Singing the Land, Signing the Land

To understand the significance of the ganma metaphor, it is useful to consider the role of metaphor in general. In contrast to Yolngu culture, where metaphor is celebrated and often has deep religious significance, the metaphoric content of English expression generally remains hidden, some might even say suppressed. Yet the use of metaphor by English speakers is more widespread, and its significance more profound, than is often realised. In English language usage, metaphor is often construed as mere stylistic embellishment, but it is vastly more important than that.

The centrality of metaphor in everyday language as well as in learned and scientific discourse is recognised in many schools of thought. Yet contemporary English speakers hardly notice metaphors and, indeed, the transparency of metaphors greatly enhances their effectiveness. Thus, if I tell you that 'language is laced with metaphor', you need not picture a pair of boots to take my meaning. The English word 'metaphor' is derived from ancient roots: meta meaning change or transformation; phor meaning to carry. By carrying meaning into a changed context, we may construct new knowledge, think new thoughts.

Fresh water lobsters


Fresh water lobsters; moiety – Yirrirja; clan – Wangurri; painter – Muŋandjiwui Munyarryan, 1986, ochre on bark, 121 x 43 cm.

In the Yolngu world the ganma metaphor has political and religious roles in the life of two related clans, the Gumatj clan, whose homeland centre is Biranybirany, and the Wangurri clan, whose homeland centre is Dhalinybuy. ITEM 1.4 is a Wangurri text and ITEM 1.5 is a Gumatj text; both represent some aspects of the ganma metaphor, among other things (see Exhibit 1 and Maps are territories", pp. 28-36, for more information on such texts).

Crocodile and fish


Crocodile and fish; moiety – Yirritja; clan – Gumatj; painter – Djamika Munuŋgurr, 1988 ochre on bark, 90 x 65 cm.

This bark was painted near the end of 1988 for a series of ceremonies associated with members of the Ganma Research Group. The bark has been presented to Greg Wearne in recognition of his work in the Yirrkala Community School.

A tourist travels to the mountains; light travels in a straight line; news travels fast; wine travels poorly. In these contexts, what it means to travel is dramatically transformed. Does the travel metaphor diminish or enhance the ability of language to portray reality? What tacit assumptions are made about the nature of the thing which travels? The answers to these questions are not as simple as they may first appear (see Putting nature In order, pp. 54-8, for a fuller discussion and bibliography). Similarly, when a member of the Bunitj people says 'Mars that one.. really eagle ... His wing been burnt' or 'Water important... Water is your blood .. .' (in Bill Neidjie, Stephen Davis & Allan Fox, Kakadu man Bill Neidjie, Mybrood, n.p., NSW, 1985, pp.54, 82), how is the meaning of 'water' or 'Mars' affected? And what is assumed about one's relationship with nature? Clearly metaphor is central to the thought of both cultures, yet differences of usage may reveal more than mere linguistic variation.

In spite of the seeming great gulf which exists between the Aboriginal and European cultural traditions in contemporary Australia, in Singing the land, signing the land we draw a number of analogies between the two. For the most part, the parallels do not depend on similarity of concepts in the two worlds. Rather, it is possible to identify disparate concepts which can be said to play similar roles. We are looking for a way to render each knowledge system in terms of the other and to do this we are adopting an explanatory frame for ourselves-a view of knowledge as socially constructed. This explanatory frame is different both from the conventional Yolngu framework and from the conventional Western framework, but it is one which is compatible with both knowledge systems. In this way the social view of knowledge becomes an enabling mechanism for relating ideas and concepts to worlds of experience and social action. Most importantly, in this act of accounting for all perceptions and ideas by reference to a cultural context, we need not privilege one culture to the disadvantage of the other, but may treat each cosmos with tolerance and respect.

This process of mediation between two ways of knowing inevitably involves transformation. We can say little about the way that those of a different knowledge world experience their lives; what is felt of Yolngu knowledge in the Western world might be far from the way Yolngu people experience their knowledge. And what is felt about Western knowledge in the Yolngu world might be far from the way that Western people experience their own understandings. What particular phenomena mean to particular practitioners within a knowledge system may seem remote from the transformed generalisations in an exercise of mediation, for when transformed to fit with another world, understandings can look and feel very different. Be that as it may, it should not deter us from mediating between different worlds, after all in contemporary times it is the only hope that humankind has. The world is now too well connected to allow the luxury of alienation within one conceptual system.

Maltreatment of the blacks


C. H. Hunt, Maltreatment of the blacks, 1880 engraving
State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

One of the well-documented massacres of Aborigines which sully Australia's name. The last two hundred years of racial interaction in Australia is a tragic story of violence and suffering. The energy which sustained this violent encounter must be redirected, but how?

Let us return to the ancient ganma metaphor, where we began, in order to discover the meanings which emerge for contemporary Australians. The social and intellectual undertaking of racial and cultural reconciliation and 'confluence' presently engages many Australians, black and white. In a sense, ganrna is simply one way of understanding the nature of this process. In the spirit of ganma we offer the following points for consideration. Your reactions to these comments should both inform and be informed by what you find in the exhibits to follow.

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