Shared Vision and Creativity: the Participatory Ontology of Christmas Birrimbirr

By Jennifer Deger - Speaker

Miyarrka Media formed in 2009 to create a new kind of shared art practice. In the beginning we were four: two senior Yolngu performers, a video artist and an anthropologist (Paul Gurrumuruwuy, Fiona Yangathu, David Mackenzie and Jennifer Deger). Drawing on contemporary Aboriginal aesthetic and social values, we experimented in the spaces between ritual, visual art and ethnography. Our guiding principle was that our art and film had to work for Yolngu audiences. Even though we explicitly created work for exhibiting beyond Arnhem Land, it had to be structured and make sense on Yolngu terms. Even as it opened up new forms of cultural expression, the work had to be produced, assembled and curated in ways that accorded with local priorities.
Our willingness to work with the back-and-forth processes of collaboration has resulted in an exhibition that not only coheres on its own terms, but far exceeds what we might have envisaged individually. Together we created a work that we each find moving, beautiful and resonant.
Nonetheless, the production and exhibition of our first show, Christmas Birrimbirr (Christmas Spirit) meant different things to each of us. This is surely both inevitable and entirely apt. It speaks to the unruly truths of images; to the ways art can encompass contradiction and ambiguity, even as it engenders connection and identification. It speaks also to the creative process as a potentially exhilarating and revealing mode of intercultural engagement. This presentation will explore the different understandings of creative process within the Miyarrka Media collective. It will explore the participatory dynamics of Yolngu ontology as the key to the project’s success from an indigenous point of view. It will gesture, more broadly, towards the participatory dynamics engendered by images, to claim the generative (rather than strictly documentary) potential of these new intercultural forms of co-creation.


Jennifer Deger is an ARC Future Fellow at the Australian National University. An anthropologist, filmmaker, and founding member of Miyarrka Media, Jennifer has worked with Yolngu in Australia's northeast Arnhem Land on collaborative media and arts projects for almost twenty years. She has published widely on experimental ethnographic methods and indigenous media including Shimmering Screens: Making Media in an Aboriginal Community (University of Minnesota Press, 2006). Jennifer's practice-based research into the perceptual, aesthetic and ontological dimensions of Yolngu media focuses the primacy of the senses in contemporary Yolngu lives and cultural politics. Her work explores potential of new media to mediate, and refigure, the spaces of the intercultural. In 2009 Jennifer curated the exhibition interventions: experiments between art and ethnography at the Macquarie University Art Gallery.

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