• Subhash Jaireth

‘Space and place’, notes Yi-fu Tuan, the Chinese-US geographer and philosopher, ‘are basic components of the lived world. What begins as an undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value’ (Tuan 1977: 6). Uluru represents such a place, its placeness constructed by the living and knowledge practices of Anangu people and their ancestors, displaced and erased by European colonisers and settlers who imposed their ways of living and knowledge practices on the land. As a geologist I have been trained to look at Uluru from within European post-seventeenth century paradigm of modern science. However, in this essay I challenge what I have learnt as a geologist about Uluru by introducing Tjukurpa of Anangu into the story of my learning and un-learning. I tell the story with the help of four real and metaphoric maps: a geological map of the Rock; Rockholes near the Olgas by Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjari; Untitled (Uluru with shadows) by Long Tom Tjapanangka; and the installation Unfolding Memories by Rosario Lopez.

Keywords: Art, science, knowledge, map, tjukurpa

Barry Hill begins the introduction of his book, The Rock: Travelling to Uluru (1994), by recounting a brief conversation with Tony Tjamiwa, one of the traditional owners of Uluru, in which Tjamiwa tells Hill about his opinion of the work of Bill Harney, a celebrated bushman who became the first ranger at Uluru. Harney’s travelogue, published in 1964, has long been thought to present a reliable account of Aboriginal beliefs about Uluru. But ‘Bill Harney didn’t know anything’, Tjamiwa tells Hill (1994:1). He was ‘a fish,’ and ‘a crocodile’, meaning that he had spent most of his life in Northern Australia and not in the desert with the desert people.

Harney, Tjamiwa is certain, got it all wrong because he ‘wasn’t from around here’ (Hill 1994: 1). To understand the significance of Uluru for the Anangu, you have either to be an Anangu person yourself or to have lived with them for a considerable time.

According to Hill, Tjamiwa’s message is simple but emphatic: ‘Harney said what he wanted to say about the Rock. Now it’s time for the Anangu to say what they want to say’ (Hill 1994: 1). Tjamiwa’s words sound like a warning to outsiders like me, and I take his words seriously. Yet I am keen to write about Uluru, especially about the way I respond to it, both as a geologist as well as a writer.

However, speaking and writing about Uluru poses another tricky problem. Even calling it Uluru, the way the non-Indigenous people like me call it, can be considered improper. It’s the name of a deceased elder and hence to utter it is inappropriate. In his book, Hill decides to use the word ‘the Rock’ to describe the rock itself and also the ‘country’ around it. Although I am tempted to follow his example, I resolve to keep the name Uluru for two reasons; first, because Anangu themselves use the name in the Visitor Guide, Palya! Welcome to Anangu Land (2012), and because the name is employed by Jane Cowley in her biography of the Uluru family, I am Uluru: A Family Story (2018). The biography, Cowley notes, is written with the Uluru family and she is merely ‘a storyteller for the Uluru family’ (Cowley 2018: 6). Second, and more importantly, the name Uluru has acquired added political and cultural significance after the release of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, made at the 2017 National Constitution Convention of Indigenous representatives which asks for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Australian Constitution.

Although Uluru is often described as Australia’s most recognisable landmark it is far more significant than a mere geographical feature. The Anangu call it ‘an Aboriginal place with much Aboriginal law (Ananguku ngura nyangatja, Anangu Tjukurpa tjutatjara)’ (Visitor Guide 2012: 8). The important word in the phrase is ‘place’. In calling it a place, the Anangu emphasise the lived nature of the space. By living for thousands of years, following their ‘law’, they have transformed the geographical space into place; a place they call home, their ‘country.’

I also know that the place-making stories are inherently spatial. To fit them in the straitjacket of a normal narrative which flows in time from one end to the other is not just arduous but also impossible.

The narrator in Borges’s story, ‘The Aleph’, exposes a similar conundrum when confronted with the problem of describing the Aleph, ‘one point in space that contains all points.’ ‘What my eyes saw was simultaneous’, the narrator in Borges’ story says; ‘what I shall write is successive because language is successive’ (Borges 1998: 283). Borges calls this as the beginning of a ‘writer’s hopelessness’. His solution is simple and pragmatic: to describe it as best as he can, hoping that he would be able ‘to capture something of it.’

I find solace in the words of Borges; solace that there is a place for my own endeavour to think and write about Uluru. Because I am a geologist, familiar with the science and art of reading maps, I’ll structure my story around maps.


Map 1: Surface geological map of Uluru and Kata Tjuta region, 1963 and 2002



Surface geology map of Uluru-Kata Tjuta region, Northern Territory, simplified from the Ayers Rock 1:250 000 Geological Series Map (second edition)


The map (first produced in 1963 and revised in 2002) appears in a geological guidebook written by three geologists I have previously worked with in Geoscience Australia, Canberra. For us, geological maps are essential. Without them it is impossible to study geological objects and describe what we know about them.

The map, the guidebook and description included in it transform Uluru into a geological object. That’s what geologists do. For them it is a rock like any other rock, needing to be studied in a specific, scientific, way. That’s what my colleagues did. Uluru was explored and investigated thoroughly. It was climbed and observed from different directions, and measured. This was done to establish its shape and size. It was hit and split by pick hammers to obtain samples for more detailed investigations, using simple as well as sophisticated instruments.

Uluru and the area surrounding it were drilled by machines and flown over by planes and/or helicopters mounted with special instruments measuring its physical properties such as magnetism, density, radioactivity and electrical conductivity. The aim was to confirm its shape and size, and to determine its structure and mineral and chemical composition, both on the surface and hidden underneath.

The brief introduction in the guidebook outlines the objective of the study clearly. ‘The spectacular shapes of Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas)’, it notes, ‘dominate the surrounding desert and are the culmination of geological events stretching over hundreds of millions of years. It is the description of those events – the telling of the geological story – which we attempt in this book’ (Sweet et al 2012: 1).

In recounting the geological history of Uluru, the authors of the guidebook don’t overlook the existence of stories of Pitjantjatjara and Yakunytjatjara people. Their stories aren’t told but their significance is acknowledged: ‘Tjukurpa is the word used by the Anangu to describe the laws that give meaning and order to all aspects of life. The Tjukurpa provides explanations for the origin of life and all living things as well as features of landscape.’ Geological studies provide other interpretations or stories ‘… of the origin of the landscape and it features,’ that are ‘very different from those of the Tjukurpa’ (Sweet et al 2012: 1).

I like the word different. The word opens a space in which two different knowledge-practices (geological and Tjukurpa) can exist side by side, enriching and challenging each other.

The guidebook constructs the geological history of Uluru and the region around it. It tells the reader that Uluru is not one single entity but layers of sediments that were deposited in the near-shore area of a geologically very old sea. The sediments were lithified to form a layer of arkose, a type of sandstone made up of sand and pebble-size fragments of a particular mineral composition. It also tells that the sediments were buried under the surface, endured heat and pressure and were then brought up by geological forces after which continuous erosion occurred for over three hundred million years.

The present monolith-like shape of the rock rising above the sand dunes is the result of prolonged erosion. The action of wind, water and heat created cracks, crevices and caves. They also turned the rock red, the colour of iron-bearing minerals. The fresh rock, untouched by erosion, ‘is light to dark-grey, greenish or pinkish-grey’ (Sweet et al 2012: 36).

An important aspect of geological studies is to give rock formations names so that they can be correlated across regions, making it possible to write their geological history in relation to rocks observed in areas both proximal and distal to Uluru. The sediments that form Uluru are called Mutitjulu Arkose whereas the slightly younger rocks that make Kata Tjuta are known as Mount Currie Conglomerate. These rock units are part of a larger rock formation belonging to a sedimentary basin called Centralian Basin.

The studies also show that the folded layers of Uluru extend to the depths of three to five kilometres beneath the surface. Similarly, conglomerates that one sees at Kata Tjuta extend at least five and a half kilometres beneath the surface. It is also suggested that the rocks at these two places were formed in different conditions: if the sediments that now form Uluru were deposited in alluvial fans of rivers and streams emptying into the sea, the conglomerates at Kata Tjuta were deposited in ‘an extensive network of braided river channels carrying vast numbers of boulders along with pebbles, sand and mud’ (Sweet et al 2012: 18).

In addition to the surface geology map of the area, the guidebook also contains a solid-geology map which shows interpreted distribution of rocks beneath the sands and other geologically younger rocks. The interpretation is portrayed in a series of slices or cross-sections drawn as block-diagrams to illustrate the shape and size of rocks beneath the surface. A trained geologist can read these maps independently of the text and decode its geological history. Non-geologist readers on the other hand can look at the maps and get some idea of how the story described in the text unravels spatially reinforcing once again the suggestion that geological events happen both in time and space.

I agree with Robert Frodeman who argues that geology is a historical and narrative science (1995: 960). Its main task is to solve an inverse problem, i.e., to interpret the history of a geological object in order to explain its presence here and now. This is what the guidebook and maps included in it try to accomplish. They interpret and recount the spatialised geological story of Uluru and the region around it.

William Gosse, who in 1873 led an expedition on behalf of South Australia’s Surveyor General, explored, mapped and described the area in order to evaluate how sustainable the land was for farming and pastoral activities. The guidebook has no such objective; its main aim is to present the geological history of Uluru for readers with no or minimum geological knowledge, especially tourists. Perhaps that is why it discusses in some detail the appearance of Uluru, exploring differing ideas on the origin of caves, waterholes and parallel ridges and ribs on its surface.

The presence of Uluru as a dominant feature of the landscape, it notes, has created conditions for the development of a specific bioregion with a particular assemblage of vegetation and animal life. One of the critical elements of the ecoregion is the ample presence of surface- and ground-water. It’s the water that creates and sustains the ecosystem.

Hill quotes TGH Strehlow who described Uluru as one of a hundred or more totemic sites in Central Australia. It became more important than other sites for two reasons: first because it was seen to be a better water place than others, and second, because it was where several Tjukurpa stories intersected (Hill 1995: 14).

‘The sand layers and other sediments’, the guidebook explains, ‘are the main aquifers (water-bearing strata) in this area and now supply the water for Yulara. The water is slightly salty and has to be desalinated before use’ (Sweet et al 2012: 25). Based on the information on water holes it suggests that ‘the water table is 25 metres deep near Kata Tjuta but shallows to 12 metres at Yulara airport. The groundwater eventually flows underground into Lake Amadeus’ (Sweet et al 2012: 25).

As I read this description, I recall the words of Robert Layton, an anthropologist who worked in the area. Hill mentions how Layton, once sitting with Paddy Uluru (now deceased Anangu elder, so please read his name with care), heard from him the story of Pantu (Lake Amadeus): ‘Another legend describes how Pantu (Lake Amadeus) was made by wanampi (water snake). Paddy Uluru, explaining how the wanampi had dug out the ground with a stick to form a lake, drew concentric circles in the land’ (Hill 1994: 136).

So the lake Pantu was created by wanampi, the water snake, the story explains. Is the water snake the same as the stream of groundwater flowing in the aquifers underground? The hydrogeologists who have worked in the area have mapped several paleochannels. They are filled with permeable sands which function as good aquifers. Groundwater flowing in the aquifers rises up along fractures to create the lake.

Wanampi, the giant serpent, however, is not considered by Anangu as one of the creative ancestral beings of the Tjukurpa time. His permanent home is to the west of Uluru at Kata Tjuta. He is ‘highly coloured and dangerous’, and his main task ‘is to guard waterholes. During the wet season he lives in one of the waterholes on top of the mountain, but during the dry season he resides in a waterhole in the Gorge at Kata Tjuta. If these dry up he retreats inside the rock itself’. The hurricane wind that blows in the Gorge is ‘the breath of Wanampi when angry. Anangu will not light a fire in the area or drink from the waterhole’ (Hill 1995: 136).

One of the few permanent water sources in and around Uluru is the Mutitjulu Waterhole. Paddy Uluru calls it holy: ‘this is my great ceremony, my great camp with its holy tree [ngaltawata, the ceremonial sacred pole] and mutitju [cave] on this side is holy. Ayers Rock is holy. I am Uluru and these things are mine’ (Hill 1995: 128).

Perhaps it’s the water, and stories of living, that have turned the waterhole into a sacred site, and because it is sacred it has been looked after by the Anangu in the past and will need to be taken care of in the future. Perhaps that’s why the wanampi who lives nearby in the hole guards it warning the people that the place is fragile and requires a close watch.

The Anangu believe that physical evidence of the Tjukurpa can be found in landscape features, the Tjukuritja. Mutitjulu Waterhole is one of them. In a YouTube clip I watch Barbara Tjikatu, one of the traditional owners of the land, tell the Tjukurpa of its creation. She sits near the site and speaks pointing out features of Uluru and the waterhole. ‘This is Mutitjulu’, she begins:

and here is the story and Tjukurpa of Kuniya, the sand python coming. Kuniya, the sand python, see just over there, she is moving across, descending this way. She left her eggs a short distance away, and came across just over there, coming across, you can see her over there, coming across there. Doing her ritual dance as she comes closer, moving across there. From over there she got earth, from the ground and put in on herself in preparation. She was becoming enraged and challenging for a fight because of what had happened to her nephew and she, Kuniya the sand python, struck the Liru. In this way: see how it is over there, up above.

The Tjukurpa of Kuniya sounds far more enchanting than the geological story I read in the guide. As a geologist I find the geological story credible and justified, but it fails to thrill me. The waterhole, it tells me, is near the sharp southern face of the Rock marked by the presence of a major fracture. Some large fissures running off it facilitated intensive erosion forming deep gullies, one of the largest of which is Mutitujulu. The waterhole sits in a permanent pool hosted by a depression carved by water flowing off the top of the Rock and its slopes producing ‘spectacular series of beautifully sculptured plunge pools’ (Sweet et al 2012: 43–44).


Map 2: Rockholes near the Olgas by Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri, 2007 (c. 1920–2008)


I first saw the image of this painting in the exhibition catalogue Desert Country authored by Nici Cumpston and Barry Patton and published by the Art Gallery of South Australia (2010). I went to see it again after I had started working on this essay.

I walked out of the gallery disappointed. In the catalogue I felt at home with the painting, although it was a copy. The large format of the book allowed me to look at it from different angles. I placed the book flat on the floor and looked at it from above standing close to it. I also made it stand upright on one of my bookshelves to look at it as I would have seen it hung on the wall of the gallery.

In the gallery it seemed crowded by other paintings. Their presence created a visual haze that appeared to interfere with my view. Although I am accustomed to looking at art works in galleries and have trained myself to block out other objects, on this occasion I failed.

It felt as if the painting wanted me to look at it differently. I would have liked it to be placed on the floor of the gallery and gaze at it walking around it. It would have been even better if the painting or its projection would have covered the whole floor, allowing me to walk on it.

Is this because I have forced myself to believe that this painting is a map, and like any other map I should be able to walk with my eyes and fingers, taking any of the many routes available to me? Is this because the geologist in me wants to impose my obsession with maps on the painting? It wants me to look at this painting as a map-painting: a map that has the aesthetics of an artwork and a painting that is imbued with knowledge and precision of a map.

Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri (now deceased so I speak his name with care), the note in the exhibition catalogue says ‘was born at Pirupa Alka in the southwest of the Northern Territory near Pirrulpakalarintji outstation, about a hundred kilometres west of Uluru’ (Cumpston & Patton 2010: 84). He and his wife were ngangkari (traditional healers). ‘He received the name Whiskey because of his bushy whiskery beard — a potentially misleading title for a teetotaller’ (Cumpston & Patton 2010: 84).

He painted the rockholes near Kata Tjuta several times. This is the place around which he had grown up. He knew the place, living on and with it. The knowledge he had of this place was bodily, intuitive, unmediated by the noise of ideas and thoughts. Whatever thoughts he had were perhaps formed by and expressed in stories he was told and he himself told. Walking and telling of stories happened together, complementing each other, merging like tributaries of life, lived and imagined. When he discovered painting it became a natural extension of walking and telling of stories. Now he could paint and walk without walking, and tell stories without words. Painting became cartography of his wanderings and wonderings about his place, his country. Cockatoo Dreaming could have been the result of these wanderings. It was his story walked, told and painted only by him.

Because I am acquainted with the iconographic language used in the painting, I feel secure and confident with what I see, read and hear in it. This is why I readily accept the story in the painting as described in the exhibition catalogue: ‘The frenzy of white dots … represent the feathers’ of the cockatoo. The large concentric circles depict rockholes made during the fight’, between the cockatoo and the crow, ‘as well as dependable sources of fresh water used by his family group’ (Cumpston & Patton 2010: 84). The dotted lines extending from the circles, Bill Whiskey explained, ‘are the tracks around the rockholes that we follow when we travel in and out’. The coloured dotting that forms patchwork fields represents ‘the flowers that grow in the different seasons, the flowers and bush tucker’ (Cumpston & Patton 2010: 84).

Like a map, the painting becomes a record of the sources of ‘fresh water, flowers and bush tucker’. It maps not merely their location but also routes to reach them.

In a convoluted way the painting reminds me of the 1873 route map I see in the record of Gosse’s exploration, who fastidiously mapped the presence of water, soil, trees (timber), flowers, animals and birds. But the significance of this similarity is outweighed by a vital disparity: a disparity stemming from the two ways of living in and with the land.

The disparity becomes clearer to me when I read in the note in the exhibition catalogue of the account of Tjapaltjarri’s visit to his country. ‘Bill Whiskey’, I read, ‘pointed out the features in the landscape formed during this epic fight: a brilliant white rock is the cockatoo, a hill is the eagle’s nest protectively overlooking the cockatoo, white stones around the area are the cockatoo’s scattered feathers’ (Cumpston & Patton 2010: 84).

Gosse, the explorer, was keen to name landscape features after his patrons and assistants. For example, just after his first encounter with the Rock he ‘named it Ayers Rock, after Sir Henry Ayers’ (Gosse 1984: 9). He saw ‘a strong spring coming from the centre of the rock and pouring down some very steep gullies into a large deep hole at the foot of the rock and called it Maggie’s Spring’ (Gosse 1984: 9). One of his three Afghan cameleers very skilfully found a spring of fresh water and so he gave it the name, Kamran’s Well. On his expedition he had brought with him ‘a Peake black boy’ (Gosse 1984: 2), christened him Moses and named a ‘gum creek with plenty of water’ as Moses Creek (Gosse 1984: 13).

In the Cockatoo Dreaming the names mentioned by Tjapaltjarri belong to an entirely different symbolic system. The white rock is the cockatoo of the dreaming story; the hill is the eagle’s nest and the white stones are cockatoo’s feathers. These aren’t proper nouns similar to the ones Gosse selected for naming but simple common nouns. The naming here isn’t associated with the act of laying a claim on this or that feature, as Gosse had intended. The rock becomes a cockatoo and the hill an eagle’s nest. There is no disunity or division between the animate (animal and human) and the inanimate (rocks water hole and hill) world. All are different and yet one, living with and for each other. This is what the belief system of Tjukurpa proposes and this is what is valued, respected and followed by the Anangu.


Map 3: Untitled (Uluru with shadows) by Long Tom Tjapanangka, 1995


My first encounter with the painting left me speechless. I was astounded by its simple and minimalist style. If I didn’t have any trouble in making sense of Rockholes near the Olgas, mostly because I have learnt to decode the iconographic elements of such paintings, this painting by Tjapanangka (now deceased so I speak his name with care), wants me to throw aside that knowledge. I have to find a new way to come to terms with this painting.

It’s painted with three colours: red, black and yellow. The yellow constitutes the backdrop, and it is rimmed by a white margin. The bright red rectangle with curved, elliptical corners fills the whole one-meter long plywood board. The red shape is overprinted by four, almost vertical, black slices which remind me of clap sticks. The red shape has been painted with easy carefree hand. It helps me imagine the movement of the painting brush going from left to right and curving at the edges.

It’s the redness that defines this painting. It constitutes its core; and the redness is large, so large that nothing else is there to fill the space of the painting. Nothing else matters. The role of the yellow backdrop is to provide the red space the thrust it needs: to make it fill the viewer’s vision, to make it speak loud and clear.

I also struggled to ‘read’ the presence of black clap-stick figures sliced on the monochrome red. That these could be shadows became apparent when I saw a photograph of Uluru taken by Rosario López, a visual artist, sculptor and photographer. Her photograph shows the southeast face of Uluru. The rising sun in the east creates shadows of protruding ridges on Uluru, which fall on the gullies and caverns.

Like most works of art this painting doesn’t pretend to capture each and every detail of the rock. It only makes our eyes see the most important feature, its vibrant essence: its bright red largeness.

The caption of the painting also reveals this enigma. It calls the painting Untitled. Perhaps that’s what Tjapanangka would have intended. To give this painting a name, for him could have been as problematic as giving a proper name to the place. I can only guess, but like many other paintings by Indigenous artists, Uluru with Shadows, the title in the parenthesis, was added by an agent or an art-dealer to assist the viewer. It has certainly helped me by guiding the way I have looked at the painting.

In a note that accompanies Tjapanangka’s painting Big Mob Puli, Kelli Cole writes that ‘in contrast to most Western Desert painters, who depict the landscape in plan-view as though it were laid out like a map, Tjapanangka takes a profile or side-on view’ (Cole 2010: 78). The note also emphasises the ‘starkness of the composition, in which all superfluous elements have been removed.’

Tjapanangka knew his country well. As a young boy he walked ‘vast stretches of the country with his family from his birthplace, Lupal, near Lake MacDonald’. He began ‘painting in the public domain in 1993 as one of the few male artists represented by the Ikuntji Women’s Centre at Haasts Bluff’ (Cole 2010: 78).

Thus for more than sixty years he lived with and on the land, learning from it and from people who had lived before him and with him. All that knowing went into numerous paintings he made of the sandhills and mountains in the desert country. Paintings weren’t a distillation of what he had come to know but an extension of the same act of living and knowing.

As a geologist I want to see in this painting a map of Uluru; a map not painted in plan-view (horizontal projection) but a profile (a vertical section). As if Uluru has been sliced open with a sharp knife to reveal its hidden inner surface. It isn’t a ‘route-map’ like the map I see in Gosse’s record or in the map-like Rockholes near the Olgas, but a ‘site-map’ in which the ‘this-ness’ and the ‘here-ness’ of Uluru are captured. It doesn’t show a walking route to Uluru but represents what one will find after reaching it, and the essence of that ‘what’ is the bright red largeness.


Map 4: Unfolding Memories, Rosario López, 2016



Unfolding Memories, II. Installation. Clay, PVA, jute, pebbles. Courtesy Rosario López and ANCA Gallery, Canberra, 2016


In September 2015, Colombian visual artist and photographer Rosario Lopez went to see Uluru and Kata Tjuta. A year or so earlier she had created a sculptural ceramic piece of Uluru for an exhibition of her work in Colombia. She was fascinated by Uluru and by the stories of political and cultural tension associated with its presence. She wanted to look at it as an outsider but also wanted to inhabit the place and feel its presence. She has always been interested in ‘looking at the landscape from above; to observe Earth’s elevation and the way it changes colours as far and wide as my eyes can see’ (López 2016: 19). Uluru was perhaps the right place to satisfy this urge. Standing alone, tall and mighty, dwarfing the flatness of red soil and sand spotted with mulga, it provides the most fitting landscape she could inhabit and experience the ‘primary idea of the horizon’ (López 2016: 19).

She took photos of Uluru, Kata Tjuta and the surrounding landscape, showed them to the traditional owners of the land and to the authorities in the National Park Office, and gained their approval to exhibit them. They weren’t ordinary photos. They reveal the melancholic splendour of Uluru; so incredibly large and so alone. The star-lit sky draping over it emphasises its languid presence. It also ‘establishes boundaries fragmenting the landscape’ (Lopez 2016: 19). The photographs she brought with her became the starting material for sculptures and installation she created at the ANCA (Australian National Capital Artists) studio in Canberra.

The exhibition Unfolding Memories opened in the ANCA gallery in May 2016. It featured an installation of 45 sculptures, framed sculptures and photographs. I saw the installation on the night it was opened and went again to have a closer look a few days later. Luckily for me there wasn’t anyone else in the gallery at that time and I was able to walk through the installation at my own pace without disturbing anyone else. I walked and it felt as if I was stepping on the surface of a map as well as on the landscape that had been mapped. For a moment I thought I had turned into Borges’ fictional Suarez Miranda in the story ‘Travels of a Prudent Man’. In this story Miranda describes how in an unnamed empire, dissatisfied by imprecision of existing maps, ‘the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it’ (Borges 1998: 325).

The map created by López I was walking on felt precise, but the precision it showed was of different order; it wasn’t based on one-to-one correspondence between the image and the real world it was aiming to portray, but on the emotional engagement it was able to produce. It instantly aroused the memory of my walks near Uluru several years earlier. The memories were not only aroused again but they acquired a new significance. It felt as if I was tracking the walks as a different person; as if I was walking in the footsteps left behind by López.

There were on the floor of the gallery white, greyish to yellowish-white skin-like encrustations. The surface of the encrustations was puckered, showing crests and vales. They were potted with orifices, reminding me of the pores, cavities and crevices I have seen on Uluru. From the ceiling hung little fragments of rocks swaying like pendulums, their swaying reminding me of the wind that blows in and around Uluru. But they also became a metaphoric measure of time endured by Uluru, reminding me that Uluru isn’t just a spatial landform, but a repository of past time as well. I realised that no walk is ever only spatial. Time passes as we walk and we too pass in time and with time.

That the skin-like encrustations were white and not hematite red didn’t trouble me because the geologist in me knows that under the red skin, Uluru is really grey. The red colour is the sign of the time the Rock has endured.

As I tracked, negotiating the narrow space between slices of the ‘skin’ and ‘flesh’ of Uluru, I also felt that I was looking at them from above; as if I was flying over it like a bird, experiencing a plan-view so enjoyed by Indigenous painters. It reminded me of Lopez’s words in the catalogue, which record her fascination of seeing the landscape from above: ‘from above, landscape becomes a great horizontal surface enclosed by winding line that separates a strip of matter that we refer to as land’ (Lopez 2016: 19).

In the catalogue she also describes the process by which she produced the encrustations. It required a close and sustained involvement of her body. ‘I start my sculptural process,’ she writes, ‘by throwing a certain amount of clay upon a table trying to spread it several times in the same direction. The flat clay surface gathered the body’s gesture’ and ‘replicated the stroke produced by my body’ (Lopez 2016: 19).

The clay sheet so produced became the foundation from which she created the skin-like encrustations. To achieve this, layers of synthetic resin (PVA) and plaster were condensed on the clay surface, resulting in a surface potted with orifices similar to pores, cavities and crevices one sees on Uluru as well as Kata Tjuta.

The installation Lopez has created represents an emotional cartography of Uluru and the land around it. It maps her feelings for them, and the mapping is precise because it is able to evoke similar feelings in visitors who stand and look at it or walk on and near it. Unlike geological maps discussed in the preceding sections of this essay in which a viewer can decipher geological features of Uluru and the land around it, the map created by Lopez helps them to experience the emotions Uluru produces in them.


Knowing and unknowing

My story about Uluru is structured around four different maps. Strictly speaking only one of them is a real map as defined by modern (post-seventeenth century) scientific tradition. Therefore, Tjapaltjarri’s Rockholes near the Olgas isn’t strictly a map. I call it map-like because like any route map it can guide a person to track his or her way from one site to another. Because the map-like painting doesn’t contain a scale or a conventional compass orientation, only people who know how to decode the geography of Tjukurpa can travel using this map. Howard Morphy calls the topography shown in such map-like paintings ‘mythological’ and ‘totemic’ (Morphy 1998: 106). I prefer the word Tjukurpa: the topography constituted by Tjukuritja (sites) and Iwara (routes) linking them (Visitor Guide 2012: 11).

The Untitled painting by Tjapanangka and Lopez’s Unfolding Memories are only metaphorically maps. The geography they represent is the geography of emotions expressed and stimulated by them.

All four maps tell and show me something about Uluru. I have used them to learn something new and unlearn some of what I had previously learnt. From the geological maps of Uluru I learn about the Rock as a geological object: its form, size and composition; its geological origin and history; and most significantly can use that information to understand the role it has played to create a special ecosystem around it: an ecosystem valued by the Anangu. The same knowledge is also essential to ensure that it remains environmentally and culturally sustainable.

The Tjukurpa map I see in the map-like Rockholes near the Olgas introduces me to a belief system produced by Tjukurpa. Jeannie Herbert Nungarrayi, a Walpiri teacher, calls Tjukurpa ‘our major religious belief’ (cited in Nicholls 2014: 2). It ‘is an all-embracing concept that provides rules for living, a moral code, as well as rules for interacting with the natural environment’ (cited in Nicholls 2014: 2). As a system of beliefs, Tjukurpa comes into being through an iterative process of observation and reasoning in which verification or falsification of beliefs happens by everyday practice of living. It may not be a system of scientific beliefs as defined by Karl Popper in The Logic of Scientific Discovery (2002), but it does encapsulate knowledge and learning.

The Untitled painting by Tjapanangka, the installation Unfolding Memories and also the map-like Rockholes near the Olgas, invite me to look at Uluru differently. This is because they are created as works of art and want me to respond accordingly, engaging with them by adding my own understanding to the implied narrative about Uluru they represent. I become an active participant of creating meaning and learning undertaken as an iterative process that involves what I already know about Uluru and what I make of it when I look at them merely as art objects. Roger Scruton calls the process a ‘shift between a practical to a contemplative interest’ (Scruton 1999: 219).

The iterative process helps me arrive at a stage when I begin to engage with them empathetically, creating ‘an imaginative reconstruction of another’s experience’ (Nussbaum 2001: 302). This opens a way for me to respond to Uluru from the vantage point of the artists bringing me closer to what they could have experienced. Eileen John calls this type of learning or knowledge experiential. It helps us to learn about our emotions and to find out ‘what it is like to experience something. How would it feel to undergo something, to observe some kind of event, to experience things from a certain perspective, or to feel a certain emotion?’ (John 2001: 333).

The story of my encounter with Uluru is the story of two complementary processes of learning. If the first helps me to look at it as a geological object outside myself the second opens a way to my emotional self. In learning about Uluru I begin to learn about myself. The journey to Uluru transforms into a trip inside my own mind.

Hill opens his book with three epigraphs, one of which quotes Tony Tjamiwa: ‘straight in the heads and straight in the hearts, that’s how they learnt their Law. No pens, no typewriters. And some parts of the Law they would never put in a typewriter’ (Hill 1994: x).

To learn in the head and to learn in the heart is what my brief encounter with Uluru has taught me.


Works cited: 

Borges, J 1998 Collected fictions, London: Allen Lane

Cole, K 2010 ‘Long Tom Tjapanangka’, in F Cubillo and W Caruana (eds) Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art: Collection Highlights, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 78

Cowley, J 2018 I am Uluru: A Family Story, Uluru: Uluru Family

Cumpston, N and Patton B 2010 Desert Country, Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia

Frodeman, R 1995 ‘Geological reasoning: Geology as an interpretive and historical science’, Geological Society of America Bulletin 107: 960–68

Gosse, W 1873 WC Gosse’s Explorations, 1873: Report and Diary of Mr WC Gosse’s Central and Western Exploring Expedition, 1873, Adelaide: South Australian Government

Hill, B 1994 The Rock: Travelling to Uluru, St Leonards: Rathdowne

John, E 2001 ‘Art and Knowledge’ in B Gaut and D Lopes (eds) The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, London: Routledge, 329-340

López, R 2016 Unfolding Memories (translated M Paille), Canberra: First Edition

Morphy, H 1998 Aboriginal Art, London: Phaidon Press

Nicholls, C 2014 ‘“Dreamtime” and “The Dreaming”: An Introduction’ The Conversation (23 January), http://theconversation.com/dreamtime-and-the-dreaming-an-introduction-20833 (accessed 6 May 2019)

Nussbaum, M 2001 Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, New York: Cambridge University Press

Popper, K 2002 [1935] The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Abingdon: Routledge

Scruton, R 1999 The Aesthetics of Music, New York: Oxford University Press

Sweet I, Stewart A and Crick I 2012 Uluru and Kata Tjuta: A Geological Guide, Canberra: Geoscience Australia

The Uluru Statement from the Heart 2017, https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement (accessed 28 October 2019)

Tjikatu, B (YouTube clip) https://www.environment.gov.au/resource/creation-story-uluru-kata-tjuta-national-park (accessed 8 August 2019)

Tuan, Yi-Fu 1977 Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Visitor Guide, 2012 Palya! Welcome to Anangu Land: Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Canberra: Director of National Parks