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Opening the Yuendumu Doors

5 July 2022

To connect children to their culture, four decades ago, five Warlpiri elders in Yuendumu, a Central Australian Indigenous community on the edge of the Tanami Desert, watching children struggle to engage with Western schooling, wrapped the school in Warlpiri culture by painting the Yuendumu Doors. The 30 painted doors tell the Warlpiri Dreaming stories, the Aboriginal belief system about the creation of the world. They display the linguistic, moral, ecological and spiritual essence of Warlpiri life. These artworks that encompass thousands of years of Indigenous culture are currently in South Africa as a graphic panel exhibition at the Keyes Art Mile Atrium in Rosebank, Johannesburg.

Pictured (l-r) Australian High Commissioner Gita Kamath, British High Commissioner Antony Phillipson, New Zealand High Commissioner Emma Dunlop-Bennett and Canadian High Commissioner Chris Cooter

Gita Kamath, High Commissioner of Australia to South Africa, at the opening of the Warlpiri Doors exhibition said that these remarkable artworks have been brought to South Africa to celebrate NAIDOC week, a week to celebrate and acknowledge the First Australians and the oldest surviving culture in the world. “NAIDOC week has its origins in the fight for Aboriginal rights that began in the 1920s and 1930s when advocacy groups drew attention to the poor living conditions and indigenous peoples’ lack of citizenship rights,” said Kamath.

National NAIDOC Week celebrations are held across Australia in the first week of July each year. The theme for this year is ‘Get up, Stand Up, Show Up’. Kamath said the theme is a call to action “whether it’s seeking protections, constitutional change or working towards treaties—the relationship between all Australians needs to be based on proper recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights."

This exhibition was curated in 2020 ahead of the UNESCO Decade of Indigenous Languages which commenced this year. For at least 65 thousand years, First Nations Australians have given voice to dreaming stories, songlines and knowledge to keep their culture strong and alive.

Australia’s new Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese said that the new Government will put Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives at the heart of Australia’s foreign and domestic policy and has pledged to hold a referendum to enshrine a voice for First Nations people in the Australian Constitution. “I am proud that the Parliament that was elected last month is our most diverse in history and includes 10 First Nations representatives who will bring their history and views to law making in our country,” said Kamath.

While the artworks are colourful and vibrant, they also remind us of the painful history of the continent. Indigenous South Africans, just like their Australian counterparts, experienced inhumane treatment by their colonisers. Kamath said that an incident that deeply moved her is the thirty-four Khoi San prisoners who were transported from the Cape colony to Australia in the mid-1800s. The most famous of these was Khoi San Chief Dawid Stuurman.

“During the early 1800s, when the Khoi people were disposed of their land, Dawid Stuurman resisted Dutch and British colonial rule and offered refuge to escaped slaves in the Cape. For this, he was sent to Robben Island in 1809. In 1820, after becoming the first person to escape twice, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in a penal settlement in New South Wales. Chief Stuurman died in Sydney in 1830, and his remains still lie there today, although their precise location is unknown.

“In a moving step for both our countries, traditional ceremonies were held in Sydney and at the Sarah Baartman Heritage Centre in the Eastern Cape in 2017 to repatriate the Chief’s spirit home. And early last year, the names of two airports and four cities in the Eastern Cape were changed to recognise the original inhabitants of those lands – including the Chief Dawid Stuurman International Airport in the city now known as Gqeberha,” Kamath said.

The exhibition is on till Friday 8 July and it is free and open to the public.


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