In two dramatic articles published in The Weekend Australian of March 22-23, Nicolas Rothwell painted a vision of a internal cultural war the likes of which we’ve not seen before.

According to Rothwell, the Ngintaka exhibition at the South Australian Museum was viewed throughout the vast APY lands of South Australia’s north as a fundamental and “mortal threat to traditional law and culture.”

Move forward to a week ago on the afternoon of Friday 28 March at the SA Museum. A large crowd gathers along North Terrace, many of who have driven for days to get to Adelaide.

The Ngintaka Inma is sung and danced and the exhibition opened.

But not before some drama and a flood of negative publicity is splashed on news websites across the country. “SA Museum forced to postpone Ngintaka exhibition featuring songline from the APY Lands,” “Songline exhibition pulled over culturally sensitive material,” “Aboriginal ‘songline’ show hits sour note” and “Indigenous culture exhibition postponed by dispute” are typical headlines in response to the Museum’s decision.

Those headlines are right – the Ngintaka exhibition had been postponed – but only for a short time.

On 25 March the SA Museum received a letter threatening legal action from a group of senior people from the APY lands that claimed the exhibition should be shut down because it revealed information of a secret and sacred nature that would contravene Aboriginal law if shown publicly.

This was a bold – and very serious – claim that the SA Museum took on face value. The Museum submitted to the threats and postponed the opening.

Soon, dozens of the traditional owners that had travelled from their homelands in the state’s north and west voiced their unanimous support for the exhibition to proceed. On late Wednesday Ananguku Arts, the organisers of the exhibition received a copy of the letter – not from the lawyers but from the SA Museum – seeking the closure of the show. The next day local solicitors Johnston Withers were engaged to write a “please explain” letter to the SA Museum.

According to Graham Harbord of Johnston Withers for Ananguku Arts, the claims were without basis and the decision to give in to the threats and postpone the opening should not have been made by the SA Museum, which had not been involved in the exhibition’s development and was merely providing the venue for the show.

In his view, any decision to close the exhibition was one for the organisers or Courts, not the SA Museum.

Museum director Brian Oldman folded and the Ngintaka opened as originally planned at 6pm on Friday 28th.

Earlier that afternoon a lawyer from Adelaide firm Berg Lawyers fronted Justice Malcolm Blue of the South Australian Supreme Court and sought a temporary injunction to prevent the performance of the Inma and the showing of audio-visual elements of the Ngintaka show to the public.

That application for an injunction was granted ex parte (“by one side only”) – notwithstanding the presence in Adelaide of many traditional owners supporting the exhibition and those involved in its production who could have guided Justice Blue in his deliberations, which were considered a “brave call”, particularly, as The Northern Myth understands it, that no evidence was led in support of the injunction.

The injunction was in force until 5 pm on Monday 31st of March.

On Monday 31st Justice Blue decided that he could not hear the matter and it was stood over to the following day.

On Tuesday 1 April Chief Justice Chris Kourakis of the Supreme Court of South Australia, appeared on the bench to hear the parties. Eleven plaintiffs were originally listed in support of the injunction.

Ronnie Brumby was removed as a plaintiff following the receipt of a fax stating he had not been consulted or agreed to his name being on this list.

Mick Wikilyiri’s daughter was incensed that her aged father’s name was on the Plaintiff list, Tingila Young insisted that he is an old man suffering from dementia and in the full care of her family at Amata and that his name was used without his knowledge or consent.

After extending the interim injunction to allow for further consideration by the Court, Chief Justice Kourakis adjourned the Hearing to allow those plaintiffs present in Adelaide to attend the exhibition and better identify those elements of the audio-visual material they found offensive. Five of the seven allegedly offensive videos were subsequently cleared for public broadcast.

It is important to note that at this point no official pleadings of their case had been provided to the Court and no specific details of the allegedly offensive material in the audio-visual presentations had been provided by the plaintiffs.

None of the plaintiffs had seen the exhibition before issuing proceedings and only two of the plaintiffs, George Kenmore and Michael Williams, saw the exhibition at all. Williams saw the show at 7am yesterday. Kenmore was offered a view on the Friday of the opening but did not visit it until Tuesday this week.

Neither had Rothwell seen the exhibition, though he was confident enough in his knowledge of the show sight unseen to declare that it was “a motley affair” consisting of “mid-grade works with lizard themes.”

Following Kenmore’s attendance at the exhibition on Tuesday afternoon two items of apparent offence were identified.

The first was a video of an Inma performance by Tapaya Edwards, a young man widely regarded as a rising star across the APY lands and the grandson of respected elder Teddy Edwards. The second apparently offensive video was of Harry Tjutjuna, senior Ngintaka traditional owner who was shown telling his story to a large group including his family, his children and grandchildren and assembled women and men.

Affidavit evidence was led in Court that the images and sounds on these videos were uncontroversial and had been in the public domain for many years.

In the case of the Inma performance by Tapaya Edwards, the Court was told that he had performed that dance – with the approval of elders and his community – many times at venues in Australia and internationally.

With regard to the story told by Harry Tjutjuna, anthropologist Diana James (who has made her own commentary on this matter here) presented the following affidavit evidence to the Court:

I was present at Pipalyatjara when Harry Tjutjuna was filmed telling the Ngintaka Tjukurpa story from his homeland Atarangu to Wallatinna and return to Arannga … It was the open version of the Ngintaka Tjukurpa.

Harry Tjutjuna has told me that he was born in the bush and he went through Pitjantjatjara Law before he ever saw a white-man. He is a very revered elder who I have known since 1980.

James notes that substantial elements of the Ngintaka Tjukurpa story, including places and incidents across the entire songline, has previously been published by Yami Lester in his autobiography, Yami, published by IAD Press in 1993.

Lester, a Yankunytjatjara elder from Wallatinna, a homeland on the eastern side of the APY Lands, was represented by family during the Court proceedings and is presented as a key source for the issues raised by Rothwell – and this 2012 article in The Australian by Stuart Rintoul.

In James’ affidavit she noted that in May 2012 Yami Lester had issued a media release criticising the Songlines Project. James says that Lester:

… refused to talk with anyone from the Songlines Project to discuss his concerns … a meeting was arranged by Andrea Masson for representatives of the Songlines Project and Yami Lester to meet and discuss his concerns at Wallatinna, While he initially agreed to meet he then declined and the meeting was cancelled.

Following consideration of the evidence, Chief Justice Kourakis noted that the Courts had been reluctant in the past to interfere in religious or spiritual matters and dismissed the application for an interim injunction.

He noted that while it was conceivable a judge might find that there had been a disclosure of confidential information,  it would be unlikely that any permanent injunction would be granted if the matter proceeded to trial, given the strength of the opposing views.

The “mortal threat to traditional law and culture” to Aboriginal culture posed by the Ngintaka exhibition appears to have evaporated into the thin desert air.