As one of the main Indigenous centres in northwestern South Australia, Mimili Community has between 250 and 300 inhabitants at any one time. Usually, there are many people coming and going, but this has quietened with the onset of COVID-19, a disease that is especially dangerous for Indigenous communities, where health can be very fragile.
For artist Robert Fielding, restrictions have not only interrupted travelling interstate for exhibitions and arts work, but also his direct contact with Elders. Fielding has spent the past 23 years based at Mimili Community, located in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands, so he knows the place and its people very well. Yet confinement, while difficult, has also been an opportunity to deepen his understanding of the relationship between his own work and that of Elders—and to let others know about the inestimable value of the Elders, their stories and understandings.
These stories resonate: Fielding’s artwork is held in major institutions and collections in Australia and overseas, and has garnered numerous awards, from the Work on Paper category at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Awards in 2015 and 2017, to the 2015 Desart Art Worker Prize. Not to mention his solo exhibitions in Adelaide and Melbourne, and a 2018 show at the Fondation Opale in Switzerland.
Fielding’s work is steeped in sharing local heritage, cultural experience and the stories being passed down. His most recent exhibition was at Linden New Art in Melbourne and its title, Routes/Roots, expresses his inclusive approach. In that show, the tracing of his family roots was combined with a visit to the archives at the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, where he encountered many unattributed objects that had been taken from Mimili (formerly Everard Park Station). These ceremonial objects, plus photographs and images that were traded, taken or ‘collected’, are just some of many that have been “stacked in archival cabinets in the museums” of our cities. Fielding’s project is to make them an active part of culture, to bring them alive, make sense of them, and continue the story. As we speak via video link, “to bring them alive” is an expression he repeatedly uses.
“Then like a whirlywind, a kupi-kupi, everything changed in the blink of an eye,” he says of the February opening of Routes/Roots. “It was sad. Me as an artist: I put all my passion, my soul, my flesh into this exhibition, but it didn’t have the chance for people to feel and observe my work in the flesh.”
Fielding says his work is deeply connected to the Elders, who hold on to the knowledge of the land. At Mimili Maku Arts, the cultural centre of town, he listens to the artists tell their stories. “Their work is my work and we make it into a collaboration of old and new,” he says. “My story is always about telling the story of somebody else. But since our Elders are getting older… you only have this short, limited amount of time to showcase the beauty of what they have.”
With the Elders, he says, discovering their many stories and understandings means being patient. “You can’t just go in and invade. You have to wait until they are ready to share that knowledge. It is about sharing and waiting and ngapartji-ngapartji, which is ‘fifty-fifty’. We have so many people of importance and value throughout our lands and if COVID-19 comes in, how much history, story, song, and dance will be lost?”
Fielding has a rich heritage, with Pakistani, Afghan, Western Arrente and Yankunytjatjara strands. These filter into his art, work and life. Have a wander through his house where, he reveals, he has no official studio space. “I have a space at home that goes all the way through the house,” he says. “You’ll see paint splattered everywhere; you’ll see staples nailed into the walls. I just work where I work.” He has nine children, and now grandchildren, and they all bring their extraordinary range of cultural influences into their lives with pride and confidence: not only do they have their father’s many influences, but their mother is from the Solomon Islands, with links to Papua New Guinea. “Our children inherit all these different stories,” he says. “[They] are very blessed and successful in who they are.”
Fielding’s father was part of the stolen generation, growing up in Colebrook Home in South Australia without connections to his family on the APY Lands. Fielding grew up in Quorn but since moving back to Mimili, he has been reclaiming the heritage that was not part of his father’s upbringing. On his mother’s side, the Afghan and Pakistani influences meant he absorbed Aranda and Muslim practices. “So, I come from a very powerful bloodline,” he says. He was 29 when he moved to Mimili, and is now 51. “Now I am a Tjilpi!” he laughs, using the Pitjantjatjara word for Elder.