From the Top End

Aboriginal Screen-Printed Textile

Today, I visited the Fowler Museum at UCLA and was entranced by an exhibition hall filled with screen-printed textiles created by Australian Aborigines. According to the Museum:

This exhibition takes us on a journey around northern Australia, known as the “Top End,” and invites us to explore more than 70 distinctive, screen-printed textiles made by contemporary artists at five Aboriginal-owned art centers. Since the 1960s, these textiles have become a vibrant medium for Indigenous expression, perpetuating traditional knowledge and reinvigorating its visual manifestations. Today these fabrics both serve the needs of their communities and circulate as prized collectibles, interior furnishings, and fashion apparel. The Fowler installation, organized around the individual art centers, reveals the creativity and innovation of Aboriginal artists and their sources of inspiration. Accompanying videos offer glimpses of the process of screen-printing textiles and the ways artists have translated ancient painting techniques into new media. The videos also introduce local environments—escarpments, flood plains, waterholes, rivers, and seas—that shelter the local flora and fauna seen on fabrics in bold colors and striking patterns. Screen-printed textiles enable Indigenous artists to share their cultures and identities, while providing them with a sustainable livelihood. The exhibition pays tribute to the resilience and beauty of Aboriginal Australia and reminds us of the enduring connections between peoples and their lands.

In each case, the artists created their own “brushes” from a native sedge, as well as their own paints made from vegetable and mineral sources.

I have always though the Australian Aborigines to be the most elusive primitive peoples of earth. They are all very conscious of revealing only so much of their secrets, and no more. The exhibit also contained several videos showing the textiles in the process of preparation.

Many of them were strikingly beautiful in strange ways.

The Bungle Bungles

Purnululu National Park. Photo by Sean Scott Photography.

This is one of a series of posts about places I would love to visit, but probably never will for lack of time and money. I first heard about the Bungle Bungles from Bill Bryson’s excellent travel book In a Sunburned Country:

The Bungle Bungles are an isolated sandstone massif where eons of harsh, dry winds have carved the landscape into weird shapes—spindly pinnacles, acres of plump domes, wave walls. The whole extends to about a thousand square miles, yet, according to [his source] “were not generally known until the 1980s.”

The area is now within the boundaries of Purnululu National Park in a remote part of Western Australia midway between Broome and Darwin. Bryson wanted to see it, but didn’t have the time, as it would have involved several thousand miles of hard driving on a desert two-lane highway.

Location of the Bungle Bungles

Expedia is currently running a series of TV ads about how we never regret the things we didn’t buy nearly so much as the places we never got to visit. I tend to agree. That’s why I plan to use some of my posts to dream about places that look fascinating. What with Covid-19, advancing age, and the high cost of travel, I will dream in print about visiting certain destinations. You might say it’s my travel bucket list.

The Australian Fly

In Chapter 9 of his book about Australia entitled In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson writes about an encounter with New South Wales’s Australian Flies, called in Australia “March Flies,” because that’s when they manifest themselves.

I had gone no more than a dozen feet when I was joined by a fly—smaller and blacker than a housefly. It buzzed around in front of my face and tried to settle on my upper lip. I swatted it away, but it returned at once, always to the same spot. A moment later it was joined by another that wished to go up my nose. It also would not go away. Within a minute or so, I had perhaps twenty of these active spots all around my head and I was swiftly sinking into the state of abject wretchedness that comes with a prolonged encounter with the Australian fly.

Flies are of course always irksome, but the Australian variety distinguishes itself with its very particular persistence. If an Australian fly wants to be up your nose or in your ear, there is no discouraging him. Flick at him as you will and each time he will jump out of range and come straight back. It is simply not possible to deter him. Somewhere on an exposed portion of your body is a spot, about the size of a shirt button, that the fly wants to lick and tickle and turn delirious circles upon. It isn’t simply their persistence, but the things they go for. An Australian fly will try to suck the moisture off your eyeball. He will, if not constantly turned back, go into parts of your ears that a Q-tip can only dream about. He will happily die for the glory of taking a tiny dump on your tongue. Get thirty or forty of them dancing around you in the same way and madness will shortly follow.

And so I proceeded into the park, lost inside my own little buzzing cloud of woe, waving at my head in an increasingly hopeless and desultory manner—it is called the bush salute—blowing constantly out of my mouth and nose, shaking my head in a kind of furious dementia, occasionally slapping myself with startling violence on the cheek or forehead. Eventually, as the flies knew all along, I gave up and they fell upon me as on a corpse.