Finding the map maker

Having left Gippsland and moved interstate to Sydney soon after the teacher delivered these learning maps, I had no access to the teachers or the children who took part in this study. Most of the maps were not identified and I had no knowledge of who had produced them. After I reviewed them I became more and more curious about the children who had produced these maps, particularly this last map that I had read as a map of Country. I decided to travel to Gippsland and record a conversation about the children's maps with the lead teacher and the deputy principal who were both involved in the study.

I brought the originals of two maps with me and first showed the map of Country to them and asked if they knew who may have drawn it. They both looked puzzled and said that the maps had been produced two years ago and they were not personally involved in their production, only in passing them on to me. They both examined it and the deputy principal said, 'I think it must be a girl because of the pastel colours' but no further identification seemed possible. So I said, 'do you think it is a drawing by an Aboriginal child?' They both thought back to the Aboriginal children who may have been in the class that went to the wetlands in 2011 and the lead teacher said it might be Jayde, one of twins who went to the wetlands with her twin brother. He suggested that I wait a couple of hours until the children returned from their week long camp to see if we could find Jayde and ask her about this map.

Children, suitcases and teachers spilled out of the buses as waiting families with children of all ages thronged towards them. Amidst this melee the lead teacher identified Jayde and we moved towards her, swept along in a tide of anxious parents. We finally came to an Aboriginal girl walking towards her waiting family. The teacher handed her the colour photocopy of the map that I had brought with me: 'Do you know who did this drawing?' A beaming smile spread across her face as she held the map against her chest facing out towards us and said: 'Yes it's mine, it's my drawing of the wetlands'. Some days later, after I had left, the teacher invited the girl to talk about her drawing which he recorded and sent to me. I listen now to her few words as I write this story and feel an intimacy with this child that I do not know. She is so present to her map, describes each part of it, just as I have. But surprisingly, she adds nothing more, the map is already her mode of representations. Like Chrissiejoy, her meanings are already expressed in the elaborate patterns of her drawing.

Chrissiejoy's grandmother wrote about the time of creation in 1961 when she was 14, the age when a growing child would be initiated into Aboriginal knowledge. She translated her words and included it as part of the assemblage of paintings and stories in her DVD. In her translation of her grandmother's Erinbinjori story the time of creation is when the earth 'reproduces into form to carve the beings and shapes of the world where the water meets the sky and earth sings the world to life'. She describes her own map of Country painting as borrowing from the traditional ways of passing on knowledge:

If you can look at this painting in your mind's eye and strip away everything but the dots you are actually looking at hundreds of thousands of hectares of land. What is important here is that this is the way we passed on knowledge and whether the pictorial reflection was a sand drawing, cave painting, tree carving, message stick or the narrative of a ceremony dance, song, or music, this was the Aboriginal way of preserving knowledge and passing it on. We didn't have canvases, the variety of colours, or indeed paintbrushes as they are now, so we used what was here - wood, ochres, dye, dye from grass and plants, rocks, both for colour and for painting onto, the sand, fire, our own bodies and our voices to pass knowledge on.

(Immiboagurramilbun)

When I look at this painting and listen to Chrissiejoy's words on her DVD I begin to understand the depth of knowledge that is passed down through the generations of Aboriginal people despite the traumas of colonisation. She says that 'each area of the painting' represented by different coloured dots is 'talking of a different knowledge' that would take longer than a whole book to explain. Each dot represents a different creation story of a living being in the landscape and there are creation stories for every living thing. Turning again to Jayde's painting I can see her movement from that day in the place of the wetlands, the dotted bank with its burrows of newly emerging water rats and the blue water reflecting the blue of the sky. I think of the boy with his paint card held up to the sky, my sense of the blue day, and Daniel's and Chrissiejoy's grandmothers who open up new worlds of seeing in the act of creation. I understand that something of a miracle happens through the children's deep engagement in the wetlands as a learning place that allows me to see the world differently.

 
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