To celebrate our Aussie Desert Dogs fundraiser, we are thrilled to present the wonderful photographer behind the prints, Sam Gummer. We were interested to hear from Sam about her experiences living in Yuendumu, as well as her involvement with the Aussie Desert Dog Program. All of Sam’s stunning photos are available on our shop website. Each are printed on Museum Standard Pigment Ink on Archival Rag Paper, measuring 42 x 30cm. Please enjoy our interview with Sam.
Sam, many of your photographs show dogs in them, and often their interactions with people....what is the role of dogs (in Yuendumu) for the Warlpiri people?
Aboriginal people have always lived very closely with their dogs and a distinctive feature of most remote communities is the large number of dogs in communities. This is no different for the Warlpiri people of Yuendumu, where dogs can be found in homes, sunbathing on the roads, sitting with their people at the art centre, or waiting at the doors of the shops, clinic, dialysis unit and school classrooms! The dogs are given free range, choosing where they roam and with whom.
Camp dogs hold a place of significance in Aboriginal culture and form an integral part of the Warlpiri society, featuring in traditional Dreamtime stories, song lines and artwork. Warlpiri people tell me that their dogs serve numerous purposes for them, including companionship and protection from physical and spiritual threats, warning them of impending danger and alerting them to intruders, human or otherwise.
You've been working with Aussie Desert Dogs for a while now. What is your personal connection with dogs in Yuendumu, ADD and of course, Gloria Morales?
I returned to Australia in 2015 for personal reasons, leaving my two beloved dogs Poppy and Jock with my ex-partner in the UK. I was filled with guilt and was not adjusting well to this extremely difficult but necessary decision. On talking to a friend in the UK about it, she reassured me I had done the right thing, saying ‘just make it count Sam, make it count’. When the opportunity arose to go out into the desert and photograph ‘The Dog Lady of Yuendumu’, I embraced the chance! I was supposed to stay for two weeks, however two weeks became two months and eventually two and a half years.
Gloria Morales is an amazing woman. It was an honour to work out in Yuendumu with her and the dogs, watching how she dedicated herself to looking after not only the ones in her care, but also all the ones in the community. She never turned a dog away, even when her little two bedroom house was overflowing. Every dog has a name and when I arrived, she had a list on the fridge of all the dogs she was looking after. There were 76 names! The love in that little house is endless, as is the laundry, the cleaning and the picking up of dog poo!
Gloria is the assistant manager of Warlukurlangu Artists, which is a mammoth task in itself. She is effectively doing two jobs which both need round the clock commitment. I can’t begin to tell you how much I learned from her during my time there, from administering medicines, holding my judgment in check, balancing priorities, and refraining from vomiting at the sight of a maggot infested wound!
I also learned a lot about love, loss, death, and forgiveness and by the time I left I was able to look back with fondness at my time with Jock and poppy with less guilt and sense of failure.
Whilst I was living in Yuendumu, I looked after MJ, a little senior dog with no eyes but a big heart. Her family felt she was no longer happy with them as she had stopped eating, so they wanted her to live somewhere quieter, with less people and dog traffic. MJ thrived with me and in turn, she helped me overcome Jock and Poppy. Luna Azul joined us along the way, and we became a little family of 3. Sadly, MJ passed just before I left the community. We estimate that she was about 16! Luna is here with me on the Mornington Peninsula, now enjoying the sea life instead of the red desert! I continue to keep in touch with Gloria and do the socials for Aussie Desert Dogs. I had the pleasure of returning there for a number of months at the beginning of this year (2021), which was a great change, having had some long lockdowns in Victoria.
Can you tell us a little more about how ADD started and about some of its achievements?
Due to the remote locations of many Aboriginal communities and difficult access to towns and vet services, the number of dogs in any one household can become large and unmanageable, with dogs forming packs and becoming territorial. General maintenance is difficult with such large numbers of dogs, leading to disease, illness, and fights, subsequently resulting in camp dogs holding a wider reputation of being malnourished, diseased, aggressive, and uncared for. This can lead to the assumption that camp dogs are unloved and uncared for, when in actual fact the challenges of overpopulation, high cost and short supply of food in the small community shops, great distance to vet services, and limited understanding of animal care, are the primary contributors to the plight of the camp dog.
Fortunately, there are some amazing not for profit organisations and individuals who are supporting communities with desexing programs and educational programs, such as Gloria “The Dog Lady of Yuendumu’, AMRRIC and the Warlukurlangu Dogs Program. Gloria works very closely with AMRRIC and Stephen Cutter, a well experienced vet who has been visiting communities for over twenty years.
When Gloria first arrived in Yuendumu 20 years ago the dog population was out of control and many dogs were sick and hungry. Eventually, unable to sit by and watch any more, Gloria started to care for some of the sick animals, as well as arranging for vets to come into the community to undertake desexing and anti-parasite programs. Because Gloria had already forged strong relationships with people in the community through her work at the art centre, they were open to her advice and guidance as to how best to keep their dogs and pets healthy and happy and begun to seek her help when their dogs were sick. Over time Gloria named her work ‘Aussie Desert Dogs’.
Warlukurlangu Artists help fund the desexing program as well as making regular contributions to Aussie Desert Dogs, so between the two organisations, Yuendumu and surrounding areas now boast much lower dog populations, less unmanageable dog packs and happier, healthier dogs and people. 1000 dogs have been rehomed and literally countless little lives treated and saved.
We are selling your photographs to raise funds for ADD which relies on fundraising campaigns such as this one to keep going. Can you tell us how these funds will help ADD?
Literally every dollar counts. Because the money goes directly to source (Gloria), it is put to good use straight away. Basic provisions such as dog, cat and even cow/horse feed are daily expenses, as are medical supplies, cleaning products, towels, and blankets. Wheelchairs, plastic pools for relief from the summer heat, collars, dog beds, feeding trays, jumpers and heaters for the winter, and storage solutions are also required. On a larger scale, donations for building work, fixing the outside cat pen and extensions have been invaluable. Gloria goes into Alice Springs every fortnight for food, which is a 7 hour round trip, so fundraising and donations can even pay for petrol. Emergency vet visits, such as when Moana had to be rushed in for a still birth, are costly. And, of course, Gloria also helps to provide food and necessities out in the community as well. $5 will buy two large cans of food. $10 buys a chicken. $25 pays for a vaccination for a puppy and $50 buys a new heater. It’s all relative and it’s all important! And so gratefully received!
What was the most challenging about taking photos of the dogs and their people was portraying the true story of animals that are loved and cherished, whilst at the same time not glossing over the fact that life is tough out there. This isn’t a place with green parks and dogs just back from the salon and the houses aren’t freshly painted with flowers on the porch. Desert life can be brutal for both humans and animals, with scorching heat, parched land, and a red dust coating on pretty much everything. Aboriginal life is tough, with Warlpiri people baring scars from past and present. Dogs and animals play a special part of this unique life, rich in heritage, raw, resilient, and strong.
Sam, these extraordinary photographs give us an insight into Ceremony that non-Indigenous people don't usually have access to. You've captured an obvious bond between the women and girls, and a certain mood. Can you explain what is happening in this series of photographs?
‘Women’s Ceremony’ is a set of photographs that give a small glimpse into the world of the living culture of the Warlpiri ‘Women’s Business’, where sacred cultural heritage and tradition is passed down from one generation to the next.
It was such an honour and surprise to be invited by the Warlpiri women to take this series of photographs. Women’s business is sacred, and ceremonies are usually very secret and not open to photography of any kind. On this occasion however, this ceremony was more of a dress rehearsal for the main event, and the women were keen to get photos of their daughters and granddaughters as they undertook a ‘practice run’ for their approaching passage of rite into womanhood. Having respectfully left my camera in the troopie, I jumped at the chance to get it out when the Warlpiri women called on me!
In traditional Aboriginal societies, men and women have distinct yet equally important roles, undertaking different responsibilities, tasks and ceremonies that benefit the community as whole. Teachings and learnings happen in Men’s business and Women’s business, with ceremonies taking place in these sacred forums. Men are not allowed to know what happens in Women’s Business and women are not allowed to know what happens in Men’s Business.
Kinship is at the heart of Indigenous society, the three levels of this being Moity, Totem and Skin Names. Many tribes, including that of the Warlpiri people, continue to structure their society through Skin Names, which indicates a person’s bloodline, how generations are linked and how they should interact with each other, who they can marry (or not!) their roles, and responsibilities to one another as well as their place of Country, dreaming stories (Jukurrpa), sites and ceremonies. Traditionally in Warlpiri culture, the skin names for women start with an ‘N’ and ‘J’ for the men. There are 8 names for each sex, with the skin of the mother or father systemically informing the skin of a newborn. Names include Napaljarri, Japaljarri, Nangla, Jangala and so forth.
This complex system informs the heart of the Warlpiri society and people.
What really stood out to me during the preparations for Ceremony on this day was the fun the children were having and the chatter and laughter of women and girls as they made artifacts and painted each other. This had a great influence on the photographs I chose for the ‘Women’s Ceremony’ set, as it was important for me to show what great joy was shared that day as customs were passed down, cultural traditions respected and the journey from youth to adulthood observed and celebrated.
Sam, your photographs capture the role of sport in this Aboriginal community. I can't help but be struck with the energy captured in the series of children playing cricket, but obviously football is important to this community too... how do you manage to capture such exquisite moments in time as these?
Sport is extremely important to people out in their communities. Children enjoy basketball, football and cricket and Yuendumu also has a much-appreciated swimming pool. Most families will have a football team they support, and communities have at least one or more football teams and compete in community ‘sports weekends. Sport is an excellent way to working with the kids, so there are a lot of family and youth initiatives involving team activities and games.
I usually have some form of camera on me and tend to take photos at any given opportunity. The photographs of the children playing cricket were taken during an on-country learning weekend that Yuendumu school facilitates once a year. There are three locations where families camp out in this area, at it depends on the young person’s skin name as to which place a family group will go. Over the week, culture and story are shared, traditions are handed down the generations and visits are undertaken to places of ‘Jukurrpa’ (dreamtime). There is much time for games and fun too! The kids love cricket and, on this particular evening, set up a game just as the sun was going down. It was that beautiful time of golden hour, when a hush descends around you and voices seems to echo a bit more, shadows stretch long and there is a slow pause before nightfall. We were already dusty from our days trekking and then we had all had to push the school bus after it got bogged in the sand, so by the time we got back to camp we were all really grubby! I had only been in Yuendumu for a month, so everything was new to me. When I look back on these photos I can smell the fire and cooking in the air, hear the laughter of the kids and feel the grit of sand in my hair. I remember feeling more free and alive than I had in a very long time.
We are very excited about launching our new exhibition Yilpinji Love Magic and Ceremony, today.
These limited edition prints by artists from Kukatja settlement of Wirramanu (Balgo Hills) in Western Australia as well as from Yuendumu and Lajamanu, which are Warlpiri settlements in the Northern Territory, have come about as the result of a cross cultural collaboration.
The collaborators were Aboriginal artists, remote art centre staff and community organisations, a fine art printing house (Australian Art Print Network) and two highly respected non-Indigenous print-makers, Theo Tremblay and Basil Hall.
Paintings of Yilpinji relate to moral and ethical behaviour and the transgressions that sometimes occur, and like other Dreaming stories they are attached to specific tracts of land. The narratives associated with the Yilpinji paintings provide guidance about how people should interrelate with one’s fellow humans as well as providing templates for interactions with other species and the natural world.
These narratives have a range of iterations and like other Indigenous arts can be expressed trough a variety of forms.
Narratives are deemed to be owned by certain individuals or groups, and a form of orally transmitted copyright underscored by communal ownership exists in kinship communities. Only parts of the stories are available to children or outsiders. They deal with important philosophical, spiritual, moral, ethical issues and subjects that concern all human beings.
Yilpinji is poorly translated as ‘love magic.’ Some Yilpinji stories describe men behaving badly whilst others describe women behaving badly, in the sexual arena. Indigenous Australian use dance song and art to create a frisson with the audience, as in western story-telling, while facilitating teaching and learning about what constitutes proper behaviour in the sphere of sexual relationships.
Works include depictions of objects that hold powerful love magic or relay information about gifted singers of love magic. Yilpinji can also be used a form of ‘sorcery’ and some works make reference to that malpractice. Other works relate to young and innocent love or are expressions of long-term faithfulness and the virtues of nurturing and respecting.
The narrative includes reflection on worst possible case scenarios and consequences that arise from uncontrolled sexual passion.
The paintings, prints and other artistic expressions of the stories can be understood as concentrated, abbreviated versions of these much longer and often secret narratives.
All of the works in this exhibition relate in some way to the theme of love magic (Yilpinji). They also relate to many other subjects beyond Yilpinji, as part of long, complex Dreaming stories. They provide non-Indigenous people with a way of understanding a little understood part of this facet of Indigenous life.
Abridged from original essay by Dr Christine Nicholls, Senior Lecturer, Australian Studies, School of Humanities, Flinders University, 2003.