vivonne thwaites



phil saj

My Front Yard, Areyonga

Mowing the Lawn, Areyonga

Areyonga Art Gallery 1985, painting by Kaipipi Bob
Phil Saj with Kaipipi Bob

Areyonga School house mural, painting by Kaipipi Bob, 1985

Phil Saj worked at Areyonga 1980-1985 as the Literature Production Supervisor making educational materials for a bi-lingual education program. He was employed by the Education Department of the Northern Territory Government. Phil worked with artists and writers in the Pitjantjatjara language and indigenous stories were brought into the readers and indigenous imagery illustrated the books. The stories were about  traditional activities such as hunting, gathering, plants and seasons. Early reading materials also feature contemporary activities such as those of the store, the building program and the clinic

Phil found there was a high level of visual literacy with the people having the ability to draw and paint to describe their world. Such skills were commonplace in traditional life, where it was necessary to ‘’read” the topography; communicate without words during hunting, and in ceremonies, and for tracking.

Communication through imagery, hand signs are still widely used: it is common for people to  draw in the sand as part of  every-day communication.

Phil was amazed at the tracking skills of the people, how the people learnt to read footprints where even in a crowded area full of prints a particular individual could be traced.

The keen observation skills of indigenous people were typically applied to the bio-mechanics of those around them, such that people were often given nick-names based on a physical trait. Phil’s pigeon toed gait earned him the moniker “muti-aru”, which translates to English as “bent knee”.

Phil describes the integrity of the Indigenous culture, learnt through trips out through the landscapes on camping trips and he sees this time as one of the most important in his life.

Phil played ruck in the football team, the Areyonga Desert Tigers. At times, the team traveled up to 1600 kms to places such as Docker River for a match. Phil was the sole white person in the team making these long journeys in the back of a truck with the team.

Many of the indigenous people were around Phil’s age, (28 years old when he arrived there in 1980). Phil often compared the social structures within which he grew up with those of his indigenous contemporaries. In the 50’s and 60’s communities such as Areyonga were institutions, women worked as domestics for white families, men in orchards and public utilities,  the children were taken to school, put in uniforms and taken to school. At the end of the day they were taken back to camp. However, by the time Phil arrived there had been a number of years of self governing councils. Phil maintains contact with some members of the Areyonga community by telephone.

Phil is currently a lecturer in Accounting Adelaide University, where he was awarded a PhD in 2009. He  is a tutor in the, Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme, which provides support to indigenous students, and  assists in the Fairway Program, which encourages students from schools whose students have not often gone on to further education to consider a university studies.

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