“Whatever may be the age of these paintings, it is scarcely probable that they could have been executed by a self-taught savage.”
Sir George Grey, 1837
Until recently, European history of Aboriginal art has given little to which one could reference as few art objects were collected and most were relegated to ethnographic novelty. Being the first European to document the Wandjina rock paintings in the Kimberley, Sir George Grey was quick to dismiss the idea that they were done by the local people because of the works’ apparent technical skill and startling aesthetics (Morphy, 1998:20). However, these paintings are an integral cultural element of the people of the coastal country of the Kimberley. This essay will explore how the Dreaming encompasses the past, present and future, and how the Wandjina figures have been used by Aboriginal artists in the past and the present to reaffirm their connection with their land.
Art is the access to the Dreaming; a contact to the spiritual dimension, yet also the product of the Dreaming The term Dreaming or Dreamtime was first used in the late nineteenth century by anthropologists to translate Aboriginal concepts into the structure of European thinking. To understand the concept involves an explanation of Aboriginal ideas about the nature of the universe (Morphy, 1998:67). Most Aboriginal belief systems give an account of creation as a time when ancestral beings emerged from the earth to give shape to the world. They were complex forms which could transform in shape from animals such as kangaroos, to inanimate objects such as rocks and trees. They could also become such complex existences as bushfires or honey. As they moved across and beneath the surface of the earth they sang songs and performed ceremonies (Morphy, 1998:69). All their actions had a consequence upon the landscape, creating waterholes or cave entrances from where they emerged, to trees where they stuck their digging sticks. Their spiritual force is said to be incarnate within the land (Morphy, 1998:71).
Underlying the stories of the Dreaming are creative powers that are manifest in the development of particular forms. The most direct manifestation of ancestral beings are the features of the landscape but they also left behind representations of themselves in the form of art. They were conscious of the effect their actions would have upon the future and were concerned that the humans who succeeded them would continue in their footsteps. Therefore records of their actions were also made in songs, dances, paintings, ceremonies and sacred objects (Morphy, 1998:84). This art is also more than a representation of the ancestral beings past but also their present. The paintings, body decorations and sacred objects were first used by the ancestors in their lifetime and they invented the ceremonies that commemorated their sacred lives. When people today paint themselves with these designs, they are engaging in the actions of the ancestral beings. Since these designs are thought to have arisen out of ancestral activities and the people today have their origin with these spirits, ‘art enables Aboriginal people to participate directly in the ancestral world’ (Morphy, 1998:100).
The Kimberleys in northwest Western Australia are characterized by the Wandjina paintings. These cave paintings date back at least 1500 years ago to the present and depict spirit beings called Wandjina, who are said to have come from the sea and the sky (Morphy, H. 1998:55). As they moved across the landscape they created its features. The differing stories surrounding the wanderings of the Wandjina all share a similar account of a major battle between the Wandjina, led by the spirit Wodjin, and the people of the area, the ancestors of todays Ngarinyin, Worora, Wunambul and Ungarinyin peoples. Once this great battle was over, the Wandjina dispersed and were absorbed into the rocks of the area as paintings (Stanton, 2006:416). Because of their great difference to Aboriginal artworks of other areas, the paintings were originally attributed to alien people by Sir George Grey who even thought the area had been visited by the Ancient Greeks (Morphy, 1998:10). The Wandjina figures are impressively large humanoid figures of up to 7 metres in length, having prominent eyes and noses, no mouth, a large oval placed over the breast and a large decorated circle around the perimeter of the head. According to I.M. Crawford in his book ‘Art of the Wandjina’ the images represented the force within a thunderhead, having both human and cloud characteristics. The headdress or circle around the head being the cloud and the patterning the thunder coming from it (Stanton, 2006:415).
Being part of the different regional religions of the area, each clan has its own special central artwork for which they are responsible. This responsibility entailed the ritual repainting of the figures and ensured the fertility of the land and return of the seasons. Some of the rock paintings were associated with spirit conception through which it was believed that children were conceived. The repainting of these figures ensured the power of these spirits and also contributed to their aesthetic impact. Each of the Wandjina are painted in red ochre on a brilliant white ground and were organised along with other figures into a complex spectacle. The repainting over the centuries has made the paintings both part of the past and the present (Morphy, 1998:56). Their activities are recounted in stories, song and performance. The images on the rocks are the places where they were absorbed after dying, leaving their skin as an ochred painting so that the people coming afterwards would know where they were. It was the duty of these people to conserve and repaint them repeatedly therefore ensuring the Wandjina’s strength and vitality (Stanton, 2006:415).
The Dreaming permeated all aspects of living. It imbued the mundane with spiritual character and allowed Aboriginal people to feel secure within the certainty of these ancestral beings. These spirit beings interest in human beings had to be sustained and the people had to make sure that continuity was maintained (Berndt, 1973:31). According to Berndt this was what ritual was all about; ‘Aboriginal man performed religious rituals for this purpose, among other and more secondary reasons’ (Berndt, 1973:31). Art was a necessity and, having a religious basis, was viewed as work. Its focus was its content, meaning and ceremonial value (Berndt, 1973:32). The indigenous people of the Kimberley express their social and religious beliefs through both visual and performed art. Even though European influences are pervasive their art involved strong elements of continuity from the past as well as understanding the changes of the present day.
The art of the Wandjina is an expression of continuity from its origins in rock art to more contemporaneous media such as canvas and acrylic. The imagery is a vital source of inspiration and legitimisation for the contemporary artists of the area. The repainting of the Wandjina is still carried out today and reaffirms these artists’ individual rights and responsibilities to the land and is a current influence of Dreaming and Dreaming beings. This is important as many of these people were forced to leave their lands and this resulted in depopulation and dislocation. Far away from their Dreaming, these displaced peoples use artistic activity as recognition of their continual custodianship through which the rituality of ‘caring for country’ can be re-lived and re-asserted (Stanton, 1998:416).
Ancient images of Wandjina are recreated today by individual artists within the responsibility of their clan group. Wandjina were painted on bark as early as 1937 and the method was well-established by the 1960s (Stanton, 1998:416). In 1965, Charlie Numbulmoore painted Wandjina Spirits, an exceptional work painted on bark showing two dark-eyed white figures outlined in red ochre on a white ground. Numbulmoore had the responsibility of repainting the Wandjina figures found on the rock walls in his country (Dedman, R.,2006:454). During the 1970s there was an expansion and commercialisation of painted Wandjina figures with them being painted on canvas and put up for sale. In1972, the Kulumburu artist Waddy Karawadda painted a Wandjina figure for a rock-art construction at the Museum of Western Australia. In 1976, other members of the Kulumburu community made their own eucalypt bark paintings using the mouth spray and hand stencil technique known in rock art and attached their work to supports. One of the most well-known Wandjina artists is the late Kalumburu artist Alec Mingelmanu who died in 1981. His aims were to continue the cultural practices and visual representations of his Woonambel traditions (McCulloch, 2001:36). He used ground ochre pigments to depict large-scale Wandjina figures.
Decorated pearl shells, carved boab nuts and also tjuringa, sacred objects used in ceremonies embodying the spirit of the individual or spirit being who owns them (Barlow,Hill, 2000:16),were used upon Aboriginal trade roads as transportable art objects before the commercialization of Aboriginal art in the 1980s. Smaller bark paintings, engraved slate and stone were also created for the tourist market. These were regarded by the artists as reproductions of ‘real’ Wandjina rock paintings (Stanton 2006:416). These depictions of Wandjina are reflections of the artists’ role within their communites. They provide the basis for the reassertion of identification with some of the different clans’ Dreamings, even though some of these people no longer have access to their land. The artworks fund ritual activities and allow an identification and understanding of the changed environment in which Indigenous people now live (Stanton, 2006:419).
The Wandjina figures became the dominant ancestral theme in the Kimberley because of their relatively recent appearance. Unlike other earlier rock art in the area, it became an integral part of the cultural belief systems for these figures to be maintained by each generation. Furthermore, the maintenance of these figures through either repainting or reproduction became ceremonial as they provided continuity and faith that such a harsh landscape would be able to renew itself. Unfortunately, European colonization has had an extensive impact upon the Indigenous people of the Kimberley. Therefore it remains to be seen if the current generation of young people will, in the future, be able to uphold the ceremonial renaissance of these figures.
Berndt, R.M., 1973, The Arts of Life: An Introduction in The Australian Aboriginal Heritage: An Introduction Through the Arts (pp. 31-44), Sydney: Australian Society for Education through the Arts in association with Ure Smith
Dedman, R,. 2006, Wandjina [figures], in Art and Australia, v.43, no.3, Autumn, p.454
Mc Culloch, S., 2001, Contemporary Aboriginal Art: A guide to the rebirth of an ancient culture, Allen and Unwin, Sydney
Morphy, H, 1998. Aboriginal Art, Phaidon Press, London
Stanner, 1953, The Dreaming in White Man Got No Dreaming, Australian National University Press, Canberra
Stanton, J.E., 2006, Wandjina, in Art and Australia, v. 43, no. 3, Autumn, pp 414-419
http://www.aboriginalartonline.com/resources/articles5.php -Retrieved13th Dec. 2008
http://www.mowanjumarts.com/history.html -Retrieved 13th Dec. 2008