May 2010

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Allen Ginsberg & Wandjuk Marika

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Allen Ginsberg saw the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. Then he went to the Northern Territory.

There, on a rainy evening in April 1972, the nudist, Buddhist, New York Jewish Beat poet came beard-to-beard with a man with 100 names, the ritual leader of the Rirratjingu clan of north-eastern Arnhem Land.

Ginsberg was bound for India, by way of the Adelaide Arts Festival. Since arriving in Australia, he’d been itching to hear Aboriginal music in its cultural context. Equipped with Tibetan finger cymbals and a pair of clapsticks, he flew to Nhulunbuy and headed south. The object of his journey was Wandjuk Marika, the famous song man, painter and cultural ambassador.

Reaching Yirrkala at dusk, the hipster bard found a funeral in progress. As his clan’s mortuary man, Wandjuk was responsible for the correct conduct of the ceremony. He told the balding American – a man whose name meant nothing to him – that he was welcome to stay and observe. “Our funerals are as public as yours.”

Ginsberg probably did not realise it, but he had stumbled upon one of the great expressions of Yolngu culture. Extending over a period of days, burial rites bring together a range of arts – coffin painting and body art, regalia of feathers and string, powerful dancing and sacred song cycles. Sitting quietly on the sidelines in the darkness, Ginsberg hummed along with the didgeridoo chorus.

The next morning, rain pelting down, Wandjuk and Ginsberg huddled in a hut on the beach at Yalangbara, the site where the ancestral beings first landed on the mainland of Australia. Wandjuk had been singing all night. His voice was almost gone. He was exhausted. It was Ginsberg’s turn.

Ginsberg chanted “Hare Krishna” and tinkled his finger bells. He made no mention of Kaddish. To Wandjuk’s amusement, he sang a song in Pitjanjatjara, which he had memorised. That afternoon, he returned to Darwin and departed for the Ganges. His subsequent published writings make no mention of Australia.

The following year, Wandjuk Marika helped establish the Aboriginal Arts Board. In 1984, he played a leading role in Werner Herzog’s cinematic mishmash Where Green Ants Dream, an experience that left him angry and disappointed. When he found his designs printed on tea towels, he stopped painting for ten years. He died in 1987, aged 60, of undetermined causes. Ginsberg died ten years later, burning, perhaps, for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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