In May of 2005 a couple of friends of mine, Rosemary Crumlin and Pauline Clayton, were planning to spend some time in the Bungle Bungle Ranges in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Rosemary is a writer, curator and art historian, and Pauline, who has since passed away, was an artist and teacher. The purpose of their trip was to visit their friend Hector Jandany, a Warmun elder, who was an important artist suffering from a terminal illness. He had sent a message via Pauline to Rosemary that she should hurry as he was ‘just about stuffed’.
Along with Pauline’s daughter Sam, they also planned to spend time with another friend, Dillon Andrews, a Bunuba man, and were going to camp for three days in his country. I asked if I could tag along, as I’d never experienced that part of Australia. They agreed to take me under one condition, namely that Pauline was in charge and she’d be doing the driving. I couldn’t refuse such an offer and joined them for ten days of adventure.
After we arrived at Darwin we traveled by light plane 825 kilometres south to Kununurra, then a further 150 kilometres by four-wheel drive south-west to Warmun (Turkey Creek) in the heart of the Kimberley.
After the first night there I woke to discover that Rosemary and Pauline had taken the early bus back to Kununurra, as they had heard from the community that Hector had been taken to hospital a few days earlier. Sam and I stayed at Mirrilingki Mission, awaiting their return that night.
The next morning the news on Hector’s health was not too bad, so the following day we continued with our planned visit to Fitzroy Crossing, a further 450 kilometres south-west. We spent some time with Dillon, visiting sites that few westerners have ever seen, camping in his country and being shown the land through the eyes of an Aboriginal elder; it was a wonderful few days.
When we drove back to Kununurra, Pauline and Rosemary wanted to see Hector again. With his agreement, Sam and I joined them. I recall the contrast of the tall, elegant black man lying on those stiff, white hospital sheets. He spoke happily to us and then, as we went to leave, he held out his hands to me. I recall how large they were, and soft, as if they had been covered in talc, and how long his fingers were. He also had large brown eyes and I was struck by their beauty, and their depth. Hector smiled and nodded, acknowledging my presence, then said to me, ‘Pray for us’.
I later reflected on his choice of words: ‘for us’, not ‘for me’. It stirred a strong feeling in me that there was no ‘I’ in Hector’s language, no concern for the self. His life was all about community and I pondered just how much westerners could learn from these ancient people. Our culture is all about ‘me’, entirely self-centred with little concern for the other—unless there’s something in it for ‘me’. Ours is a culture of competition, not collaboration.
That’s how we operate. It’s how modern society and the capitalist system have taught us to behave. One day, when the fabric of western society is decaying (and one could argue we are seeing signs of that today), perhaps we will embrace the idea, in full consciousness, of the ‘we’. It would be an acknowledgement that, just like our symbiotic relationship with nature, we can’t do anything without ‘the other’.
I believe that Hector, however, operated that way. He was a man deeply connected with his environment and his people, a man of the ‘we’. His paradigm included environment and people as one congruent whole. He felt it and lived it. In his world, human beings are part of the whole universe of activity, not separate but dependent on the whole.
Hector was also the Ngapuny man (God man or God spirit) for his community. He was the man of wisdom who looked after the spiritual wellbeing of his people, and I could see from his bearing that he was a special human being. Later, Rosemary told me an anecdote about Hector. At an art exhibition he said to her, ‘We’s always knew about Ngapuny, we’s always knew about spirit…’ and then, as he moved his fingers towards one of his many landscapes, ‘All Ngapuny, everything is Ngapuny’.
Here was an old man from one of the most ancient cultures of the world who knew what science is only just discovering, that we all live in the ‘one’. It’s how, in times gone by, his people lived within their communities, navigated the land, and found their way in one of the most inhospitable climates on earth. They could feel the stream of energy; it was part of their being and part of their country. It spoke to them as they travelled their songlines from one waterhole to the next, guided and accompanied by Ngapuny on their passage through their ‘seasons’.
The project we undertook at CGA Bryson was all about the ‘we’. It was a conscious collaboration with others in order to deliver projects in a more socially healthy and harmonious way. It was a process worthy of our human dignity.
The beautiful man who inspired me, Hector Jandany, died shortly after our visit.
* Thanks to kingfisher.net tours for the top photo.