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The Age

From history's shadow

Author: Robin Usher
Date: 20/02/2002
Words: 972
          Publication: The Age
Section: The Culture
Page: 3
The image of a mushroom cloud hangs like a curse over the land around Maralinga in remote northwest South Australia. Fifty years after the first nuclear tests were carried out by the British Government, the idea persists that the entire area is contaminated by radioactive pollution.

Although the tribal owners have reclaimed much of the area and returned to their way of life, they are still locked out of 3000 square kilometres at the heart of the country because of contamination.

``It's like a blight on the national consciousness," says an associate director at the Adelaide Festival, Lynette Wallworth. ``People can't come to terms with Maralinga today because of the tests."

The MaralingaTjarutja people who have returned to the sandhill country west of Woomera, near the West Australian border, know intimately what the territory is like and are getting ready to share their knowledge with the rest of Australia in an exhibition at next month's Adelaide Festival.

They were dispersed all over Australia after the tests were carried out between 19521963 and only began to return in the 1980s after gaining title to the land and compensation for what they had endured.

MaralingaTjarutja people have begun to tell the story of their country in paintings with the guidance of Victorian Aboriginal artist Lance Atkinson. He has spent the past two months at the Maralinga community of Oak Valley teaching the technical skills needed to paint on canvas as part of a festival project, organised by Wallworth.

The early results were so powerful, they reduced Atkinson to tears. ``I've never seen anything so fresh," he says. ``This is the start of a new school of traditional painting."

There is nothing strange about Aboriginal artists appearing in full bloom with no previous experience in painting. This is the story of all indigenous art on canvas, which is about the application of ageold cultural practices to a new medium.

Atkinson, who is also preparing an exhibition of his own work to be displayed in the White House in Washington in October, heard of the nuclear tests in 1996 and painted Desecration of Maralinga.

It is more than two metres tall and shows Aboriginal people and dingoes above the land in a mushroom cloud.

``I had never heard of the tests until then," says Atkinson, 30. ``I came to it completely new, even though I didn't know anything about the country. I thought it was dry and desolate, without any plants."

But he visited the Oak Valley community in 1998 and discovered the reality was very different.

``It changes every 100 metres, from red sand to rocks to white sand, with trees everywhere."

He says the people's response to the new medium was enthusiastic. ``They lose all track of time and one day went from 10.30am to nearly midnight. It was so genuine, I was awestruck," he says.

Atkinson hopes to include some of the Oak Valley paintings in his American exhibition. But he expects buyers' demand to be so strong at next month's Adelaide exhibition that there might not be any available.

He was invited to show work at the White House at the instigation of former US ambassador Richard Green, who saw a painting, Murray River Dreaming, that Atkinson had done with artist Walter Magilton at an exhibition in Canberra.

His work will also be on show at Steven Spielberg's private gallery in Los Angeles.

But Atkinson is spending the next few weeks at Oak Valley, which is about a 20hour drive from his home in Mildura. Because he has continued to visit the community and has included the surrounding country in more recent paintings, he was an obvious choice as a teacher when the community responded to the festival's offer to be included in its program.

The festival director, Sue Nattrass, says the Oak Valley people's involvement in the program was crucial to its philosophy of bringing about social change through the arts.

``The festival is about truth and reconciliation, which is surely relevant to the political situation today."

She says the MaralingaTjarutja people will be able to pass on their knowledge through their paintings and leave their history behind for others.

Nattrass says Lynnette Wallworth had long talks with the community about the best ways to involve them in the festival.

Wallworth came up with three projects - the painting, the renovation of an old hall at Oak Valley into an art space, and teaching young people to develop their own CDROM.

She hopes that some of the paintings will return to Oak Valley, but the administrator of the MaralingaTjarutja territory, Archie Barton, says it will be up to the community as to how many paintings will be sold.

``When the people were moved away, because of the tests, they were made dependent on government handouts," he says. ``The people want to be independent, but that costs money."

He says an important early result of the painting is that, after all they have endured, it restores the people's pride.

Demand for the new skills is so strong that there is already need for a second artspace and more teachers.

``To see people painting out there is a big achievement," he says. ``They will have to keep going if it is to have a future but it shows some pride is coming back."

The Oak Valley exhibition will be in the foyer of the Playhouse at Adelaide's Festival Centre from March 28. Entry is free.

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