Saturday, April 13, 2013

Wulamanayuwi / Once and Future Landscape Care

 Wulamanayuwi and the Seven Pamanui by Jason De Santis.  Presented by Centenary of Canberra as Northern Territory’s contribution, from Darwin Festival, directed by Eamon Flack at The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, April 10-13, 2013.

Once and Future Landscape Care forum with Bill Gammage, Bruce Pascoe and Ben Gleeson at Two Fires Festival, Braidwood, April 12-14, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 12

What a wonderful day was Friday April 12, 2013.

In the evening, Canberra Playhouse became a centre of Australian cultural life, as Jason De Santis – of Tiwi Islander and Italian heritage – presented his often amusing yet emotionally engaging version of the traditional story of Wulamanayuwi, the daughter of Jipmarpuwajuwa.  Though superficially De Santis has made a connection with the European story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, there is even more significance behind the myth of how death first happened to humans.

Here we see how universal – from Genesis in the Bible to this even nowadays remote community – is the fear of evil and death, and the determination to live and to love.  For an audience in the National Capital, representing a wide range of cultural traditions, responding with great warmth and communal laughter to the originality of this first Tiwi play, and to its author speaking to us in the foyer afterwards, came naturally.  Just as in the story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, there is tragedy and a recognition of human failings in this Tiwi story – but I must say I felt more positive about the future of humanity as Wulamanayuwi finally came through her troubling times, making her own decision to begin her adult life with her chosen husband, Awarrajimi.   Her seven brothers, the Panamui, are mischievous but ultimately spirits of family support, rather than competitive and murderous as in the ancient Middle Eastern Biblical story.

Natasha Wanganeen as Jirrakilala and Kylie Farmer as Wulamanayuwi
 If you would like to read more about “Tiwi Art and Culture and the First Old Lady”, Pedro Wonaeamirri (puppet maker and set maker, with John Peter Pilaukui and Linus Warlapinni) has written his version of the story: of Purrukuparli, his wife Waiyai, and of his brother and her lover, the moon man, Taparra, and its importance in his life – available at

The program notes describe the production, saying “The approach is to embrace the classic traditions of Western theatricality to excess, and to allow the clash between Western theatre and Tiwi culture to energise the work....brightness and colour, sound and movement, character-doubling, live music, minimal “acting” and lots of performing and storytelling, things popping out from behind corners, drop-cloths, shadow-puppetry, scrolling landscapes etc.  Everything we can possibly achieve with very few resources – Tiwi style.”  All I can add is to say that they achieved everything!

The actors – Kylie Farmer as Wulamanayuwi; Natasha Wanganeen as her evil stepmother Jirrakilala; Kamahi Djordan King as her father Jipmarpuwajuwa; Jaxon De Santis as her husband Awarrajimi; and Jason De Santis as the Narrator and Evil Spirit of the Water – were hardly “minimal” in effect.  It took no time for connection to be established firmly with the audience, and not a beat was missed from then on.

Then more connections were made for me as, in the foyer, Ngambri father Paul House, with his children, welcomed us all to his country (noting that he was born in the centre of his country, at the old Canberra Hospital – did he mean that was why it was blown up, to be replaced by the National Museum?)  and Jason De Santis spoke, thanking the Ngambri elders for permission for him to tell his Tiwi story here.

All at once it came home to me again that we are living in Aboriginal land, just as it had that very afternoon, in Braidwood, an hour’s drive to the east.

The Two Fires Festival – Fanning the Flames of Arts and Activism – included three speakers, in the presence of Yuin Elder, Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison, on the topic Once and Future Landscape Care

Bruce Pascoe, of Bunurong and Tasmanian heritage, a novelist, short story writer and researcher into indigenous history and language revival, spoke of the invisibility, in conventional histories, of Aboriginal technology, such as in house construction, river flow and fishery management, crop growing, and maintaining a surplus of goods for trading – the very activities that showed traditional Aboriginal culture to be “civilised”.  The refusal to recognise these activities – despite their being described in great detail by well-known European explorers – was the basis for Australia to be treated as “terra nullius”, and the people already living here as so “primitive” they did not count.

Bill Gammage, an academic historian at the Humanities Research Centre at ANU, spoke about his recent publication The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, filling out – for me, at least – this study of the careful and precise use of fire management by Aboriginal people all over Australia, prior to the intervention of Europeans from 1788, with an understanding of the complementary religious beliefs and ceremonial practice developed over many tens of thousands of years.  Once again, here was evidence of a civilisation, rather than an haphazard existence.

Ben Gleeson lives locally, with a degree in Ecological Agriculture and doing honours in Restoration Ecology.  He put together the previous speakers’ themes in emphasising that the essential difference between traditional Aboriginal culture, beliefs and practice and the more recent European approach is that in the one, all forms of life, including us humans, are intimately related; while in the other we humans pretend we are separate from all other forms of life – and try to control everything else.  His most telling example, perhaps, is the development of industrial monoculture agriculture, and his main concern for the future is that greater and greater urbanisation means that our chance of people recognising the imperatives of our interdependence may not come in time to save our species. 

Yet it is the understanding of evolution that Charles Darwin’s theory gave us, and that modern science is beginning to put into practice, which gives us the chance after all.

When Uncle Max spoke, in concluding the session, he praised the young men, like Johnny Huckle, of Wiradjuri heritage, who participated in the earlier welcome to country ceremony with his song to honour the Festival – Two Fires Light our Hearts.  This represented for me the theme of the day: respect the ancient culture, study history honestly, connect science to our humanity in harmony with all the rest of nature.

What a day was Friday April 12, 2013!

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