sneak a peak at the Whiteley but am actually at the gallery to see another show. We walk through the cool and magisterial, even pompous, halls of the gallery, and into another, utterly unexpected world, the world of the Yirrkala Drawings. Color explodes here, shimmers, in arresting patterns and shapes—blue, brilliant blue, but also red, yellow, green and black. These drawings were done in 1947 by a group of senior ceremonial leaders and bark painters in Arnhem Land, in collaboration with two anthropologists, Ronald and Catherine Berndt. The anthropologists provided butcher paper and colored wax crayons and the artists adapted their skill at working with pigments on bark to the process of drawing on paper, to illustrate and elaborate their Wangarr (Dreaming) stories. As a depiction of their country and the details of Yolngu life the drawings were an extension of songs and oral stories—a material manifestation of Yolgnu culture. This, some years before the transfer of traditional skills to working with acrylic paints, and the development of “dot painting.”

To my untrained eye these are mostly abstract drawings, though more like paintings, combining an extraordinarily vivid color palette and stunning design sense. Though there are occasional representational and figurative elements (turtles, fish, water, human forms….), my eye is drawn by the sheen of the crayons, by the geometric patterning, by the intricate and varied combination of diamonds, triangles, straight lines and curved, circles, squares, zigzags. But the narrative isn’t clear to me, a non-indigenous person. “If you can understand the paintings, you can understand the landscape,” says Baluka Maymuru, son of Nänyin’ Maymuru, an artist in the show. But I can’t understand the paintings, they are marvelous to me but they also confront me with what I do not know.

Luckily, however, I don’t have to swim around in the abstract quotation of Preston’s era. The show has been curated in close collaboration with the Yirrkala community and is attentive, through a range of documentation, to the context and location of the drawings, to the individual artists, to the “mapping” not just of place but also and simultaneously of cultural inheritance. This show, occurring in a different century and after Margaret Preston worked, is alert to difference as well as to continuities. The show includes, for instance, a display of contemporary bark paintings, ḻarrakitj (hollow logs) by the descendents of the crayon drawers, which throws into relief the fine cross hatching in graphite pencil which some of the Yirrkala artists deploy in their crayon drawings (Narritjin Maymuru, in Connecting Munyuku and Manggalili estates for instance uses sharp pointed lead and colour pencils to outline, and to produce fine-lined cross hatching).

Rosemary and I leave the gallery. Nothing looks the same as it did before we entered the world of the Yirrkala drawings. We have experienced a flash of light: this we know, though what to make of it we do not know. I return to San Diego and try to write about the show, but cannot find the words, the language. The sensations, attenuated ideas, simmer as I pore over the beautiful catalogue. Then, five months later, I hear Deborah Rose Bird at a conference speak about “shimmer.”

Bir’yun, brilliance or shimmer, is the word used by Yolngu artists to describe an aesthetic effect and to evoke the process and Ancestral power summoned in that effect. The process of making a painting (and to some degree of perceiving it) involves an initial elaboration of a base design—underlying patterns and figuration, over a single color wash. At this stage the painting looks dull. Then comes the crosshatched infill, and suddenly the painting shimmers. Bir’yun refers to intense sources and refractions of light, the sun’s rays, and to light sparkling in bubbling fresh water, as in

gong ngayi walt1 bir’ yu-bir’ yun marritji ray

its sun scintillate-scintillate go the sun’s rays scintillate

As applied to paintings bir’yun is the flash of light, the sensation of light one gets and carries away in one’s mind’s eye.

Although much of the explication of the term shimmer is used in relation to process and the key component of crosshatching, shimmer can be evoked through many shiny materials, and through the intensity of effect that is achieved when various techniques and systems are brought into a relation. The creative transformation of matter that occurs when wax crayons are used clearly generates a sense of brilliance, a sensation of light.

The artists used the potential of the new medium to produce bold geometric patterns, a clarity of form and brilliance of color patterning so that the paintings seem to vibrate, to dance on the surface, to scintillate. But it is not just a matter of technique and nor do the crayon drawings materialize out of the blue. They continue a tradition in which painting (it could be on bark, on a body, on a coffin lid or incorporated into performance) is a manifestation of spirit, of ancestral power, of nature, of country. At once a complex incarnation and emanation. As Waka Mununggurr writes in the preface to the catalogue, “Our art is not just a bark painting or a crayon drawing – it talks about the relations between land, sea and people. When you look at this art, it is not just a thing of beauty – it discusses the environment and nature, the secret areas for Yolngu.”

The complexity, the semiotic richness of these paintings, of the world they incarnate, is fascinating to me but also, and necessarily so, elusive. I mostly don’t get the narrative, even when it is explained, but I begin to grasp the play between figuration and abstraction, the sense of a different kind of story telling that it is non-linear, that interfolds presence, mapping, and a totally different kind of time.

Water and land, images and sensations, linear time and Dreamtime, words and things.

“You can hear their language within our own”

A surprising and intriguing element of the show is the strong presence within the drawings and supporting documentation of Makassan culture, words, things. “You can hear their language within our own,” says Laklak Ganambarr, a female descendant of the artist Mungurraway Yunupungu. She is referring to the Macassans. The Yolngu people have a long history of trade and intermarriage with the Macassans, people from the land we now call Indonesia. Before European settlement of Australia, from as early as 1640, the seafaring Makassan from southwest Sulawesi established trading contact with Indigenous communities in northern Australia, arriving with the monsoon season each December. They constructed outdoor factories to process trepang, a type of sea cucumber (which they took back to Indonesia to trade with the Chinese), but did not establish permanent settlements in Australia. It is estimated that as many as 1,000 trepangers arrived each year.

Until 1906, when the South Australian Government, then responsible for the Northern Territory, passed legislation effectively banning Macassan mariners from entering Australian waters by imposing oppressive license fees. But some of the Yolgnu men who drew of the Macassan presence are said to have first hand memories and some are thought to have made return visits to the Port of Macassar. The schema of the Macassan port and the Macassan exchanges remained alive in memory, through reenactment, through ceremony, and through art. Words from the Makassarese language (related to the Javanese and Indonesian languages) can still be found in Aboriginal language varieties of the north coast. Elements of Macassan culture remain today including ceremonial flags and dances, stones, coins, pots, swords, songs, steel knives, rupiah (money).

“[T]heir story is still alive today as it was from the old times…You can hear their language within our own, and the Yolngu taught them ours,” says Laklak Ganambarr. “We can call up the things that Macassans give us – calico, eyeglasses, hats, machetes – all of the names were incorporated into our language and young people know these as such. The Macassans showed us how to make the canoe.” Whereas, “White people came and teach Yolngu people a word called Australia.”

Macassan culture was incorporated into Aboriginal Dreamtime, the past, affiliated to moieties and clans and given a place in the kinship system. Yolgnu art, in various media, materialized the Macassan presence in ceremonial performance as well as everyday life. Yalpi Yunupingu, in an interview speaks of the way his father (Bununggu Yunupingu whose Ceremony with Macassan influence is densely imagistic) used crayons to depict spirits with names from both Yolgnu and Macassar ancestry: “these beings had the power to travel over deep waters of the ocean.”

Most popular histories of Australia represent first contact as an encounter with the whites from the South. Captain Cook and his fleet arriving in tall ships, with weapons, from across immense oceans stretching between incommensurate land masses. The sea a conduit, providing a way to get from one place to another, rather than being a place, a place continuous with the land. As though Australia only ever only existed in the south east, in this encounter. As though there never were people inhabiting the top end, living by the sea, a sea that linked them with the land and also with another country, at its closest point only a hundred and twenty five miles away.


In a drawing called Port of Macassar by Munggurrawuy Yunupingu there are ships, at once huge and smaller than people. The ships are blue. When I tell Fabian about this he says perhaps this is an example of Hypalagia, a rhetorical trope where the quality of one object is transferred to another. The blue of the water to the ships. He sends me lines from Neruda where the poet writes of sadness:

… La noche está estrellada,

y tiritan, azules, los astros, a lo lejos.

… The night is starry

and the stars are blue and shiver in the distance.

The stars are blue. The people are blue too actually. In various drawings fish and shark and platypus and crocodile are blue, but people too, or rather – figures that are human-like. Though sometimes, and sometimes in the same drawing, there are also red figures as in Canoe travel from a distant island and black, as in Influence from a distant island (both drawings by Bunung Yun). I don’t know whether blue is associated with water, or if color is detached from a referent, or has a materiality of its own, though in a different schema. Perhaps the colors serve to differentiate spirits and human beings, Aborigines and Macassans. But then why are animals blue too on occasion? While it is surely a stretch of the imagination to think of these paintings in terms of a western rhetorical trope, deployed mostly in poetry, nevertheless Fabian’s suggestion opens a way to thinking about what happens, what sparks fly, what scintillations occur when colors are indeed detached from customary referents, when ways of seeing the world are reconfigured. When, for instance, patterning (genealogical patterning, say) matters more than classification, as in Ceremony with Macassan influence. Intricate networks, in which fresh water and salt water interflow and are connected, are interconnected with the land and all creatures (as in the marvelously evocative for me Larvae of the Rhinoceros beetle at Ngyapinya, a tracing out of something like the web of life in paler, delicate colors).

Blue/shimmer. Is the sky always blue, does blueness invariably signify water? I begin very tentatively to discern the presence of water in the drawings (supplemented by videos incorporated within the show), an element integrated into the country. But it is not Sydney Blue. No, it is the blueness of the sea and the sky over the Timor and Arafura seas and the waterways meandering through land.

“We are all connected through the mixing of waters there at the river.”

Water water everywhere: Dams, water holes, rivers (on occasion green, as in Birrikitji Gumana’s River at ngan), fish traps, a water hole, saltwater country, spring- fed flood plains. Water creatures and things: Dugong, fish, trees, lizards, goannas, turtles, possums, sharks, platypuses, Macassan ships (praus), canoes, the ancestral whale (who, dying, came in to fresh water and, furious, destroyed a fish trap). Yalpi Yunupingu says, “So, two different styles to our sacred paintings: saltwater and freshwater.” Yet these distinctions generate further variations. Water is not just water. And not just blue. In Wonggu Mununggurr’s many grid-like paintings of fishtraps and floodplains, in particular in Differing states of freshwater where “differing colors signify the differing states of water: running, still, low, agitated.” In Marawili’s Fish Trap at Baraltja there is “a sense of movement, that has references to the interwoven structure of the dam and the water flowing down stream.”

The sea, the sea. The land, the land. The Timor Sea and the Indian Ocean, the Arafura Sea and the Gulf of Carpenteria.

Where does the sea begin? Where does the land end? Who has rights to land, to sea?

In the Yirrkala Drawings land and sea are connected in a single cycle of life. The sacred designs in the crayon drawings, integral to Yolgnu society, and for the first time—through extensive regional negotiation and agreement—brought into the open, represented the clans’ rights in land. They were an important stepping stone in the process that eventually resulted in the Yolgnu gaining recognition in the rights of land, a precursor to the Yirrkala Church Panels, but also a precursor to the Saltwater collection of large bark paintings which were instrumental in the Yolgnu gaining recognition in the rights of sea.

The Saltwater Collection consists of eighty bark paintings made by Yolŋu artists that share their sacred knowledge of sea country. The catalyst for this collection was an incident in 1996: the illegal intrusion of a barramundi fishing party at Garrangali, sacred home of Bäru the Ancestral Crocodile. The fishing party had not obtained permission to go to this special place and had further offended by leaving rubbish lying around. But the thing which upset Yolŋu custodians most of all was the discovery of the severed head of a crocodile, left to rot in a hessian bag.

After this desecration of Bäru Yolŋu people began painting a series of barks that demonstrated the rules, philosophies and stories of their region that related to the coast, rivers and waters.
A selection of these barks were presented as evidence of Yolŋu connections to saltwater country in a 2008 High Court case. The court verdict gave precedence to Indigenous rights and use of the Arnhem Land coastline and coastal waters over commercial interests and fishing.

The Yirrkala drawings and the Saltwater Barks bridge two very different traditions of law by explaining and sharing ancestral stories with non-Indigenous people.

Here, where I live, the border between the US and Mexico, San Diego and Tijuana, seems solid, but at Playas the border fence simply runs into the ocean, disappears in the water. There used to be a Park that spanned each side of the fence at the beach, called Friendship Park. People – often families, separated – could speak through holes in the fence and touch fingers, but when the new fence was built the area between the two fences, the old and the new, formerly Friendship Park, became a No Man’s Land.

“We are all connected through the mixing of waters.” Six centuries of trade and intermarriage spanning sea and land. Boats have come and gone carrying people and goods.

But even earlier than this, as long as 45 or 50 thousand years ago the first crossings were made from Indonesia to Australia. Imagine an archaic time when the sea represented a barrier, an uncrossable expanse between land masses. And then something happens unprecedented in the annals of human history. An Afro-Asian group of people from the area of Indonesia develop new technologies and skills for building and navigating sea-going crafts. The people of this first sea-faring society become fishermen, and long distance explorers, and traders. These skills enable them to reach and settle Australia, to become the original human inhabitants of the continent.

But now the boats carry items that cannot be traded. Between Indonesia and Australia the sea is highly contested.

The recent history of relations between the two countries has been fraught to say the least. At the end of last year (2013) just before I arrived in Australia a scandal rocked the country when Indonesia recalled its ambassador and suspended security co-operation with Australia after revelations by the former CIA analyst, Edward Snowden, included evidence that the Australian government had been spying on the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Shock and horror. Of course, but surprise? Governments, even allies, gather intelligence and routinely spy on one another. Such is the nature of spying. In fact the spying imbroglio is symptomatic of a much more festering tension played out on the ocean, and the scandal is less about spying than about Australia’s conception of land and sea rights, of human rights and, less obviously but nevertheless implicated, the rights of whales and other creatures that live in the ocean.

Think of all the praus in the Yirrkala drawings, boats that would come regularly from parts of the Indonesia archipelago, to the Northern part of Australia. Today boats that arrive from Indonesia are being towed back by Australian naval vessels to the edge of Indonesian waters. Indonesia refuses to accept these boats. These boats—old, leaky, overcrowded, improvised vessels—are dangerous to travel in. They carry people: Asylum seekers who are prepared to undertake a dangerous journey in order to escape persecution and unbearable conditions at “home.” The asylum seekers come mostly from South Asia, the Middle East and Africa; they use Indonesia as a transit point to make the dangerous boat voyage to Australia.

The asylum seekers are also called, in Australia, “boat people” and “illegal immigrants.”

Where does the sea begin? Where does the land end?

A maritime boundary exists between Australia and Indonesia, and both countries have been concerned to definitively delimit that boundary. It exists within a larger schema of agreements between the two countries: concerning trade, fishing, aid, defense, security.

The term “boat people” entered the Australian lexicon in the 1970s, in the wake of the Vietnam War, when boats carrying refugees from Indochina began arriving in Australia. The asylum seekers who arrived by boat were processed on Australian soil and many were resettled in Australia (although not welcomed by all – the Darwin branch of the Waterside Workers’ Federation called for strikes to protest the “preferential treatment of refugees”). There were no substantial changes until Paul Keating’s Labour Government introduced mandatory detention of non-citizens arriving by boat without a valid visa in 1992.

And then came, in 2001, the dubiously titled Pacific Solution.

In August of that year a red ship appeared on the horizon—a great hulking red presence, there day after day, never getting any closer. This was the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa that had on board 438 refugees (mostly Afghani) who had been rescued from a stranded 20 meter Indonesian wooden fishing boat. What ensued is referred to as the Tampa Affair. The Australian government would not allow the media or even the Red Cross on board and so “the image remained that of a large imposing red hulk, often shimmering in the heat on the horizon.” An affective image to be sure, but one that also raises the question of when and how shimmer emerges, how its affective force circulates, how it may be exploited.

The Australian government refused the ship entry to Australian territorial waters. The ship’s captain, questioning the legality of the order, refused to comply. The Australian government responded by dispatching Australian troops to board the ship. As the crisis escalated the government enacted the Pacific Solution (and it’s popularity ratings rose within the Australian electorate).

The “solution” incorporated a number of policies but the lynchpin was the disallowing of asylum seekers to set foot on Australian soil. Instead they were transported, using Australian naval vessels, to detention centers set up on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean (2,600 kilometers northwest of Perth, 500 km south of Jakarta, Indonesia), Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, east of Indonesia and north east of Australia, and the island nation of Nauru in the South Pacific. The transporting of asylum seekers to detention centers was enabled, in the first instance, by excising islands around Australia from the migration zone, effectively meaning that any asylum seekers who did not reach the Australian mainland would not be able to apply for refugee status. In the second instance it was enabled by Operation Relex that authorized The Australian Defence Force to intercept vessels carrying asylum seekers, and turn them back to Indonesia.

The Pacific Solution was largely dismantled with the election of a Labour Government under Kevin Rudd in 2008. But four years later there was a changing of the Labour guard, a coup which installed Julia Gillard as Prime Minister. The Solution was back. The Gillard Labour government reopened Nauru detention center and Manus Island detention center for offshore processing. Then in 2013, another changing of the Labour guard. Kevin Rudd was back as Prime Minister and this time announced, “asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia.” Asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia were now to be detained indefinitely.

The other place under Western jurisdiction where this—indefinite detention—happens is Guantanamo Bay.

Rudd’s government did not last long. In a national election Labour was defeated and Tony Abbot, Leader of the conservative Liberal Party, formed a Coalition government in August 2013. This government sees the boats issue as a central matter of Australian sovereignty and national interest. Operation Sovereign Borders was an election policy and a vote winner, and commenced on 18 September 2013. The operation is a military-led attempt to address issues surrounding “people smuggling.” The emphasis is on turning back the boats.

As I write this (February 25, 2014) Australia has returned its seventh boatload of asylum seekers to Indonesia, since the Coalition’s policy was enacted.

After three days and nights at sea the boat entered Australian waters and was intercepted by an Australian warship, the 26 people aboard were transferred to an orange lifeboat and “turned back” to the southern coast of Java. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, has repeatedly attacked the Abbott government’s policy of boat “turn-backs,” warning the practice would damage relations between the two countries.

“As I write this … ” I write these words over and over again, and each time the date is different, the present tense belies coherence. “Now” was February, and now “now” is august. Over the course of eight months I search for words, and the grizzly scenario keeps unfolding. It is not as though I am waiting to see what the future brings. But neither can I write definitively in the past tense. Jenny Lloyd writes to me from Sydney a few days ago (august 4th): “Asylum seeker policy continues to get worse even as it seems that surely there is no “worse” to reach. But I seem to have been saying that for a long time. I’m reading a biography of Hannah Arendt and am struck by the repetitions of history in refugee policy.”

Maritime law experts have voiced concern about the legality of Operation Sovereign Borders. If Indonesia wanted to, it would be within its rights to take Australia to the International Court of Justice over the matter. Although, as yet Indonesia has not indicated that they are considering a case. Interestingly, Australia is no stranger to the International Court of Justice in relation to maritime issues, as it has recently (March 2014) won a highly publicized case against Japan for whaling offences (hailed, internationally, as an environmental victory).

I’m all for the whales. But the narrative isn’t clear to me, I can’t figure out how whales and asylum seekers fit together into a broader canvas, where there are also boats and islands, natives and foreigners, and different kinds of waters, sea water and fresh water.

It is not only Maritime law that is at issue. Amnesty International, refugee rights groups, and sections of the public concerned about humanitarian issues, have said that Australia is failing to meet its international obligations, both moral and legal, and have questioned whether it is the Australian government that is in fact breaking a number of international laws.

‘Here the word future is not a word’

These words—“Here the word future is not a word”— are spoken by a refugee on Nauru island. What language is there to describe the inhumane conditions in these offshore processing centres? From the beginning facilities have been appalling, but as time passes overcrowding exacerbates conditions. A law enforcement approach to asylum policy guarantees poor services including intermittent electricity and fresh water, poor medical facilities, inadequate protection from the heat. The impact of detention on people in these conditions is exacerbated by the sentence of uncertainty, not knowing when and if they will be given a hearing. A friend who works with survivors of torture and trauma writes that even if people were not traumatized when they arrived in boats, they undoubtedly become so after spending time in these Detention Centers.

Between Australia and Indonesia, over the centuries, boats come and go.

We may have all come on different ships But we’re in the same boat now.” Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. Painted in black handwriting on a wooden board. Posted today Tuesday March 11, 2014

Under the blue of the painting there is black paint. The grotesque flip side of The Saltwater Collection of Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country is this conception of a land-sea continuity, one couched in terms of sovereignty and prevention, of legality and immigration, of war. Although Tony Abbott presents the current situation in terms of war, the war is not really between Indonesia and Australia. Needless to say Australia’s assertion of sovereignty has implications for Indonesia’s sovereignty, but Indonesia is less concerned than Australia (and Indonesia arguably occupies a currently more significant place, politically, in the global arena than Australia). Moreover, it is not in fact surprising that Indonesia is not preparing to confront Australia head-on, since there exists a strong and murky history of alliance and complicity between the two countries, stretching from the last century into this.

During the cold war the Western powers fighting a war in Vietnam viewed Indonesia, with the largest Communist Party outside of the Soviet Union and China, as the last domino. On which side of the divide would it fall? In 1965 the country witnessed a coup that toppled Sukharno, the figurehead of revolution and independence, and installed Suaharto. This “coup” turned into one of the largest mass atrocities of the 20th century. Up to two million people were massacred in this purging of supporters and thousands of alleged supporters of the PKI (the Indonesia Communist Party). It was not a highly publicized genocide, in fact it was passed off as a civil war by those Western powers that had knowledge of the events, and indeed that were actively complicit in them. Suaharto’s dictatorship lasted until 1998, during which time he enjoyed the support of various Australian governments, including Labour. Since then the genocide has not only been unacknowledged in Australia, the US and the West, but also within Indonesia, where “forgetting” has been institutionalized.

A small boat in an ocean of impunity

There is in Indonesia now a growing civil society movement, with survivors playing a key role, to “fight forgetting.” In the absence of an official truth commission the Coalition for Truth and Justice ( is conducting its own truth-seeking process, organizing public hearings across Indonesia, gathering testimonies into one database, and producing a final report— “A small boat in an ocean of impunity,” writes Galuh Wandita.

Just as both the Labour and Liberal governments in Australia today have contributed to the construction of islands of inhumanity between “our” island nation and Indonesia and Papua New Guinea so in the past both parties/governments supported the Suhuarto regime. Paul Keating, as Treasurer and Prime Minister, did much to open Australia up to the world in terms of trade and finance, to a recognition of its place in the region, to save it from the imminent fate of becoming a “banana republic.” But his 1994 assertion that “No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia” was underwritten by his exoneration of Suhuarto from blame for the genocide. Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser  met Suhuarto in October 1976, offering de facto recognition of the Indonesian invasion and annexation of East Timor (the eastern side of an island in the Indonesian archipelago).

Just as the history of relations between Australia and Indonesia prior to European settlement cannot be encapsulated in histories which only use the proper names of countries as we now know them, so the postcolonial unraveling is more complex than that summoned purely by diplomatic accounts; government policies do not always represent all of the people all of the time, and even within the diplomatic there are surprising incongruities and paradoxes. Such as the fact that Australia, while supporting Indonesia’s invasion and occupation of East Timor (1975 to 1999), provided sanctuary to East Timorese independence advocates like Jose Ramos-Horta.

Between Australia and Indonesia boats come and go. Yet, once, there were ships that did not sail.

The year is 1945. On the Melbourne docks Indonesian crews walk off Dutch ships and members of the Australian Waterside Workers Union, supported by Indian and Chinese workers, artists and activists, mount a rousing and effective blockade. Dutch ships loaded with arms and ammunition (to be used against the independence struggle in what was then The Dutch East Indies) are prevented from leaving the port. “The ships that didn’t sail”: this is a refrain that structures Joris Ivens’ film, Indonesia Calling (revisited and contextualized in John Hughes’ film Indonesia Calling: Joris Ivens in Australia (2009)), made in support of the Indonesian struggle for independence, after three hundred years of colonization. The film was shot largely in Australia with a predominantly Australian crew and researchers. In fact there were many Indonesian nationalists living in Australia during the Second World War (following the Japanese invasion there was a massive evacuation, a Dutch East Indies government in exile was set up in Australia, and political prisoners were transferred to Australian prison camps but subsequently released. Their number included a who’s who of nationalist leaders).

The ships that didn’t sail.

Mick Counihan told me about this film and John Hughes sent me a DVD. It arrived as I was struggling to write about the Yirrkala Drawings. At first I made no connection between Indonesia Calling and the Yirrkala Drawings …….

One man who was a young teenager in Garut in West Java in 1947, linguist Rabin Hardjadibrata, remembers seeing Indonesia Calling on a couple of occasions and speaks about it in Hughes’ film:

They showed it preceding Gone With The Wind [Victor Fleming, 1939] […] it was indeed a surprise to see that here is a country well known for being “white Australia”, and yet they are supporting us! And of course a second time I went to make sure whether it was the same thing that I saw, and it was, of course. We always have a soft heart for the Australians because of that, of the support for Indonesian independence.

Surprising indeed. Even more so, the fact that in 1949 the Menzies government was one of the first to recognize the new Republic of Indonesia. In subsequent years, however, Australia certainly did its bit to contribute to the destabilization of the Sukharno government by covert trafficking of arms to support anti-Sukarno uprisings. Many of the young activists seen in Indonesia Calling were murdered or “disappeared” during the coup of 1965.

Between Indonesia Calling and the Yirrkala Drawings …….a sea of difference. A sea of difference in which echoes and similiarities skim the surface, leaving a trail like surf breaking. Like a heron.

A heron zips across the blueness of Whiteley’s painting, leaving a trace, a flurry of whiteness. The streak of white is here now, but only just, at any moment it will disappear, out of the painting out of the world.

Between Australia and Indonesia stretches ocean. Boats come and go.

I have never visited Indonesia or Arnhem Land. I have never been on a leaky boat or in a detention center. I can only imagine what it must be like to have escaped persecution and torture only to be trapped on a boat between Australia and Indonesia, refused landing here or there, restrained in a detention camp on some small unspeakably hot god-forsaken island in the middle of nowhere. Visiting Australia this time, in the summer, the first thing I had to do was take a dip at Bondi. To be on Bondi Beach is to be at home in the world. It is as though the world begins here—with the bodily sensation of diving into and through cold salty waves—and stretches out forever, through time and space. But back in San Diego, as the Yirrkala Drawings reverberate, as I don my frock for a party, the blackness of Sydney Blue seeps slowly to the surface, and spreads. It spreads way beyond Whiteley’s Lavendar Bay, Preston’s harbour views, “my” Bondi. Between the memories of the Yirrkala drawings and the reading, here at home, of newspapers on line and books borrowed through interlibrary loan and dvds that come as gifts through the post, I begin to imagine … an other Australia, opened to exchange with the world beyond, through sea cucumbers and words. Their language is in ours, but what of our language? How can it imagine?

Imagine standing on Whiteley’s balcony, looking out over Lavendar Bay: you effectively turn your back on the rest of the Australia. Such a tiny part of the country, that south east corner. You turn your back on a history—long and benign, short and brutal—that has linked two regions, at the shortest point only a hundred and twenty five miles apart, where the sea and the land segue into one another.

Now when I wear my Von Troska frock I hear all these stories, their language in the dress, in the blueness. I love the blueness of Sydney, but now the frock speaks other languages, underneath the blue there is the black that Whiteley used as a base, and there are murmurings of other shores, of an other Australia. Next time I return to Australia it will be to the Northern Territory, to Arnhem Land, perhaps even to Yolngu country where the land and the sea are continuous, where boats come and go.




Deep Ultramarine oil colour ….. McGrath, S., Brett Whiteley, Bay Books, Sydney, 1979, p. 214

“The colours,” she said “should not be put on subtly.” ….. Quoted in the marvelous catalogue that Jeffrey brought me from Australia last year, Margaret Preston, Deborah Edwards with Rose Peel and Denise Mimmocchi, Sydney: Thames and Hudson in association with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2010 (first published in 2005), p. 260.

Norman Lindsay accused her of “violent crudities of pure colour.’ Ibid. P.83

“It’s like speaking in a French accent…..” (Shadow cast over a painter’s legacy, July 25, 2005, Alexa Moses (accessed 26 feb 2014)

“If you can understand the paintings” …. Baluka Maymuru, son of Nänyin’ Maymuru in an interview in the catalogue, Yirrkala Drawings, ed Cara Pinchbeck, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2013, p.106.

I hear Deborah Rose Bird at a conference …. “Anthropocene: Arts of living on a damaged planet,” May 8-10, 2014 at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Rose’s talk, “Shimmer: When All You Love is Being Trashed,” can be seen at

Bir’yun refers to intense sources and refractions of light. “From Dull to Brilliant: The Aesthetics of Spiritual Power Among the Yolngu Author(s)”: H. Morphy Source: Man, New Series, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), pp. 21-40 Published by: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Stable URL: .Accessed: 15/07/2014 15:44 P. 28. Morphy here is drawing on the field notes of the anthropologist Donald Thompson. Morphy has dealt with this concept of shimmer in a variety of writings, see for instance (here I draw on) “Shimmering Light,” by Howard Morphy, from the book Jörg Schmeisser Bilder Der Reise – a man who likes to draw, 2013. Howard Morphy, Aboriginal Art (London: Phaidon Press, 1998) pp. 185-90 Howard Morphy, “The Art of the Yirrkala Crayon Drawings: Innovation, Creativity and Tradition,” pp27-33, Yirrkala Drawings [catalogue].

As Waka Mununggurr writes in the preface to the catalogue ….. Yirrkala Drawings, p.13.

It is estimated that as many as 1,000 trepangers arrived each year…. MacKnight, C.C. (1976).The Voyage to Marege’: Macassan Trepangers in Northern Australia. Melbourne University Press.

“their story is still alive today” …. The video interview with Laklak Ganambarr is transcribed in Yirrkala Drawings, pp 146-147.

Macassan culture was incorporated into Aboriginal Dreamtime …. Howard Morphy, in “Engaging the Other: Art and the Survival of Aboriginal Society,” Ch 7 of Aboriginal Art

Bununggu Yunupingu whose Ceremony with Macassan influence is densely imagistic …. The crayon drawings were not given titles at the time they were made; the titles used in the exhibition and catalogue were either in use from previous exhibitions or arrived at after extensive consultation with current clan leaders. Yirrkala Drawings, p.6.

“these beings had the power to travel over deep waters of the ocean” …. Yirrkala Drawings, p. 139.

“We are all connected through the mixing of waters” …. Baluka Maymuru, son of Nänyin’ Maymuru in an interview. Yirrkala Drawings, p. 107.

In the Yirrkala Drawings land and sea are connected ….

Fabian’s suggestion opens a way to thinking about what happens …. He later writes me an email about the “effect of transcended incongruity that’s the poetic core of hipálage.” And adds, “Talking about metaphors, color displacements and anthropomorphism, thanks to the class I gave this week about Egyptian Art, I got to meet the goddess Nut (see image: she is the blue arch over the whole scene).” A wonderful image, abstraction and solidity, color and shape, a spiritual connection between the part and the whole.

“So, two different styles to our sacred paintings” …. Interview with Yalpi Yunupingu, Yirrkala Drawings, p. 139.

“differing colors signify the differing states of water…. Andrew Blake, “Yirrkala: A Brief History,” Yirrkala Drawings, 37.

“a sense of movement, that has references to the interwoven structure of the dam and the water” …. Howard Morphy, Yirrkala Drawings, p. 31.

The Saltwater Collection consists of eighty bark paintings …. “About the Saltwater Collection”, on the site Yoln[long n] u Sea Country,

After this desecration of Bäru …. This material is drawn from the Australian National Maritime Museum, where some of the barks were exhibited from May 2013 to February 2014.

the image remained that of a large imposing red hulk” …. Bertelsen, Lone and Andrew Murphie, “An Ethics of Everyday Infinities and Powers: Felix Guattari on Affect and the Refrain,” The Affect Theory Reader, eds. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, duke university press Durham & London 2010, p.143.

“asylum seekers who come here by boat ….” “Kevin Rudd to send asylum seekers who arrive by boat to Papua New Guinea” Sydney Morning Herald July 19, 2013

Maritime law experts are also concerned about the legality of Operation Sovereign Borders …. “Inquiry into the Breach of Indonesian

Territorial Waters,” Submission to the Senate Standing Committee on

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade by the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law.

Although Tony Abbott presents the current situation in terms of war …. “We are in a fierce contest with these people smugglers,” Abbot has said. “And if we were at war, we wouldn’t be giving out information that is of use to the enemy just because we might have an idle curiosity about it ourselves.”

Up to two million people were massacred …. Estimates of people killed, both ethnic Chinese and others, vary between 78 000 and 2 million, but the slaughter has never been properly documented, and so widespread were the killings that it probably never will be. (Hilton. Check.)

those Western powers that had knowledge …. communiqués from US and Australian ambassadors reveal that the “politicide” was conducted with the full knowledge and active complicity of those countries.

“A small boat in an ocean of impunity” …. Galuh Wandita, “PREMAN NATION: Watching The Act of Killing in Indonesia,” Critical Asian Studies, Volume 46, Number 1 – March 2014,

No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia…. Defense Relations Between Australia and Indonesia in the Post-Cold War Era“, pp. 89–93, By Bilveer Singh, 2002 Published by Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002, ISBN 0-313-32226-0

The film was an unexpected and inspirational expression of support to Indonesians …. John Hughes, “Indonesia Calling: Joris Ivens In Australia.Senses of Cinema, July 2009 MIFF Premiere Fund/Post-Punk Dossier, Special Dossiers Issue 51.

in fact it was passed off as a civil war …. (interview w Hilton); and (26 November 2013, 3.31am GMT, “Australian espionage and the history of foreign intervention in Indonesia” Thomas Reuter

accessed feb 21, 2014)

As I write this Australia has returned its seventh boatload of asylum seekers …. Another turned back boat lands in Indonesia, February 25, 2014, Michael Bachelard

‘Here the word future is not a word’ …. “‘Here the word future is not a word’: life as a refugee on Nauru.” 4 August

accessed aug 4, 2014




















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