Aboriginal Art: Five Stories

For Aboriginal readers: These blogs contains images and names of people who have passed away.

This is one of my favourite paintings.

I don’t know its name, and at the moment I can’t find out. It might be Ngayartakujarra because that’s where the people who painted it (those above) are standing, the immense salt lake that whitefellas call Lake Dora, a very culturally important water site now in the Karlamilyi National Park. Strangely I can’t find the painting on the internet but I did find the photo above. And that’s it in all its upside-down back-to-front over-exposed glory. They’ve painted their Country.

I know this painting well because that very canvas is in the Potter Gallery at Fed Square in Melbourne where it looks a bit like this.

Unhappily my camera has distorted the colours. It’s too green, too cream — the real thing is underpinned by the uncompromising white/grey/pink of the salt pan — and the colours in the songlines are far more vivid. I’ve somehow lost the blues. And that’s a shame because the harmonies and contrasts in the coloration is one of the reasons it is such a great painting. Its scale marks it out as an important work, and its carefully enunciated parts tell you that it is full of stories even if you can’t read them. But unusually there is also quite a strong gesture towards a more familiar type of map-view representation. It’s Martu Country near Punmu, gloriously rendered.

One of the reasons I like it is because I’ve been there. There is a thrill of recognition.

Punmu is at the eastern end of the Pilbara, a tiny community which, like a lot of such places, comes and goes. It was established in the 1980s as a ‘Back to Country’ outstation. The large cleared red area is Culture Site Number 2, a football ground where the Punmu Bulldogs play. Its remoteness from some things can be suggested by the fact that the Rawa school which I was visiting had just got a new room under Kevin Rudd’s school building program. It had cost $1.2m (in the days when $1.2m was $1.2m) to transport it from the coast where it had been pre-fabricated.

But it is not remote from other things that matter. From an article about Martumili, the art cooperative that produced this painting: ‘Punmu has inspired many significant paintings based around the warla jukurrpa (salt lake dreaming) and the traditional knowledge of the important waterholes and sites around the community. Senior artists based in Punmu are working hard to pass down knowledge of culture and Country to younger generations to keep the community strong.’

This area is also Rover Thomas‘s birth country. He was born at Yalda Soak near Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route. (Don’t bother trying to find it with Google maps. Bit north of Punmu.) One of his works, a print, is called Punmu — The Universe. Magic.

It mightn’t look exactly as it it did when it was created because Adrian Newstead’s car that was transporting it from Canberra to Rover’s home at Warmun in the Kimberley was stolen in the Balgo Hills. The prints were recovered from the Mary River, this particular one having been in the bottom of the river for 10 days or so before being retrieved.

That’s an Aboriginal art story.

* * * * * * *

Can whitefellas write about Aboriginal art?

That’s two different, and difficult, questions really. The first: are whitefellas allowed to write about Aboriginal art? Well they do, but then Donald Trump has been allowed to be President of the United States.

There’s a sometimes angry school of thought that answers, emphatically, no. You’ve taken everything else off us. You’re not taking that too. Mind your own business. Show some respect. Fuck off really.

And, (this is the second) anyway, as if you could! What do you know about Aboriginal culture and lore and Law? Aboriginal art builds on and from traditions and knowledge which are hundreds of centuries old or, if you want to be serious, have no relationship with western ideas of time at all. Many Aboriginal languages, for example, have a tense which incorporates past, present and future all at once, what Bill Stanner called in White Man’s Got No Dreaming, ‘it was, and is, everywhen’. That’s a long way outside your purview. You wouldn’t know where to start trying to understand something like that. Do you know any more about more recent Aboriginal experience: of racism, of dispossession, of being ignored politically? Have you experienced it? Felt it?

My answer to the first question is, and just as emphatically, that you can write about what you like. What you write about it, how well and how insightfully and respectfully, is another and more serious matter.

To duck past this issue I could shelter under an Acknowledgement of Country, say, just here. That seems like standard practice. I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this Country, and pay my respects to Elders, past, present and emerging.

Yes. Well … It hardly seems enough does it? A ritual incantation like ‘I love God and my Country. I honour the flag and shall cheerfully (cheerfully eh; there’s a twist) obey my parents, teachers and the laws.’

Ritual incantations have their place. That I can still recite this one after 65 years is telling. But they are slight and by definition formulaic. Easily ignored; a momentary wave of a flag. Ok, it could signal. That’s over. Phew. Now let’s get on with the proper stuff. The other Potter Gallery at Melbourne University includes ‘and recognise that their sovereignty was never ceded‘. That’s stronger; but, you know … words.

Openly admitting my considerable shortcomings, this blog is offered in its entirety as an acknowledgment of Country and of how much I gained from the modest access I have been granted to the life and times of Aboriginal Australia.

But just while we’re identifying the wrestlers in this ring, one pressing issue to deal with is how to avoid suggesting that ‘Aboriginal Art’ can even be an idea.

There are rock paintings in Arnhem Land which have been confidently dated at more than 28,000 years old (among the oldest figurative art in the world and about six times older than Egypt’s pyramids). Others could be more than 40,000 years old. Millennia later in the second half of the 19th century Tommy McRae (also known as Yakaduna, and no relation) was making a living out of selling his wonderful sketches.

Victorian Blacks – Melbourne tribe holding corroboree after seeing ships for the first time 1890s [not his title]
National Gallery of Australia

Closer to the present, art made by Aboriginal people has shot off in a hundred directions. No dots, for example, in Reko Rennie’s punchy Initiation. But it’s still full of vigorous markers of Aboriginality. Among other things, those ‘abstract’ patterns all have deep roots and meanings. ‘Always was always will be’ is the strong form of Acknowledgement of Country.

Reko Rennie Initiation 2013
300 x 520cm
National Gallery of Victoria

There are a lot in of dots in Maria Josette Orsto’s transfixing Miyinga (Scars) another recent work. It’s not from the Western Desert, the home of dot painting, but from Melville Island off the north-western coast of the Northern Territory. Tiwi people. Her skin group is Japijapunga (the March Fly), her dance is the Trick Dance. It’s in natural ochres on canvas. She says: ‘I love doing art because (it) bring no sadness, no thinking about anything bad.’

Maria Josette Oresto Miyinga (Scars) 2017
seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

These examples are all often filed under ‘Aboriginal Art’. Draw generalisations from them at your peril.

The idea in the public imagination of Aboriginal Australia as a monolith — in time as well as space, maybe some amalgam of the Stone Age and the 1950s, except for footballers and Stan Grant — should be qualified.

Australia is about the same size as Europe, and a case could be made that the inhabitants of pre-European Australia were almost as diverse as those of the Europe of those times.

This map, the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia, an artwork in itself, may be familiar, but its implications are rarely considered by gubbas/ gardiya/ wadjela/ ballanda/ migali (a range of contemporary Aboriginal words from different parts of the country for whitefellas). In 1788, before colonisation, there were somewhere around 250 families of languages (and tribal nations), and somewhere between 600 and 750 languages with discrete character. There were and remain groups with their own distinctive physical features and varying ways of living with and managing the land and water. What would you expect really, given the complexity of Australia’s environment?

That is just historically. Multiply that by the distinctions which now arise from living in big cities, country towns or remote communities, by the contemporary coverage of the whole range of socio-economic groups, by the extraordinarily varied cultural influences Aboriginal people experience, by family history … Despite some serious and profound common underpinnings, ‘Aboriginal Australia’ is hugely diverse. And Aboriginal art is a lot more than dot painting.

And ‘art’. Is that the best word? Mr Ainsworth was remembering men’s ‘art’ he saw at Mutawintji National Park in western NSW, and thought not. Not always anyway. The most accessible of this ‘art’ is in a cave, Thaaklatjika, and the markings are understood to have been made by a Miikika, a ‘Clever Man’. The subject is a yarra (a stick ornamented with feathers and human hair) used to beat the bad spirits out of the sick. The painting is not about this process or a rendering of this process. It is a part of the process. It is a painting certainly (various shades of ochre on a rock wall), but not intended as art, not intended as something to satisfy anyone aesthetically. It is functional, at work in a host of ways: to explain, record, remember, remind, but it is also part of the business. Like a lot of western religious art in fact, it has attributes which transcend its obvious visual values and form.

This question will recur. Are we talking about art here or ethnography, artwork or artefact? You can just let that sit for a while and make your own mind up whether or not you need to make your mind up about that.

To manage these issues I’ve chosen five ‘artists’ to represent what I think are some big ideas embedded in any discussion of ‘Aboriginal art’. Just a taster, but with a bit of salt. For me, each of the works is just wonderful.

As I’ve written the pieces they’ve turned into stories about paintings and artists rather than items of art appreciation. Not only that, but whitefellas get more of a go than might be considered appropriate right at this point in time. But everything has a context. It’s unavoidable. As Philip Batty says in the piece about Emily: ‘[Contemporary] Aboriginal art is an intercultural phenomenon, shaped both by its Aboriginal producers and non-Aboriginal consumers.‘ And, he could have added, by the productive interaction between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians as well as by all the mean streets of injustice, dispossession and disrespect.

Although it won’t matter much I have meant them to be read in the order below. The preliminary headings are somewhat arbitrary. Each could be applied to all. And keep at it. Don’t let fatigue cause you to miss out on the astonishing story of Emily Kame Kngwarreye.

4 thoughts on “Aboriginal Art: Five Stories

  1. Amazing stories here and what a long read; it took me most of the afternoon. When I was at school I thought that the pledge read, ‘I honour the flag and chiefly obey my parents, teachers and the law’. I wasn’t sure who or what else I obeyed, nor did I really know what the law was.
    In year 9 in 1959 (form 3 then) my form teacher, art teacher and history teacher was James Mollison. All the boys at Melbourne High School loved him as a teacher and he’s responsible for my lifelong love of art, although what that is exactly is debatable after reading these articles.
    David, all these articles make wonderful reading and this on-line collection should be better known. I’m going to introduce them to Kitty, my very artistic and travel-weary daughter.

  2. Fabulous; illuminating and worthy of wider distribution. Interestingly I saw the same clothes peg type of figures in a cave near Chanderi in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India back in 2004.Therefore I found the Bradshaws particularly fascinating.Loved the gossip about Geraldine Brooks.

  3. Tony Horwitz died last year.

    All good stuff, but very pleased about the Bradshaws piece. I read about them years ago and was very puzzled: now I am enlightened.

    Nice win last night.

  4. Always enjoy your blogs David. Full of information  and stuff I didn’t know,.

    Take care Warmly


    Ross Kimber



    PO Box 1414

    Fitzroy North

    VIC 3068

    See some of Ross’ images at http://www.rfkimaging.com and


    From: mcraeblog Reply to: mcraeblog Date: Wednesday, 15 July 2020 at 4:19 pm To: kimra Subject: [New post] Aboriginal Art: Five Stories

    mcrae3051 posted: ” For Aboriginal readers: These blogs contains images and names of people who have passed away. This is one of my favourite paintings. I don’t know its name, and at the moment I can’t find out. It might be Ngayartakujarra because that’s where th”

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