Tea and Tigers : A Chinese Curators Road Trip Across the Top End of Australia

“Are there many tigers?” he asked, nervously fingering the thin nylon of the dome tent. We had just set up for our first ‘bush camp’ at Merl in Kakadu and the bright sun was beginning to slip behind the pandanus. Tomorrow, at dawn, we would cross the great greasy crocodile infested river into Arnhem Land, tonight we would take torches to look for their shining red eyes ..

Ancient image of the long extinct Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) on Injaluk Hill

Ancient image of the long extinct Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) on Injaluk Hill

My journey began ten years earlier during a trip to Beijing. I had been invited to view an important exhibition of calligraphy at the National Art Museum of China. Hall after hall filled with elaborately decorated scrolls, the pinnacle of 5,000 years of culture and yet, I realized with some surprise, that I was unable to appreciate them.

I simply did not have the life experience to ‘read’ them…

Over the next five years I entered a period of intensive self education, travelling thousands of kilometres solo across the length and breadth of China exploring & documenting Chinese Culture.

I observed others working hard to build an appreciation of Australian Indigenous art and culture in China, often hosting large exhibitions but failing to provided the ‘tools’, the context required to help these new audiences interpret the work.

We needed to do more …

During my travels, I‘d met extraordinarily innovative Chinese individuals and organisations that share my commitment to international cultural exchange and knew it was important to work closely with these organisations to develop collaborative programs of cultural engagement.

We were determined that these programs would be reciprocal and that the individuals who supported our tours to China would in turn be invited to visit Australia.

So, in 2011, we established the inaugural Australia China Curatorial Exchange Program inviting Chinese curators to visit Australia with a view to developing their appreciation of Australian art, Indigenous culture and Australian curatorial practices.

This, in turn, generated new opportunities for Australian artists in China:

  • Huang Yunhe hosted Waringarri Arts “Our Living Land’ – an exhibition of work by leading East Kimberley artists at his OFOTO Gallery in Shanghai.
  • Professor Fan Lin from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art initiated ‘Yiban Yiban – Yellah Fellah’ featuring Australian artists who were exploring their mixed Indigenous and Chinese heritage.
  • Luo Fei at TCG Nordica, Kunming prepared special programs of activities including joint forums for local Naxi, Miao, Bai, Yi and Akha ‘Minority Group’ artists to share their stories with visiting Australian artists.
Agnes Armstrong, Peggy Griffiths, Cathy Cummings and Dora Griffiths 'dancing' at their opening at OFOTO Gallery M50 Shanghai - April 2013

Agnes Armstrong, Peggy Griffiths, Cathy Cummings and Dora Griffiths ‘dancing’ at their opening at OFOTO Gallery M50 Shanghai – April 2013

We had spent four years carefully planning our Australian road trip, working with Injaluk Arts (Oenpelli), Djilpin Arts (Beswick), Mimi Arts (Katherine) and Waringarri Arts (Kununurra) developing the mutual respect and trust required to ensure its success.

And now, finally, after receiving vital support from the Australian Embassy in Beijing, our carefully selected group of innovative young Chinese curators sat with Thompson Nganjmirra, high on Injaluk Hill, looking out over the flood plains as he pointed to outstations and explained the importance of ‘country’ and connection to land.

During the morning we explored burial caves and marveled at the myriad of ancient rock paintings, teasing out the thick layers of images laid down over millennium. Utilizing the long extinct Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) to demonstrate the extraordinary age of the work and the various ‘mimi’ and creation beings to explain ‘lore’ and beliefs.

Huang Yunhe photographs ancient paintings on Injaluk Hill near Oenpelli

Huang Yunhe photographs ancient paintings on Injaluk Hill near Oenpelli

To assist our visitors to understand the extraordinary diversity of Indigenous peoples and cultures which exist across Australia, we built upon their knowledge, drawing parallels between the 56 ‘minority groups’ in China and the 260 individual Aboriginal language groups which inhabited the country when white settlement began.

We had begun our tour at the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair meeting representatives of 40 Indigenous Art Centres, exploring concepts including oral history, songlines and ‘dream time’. Here the exhibits clearly demonstrated the diverse ways in which indigenous images and stories have been modified to create contemporary artwork and some very stunning merchandise!

Chinese Curators learn about Indigenous Cultural Enterprize from Felicity Wright, Manager Injaluk Arts at the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair

Chinese Curators learn about Indigenous Cultural Enterprize from Felicity Wright, Manager Injaluk Arts at the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair

In Katherine we explored Nitmuluk and visited Djilpin Arts where Tom E Lewis discussed the importance of collaboration and shared history, telling stories of Maccassan traders, intermarriage and early Chinese settlement.

Tom E Lewis meets with Fan Lin, Huang Yunhe, Liu Lifen and Luo Fei to discuss collaborative opportunities for Djilpin Arts, Beswick

Tom E Lewis meets with Fan Lin, Huang Yunhe, Liu Lifen and Luo Fei to discuss collaborative opportunities for Djilpin Arts, Beswick

As our journey continued from the rocky escarpments of the stone country across spinifex plains dotted with boabs to Keep River National Park the questions became more complex, seeking clarity. Here they listened carefully as traditional owner Peggy Griffiths and her family travelled with us through her country sharing stories about her mother, visiting rock shelters and gathering bush food and medicine.

Learning about 'country' with (from right) Peggy Griffiths her grand daughter Kelly, great grandson Ace and Nawoola at Keep River National Park

Learning about ‘country’ with (from right) Peggy Griffiths her grand daughter Kelly, great grandson Ace and Nawoola at Keep River National Park

Then across the border to Kununurra – we had traveled over 1,500kms

Full circle! Our visitors now confidently discussing diversity, sharing empathy and demonstrating understanding. Our new Chinese ambassadors for Indigenous culture!

Spent the day exploring the art centre with all the staff at Waringarri Arts Kununurra

Spent the day exploring the art centre with all the staff at Waringarri Arts Kununurra

‘Ahh you came, my China friend’ exclaimed Aboriginal elder, Agnes Armstrong as she and Dora Griffiths welcomed our guests with a special water blessing before settling around the table together for a Chinese Tea ceremony, with fresh baked damper!

Aboriginal Elder, Agnes Armstrong enjoys a Chinese Tea Ceremony at Waringarri Arts Kununurra

Aboriginal Elder, Agnes Armstrong enjoys a Chinese Tea Ceremony at Waringarri Arts Kununurra

* The Chinese Curators Top End Road Trip was managed by Cultural Partnerships Australia and sponsored by DFAT through the Australian Embassy in Beijing

 

Catherine Croll

Founding Director – Cultural Partnerships Australia

https://catherinecroll.com/cultural-partnerships/

 

Visiting Chinese curators Lui Lifen, Fan Lin, Hunag Yunhe and Luo Fei

Visiting Chinese curators Lui Lifen, Fan Lin, Hunag Yunhe and Luo Fei

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Mei Wen Ti Means No Worries

We’re on the 604 slow-train out of Beijing, heading for Pingyao in the Shanxi Province. This is night two in China spent together as unfamiliar travelling friends, resting in the Hard Sleepers stacked three high.
We fall into our bunks easily after the exertion of getting ready for being here. We’ve packed up studios, finished off works, pushed through the rigmarole of life’s administration pre-departure, and everything that’s come lately.

Now with a t-shirt and a toothbrush and a notebook in a bag we exhale, grab a sideways look at each other’s gear, and give a school kid smile. A fat baby boy tugs at his slight mum’s shirt. Fit men in white singlets, or light pink and grey, with warm looking arms play cards across their knees.

We wait for the Carriage Boss to turn out our lights and put us to bed. Nothing to worry about here – Mai Wen Ti. She’ll get us up at the other end with a poke and smooth song over the speakers. The Mandarin music sounds like cheap Chinese wind charms as we pull into Pingyao station.

Our trip begins now, skating through the streets in an open taxi-bike. There are billboards and road stalls and blasting horns and to the left a team of workers doing their morning exercise in sync. An instructor stands on a box out front waving her arms like a Willow.

Then inside the old city walls there are thin streets and ancient rooves and little cats and a bicycle mechanic squat sitting with a cigarette at the front door to his shop. It’s very beautiful, surprising, and we’ll spent the next three days finding temples and tea stands for smokos. We’re getting our heads around the good luck we must have had to be asked here.

We walk into courtyards where local families cook in dark dinky kitchens. Vegies pile up in enamel bowls and washing hangs out on wire. People are generous with their time for talk and share food that is chilli hot with vinegar. This place is old and endearing, personal in design for an ancient Merchant Town.

On one of these Pingyao days it starts to rain a Chinese mist, so we hire bikes and read books. Some of us draw and do it quite badly except for Pete, who rolls out 8 feet of paper on a side road and busts out a Pagoda in black. He pulls a crowd and comes home dirty-kneed with a soggy though serious and impressive scroll under one arm. He’s wearing a woollen beanie, hollow at its top, perched too high on his man handsome head.

Outside of Pingyao there’s The Wang Family Residence and the Zhangbi Underground Defence Tunnels. We’re taken there by an operatic taxi driver who sings to us when we get bogged. Out again and on our way to Zhangbi Cun Village we drive up a mountain with wild flowers by the road. More singing and attempted language lessons, horns and sliding past trucks.

It’s cold in the dirt underground and barely lit by bulbs. They hang out from the wall at intervals on stiffened wire with tabs of tape and little twists of string. It’s almost claustrophobic down there though astonishing enough to endure it. Then light and air and we’re happily met by our virtuoso who speeds us on to The Wangs’.

When it comes to aesthetics The Wang Family had the right idea. As inventors of Tofu all decadence was allowed them. Intricate wooden structures fill the protective walls of their large family home, empty now though perfectly maintained. We see laced balconies and a lamp hanger in the shape of a bird. Circular doorways and a Qing Dynasty ink drawing of two fat grey hens. That one blows our socks right off.

Before leaving our Hostel we’re invited to do some images on the wall of the Bar next door. A memory of the Australian Artists’ who came to stay, and our first group show of sorts together. So we take up a beer and do our shy and shameful best with the texta we are handed.

Average art aside, The Boyz’ Bums are most inspiring as they face the wall to work first up and side-by-side. Guido cocks his right hip – has a noticeably cool left hand. Philjames is all up and in it – a composed kid on a textbook cover. Then we hoot like it’s good to get that bit done and leave for the train to Xi’an.

with love from China