Q & A with John Bradley, Amanda Kearney and Liam M. Brady, co-authors of Jakarda Wuka (Too Many Stories)

John Bradley is Associate Professor at the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre, Monash University. He has worked alongside Indigenous communities in the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory for more than 40 years. 

Amanda Kearney is a Professor at the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne. Her research involves addressing themes of Indigenous experience, ways of knowing, land rights and the prevailing impact of settler colonial violence on Indigenous lives and lands and waters. 

Liam M. Brady is Associate Professor in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University. His research is designed to challenge traditional, western-oriented approaches to interpreting and understanding the archaeological record.

Congratulations on the recent publication of your book Jakarda Wuka (Too Many Stories)! How did this project begin?

The project had beginnings back in 1980, when John began travelling over Yanyuwa country with Yanyuwa Families. They showed him rock art on their Country, he took photos, and the Yanyuwa people shared stories about this rock art from their own perspectives. As his language skills grew over the intervening years and he got to know more people, his understanding of this rock art grew deeper and more complex. In 2010, Yanyuwa Families invited John, Amanda and Liam to work with them and the li-Anthawirriyarra Sea Rangers to record in detail the rock art sites across Yanyuwa Country, and to have their knowledge about them recorded for, and passed on to, future generations. This information would then also be used to develop management plans for their care and help younger generations of Yanyuwa re-engage with their Country, learning how to care for it through the guidance of senior men and women, and learning rock art recording techniques. We’ve now recorded over 40 sites on eight islands and the mainland, and over 1000 motifs.

The research and writing of this book has been a deeply collaborative effort between Yanyuwa Elders and yourselves as academics. Can you explain a bit about this process?

John has worked with Yanyuwa people for 43 years now. He has travelled widely over Yanyuwa Country and has visited some of the rock art sites many times with various people. There has always been some new angle or perception to explore.

John introduced Amanda to a group of senior Yanyuwa women around 23 years ago, and that began a long-standing relationship between Amanda and Yanyuwa Families. Yanyuwa women have always been bosses for their Country, and they have been incredible teachers to all of us. Amanda had the privilege to work with a core group of senior women, many of whom had also worked with John, and wanted to continue to share their knowledge in a manner that would bring about benefits for their own community. Through her links with senior women, Amanda also began to work with and learn from younger people, in an effort to try and understand the challenges of everyday life in this remote community, and to also explore how Yanyuwa knowledge of Country and their Law prevails and is picked up by each generation. Our project always involved young people, and every field trip was joined by kids who would travel with us and help in all aspects of recording rock art. It was always a multi-generational event, and young people brought a new and fresh perspective to rock art and the experience of being on Country.

When we were recording the sites and motifs, there was always a hive of activity. Liam was working with the Sea Rangers to document the motifs using digital photography, sketches and other standard archaeological recording methods, while John and Amanda sat with Yanyuwa jungkayi (owners) and ngimirringki (managers), talking about the sites and motifs. These conversations did not start or end at the sites; they were built upon over time as people remembered more about them or explained their meaning after careful contemplation. This type of collaboration means we didn’t just fly in and record the places and leave; the project was an ongoing, unfolding process over 40 years.

We were fortunate to secure funding from the McArthur River Mine Community Benefits Trust, who have been supporting education initiatives for the four language groups of the region. The trips to rock art sites and the many conversations we had with Yanyuwa Families about rock art began to raise other questions, most notably about the role of kinship in structuring and guiding the processes of Yanyuwa negotiation and engagement with these motifs and sites in contemporary contexts. From here it became apparent that “a painting is not just a painting”; a painting is part of Yanyuwa Law and an interconnected world that draws on stories, knowledge and kinship to derive meaning.

Jakarda Wuka (Too Many Stories) has an inviting and expansive storytelling quality. Did this develop naturally, or was it a conscious decision?

The storytelling aspect was a natural decision because we want this book to be available for Yanyuwa people and their descendants. This is a book about their Country and their families, so it is more appropriate to tell it in this way as opposed to the technical jargon academics tend to use. The storytelling approach also reflects how we encountered sites and motifs; for example, we were asked by senior Yanyuwa men and women to visit and record places for a variety of reasons, including memories of camping at specific places in the past. It was often through stories that we came to learn about rock art, how it might be changing, how people have interacted with it over time, and its important place in Yanyuwa Country. Telling stories is an incredibly important way to learn, and when working with a community for whom orality is the highest form of expression, you have to learn to listen and appreciate the subtlety of how knowledge comes to be shared. There have been so many sit-down camp-fire chats as part of this project, and they are by far the best memories we take from this whole time working with Yanyuwa. Archaeologically speaking, we could have undertaken pedestrian surveys of the dissected sandstone country, identifying potential places that could have had rock art, but instead it was the knowledge and experiences of the Yanyuwa men and women we worked alongside that shaped how the project unfolded.

The book is beautifully illustrated with full-colour graphics, maps and photographs throughout. Was it important to you that this journey through Yanyuwa Country be documented visually as well as descriptively?

Very important. The visual aspect of rock art and Yanyuwa Country is undeniably where its beauty is found. The Gulf can only be fully appreciated when you see the expanse of open sea, the islands and the rock art. We hope that, by including so many colour graphics, we can take people on a journey into Yanyuwa Country so that they can see it for its significance and cultural importance. Any book about rock art needs to be in colour to better appreciate its visual aspects and its spectacular appeal, but the addition of maps, illustrations, and digital animations add a whole other level to the act of seeing and knowing Yanyuwa Country. The visual elements of this book complement the orality of the stories that give each of the images meaning.

Tell us a bit about what you learned working closely with Yanyuwa Elders and spending time on Country. How might these lessons influence your future projects and research practices?

For John, this research and the resultant book has been part of a continuum in regard to the work he does. From Liam’s archaeological perspective, he discovered that “artefacts” such as rock art are more complex than what they initially seem. A painting is not something unchanging with a single meaning. When Yanyuwa people share stories and knowledge about the motifs, a whole other story emerges, one where none of the rock art is considered to have been made by humans, and the state of motifs is directly attributable to the “old people”, spirits of deceased kin. At another level, to properly understand Yanyuwa rock art has meant learning about kinship, and how kinship underpins how people relate to, interpret and understand rock art. Upon reflection, Amanda would say that time spent on Yanyuwa country has been the most immersive and awesome of learning encounters. Yanyuwa people have been generous teachers and mentors and have enriched all of our lives and careers. The depth and breadth of Yanyuwa knowledge and Law is impressive, and when you consider the fact that comparable Indigenous Laws and knowledges map on to each Indigenous territory around Australia, it does bring a realisation that Australia has the most incredible cultural and linguistic complexity, something that all Australians should take the time to consider and respectfully learn from.

What key messages do you hope readers will take from this book?

One of the key messages is that “a painting is not just a painting”; there are layers of meaning attached to motifs that vary according to people’s life stages, knowledge of kin and Country, etc. Also, the fact that rock art can change, motifs can be made and taken away by spirits of deceased kin and Dreamings. This is a reminder that Country is alive, and active with the presence of ancestors. Nothing is static, and we should take from this that we all exist in relation to our living environment, and we should show it respect and care. When one sees a motif, it may not be there the next time someone visits. The spirits of deceased kin are active; for example, when people no longer visit Country or too many senior people are dying, the spirits are sad and take paintings away, but when people come to visit Country, they are happy, and they might express that through making a painting. Lastly, there is no word in Yanyuwa for “art”, so describing rock art can be challenging. Thus, there are core issues of translatability between a Yanyuwa way of knowing things and the way the western world might want things to be known.