Nyarri Nyarri Morgan has hat hair. Snowy white kiss curls are plastered against his forehead. Beside him is his hat: desert dusty, black felt, wide brim. His shirt buttons shine, pearlescent cowboy press-studs. Nyarri is a senior Martu elder and he’s here to speak about Collisions, a virtual reality film that tells his story, showing at ACMI in Melbourne. His grandson, Curtis Taylor, is here, too, with his black jeans, Doc Martens and baseball cap. Taylor looks starkly different from Nyarri, but they’d have the same face if the years hadn’t intervened.
Taylor translates Nyarri in a soft, considered voice, closing his eyes, bowing his head and concentrating. Nyarri speaks seven Western Desert languages, and to me he speaks Manjyiljarra. Curtis tells me it’s one of the most common Western Desert languages, spoken throughout the tri-state border area. There’s a real disconnect as Nyarri doesn’t pause for translation, but barrels on, speaking his language, peppering it with English, and his hands, they tell his story too. He gesticulates and is so emphatic that I can’t help but be drawn in.
Nyarri says, “I saw the film, my story Collisions, and it’s very good. This video, very good, my name and my spirit in that video, in that picture. I lived in Karilywara area, Patjarr. My mum and dad looked after me until I grown into a man, and I learnt from them, what they taught me, how to survive, walking across the land. And I began to learn whitefella ways. But my law – I keep it strong. And my law and your law we keep it together. Walking around with my mother and father, naked, no clothes, go hunting with a spear, big area of country, our country. And they came across the tests, Maralinga, all the people, trees, water, it all got poisoned. All got poisoned. And my family, they got affected, too. After what happened at Maralinga the wind came, and the fallout went inside the people, like the ashes went inside the people, on them, inside them all. The kangaroos: dead, finish. Trees, spinifex, emu, birds, water: all finished. The water, just like this lighter, was on fire. And the country turned into ashes.”
The film is about this collision, when Nyarri as a young man walking the desert in the 1950s witnessed an atomic blast near Maralinga. In Collisions Taylor tells us: “That day Nyarri saw a thing he had no words for. It would be 20 years before he heard the words ‘atomic bomb’.”
Collisions is filmed in the remote West Australian Pilbara desert, at a place called Parnngurr, 370 kilometres east of Newman. In the late 1970s Martu people, Nyarri and his family, started a camp at Parnngurr to protest a uranium mine. In the film you can see the hill they’re protecting, uranium rich and, for now, safe.
“That area around Parnngurr – it’s not my country, but I look after that area. And that belongs to other people, but I live there and look after that area,” says Nyarri.
“Look after your land. We don’t want any mining to come in. Leave that land, don’t touch it. We fought for a long time with our law. That’s our history and history from that place, this is for all the generations and the generations coming after us.”
He comes back to this again and again, this idea of stewarding the land for future generations. His future, his grandson, is there beside him. Nyarri’s wife is here, too, Ngalangka Nola Taylor. She sits apart from us, but is close, and at times Nyarri calls over to her for clarification.
In Collisions Nyarri invites you into his country, this place he’s stewarding for future generations, and through the virtue of the medium, you’re fully immersed, there with him as he lights a mosaic of fire through the spinifex.
“So I look after my place and my history. I look after my place and my history. That history. You’ve got to look after the land. Got to look after it for young generations. Alright?” he says.
“Yes,” I say.
“Alright? Thank you.” He gets up; he’s tall, an imposing man. He clamps his hat on his head, and walks out.