When I first arrived in the Yolngu township of Galiwin’ku to undertake fieldwork for my doctoral thesis at the University of Melbourne and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, almost a decade ago to the day, a particular research question had been on my mind for some time. Over the past few years, I had been keenly following the development in Aboriginal Australia of several exciting projects making use of digital technologies – such as the Central Australian Ara Irititja interactive archive or Barbara Glowczewski’s Dream Trackers’ CD-ROM conceived with Warlpiri artists from Lajamanu (Unesco Publishing, 2000). Considering the secret-laden nature of Australian indigenous religions and the complex revelatory system that still governs access to knowledge in many parts of the continent, I was particularly intrigued by the ways in which the proliferation of new media may affect the status, circulation and perception of ritual images in contemporary Yolngu society.
My ethnography focused on the activities of a newly established community organization called the Galiwin’ku Indigenous Knowledge Centre (GIKC), a pilot program which had just received seed funding from the Northern Territory government to develop its own “Yolngu friendly” digital archive. In a region that had been visited by a continuous string of researchers and collectors since missionary settlement in the 1920s, it had been a long time vision of many North-East Arnhem Land clan leaders to see their forefathers’ recorded “traces” return to the grounds where they came from. With several dedicated computers at the GIKC, these materials could now start being repatriated in a digital form.
As most people in the audience here would know, the anthropological legacy in this region of Australia is extraordinary and can be quite overwhelming for a newcomer to the field. I have spoken elsewhere about “a genealogy of dialogue” (De Largy Healy, 2007) to describe the relationships Yolngu have built with anthropologists over time, some clan groups having fostered their own tradition of collaborating with researchers. Indeed, many of the current ceremonial leaders have developed a sharp understanding of past and present anthropological praxis. Furthermore, the existence of visual records that people have been able to consult partly as a result of these relationships, has resulted in a remarkable creative intellectual activity in the religious sphere, with some local “intellectuals” (Goody 1977) developing a critical reflexivity on their own performative traditions. Another consequence of this collaborative research history is that many Yolngu consider that anthropologists should also be working together. During my first fieldtrip to Milingimbi, a neighboring island community located at the west of the Yolngu region, sitting under the big Tamarind tree at Rrulku, I was told to contact my fellow anthropologist Franca Tamisari, whom I had never met at the time, to obtain copies of the stories she had recorded a few weeks earlier in the same place… a sharing of ethnographic material which is not particularly well developed in our professional field but which lay at the heart of the digital archiving project.
The Liya-ngärra-mirri learned men with whom I worked at the Galiwin’ku Indigenous Knowledge Centre valued the hundreds of bark paintings produced by their fathers, grand-fathers and uncles, as the “backbones of the land and the sea”, images of great power and beauty that revealed the foundations of Yolngu being. Like other ritual images mediated on wood, stone, sand or skin, the paintings in museum collections were said to derive from ancestral precedent, as truthful expressions of the various clans’ sacred Law (see for instance Morphy, 1991). Furthermore, historical bark paintings, I came to realize, were seen as authoritative ritual interpretations that could legitimize contemporary claims to particular bodies of knowledge and of land, influence social dynamics in the wider region and affect the content and meaning of ceremonial performance.
As the first digitized sets of bark paintings and ceremonial objects, together with audio-visual recordings from several archival and museal collections became accessible through local computer screens at the GIKC, I set out to examine how Yolngu experienced these new mediated forms of sacred imagery.