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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Crossing Cultures

Frans Lanting journeyed to the Australian outback for a cross-cultural artistic collaboration

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Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula painting in the Central Desert of Australia.
“To put it in context just how remote that area is,” Lanting says, “only 15 years prior to our arrival in Kintore, the last uncontacted Aboriginal people walked in there from the desert.”

Once on location, Lanting met with Turkey, as he preferred to be called, and began a dialogue. To understand his perspective on the landscape, the photographer knew his primary role would be that of the listener.

“The most important thing is to sit down and listen to stories,” Lanting explains. “Stories help to make sense of the world, and in the Aboriginal tradition, individuals and the clans they belong to are the custodians of important stories. They’re the ones who have the right to tell certain stories and depict them, and nobody else can. One way for Turkey to feel more at ease sharing certain stories with me was by giving me a skin name, an important part of their traditional kinship system. That was a real honor. That skin name is always with me, wherever I travel in indigenous Australian lands. So I’m not just Frans Lanting. I am a Tjungurrayi, too, just as Turkey is a Tjupurrula—that’s his skin name. It’s similar to what family names used to mean in our culture, when they were really more like clan names and they signified a sense of place and origin.

“We sat down around campfires in the desert,” Lanting continues. “Turkey spoke English up to a point, but clearly there was a big gulf in our cultural perceptions. But he was a visual artist, so there was an instant bond between us as well. We started drawing pictures in the sand of concepts, places he knew, ideas I had. I also brought a Polaroid camera that enabled me to show pictures instantly of features in the landscape, and I would draw on them to give him some ideas of how I thought we could approach this collaboration.

Pintupi rock painting in the Central Desert, Australia.
“The images I tried out,” Lanting says, “would lead to a conversation about the meaning of rainbows or certain animal tracks, for example, so that I could understand how he was looking at the landscape. I made it clear that rule number one was that he would be able to veto any idea that I brought into the discussion. Recognizing that the landscape resonated with spirits, it would have been blasphemous for me to impose a view on him and on the landscape that would not harmonize with how he looked at it. When he liked something, he would put his thumb up and say, ‘Number one,’ which was basically his stamp of approval.”

Together, Lanting and Turkey hiked the desert—the local artist offering insight into his homeland, and the photographer from abroad shooting pictures as a painter sketches on a pad. Out of those interactions came images that tell the story not only of the landscape and the people, but also of the unique collaboration itself. The photographs Lanting made became the foundation of a penultimate image, and mingled with Turkey’s stories about the landscape, the partnership blossomed.

“Turkey and his friends started describing the stories they knew,” Lanting explains, “which were internalized versions of the exterior landscape. We played with ideas. Turkey had some canvases there, and we brought in things from the desert, like this reptile called moloch. We put it on top of one of his paintings and you can see it’s like a perfect camouflage, the organic pattern on top of the manmade pattern. That’s how we experimented.”

After a few days together, the group visited a place with a few unusual boulders clustered together—not unlike the merging of artist and photographer. As they camped, Turkey shared a story about this very location involving giant emus passing through long ago.


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