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Jagath Dheerasekara: Manuwangku, Under the Nuclear Cloud

May 4- July 7, 2012 at Customs House, Level 2 Exhibition Space, 31 Alfred Street, Sydney

The project Manuwangku, Under the Nuclear Cloud, for which I received Amnesty International’s Human Rights Innovation Fund Grant in 2010, is focused on an Aboriginal Australian community under threat. Muckaty is situated on Warlmanpa country, 120 km north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory in Central Australia. Traditional owners call this area Manuwangku.

In 2007, the Northern Land Council nominated the Muckaty Land Trust as a fourth potential site for the dumping of radioactive waste in Australia. This has generated justifiable fear and concern among the local Aboriginal community. They have responded with ongoing protests defending their right to live in a clean and safe environment, free of hazardous waste.

There was no dumped nuclear waste or even receptacles where they would be placed. Its been said that nuclear waste will be dumped at Middle of Nowhere. However, the spaces – both private and public – that I photographed was anything but Middle of Nowhere. It was vibrant and full of activities. It was their land with which their lives are so closely intertwined.

Their way of life of the traditional owners of Mukaty (Manuwanku) is in direct conflict with this mainstream paternalistic idea – the Middle of Nowhere. I saw their day to day activities as protests. They were at times overt and at others inconspicuous and subtle. Despite their traditional land and culture being under an immense pressure, older women continue to take young people on bush trips, to teach traditional bush tucker gathering and hunting kangaroos and wild turkey, cooking them in ovens dug into the earth. Their choice to paint bush tucker at a time when the land on which the tucker grows is under a threat of being poisoned, is a powerful way of showing their ongoing connection to the land that would be broken if the dump went ahead. Decorating houses and cars with Aboriginal colours and anti-waste dump stickers is an overt expression of an indomitable spirit.

I was welcomed into people’s private and public spaces, on bush trips, into homes, to legal consultations, schools, campfires and funerals. They shared their stories of the community’s recent social history and I exchanged aspects of my story. In response to my presence and attention through my photography the Muckaty community expressed an urgent need to get their story out to the Australian public.

Living there and experiencing a deep socio-cultural life and activism was a rewarding experience and a great privilege. In Muckay I attempted to document the spirit, connection to land and the collective voice of the community. Manuwanku, Under the Nuclear Cloud is my respectful observation of the Muckaty community. It is in a way a testimony of an overwhelming conflict on one hand and on the other the resilience of a people in their resistance to the conversion of their traditional lands into a dumping ground for nuclear waste.

Jagath Dheerasekara is an Amnesty International Human Rights Innovation Fund Grant recipient and a finalist in the William and Winifred Bowness Photography Prize in 2011, and exhibits his work internationally. His second spell of photography began in mid 90s with his return to Sri Lanka from France where he spent his exile life. He settled in Australia in 2008, where his work focuses chiefly on Aboriginal, refugee/migrant, social/urban change and environmental themes.

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Image detail: Gary Ramage