In this painting Jacky Green (centre, playing the didgeridoo) reflects on change and continuity in culture, against a background of strangers using country who don’t understand the meanings that lie in the landscape and the special relationship of indigenous people to their country.

The Land is our Life
Jacky Green, 2013, Private Collection
Like many of my paintings I’m looking at the time past and present. This painting is of the region now known as McArthur River Station. Before, when there wasn’t much white people in this country, the Gudanji could still live on their land. The place in the painting is where there is an important waterfall and billabong and where there used to be lots of kangaroos and goanna nearby. It was always good for hunting. It is also a really important ceremony ground. In the painting are Gudanji women singing and dancing. The song they are singing is associated with the waterfall. It’s a women’s song. The singers are sitting on white plastic chairs like so many of us do these days. The crocodile is from a time long ago, when he snuck up on a hunter bloke to eat him, but the hunter saw him and killed him. The kangaroos represent one of the song-lines in the country when the kangaroo was travelling through on his way to Kaiana. The song-line comes in over the escarpment. I’ve made some small arrow marks to represent his journey. The helicopter represents the present time when people fly in to take tourists; the tourist operators are always looking for good place to take tourists. Most of the time they don’t realise that the billabongs and waterfalls and other places are really important to us Aboriginal people and they shouldn’t be there without us to guide and protect them. The story I want people to take from this painting is when they see our country they remember that besides the trees, hills and waterways there are lots of important things that they can’t see. These are powerful things. Things that we know about from our songs and under our law we have to protect and care for them. No whitefellas can do this.

Love and respect have kept artist and activist Jack Green and Josie Davey together now for 10 years and blessed them with two gorgeous kids, Jackie and Shantrelle. But on Monday this week, 150 people from the four main indigenous language groups from the south-western Gulf country around Borroloola gathered in the bush to see them formalise that relationship in a unique wedding ceremony. The wedding was in a special “something old, something new” style, drawing on indigenous symbolism and the making of lifelong social contracts, not just between individuals but between families. Jack and Josie want to bring back the best of their traditions, traditions that have been worn down by more than a century of colonisation. The families gathered around two bush shelters in the soft light of the late afternoon out of town near Jack’s camp. In one bough shade, Jack and men from clans he connects to painted up and began singing to the beat of clapsticks and the drone of a didgeridoo — with Jack playing the didgeridoo. A little way off Josie and women sat and painted up the bride and also her bush “bridesmaids”. A chanting chorus and escort of women elders walked with Josie to a central point where, holding her father’s hand she left her women folk and walked towards the party of Jack’s clan coming from the east. Jack and Josie’s hands entwined and they walked back towards the groom’s shade. Speeches were made… about the importance of ceremony and preserving Aboriginal law. The ceremony now links Jack in a special ceremonial obligation to Josie’s clan, a relationship symbolised by the passing of a burning firestick. Says Jack: “Ceremonies like this symbolise long relationships between families and clans. It’s like if there’s a ceremony on, the groom has to dance for the bride’s brother. I have to dance for that fella, because I’m married to that fire, to that sister of his. I’m tied in there now under our law. And like you have to look after fire, I have to look after and take care of Josie for the rest of my time”. As the ceremony concluded with a feast of rib bones from a ground oven, road trains from the McArthur River Mine roared past only a hundred metres away, carrying ore to the port at Bing Bong. But that’s another story, and not a happy one like this.