Rural Utopias

Table of Contents

In 2021 the Yindjibarndi people of the Pilbara (North-Western Australia) became the first Aboriginal people to gain exclu­sive native title over a mine. As evidence of their timeless link to their land they submitted to the court songs, stories and paint­ings from their archive — Juluwarlu.

Juluwarlu was started in the late 80s by Yindjibarndi people, inspired by the recordings of German anthropologist Carl Von Brandenstein. It is an example of what Indigenous curator Margo Neal1 calls “the third archive”. The combination of a Western written and technological archive and an Aboriginal archive embedded in “country” as song­lines — a mnemonic device for remembering vast amounts of oral history and ecological information.

In 2021 and 2022 I was invited by SPACED, Juluwarlu and Ngaarda Media to take part in a two-part residency in Ierama­gadu/Roebourne on Ngarluma country. For an artist interested in sound and linguistics (I work across radio, perfor­mance and exhibition) it was an incredible opportunity to work with a culture that privileges orality and is actively preserving its endangered language. I volunteered my skills with sound to extend Julu­warlu’s aims, proposing to use anarchist ecologist Peter Kropotkin’s concept of mutual aid as a research metho­do­logy and develop projects with shared aims and outcomes. I’d later find out that mutual aid has a Yindjibarndi equiva­lent: nyanti.

A still from a video shows an older person sitting at a desk in a mint coloured room. Also in frame are two other figures facing away from the camera. Displayed on the computer display are the words 'I'm Wendy Hubert and this is The Era of the Elders.' Also on the desk are speakers and a lamp pointed at a large black pinboard, pinned with various ephemera, on the wall behind the desk.
Nathan Gray, Era of the Elders, 2023, Autostrada Biennale, Kosovo. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Pilbara is not a place that immediately springs to mind as being central to narratives of what Australia is and yet the contradictions of the entire colony are at the surface here. Colonised in earnest in the 1920s, many Indigenous resistance movements originated or had strong presences there; stolen wages, the station walk off, black deaths in custody and land rights struggles.

It is also a place where Australia’s richest peo­ple and companies originated. Both the Hancock and Forrest families transformed pastoral leases (which often included indentured aboriginal labourers) into multi-billion dollar iron ore mining operations. Fortescue Metals, Hancock Prospec­ting and Rio Tinto all come out of the Pilbara.

My first collaboration with Juluwarlu was an oral history that documented the struggles of a genera­tion of Elders who lived between the 1930s and early 2000s that premiered at The Autostrade Biennale, Kosovo in July 2023.

During my second residency I collected contempo­rary stories from Ngarluma elders Frank and Ricky Smith who had lived at the Yindjibarndi community of Ngurrawaana for more than 20 years. These stories involved encounters with the Yindjibarndi spirit called the Marlaangu, a bigfoot-like creature capable of shape shifting who protects the land and plays tricks on the people living there.

  • Lorraine Coppin and Wendy Hubert (off camera) give a tour of food and ceremonial plants in the garden at the old Millstream homestead. Photo courtesy of the artist.
  • Michael Woodley talks water rights, sings and talks about songlines while overlooking the Fortescue river, 2022. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Humorous and scary by turns, the Marlaangu Project collects these stories and re-tells them in Yindjibarndi as read by Michael Woodley, Lorraine Coppin and Wimiya Woodley. The work is set to music and soundscapes that were recorded on location. The audio is subtitled and accompanied by the artist Wendy Hubert’s paintings, a Yindji­barndi elder who advised and assisted me greatly on the project and whose images depict the landscapes the stories inhabit.

Nathan Gray, The Marlaangu Project, 2023, audio, Wendy Hubert, Cave at Kumina, 2021, synthetic polymer paint on paper, The State Art Collection, The Art Gallery of Western Australia, Purchased through The Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation: TomorrowFund, 2022. © Wendy Hubert / Copyright Agency, 2021. Wendy Hubert, Thalarut Pool, Pannawonica, 2021, synthetic polymer paint on paper, The State Art Collection, The Art Gallery of Western Australia, Purchased through The Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation: TomorrowFund, 2022. © Wendy Hubert / Copyright Agency, 2021. The Art Gallery of Western Australia, 2023. Photo by Dan McCabe (@artdoc_au).

The intention of the work is not simply to exist in Australian and European art galleries but also to provide a new text in Yindjibarndi that reinvigo­rates young Yindjibarndi people’s interest in their language. To this end it will be played on Ngaarda Radio and exist online alongside a bilingual transcript.

For me these projects were transformational. My abstract interest in sound and linguistics could be applied to concrete projects that supported Indigenous languages and archives, themselves important in preserving knowledge and culture.

Australia is in the midst of a change that the current moment’s brief resurgence of racist ideolo­gies can’t hold back: a cultural transformation that acknowledges and centres the importance of Indi­genous knowledges and incorporates the advan­tages of both Western and Indigenous systems.

At a time when Indigenous land struggles and ecological practices are of urgent global concern — these projects feel extremely timely — after all language, story and song are the containers of a culture’s knowledge.

It’s a sincere privilege to work with the many Yindjibarndi and other First Nations people who I met along the way. It’s my profound hope that we can continue to work together to preserve and promote the vibrant, globally important Yindji­barndi language and culture.



1: Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters — National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 2017; Boorla Bardip, Boorloo / Perth, 2020; Humboldt Forum, Berlin 2021.

Artist: Nathan Gray

Nathan Gray is a West Australian artist living in Berlin. He works with language and the voice across a range of long-term research projects that explore the history of language experiments and the applications of linguistics. These projects take form as speculative lecture performan­ces, radio works, documentary, exhibition and rumour. Recent investi­ga­tions have included: a history of voice synthesis and disability, an enquiry into Yerkish, a language invented to communicate with chimp­anzees, and several collabo­rations with Juluwarlu Aboriginal Corpo­ra­tion, an Indige­nous-led language and cultural archive in Northern Australia. He hosts a regular radio show on Cashmere Radio Berlin, performs and exhibits widely.

Community Host Partners: Juluwarlu Group and Ngaarda Media

Juluwarlu’s purpose is to collect, sustain and promote knowledge of Yindjibarndi culture. Juluwarlu’s cultural recording and archiving project was started by Lorraine Coppin in the Ngurrawaana Community on the Yindji­barndi tablelands in 1998 with elder Woodley King and his grand­son, Michael Woodley. Until Juluwarlu took its first steps in 1999, there had been no enduring agency in Roebourne that had taken up the work of recording local culture. That the work of cultural recording was being taken up by a new generation of Indigenous activists, and that they had successfully established a local archive and recording centre, was enor­mously significant.

Ngaarda Media is an independent community broadcaster and media training hub, representing and empowering the Aboriginal people (ngaarda) of the Pilbara. We document, create, and broadcast local stories that connect ngaarda to culture and family. We build strong relationships and share ngaarda stories with the world. We support a pro­fessional team, enable career pathways, invest in evolving techno­logies, and embrace all media platforms according to best practice.