Recollections of a Central Australian Lantern slide performance - By Associate Professor David Hansen, curator of the NPG’s current exhibition 'Dempsey’s People'

Recollections of a Central Australian Lantern slide performance - By Associate Professor David Hansen, curator of the NPG’s current exhibition 'Dempsey’s People'


At the end of 1973 my brother and I spent some time at the Aboriginal settlement at Yuendumu, some 350 km. north-west of Alice Springs. 

There was a bit of a family connection. My Baptist minister grandfather Norman had been a friend and contemporary of Rev. Tom Fleming, the missionary at the settlement since 1950, and who my father had visited back in 1953. Tom’s son Jolyon was the same age as my brother. Through these links, and given Tom’s long tenure and the mutual respect that had developed between him and the local Warlpiri community, Peter and I enjoyed the remarkable privilege of immediate, close access to traditional Aboriginal culture, and, moreover, during a season of significant ceremony. It was a challenging experience for an adolescent. I remember witnessing the primal power of the Ngalia initiation ceremony; I remember the fear that swirled around an alcohol-fuelled riot one night; I remember sitting in the cool of the manse listening to Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Tarkus, reading Tom’s copy of the 1929 report of the Board of Enquiry into the Coniston Massacre…

Just as baffling was old ‘Tom Father’ himself. Having long since discovered that ration-conversions to Christianity were rubbish, Tom nevertheless maintained a modest but loyal congregation, and held significant spiritual and moral authority in the broader community, through sheer force of personality and personal goodness. Yet despite his sympathetic grasp of Indigenous cosmology, and despite his understanding of the continuing authority of tjukurrpa, Rev. Fleming was, after all, a Baptist evangelist, a late Edwardian with his roots in the missionary tradition of the denomination: of William Carey and Isaac McCoy and Gladys Aylward.

Indeed, one of the lasting Yuendumu memories is of taking a trip with Tom to the nearby cattle station, Mount Doreen. After the culinary surprise of dinner at the Big House, a 40 cm steak smothered in macaroni cheese (‘there’s so much beef it’s hard to think of something new to do with it’, said the cocky’s wife), as the darkness settled around the homestead and the yards, Tom unloaded the car and set up under a tree a screen and a projector. Then he began his Warlpiri creole preaching to a couple of dozen assembled Aboriginal station hands and their families, illustrating his story (at this distance I can’t be totally sure, but I seem to recall it was the parable of the Good Samaritan) with lolly-bright, hand-painted lantern slides of unlikely 1st century Palestinians wearing Sunday School chromolithograph robes.

I could not help but think of all those other Christian missionaries over the previous two centuries - in Africa, in China, in south Asia, in New Guinea - delivering the light of the gospel through the lens of the magic lantern.


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