The Influence

Yiwarra Kuju was a major inspiration behind Shannyn Palmer’s Unmaking Angas Downs, which just won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Australian History. By Kate Holden.

Shannyn Palmer on the Yiwarra Kuju exhibition

A section of an Indigenous exhibition.
Part of Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route at the National Museum of Australia in 2010, and Shannyn Palmer (below).
Credit: John Gollings (above), supplied (below)

Shannyn Palmer is the author of Unmaking Angas Downs: Myth and History on a Central Australian Pastoral Station (2022, MUP), which won the 2023 Chief Minister’s Northern Territory History Book Award and, last month, the prestigious Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Australian History. The book was originally a PhD thesis at the Australian National University, and emerged from work for the Ara Irititja Project in community engagement with Anangu peoples in Central Australia on a community-based archive. Palmer works in cultural and community engagement, facilitating conversations and collaborations in institutions and elsewhere.

She chose to speak about the impact of the landmark Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route exhibition, launched in 2010 at the National Museum of Australia. It’s a multimedia blockbuster that explored the many histories of that legendary route and included original artwork and more than 250 oral histories. It has toured internationally and been seen by more than 1.6 million people.

When did you see Yiwarra Kuju?

I was in Canberra in 2010, so I went to see the exhibition at the very beginning of my research for Unmaking Angas Downs, before I moved to Alice Springs and spent five years living up there working with Anangu, collaboratively researching the history of the station. As a mature-age student I became interested in studying history – particularly Australian history – and was definitely challenged by a lot of what I was encountering in my late 20s that I’d never learned. There are so many silences in Australian history writing and also lots of what [ANU professor of history] Tom Griffiths refers to as “white noise”. I began thinking how historians could go about writing a history not necessarily using documentary archive and a linear sense of time but engaging with things like Country and embodied forms of memory. What does it mean for an historian to approach Country as an archive and a place where stories and knowledge are embedded? Angas Downs emerged as a place I could possibly use to explore those questions – I thought it would be great to explore some of those questions, using that station as a lens.

Yiwarra Kuju was a project focused on the Canning Stock Route, a really powerful system in terms of national mythology, the longest historic stock route in the world. It’s a place laden with a particular kind of myth-making and storytelling that’s been pervasive in Australia. It was really mindblowing the way the exhibition turned the history of the stock route on its head – to see this collection of incredible paintings, and this big digital map, and film, and oral histories: to see this other way. It started with this site of colonial construction, which provides the geographical historical focus, but then to see the way the Canning Stock Route was remembered and reimagined by the desert people – hundreds of desert people from all different language groups all over the desert – really opened up that place and our past from a different world view.

Similarly, I began this process with the cattle station, which I assumed to be a single site of colonial construction, and which had a particular history; but once I had begun working with Anangu and they began teaching me the history of the station, the book ended up being the history of a pastoral station that has very little to do with pastoralism or the cattle industry. Anangu made it this other kind of place.

It’s a place-based view of history – that things aren’t necessarily happening in time, they’re happening in place – and the stories I was hearing and sharing in their itineraries are recounted as people move through Country. So when you approach histories and places that way, there are multiple layers of events and stories that exist in the one place.

The exhibition was, appropriately, a dazzling multimedia presentation, beautifully curated, immersive, full of recordings, films, photos, interactives, simultaneous layers. In text you must proceed one word at a time … quite a different project.

Again I think the exhibition inspired me to be aware that the journey is not as much about the place but the path. Yiwarra Kuju was so multifaceted, it could create such an immersive experience with so many media and art forms. I was always going to be writing a book, so how could I capture and convey something that is so immersive and embodied? I played around: the narrative structure moves through Country; there’s a texture and structure to the book that is shaped by my own immersive experience working with Anangu and definitely inspired with those early encounters with Yiwarra Kuju.

That exhibition really was an inspiration for what is possible when you come to something with collaboration and exchange as a core guiding principle, and are open to an iterative process, not having fixed ideas but allowing collaborators to shape the process.

I worked really closely with two Anangu who had the authority to speak about Angas Downs and who had the longest and deepest connection with that place, Tjuki Tjukanku Pumpjack and Sandra Armstrong. I worked with them both over a period of four years, recording oral histories in language; they were recorded in Pitjantjatjara, and we worked with an interpreter, Linda Rive, who would travel out on Country with us and then translate afterwards. So Tjuki and Sandra’s voices are really central to the story. Their text is the oral history transcripts, verbatim, and I tried to include that as much as possible.

My conversations with First Nations artists are often encounters with careful speaking and careful listening, an attentive practice of receiving. How was it to just sit and listen?

At the beginning, going out into community, I was such an outsider and it’s a strange feeling – you’re the Other. I was really mindful of being as quiet as possible and opening up a conversation, letting people speak with me when they felt comfortable. The whole process of learning about the station was literally just sitting and listening, which is a profound experience.

It goes to the heart of the whole project: cultivating this practice of deep listening. It’s something that I feel strongly about now. A lot of my paid work is around community engagement and I always come to this, cultivating the art of listening, because we are so quick to speak and to want to express opinions and make judgements. I really feel we need to do so much more listening. Waking up the day after the Voice referendum it hit me so heavily, that recognition that we have so much more work to do in reckoning with our shared past here and what it means to live in a colonised settler nation. The key to that is going to be listening. There were whitefella historians, this kind of rush: “we’re historians, this is our role, this is our domain” – in a sense I feel they missed the point, that it’s more about listening and how can we be collaborators and allies in that process, as opposed to being the vehicles and the mouthpieces?

Yiwarra Kuju was really groundbreaking, it inspired cultural institutions to think about collaborative practice and ways of working with First Nations people to share those knowledges and practices. What made it so powerful is that it’s immersive – people are physically in the space, and not just looking at art, but moving through Country and experiencing it in this immediate way: opening people up to different ways of being in the world.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2023 as "Shannyn Palmer".

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