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Warlpiri drawings connect past and present

Mervyn Meggitt with unidentified men at Ngama around 1955. AIATSIS collection via National Museum of Australia.

Mervyn Meggitt with unidentified men at Ngama around 1955. AIATSIS collection via National Museum of Australia.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

It’s not often that you get the chance to learn in detail about the years of research that go into curating a major exhibition.

Visitors to the National Museum of Australia last Wednesday however, heard from anthropologist Dr Melinda Hinkson, curator of the exhibition Warlpiri Drawings: Remembering the Future and author of its accompanying book Remembering the Future: Warlpiri Life Through the Prism of Drawing.

Launched in August this year, the book and exhibition are the result of a three year project which saw Hinkson work closely with Warlpiri people and artists, providing insight into Warlpiri life in the past and present. 

The exhibition and research focus on drawings created in the 1950s by Warlpiri people at the request of anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt – collecting drawings was a common practice in anthropology at the time.

All of the makers of the 1950s drawings as well as the anthropologist who collected them are now deceased. The only surviving witness is Joan Meggitt, widow of Mervyn, who played an important role in helping Hinkson put together the pieces of the story.

The drawings from the 1950s had previously been lost to the Warlpiri people, and the “digital repatriation” of these drawings 60 years later has helped reconnect them with their past.

The exhibition also showcases contemporary drawings by living Warlpiri people today, created in response to the drawings of previous generations.

“The drawings were made 60 years ago at a turbulent time, and I’ve returned them at a turbulent time,” says Hinkson.

“The return of the drawings triggered many conversations and journeys through which we explored the trauma of the post–settlement period. One of the most compelling aspects of this research was observing the many ways in which the ‘old’ drawings have been taken up to make sense of the pressing concerns of the present.

“There’s a sense of change – how much radical change has occurred in these people’s lives.”

The older drawings, historical documents, have been viewed through the lens of the present – an anthropological rather than historical approach.  

“We could take these drawings out of the archive and try and understand them as historical documents, I do that, but I’m particularly interested in the way living Warlpiri people respond to them today, and what we can learn through that process about how they see their place in the world,” she says.

Sharing their story through an exhibition, with an accompanying book that tells an engaging story rather than a detailed academic discussion, is how Hinkson is sharing their story with more than just her fellow academics.

“I’m trying to put forward a kind of public anthropology that reaches beyond an audience of just anthropologists and embraces the limits of what we can know.”

Dr Melinda Hinkson presents 'Drawing Life: Warlpiri lines on a changing world', the CASS 2nd Annual Future Directions in Indigenous Research Public Lecture.

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