Kim Mahood’s Evolving Geographies

by Saskia Beudel

© all rights reserved

Kim Mahood’s body of work traces her evolving relationship to the Tanami region, and increased involvement in projects recording Aboriginal knowledge systems of place. Mahood’s memoir, Craft for a Dry Lake, is impelled by her father’s death, prompting her to examine the legacy of their close relationship. Returning to her childhood home in the Tanami desert is integral to her quest. But this is an ambivalent homecoming. The author states, ‘I did not want to go back’, ( Craft, p. 31) but is unable to resist the imperative to return. The multiple narrative threads of road-story, family anecdote, autobiography, and history of exploration of the Tanami region, evoke a haunting and ‘ambiguous geography'( Craft, p. 31). For Mahood, place is central to memory and identity (however problematic). Reinhabitation of the terrain of her past is a powerful mnemonic technique. The text is full of both visceral experiences of an intimately familiar Northern Territory landscape, and instances when the narrator moves through the country ‘like a stranger’. Her return to the station of Mongrel Downs, renamed Tanami Downs since its transfer into Aboriginal hands, emphasises her dislocatedness. Across her work, definitions of home are mutable and complex.

‘Blow-ins on the Cold Desert Wind’, published seven years after the memoir, opens with the statement: ‘Each year I drive from my home near Canberra to the Tanami Desert and spend several months in an Aboriginal community that has become my other home’ (‘Blow-ins’, p. 267). Clearly, in the trajectory from ambiguity to second home, something of the problematic question of belonging that haunts not only her memoir but the inhabitants of any settler state, has been resolved.

‘Blow-ins’ contains laugh-aloud moments that expose a welter of tensions when Mahood is co-opted to assist on a government program titled ‘The Australian Governance Story’. With its monolithic overtones, the workshop is not surprisingly difficult to get off the ground. The community is burnt out by too many meetings. Mahood resorts to doing deals, spars with self-confessed humbuggers, offers the shoes from her feet as an incentive to one potential participant, and leans on her car horn outside the homes of others. The frankness of her accounts is striking, and she skilfully brings the Aboriginal participants to life. Aboriginal characters are never reduced to ciphers or anonymous informants. She is self-deprecating about her own role. Despite the farcical edge, the essay ends with subdued optimism. ‘That was a good meeting,’ says one of the Aboriginal women. ‘We should have more like that’ (‘Blow-ins’, p. 277). One can’t help wondering how policy is being played out within Aboriginal communities since the announcement of Howard’s ‘national emergency’, and whether we will be privileged with insights such as Mahood’s that engage with the contradictions of white and Aboriginal involvement.

In ‘Mapping Outside the Square: Cultural Mapping in the South-East Kimberley’, Mahood details, as the title suggests, a ‘cultural mapping’ project that brings together scientific and Aboriginal knowledge of the Lake Gregory area. Mahood was involved in the project’s inception. The white team includes representatives from the fields of geomorphology, tourism, anthropology, linguistics, and the Paruku Indigenous Protected Area. The Aboriginal participants are Walmajarri traditional owners of the lake. The project records traditional stories, oral histories, place and family names, and makes photographic and video documentation of campsites, archaeological and geological sites, bush food and bush medicine.

The recording process revolves around the ‘central template’ of a large painted canvas map. Many themes evident in Craft For a Dry Lake resurface here, maps not least. In the memoir maps are part of Mahood’s grieving process. She begins making imaginary maps after her father’s death, but becomes increasingly drawn to real ones of the Tanami. When she finds an early map of Mongrel Downs drawn in her father’s hand:

I could feel myself disappear into a wilderness of Spinifex and claypans and mulga…. The place and its story seemed to blot out my life, as if nothing had happened to me before or since. (Craft, p. 31)

Crucially, these representations of place, their simulacra, impel and inform her physical reencounter. Maps bridge past and present.

In ‘Mapping Outside the Square’ the canvas map is a repository for collective rather than individual memory. Mahood paints a scaled-up version of a topographical map of the lakes, and under direction from the elder women begins to inscribe dreaming tracks, place names, soakwaters and campsites, and the ‘precise areas to which people’s ancestor’s held entitlement’ (‘Mapping’, p. 1). It also records more recent history, locations where large groups of people came together during first encounters with white settlement. Cartographic white knowledge is thus overlaid with Aboriginal knowledge.

The whole team camps on location. Walmajarri have limited opportunity to visit their own country and for them this longed-for physical encounter with home triggers memory, and informs the cross-cultural memorialisation. It doesn’t take long to realise that the map is too small, and its arbitrary boundaries ‘made no sense to people who had walked the lake environs as children and carried their knowledge of country in their bodies.’ The map’s edges become ‘congested with information’ (‘Mapping’, p. 4), and Mahood adds canvas extensions. The altered template becomes a metaphor for overlapping systems of knowledge brought together in a genuinely collaborative way.

The project addresses literate audiences and those with very little or no literacy-the map and recorded material are exhibited at the Balgo Cultural Centre, and a ‘storybook’ published in conjunction with Mahood’s article. The latter uses photos, painted images, and snippets of narrative. The works, both textual and non-textual, bridge intergenerational gaps in local knowledge, with elders concerned to educate their children about their country and culture. The old processes of transmitting information ‘by travelling through it and absorbing its detail through the repetitions of story and physical encounter’ (‘Mapping’, p. 11) are no longer used. Written records thus take on an urgency and legitimacy for older Walmajarri people.

Concerned with prehistory, traditional Aboriginal knowledge and intercultural knowledge, the cultural mapping project also hopes to identify environmental management strategies. Science shows that the wetlands were once connected to the sea, while the Waljirri (Dreamtime)1 tells of a time when sea creatures lived in the lake. From intersecting scientific and Indigenous knowledge, the team locates potential guidelines for managing the arid wetlands that maintain the complexity of environmental and cultural value, while also allowing for much-needed income through tourism.

Mahood is cautious about the question of the project’s efficacy in practical terms:

What is beginning to emerge through the mapping exercise is a template by which certain essential structures of traditional political life can be represented in an easily accessible form. Whether that knowledge can be transferred in any constructive way to contemporary community life is an open question. (‘Mapping’, p. 11)

The map itself thus remains a work in progress, a ‘story without edges’ (Mapping, 2).

Reading across Mahood’s three texts, one is left with the sense of her growing engagement with the Tanami region and a clear commitment to find ‘shared ground that will hold into the future’ (Mapping, 11). What began as a personal quest to examine the geography of her past, and to interrogate memory, transforms into a practice that helps others do the same. As noted above, for the elder Walmajarri, making written records is a matter of urgency. Mahood suggests that participation in recording Indigenous knowledge contributes to non-Indigenous understandings of place. ‘One’s own vestigial sense of embodied knowledge’ (‘Mapping’, p. 10) is produced at the nexus of coming to know a location physically, the processes of map-making, and their interrelationship with painted images. In her terms, the question of what may be done with such glimpsed embodied insight is one evolving through further encounter.


Saskia Beudel
University of Technology, Sydney

Craft for a Dry Lake was published in Sydney by Anchor in 2000 (266 pp, ISBN 1863591397, Out of Print). ‘Mapping Outside the Square: Cultural Mapping in the South-East Kimberley’, was published in Aboriginal History, vol 30, 2006, pp. 1-28. ‘Blow-ins on the Cold Desert Wind’, was published in Griffith Review, 15, Autumn 2007, pp. 267-77


1. Eirlys Richards in ‘Mapping’ (Translator’s Note), p. 8

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]