Birndi Wirndi – Worlds Apart

An audience of more than 200 Roebourne residents, tourists and visitors from Karratha milled quietly on the footpath and street beside the Old Victoria Hotel in Roebourne. Flyers and invitations had gone out and posters had gone up throughout the Shire and town inviting everyone to – Come and See the Walls of the old Hotel Come Alive !

The cooks were sizzling chicken, beef and sausages on the BBQ, casseroles of kangaroo stew, rice and damper were set out on the trestle tables, and bowls of salad and soft drinks were resting on ice in eskies. The local community bus did a couple of rounds picking up families and Elders. Chairs were set out on the footpath opposite the Hotel; the street was closed off; and the artists were checking their projectors. No-one was sure what to expect. The old Hotel seemed just as it had been for years, unused, a fading landmark, rough at the edges, fraying in the last light of the day. The Elders and the families took up their places in the chairs. There were desultory conversations. Children flew about laughing. Overhead, the last birds flew towards their evening resting places by the river. And then, as the sun took the last light down behind Mt. Welcome, it started.

Out of the dark rose the voice of an old man singing; singing his country: Yindjibarndi country; singing out loud and clear, his song, his voice – a voice everyone in Roebourne remembers. As the audience shifted deep into memory, words and images suddenly appeared, first on the roof, then on a wall, and then in each of the boarded up second story windows. The old Hotel began to come to life – not as it once lived – but with a sudden kind of remembering. From Juluwarlu’s Archives, photographs appeared on the second story façade. Step by step they revealed Roebourne’s Ngaarda history – the dusty colonial outpost, the prisoners in chains, the pastoral days, the days of living on the old reserve – a tired century passed across the old Hotel’s façade – and then suddenly, it seemed the double doors of the Public Bar flew open, and all the riotous, shouting drinking years spilled into the street. Beer flowed in golden foaming streams down the roof and the walls, and the voice-over, sampled from newsreels and news reports of the 70s, told the harsh and sorry story of the first Boom years. Those years when thousands of hard drinking mining and construction workers fell into town, times of drunkenness, fighting, violence, young women hurt, families damaged, Elders lost, young men dying violently, John Pat dying in the prison cell. Everything remembered.

The breath of the audience was held as Archie Roach’s hymn to the young man rang out, singing of Roebourne’s Hell. Images of blood fell down the walls, replacing the foaming beer.

And then – the Elders came back; their images stuttering for awhile, but then holding still; silent. Remember us. Remember your culture. Remember who you truly are. One appeared on the Bar Room doors, and spoke, reminding his people who they are, telling them to stay strong; saying that it will only be by staying together, staying strong in culture, that will we survive the challenges that come.

In the dark silence, no-one moved. The children shuffled a little where they sat on rugs on the ground. The night waited. Only slowly did anyone realize they had forgotten to breathe; that they had not moved. We had all been caught in the nightmare. Only slowly we woke, and looked around. Only slowly could we look at another, and find our voices. After the BBQ and the kangaroo stew, we watched it all again. Easier now, we took in the messages the projection communicated. Yes. Yes. All is true. Still true. If we work together we can make good changes happen. It’s true.

BirndiWirndii was created by Michael Woodley and Ariel Sohan Hayes during a 12 week Artist Residency Project partnership between Juluwarlu and IASKA, as part of IASKA’s Art Out of Place Program in 2010.

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