We were lucky this week to have been trapped in Ramingining as roads were closed not long after we arrived due to traditional ceremony. What an opportunity it has been to immerse ourselves more in the beautiful community up here in northern Arnhem Land! However, I do feel this will be a hard post to write. While the peaceful atmosphere is palpable there is a feeling of long-lasting unfairness, visible resignation to ridiculous government Intervention, and deep rooted mistrust. Nonetheless, and more to the point, the ancient culture remains and thrives.
So where to start? We arrived in the town to excited waving and smiling faces. The locals were keen to help us with directions and send us off with more smiling and waving. When we found our destination, the Bula’bula art centre, we were greeted with curious eyes and fervent handshakes. A reception we haven’t experienced anywhere else, and much in contradiction to what we subsequently heard and discussed with locals and relative newcomers.
Ben, the Bula’bula art centre’s curator, has his heart in the right place. Not only did he put us up for a night (with camping not permitted within the Ramo shire), he has shed much light on the history of the town, despite having been here only two years, expressing to us a sardonic account of the recent and historical government failure, gross mismanagement and exploitation of the people of Ramo.
The artists remember when the unauthorised use of a sacred design by David Malangi was distributed in 1966 on the one dollar note. A copyright action was pursued and Malangi received comparatively poor compensation, however, his family (thriving in Ramo today) is nonetheless proud of his medal, recognition and the significance with respect to copyright of Indigenous art. Right through to the 2007 Howard Intervention which brought nothing to the already ‘dry’ town of Ramo but a superfluous police presence and welfare that in hindsight has been destructive to welfare! To present day, where the art centre battles to find commercial galleries that play fair. “There are some great galleries that really care for and respect the rights of the artists, but sadly these seem to be an exception to the rule” Ben says. Bula’bula has had some bad experiences in the past, leaving behind a history of broken relationships “and it has affected the artists trust”. Despite all this, the artists of Ramingining are continuing to produce amazing work and beginning to regain the attention and respect they rightfully deserve.
What remains is a community that is thriving in traditional law and culture. Who benevolently welcomed us from day one, imparting stories, invaluable learning and a positive outlook on how the whitefella and blackfella can learn from each other to move forward. Bobby Bununggurr, a senior painter at Bula’bula, who appeared in the movie ‘Ten Canoes’ (2006) and whose renown extends to New York where he has performed with his band, says “we need to keep our culture, that’s what we teach our children. We need to grab with both hands. We love you to come here, we want to learn from you, and you learn from us, this is how to go forward”.