Bird Call (Djon Mundine)

Anne’s Song

If the song of the songbird, 
could replace my wrong word 
Then my dear, that’s the song I would borrow 

And tonight, you would hear
the saddest song of the year 
And you’d be mine once again, come tomorrow 

— ‘Come Tomorrow,’ Manfred Mann

I heard a bird call in Kings Cross — lying in bed with my lover in the post-dawn light listening to a currawong call echo in the still, silent daylight air and bless us with the magic soft touch of its aural presence. The drunks, the cars, the clubs, were strangely silent as we lay there, so still, so warm, so happy, so sated.

JVS talked of a white Australian researcher in the Kimberly who, seeing a flock of small twittering birds go past asked his local Aboriginal informant, asked, What did those little birds mean to you, what spiritual message did they convey? 

To which he replied: They said, tweet-tweet, tweet-tweet, tweet-tweet, that’s what they said.

Interesting how many, if not most, Aboriginal names for birds are onomatopoeic: we were forced to perform to talk, to imitate each bird, to become the creature itself. How the sound is formed in the mouth and pushed out in a gentle action of expulsion, an intimate exchange, like my lover’s whispers in my ear.

The subliminal, semiotic soundtrack of Ten Canoes is really the bird calls, which are a constant throughout the film, a coded narrative beyond Gulpilil’s voice, for those who can feel to read it; the honking magpie geese; death expressed by a lone shrieking white cockatoo. 

This space of Sydney is an amazing place — I wonder if there is any other city in the world where one can see and hear birds so clearly and in such number, at its very heart?  

At home in Campbelltown, I hear a familiar cackle, a happy conversation, and going to the door, see a gaggle of honey-eaters and friarbirds hopping to and fro, all over the bottle brush trees in the front lawns of the houses in the street. Sydney wears her birds like a singing, feathery cloak of many colours. 

In Arnhem Land, it is said that the crow (associated with death and sorrow) initiated the marradjirri sacred string-making ceremony, but passed the running of the ceremony over to the honey bird, and to happier times.   

They see things we can’t see, they talk to us — the little silver-eye flying into Anne Marie’s house and searching through every room before leaving. The little bird who banged into the window pane next to my head at the Beaufort Hotel in Darwin, telling me to go home to see Paddy before he left — he’d caught a cold and kept bumping into things and tripping over his own feet. I’m too old now, he despaired.

There was that crow loitering in the backyard, who comforted Brenda on her brother’s good-bye. And that flock of white cockatoos marked against the velvety, dream-like, black slow-motion figure of a single black cockatoo. 

One day in the Netherlands, I was taken to a small regional zoo — the day was wet, the air cold, and the sky grey and bleak. A solitary, soaked white cockatoo with its back to me avoiding my eyes like a prisoner of war — if ever I wanted to free an animal, this was it. It was Australia, my own family, held in misery inside this sad lonely creature.

If the song of the swallow,
could reveal my sorrow 
Then my dear, he would sing just for you 

And tonight you would hear
the saddest song of the year 
And you’d be mine once again, come tomorrow

Black Cockatoo

A floating feather,
Slow spiral of red flame 
and vacuum blackness.
Dark and velvet,
fierce light and absence,
skin and flesh,
flesh and blood.

Have you ever seen
slow, silent, surreal
dream-like wing beat
of a graceful Black Cockatoo?
Slow-motion movement,
a piercing shriek
then silence.

A spiritual visitation.
A spiritual presence.
Someone comes —
Do you see?
Do you feel?

A soundless un-answered hypnotic falling,
a figure-eight spiral —


Djon Mundine OAM is a proud Bandjalung man from the Northern Rivers of New South Wales. Mundine is a curator, writer, artist and activist and is celebrated as a foundational figure in the criticism and exhibition of contemporary Aboriginal art. Mundine has held many senior curatorial positions in both national and international institutions, some of which include the National Museum of Australia, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales and Campbelltown Art Centre. 

Between the years 1979 and 1995, Mundine was the Art Advisor at Milingimbi and curator at Bula-bula Arts in Ramingining, Arnhem Land for sixteen years. Mundine was also the concept artist/ producer of the ‘Aboriginal Memorial’, comprising 200 painted poles by forty-three artists from Ramingining, each symbolising a year since the 1788 British invasion. The Memorial was central to the 1988 Biennale of Sydney and remains on permanent display at the National Gallery of Australia in the main entrance hall. 

In 1993, Mundine received the Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the promotion and development of Aboriginal arts, crafts and culture. Between 2005 & 2006 Mundine was resident at the National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) in Osaka, Japan as a Research Professor in the Department of Social Research and is a PhD candidate at National College of Art and Design, University of NSW. 

Djon Mundine OAM also won The Australia Council’s 2020 Red Ochre Award for Lifetime Achievement and is currently an independent curator of contemporary Indigenous art and cultural mentor. Find more on Djon’s website.