A radical Indigenous festival draws together the Ancestral and the now in a vital celebration of ceremony, ritual and dance performance.

An experimental festival in far north-west Australia is activating Indigenous heritage for the future. The festival, Milpirri, lights up the desert sky for one participatory night every two years in a celebration of what Milpirri Creative Director and bilingual educator Wanta Steve Patrick Jampijinpa calls ngurra-kurlu [becoming one with country, with kin, with language, with home].

Milpirri models Warlpiri intergenerational and intercultural learning through active community participation. A form of bicultural, bilingual or two-way Aboriginal learning, the festival supports Warlpiri language and culture maintenance. It focuses on more intangible aspects of heritage – song, dance, ceremonial knowledge – on country, in place, by and for Warlpiri. 

Milpirri is a Warlpiri way to get country to express itself,” Jampijinpa explains, “how to make Jukurrpa [the Dreaming] relevant for a 21st century future.”

The concept of ngurra-­kurlu underpins Milpirri. “Ngurra-kurlu consists of Family, Law, Land, Language, and Ceremony. Once we lose these five elements, we become homeless, in our place we call home,” says the founding Director.

Milpirri is held in October as a biennale event in the remote northern Warlpiri community of Lajamanu in the Central or Tanami Desert, south-west of Katherine in the Northern Territory. The festival is a complex, hybrid, site-specific event that defies ready or easy translation, says Professor Jennifer Biddle from UNSW’s School of Art & Design. The social anthropologist has been working with Lajamanu community for more than thirty years.

“Experimental ceremony, ritual, dance, performance, festival, epistemic revelation, cultural revitalisation, Warlpiri activism, a strategic form of community attention and assemblage; Milpirri is maybe all of this and perhaps more, and different again, designed as it is and defined by and for Warlpiri, on country, in place.”

Site-specific and Lajamanu-based, the festival is embedded in and embodied through community. Four generations of Warlpiri collectively organise its fusion of original hip hop, rap, reggae, dub, break-dancing and Aboriginal rock and roll with jardi-warnpa [fire ceremony], men’s purlapa [public ceremony] and women’s yawulyu [dance, design ceremony].

Milpirri uses public sequences of song and dance from our traditional ceremonies to educate everyone about our traditional law,” says Jampijinpa. “We encourage children to create their own hip-hop dances based on these traditional stories. So, in the festival, you will see them performing hip-hop dances according to kin-based groups that are really interpretations of their own Dreamings.

“The hip-hop dance is not Warlpiri dance but young people in this generation have been using it to express themselves and what they’ve learnt about their culture.”

Milpirri has been co-produced with Darwin-based award-winning Tracks Dance Company, since 2005. The collaboration between Tracks and the Lajamanu community represents one of the longest sustained community arts partnership in the Central and Western Desert, dating back to 1987.

Generating new knowledge

The current research is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage project between Lajamanu community, Tracks and UNSW researchers Prof. Biddle and Dr Sudiipta Dowsett. It builds on the long-term co-production of Milpirri with Tracks to document the festival as arts innovation, focusing on its engagement with community to promote the collective responsibility for Indigenous heritage and futurity.

The project will generate new knowledge of Milpirri song, dance, art and story through practice-led research, with outcomes including a Warlpiri-designed digital data base.

“The key part of Milpirri, as Jampijinpa models it, is to get younger people engaged and interested in learning about their Warlpiri heritage,” explains Tim Newth, Artistic co-Director, with David McMicken, of Milpirri and Tracks Dance Company.

The festival organises complex knowledges of country, Ancestor and kinship. Part of its ingenuity is to use four primary colours to represent the four major Warlpiri kinship groups (or ‘skin-groups’): Wanyaparnta [Emu], Parra [Day], Wawirri [Kangaroo] and Munga [Night]. Huge Jukurrpa banners in the same four colours are backlit to create the outdoor stage with t-shirts, loincloths, headbands and jelly wristbands worn by performers and audience members alike.

[Skin-groups] are related to country, to place, to flora, fauna and the elements, the seasons and the four points of the compass, as well as to one another and every other member of Warlpiri society,” Jampijinpa says.

“The colour coding makes visible, viewable and wearable what are otherwise more invisible aspects of identities, alliances and responsibilities or Jukurrpa as corporate law,” Prof. Biddle says.

The jelly wristbands have “gone viral” in the past, so popular they’ve been worn all year round, exemplifying Milpirri’s legacy in the everyday. 

Milpirri Jelly Wrist Bands, Milpirri 2007. Copyright: Lajamanu Community and Tracks Dance Company. Image: Peter Eve.

Ngatilka (Australia), Milpirri 2007.  Artists Performing (left to right) Judy Napangardi Martin, Lynette Napangardi Tasman, Anita Napangardi Johnson, Gloria Napangardi Dixon, Ursula Napangardi Marks, Renee Napangardi Dixon, Biddy Napangardi Raymond, Kathy Napanangka Wardle (Wave Hill) and Tamara Napangardi Johnson. Copyright: Lajamanu Community and Tracks Dance Company. Image: Peter Eve. 

Drawing together dichotomies to bind people to place

The festival began as a response to the first youth suicide in Lajamanu, driven by an urgent need to engage the young in knowledge, language and ceremonies vital for the survival of Warlpiri people, Jampijinpa says. It aims to redress what Jampijinpa identifies as a certain cultural deafness – a lack of capacity to hear, to apprehend and to understand country – by reattuning bodies to Warlpiri ways of being and doing, he says.

“Some of us have lost that way of understanding, of purdanyani, and that sense of home and of being part of that universe.” But intangible knowledge particularly is like a “reflex or muscle memory in your body… All Milpirri is doing is teaching what this country is about. Equipping us,” he says.

The festival connects Ancestral knowledge with the contemporary, the young with elders and senior knowledge holders, men with women, and Yapa [Indigenous] with Kardiya [non-Indigenous] people, Jampijinpa says. “It shows and makes one embodiment, one form of body, so we are not totally separate: women from men or young from old or Kardiya from Yapa.”

Each performance is different than the previous and expands upon the repertoire Milpirri has uniquely produced. Animated and enlivened by voice, sound and rhythm, the participatory forms of Milpirri work to transmit ceremonial forms of knowledge and heritage for the future.

Mapping future pathways

Milpirri blurs the boundaries between performers and audience, drawing in and collectivising, to promote purdanyanyi [hearing and understanding country]. Young people dance with their elders, unlike in more traditional ceremonies; original bilingual rap music compositions in Warlpiri and English are composed for purpose, performed alongside traditional ceremonial Yawulyu and Purlapa.

The festival addresses what Jampijinpa sees as the limitations or lack of proper or fulsome bilingual and/or two-­way learning, as he puts it. “[It is] a way to get both sides thinking about what country is really trying to remind us about: our home, our country, our identity. Milpirri is really a metaphor for bringing Kardiya and Yapa together.”

The clash of cultures arises like a thunderstorm from a lack of mutual understanding, he says. “The cold air and the hot air are trying to adjust to each other, and it isn’t easy…  But after the big storm, when the hot air and cold air meet, after it settles down, that’s when it gives birth to this cloud called Milpirri. Then we can recognise the ground-­up duty of care, a [shared] responsibility for the country’s knowledge.”

Every time on the night, the thunderclouds open and it rains. “The rain rejuvenates the possibilities for two different kinds of knowledge coming to an agreement,” Jampijinpa says. 

Milpirri is produced within and against daily forms of marginalisation, disavowal and indifference, Prof. Biddle says. “The festival takes shapes in conditions of high precarity, and at great cost to the community and those outsiders whose support make it possible.”

The final song and dance sequence of Milpirri is always Warntarritarri, from the traditional Warlpiri Kurdiji and kankarlu sky ceremony, deriving its name from wantarri [gift]. “It serves to remind us that each of our lives is a gift, as is everything around us, and through this understanding we can better achieve the balance of ngurra-­kurlu in our lives,” Jampijinpa says.

Milpirri Hiphop, Milpirri 2007. Artists performing (left to right) Jared Japanangka Scobie, Aiden Jampijinpa Kelly and Jared Jakamarra Ross. Copyright: Lajamanu Community and Tracks Dance Company. Image: Peter Eve. 

Lead image: Milpirri, Kurdiji 2016. Copyright: Lajamanu Community and Tracks Dance Company. Image: Peter Eve. 

This article was originally published in 2022.

Written by Kay Harrison
Associate Dean (Engagement & Impact) Jennifer Biddle
Associate Dean (Engagement & Impact)

Curran, G., Dowsett, S., Patrick, J.J., Patrick, W.S.J, and White-Radhakrishnan, M. [co-Producers]. 2022, Nov 4. “On Milpirri and digging yams of knowledge with Wanta Steven Jampijinpa Patrick and Jerry Jangala Patrick”, (No. 3) [Audio Podcast Episode]. Music Dance Culturehttps://www.buzzsprout.com/1886223/11629498-episode-3-on-milpirri-and-digging-up-yams-of-knowledge-with-wanta-steven-jampijinpa-patrick-and-jerry-jangala-patrick

Dowsett, S. 2021. “Sampling Ceremony: Hip-hop Workshops and Intergenerational Cultural Production in the Central Australian Desert”, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 22: 2-3, 184-202. https://doi.org/10.1080/14442213.2021.1914713

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