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



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

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

Chengdu, day two, and we’re waiting for …

Chengdu, day two, and we’re waiting for Dawei out the front. He’s a local painter who’s taking us on a studio tour before the Bookworm Artists’ Talk tonight.

When Dawei arrives he has soft cat eyes and a ponytail that reaches his waist. His English is good so it’s easy to talk and his painting is quite interesting too. Brushy figures painted from Brighton, some caught in the crack of a strobe light.

He’s been way too pious in cleaning up his space, like the other artists who we meet later. Brushes in a row and the super clean loo are a dead giveaway to us paint pigs. We drink Chengdu tea and smell in his oils, nearly filling the small space of his hideout.

Han Qing from Beijing is also with us. He’s an artist who shows with Redgate Gallery.
With no studio in town he hands out his catalogues, which have pale pink and light blue and yellow.

They’re all about light – or to do with the light – or of a light he says over. Not that these discrepancies had been of much worry to us. They are streetscapes at night and paintings of globes. It’s just an animated kind of one-way argument – the sort that I suspect might frustrate Xiao Ping.

Xiao Ping has been with us from the lucky get-go. He’s a towering tall and ever-dignified man – like a big screen movie star, or a poster of one of Mao’s crew.

Xiao’s quiet nature, which only occasionally breaks, gives him a curious mystique. It’s perhaps the result of time spent sitting down with the elderly Artists in Arnhem Land. Or maybe a lash back from his previous life growing up in the Cultural Revolution.

He does his best, despite his no-fuss nature, to encourage our conversation and questioning. He’s had the unfortunate job of being our right hand language man, on top of thinking through his own creative prerogatives.

Then we meet He Yi and Zhang Xi, both in different parts of town. They are stylish people in minimal flats that are bare and clean and cool out of the heat.

He Yi matches his paintings perfectly. He’s in shades of grey, like the walls of his place, with a smart purple string around one wrist. In his works are figures, rendered transparent, with a splash of one color in the corner of a limb.

Zhang Xi opens her door in square pajama pants and a bra-less blue tee. She’s a slight pretty woman who takes up position leaning next to a crystal clear ashtray. It holds just one butt placed central, like the fragile figures in her work. The burnt out end like one shock of black hair, like her own, which is cut in a fringe.

We have finished our tour so clean up our looks before heading to the Bookshop for presentation. Kate has organised the slideshow of images, which we rearrange in a stereotypical way – in the bus and at the last minute, poor thing.

When she takes the floor her presence is noticeably cool and particularly professional – she’s a woman in a role she was meant for.

Fiona then talks about her most recent project (on Queensland’s Opium trade) before the others start discussing their own. We watch her from the couch down low, sip on drinks, and listen intent. She looks like a Queen in a bright red shawl with glasses that sit down on her nose. She’s got a head of shiny curls – girly – almost at odds with her steady voice that says I’m serious better believe it.

Not usually a big gas bagger, it’s a rare opportunity to hear her articulate so much so eloquently and so candidly. We smile at each other and think, ah well, now that’s finally a real true gun artist. All those years of research help her to speak with accuracy – a problem we all seem to have when Capitan Kate springs the request back on us. We are asked to talk when our slides flick over.

From where I sit everyone speaks beautifully, and is perfectly fitted to their strange wears. But then over burgers we question our statements, and wonder why the hell we said that crap.

On the way home the boys and I get a ride with an impressive American student. She’s young and fluent and takes us to a graffiti grotto that she’s discovered and would like to show us. She says that it’s the first one in Chengdu, and it’s beside the Brocade River where the famous poet Du Fu was inspired.

We walk by the water where the taxi drops us off and finally find the old building. It’s dark inside save for the flash of our cameras that make out the paintjobs in brief moments.

Like Company For Chamomile

Chengdu is famous for drinking tea. This is all we know and it’s enough to make you think songbirds, leafy streets and laze. Everything all colloquial and ginseng cool, like breezy lattice gazeboes and parasol strolls.

For the eight hangovers on hard sleepers it sounds well placed. Romantic even, this then imagined big town of quiet card games and fine cigarette smoke. Next stop chamomile clarity and a sweet poppy seed bun. A spot of sketching. Light rain, delicate figures, sleeping caramel cats. Another cup please.

It’s all minty in our minds. The toothpaste we desperately need after a long train trip – after a big poker night on warm Cola and Rum.

And it starts off so arriving at The Loft hostel, which is all that its fashionable title suggests. Poster art, pool table, a little bit of I’ve-been-to-Amsterdam. We settle in and sit around and knock back a few futile caffeine hits in this self-confessed tea town.

The afternoon is spent Pupil Free, which means whatever you like. But no time now for that detox tonic – it’s the museum, Mao’s monument or a rubbish tip trip. People go and see the Pandas. Pete paints under an overpass.

It’s an E.T.C he says with some cheek, when I take a perve at his large roll of paper. An Elevated Transport Corridor. Small teeth, like children, grin out from a bristled chin. The drawing’s more abstract than usual.

The news of his sudden departure, from masculine mountains, to pagodas that burn, to the ever-curious E.T.C. passes around our table at night, with the later proven satanic Sichuan.

To stop being furtive and to embarrass him greatly, Peter is all you can hope for. Clever in the most un-compromised way, not a sparrow’s dick of pretension. Always furiously into the notebook he is, while he listens to something that sounds heavy.

How are your C.C.S.C’s we ask, teasing when he’s at it again. Concrete Systems of Car Conductivity. The O.P.A.F’s? Overland Parabolic Access Facilitators. Bridges arcing the city.

We confess he’s anything but The Great White Asparagrass, which his devoted work ethic could suggest that he is. It was Phil who first came clean about this communal presumption of ours. Thin in high pants with small rectangle specs, perhaps a stutter, or possible shoulder twitch we thought.

How wrong you can be about things sometimes, and how refreshing it is when you are.

Double Happiness For Everyone

Mother Kate is Captain at our helm, with gold loop earrings doubled up in one ear and a sometimes-audible cluck. We’ve navigated our way through the night, off the train, across the city, (around certain medical difficulties), and into our hotel. Proud moments for the diligent organiser of everything who can see her ship take shape.

Shuyuan Hostel by the Xi’an city wall is on the brink of backpacker festive. Lots of pot plants and laminated signage, remnants of patriotism from the Soccer World Cup taped to the walls of the breakfast room.

It’s the kind of place where young women scrawl inspirational notes on the bathroom walls. Some new philosophy they thought up in India, with a smiley face to follow as full stop. But we are happy here in our sheltered courtyard, knocking back coffee and flicking through maps. Birds of a feather perhaps.

Traditionally the end of the Silk Road, Xi’an City still races and so we race with it. The Bell Tower, Drum Tower, Muslim Quarter. Wet Market, Curio Market, Folk House. Big Goose Pagoda, Little Goose Pagoda, Shaanxi Museum.

We split to travel across town on buses, packed in with all manner of people completing all matter of task at high speed. Modern buildings are happening all over – in and around old streets that stress at their seams. Fruit vendors, shoe fixers, key cutters and hot food cookers make smell and noise and notice, in some parts, the tall white person coming down the back lane.

These are vibrant and embedded scenes, improbably synchronized with the newer world around them. This seems to be a very Chinese thing.

Fiona walks with Francis through the Shaanxi Museum. At its entrance a large sign reads;

we sincerely wish that every visitor could acquire pleasure, inspiration, enlightenment and distillation when you appreciate the rhyme of the song, taste the implication of the poem, and probe the mystery of the treasures;

which we all do at one stage or another while getting a handle on Shaanxi Province dynastic structure.

Cultural artefacts on endless exhibit trace the rise and decline of fourteen Emperors. One couldn’t help but question the triviality of their own creative gesture. Though perhaps that’s the tonic for toughening vigour. Or the point of your satire if your use it like that.

Philjames, Pete and Guy climb a very tall mountain followed by the camera crew. We are slowly acclimatizing to them. Overcoming our own embarrassment at being recorded in sometimes vacuous roles. The three come home all super glittery though wacked out. They scaled the steps of this mother landscape from morning to afternoon. It was perfectly inky and accurate by their description.

Rows of corn struggle to grow between the criss-cross of new highway on the way to Bingmayong (The Terracotta Warriors). A woman tells me that many of the farming grannies now spend their days playing Mah-jong. Land has been sold off for development and so they wait without work as their grandsons negotiate the building of big business.

Out the cab window a crow’s nest of road workers eat lunch on the high top of an unfinished pylon.
Before the hall of Warriors a near Disneyland of food joints, tourist taps and car parks bog the flow of traffic. We bolt through fast on our way to the sight where the first fragments of ceramic were found not so long ago.

Facing us are 6,000 armoured soldiers, ready for battle, taking us in through 6,000 varying expressions. Their hair is lovingly different as you look from face to face; top knots and ponytails with little twists and braids and ties. The detail is touching.

In perfect formation under this domed roof hall, they’re positioned as originally intended – to protect China’s first unifier in the Afterlife. Imagine what violence may have befallen him there for his army to crumble with such theatrics.

But then to the back of the hanger, under dirt or transparent sheet plastic, beside the surgical tables of Archaeologists, lie the wounded. They stand half completed, numbered tags hanging from their wrists, waiting for the day when they will join their fellow men and face east.

It seems this immense army of China is saddling up again.

The Station is a moving mess of people; all bags and food and boxes funnelling through turn styles and security checks. None of us know where the other ones are, but we make the train and sweat and smile and start buying fruit from the woman with the trolley who moves through our car. The family has re-formed. Is looking almost fully-fledged.

Before an imminent bedtime we’re in number Nine, the dining room carriage with space and hot egg tomato soup. There is a single red rose on every table, as plastic and fantastic as the other faux furnishings. Outside the window a mountain scene flickers between the ins and outs of tunnels. Running water and steep views down to old stone towns.

We start up toothpick poker. We flick sticks and drink beer and take out loose loans from one another. We’re back on this slow gravy boat – with double cooked pork and double happiness for everyone.

with love from China