AHOTW Symposium - Professor Peter Veth and Professor Jo McDonald - The recursive nature of Aboriginal rock art in Australia

Video | Updated 11 months ago

The recursive nature of Aboriginal rock art in Australia: cultural transmissions through multiple media


Jo: OK so Pete and I are going to do a double act today talking about some rock art research that we do both in the central part of Western Australia in the Western Desert, and then Pete will be talking about the Kimberley. We’d like to acknowledge that we are on Noongar Whadjuk land, but we’d also like to acknowledge that traditional owners and ancestors of the Martu that we work with in the Western Desert, and with the Kimberley Worroran people that Pete’s also been working with. OK first of all I’m going to talk about rock art and the recursive nature of rock art, and given the theme of today’s session I’m going to be talking about an object that probably would never actually make it into an exhibition like this. I’m going to talk about a crayon drawing that was done by an Aboriginal man in 1964 and was collected by Bob Tonkinson, was in fact inspired by Bob Tonkinson’s requests to talk to an Aboriginal man about his totemic geography in a remote location in the Western Desert. The reason that I’m talking about this is that this crayon drawing is extraordinarily significant to us as rock art researchers trying to understand the rock art of the Western Desert. These crayon drawings, which don’t look like they’re particularly spectacular, actually are to me beautiful and incredibly informative. They show not only an incredible knowledge about a geographic location that was being mapped remotely — so when Bob Tonkinson was talking to Nangabirdy about this information that he was wanting to collect, they were located 100 kilometres from the place that this drawing was in fact being done. The interesting thing about this early anthropology that was being done around Australia, and anthropology is a relatively recent manifestation of trying to understand Aboriginal culture in Australia, this example here is actually a map that was done even a bit earlier, 1936, by Norman Tindale. It shows, as he calls it very sort of romantically, the Wanderings of Wati Kutjara. It’s basically showing the journey of two creation beings, the two men, the Wati Kutjara, as they wandered around through Ngatatjara territory, and when Norman Tindale collected this map it also was being collected remotely because Norman Tindale was talking to these two Aboriginal men he was getting this information from, from a camp on the Nullarbor Plain. These maps show incredible knowledge of the landscape, they show incredible mapping onto totemic geography, and the way that we can understand the way that Aboriginal people have known this, their landscapes and aspects of that, is how we’re in fact beginning to understand how rock art in fact has functioned in these types of places. So I’m focusing in on a particular range in the Western Desert. We know it as the Dover Hills, it’s been on the maps, on the Canning Stock Route maps, for a very long time as the Dover Hills, but the Martu know it as Jillakurru. It’s a range just to the south of Lake Disappointment. This is the map that in fact Nangabirdy drew for Bob Tonkinson and as you can see it’s been annotated. So Nangabirdy, having drawn the map and given the story to Bob Tonkinson, Bob then wrote down aspects of that drawing, again back in Jigalong. He then published the map in his 1978 book about the Martu, and we were reading this book when we were beginning to record the rock art of the Canning Stock Route. I realised that this map in fact showed all the locations that we were in fact going and finding rock art. Nangabirdy went back to Jillakurru in the 1980s with Peter Veth. Bob Tonkinson in fact didn’t get to Jillakurru until he came out in 2000 I think, so again we’re going back and getting information about this place, that it was remotely recorded, Nangabirdy having been born in this area, and coming out in the 1950s with some drovers. When we did a project on the Canning Stock Route Bob Tonkinson again came out with the Martu and we managed to collect information about this crayon drawing, and the other types of mythological connections that we got from around that part of the country. Here’s a re-drawing of the drawing which is published by Bob Tonkinson. Now when you actually overlap — what am I pointing this at, there we go — if you actually look at the difference between that drawing by Tonkinson and an aerial photo of the Jillakurru ranges with the map-up locations, you can actually see the geographic connection between that earlier map and our more recent recordings. And this I think really gives you a sense of not only that incredible knowledge about landscape but also the iterative nature of rock art in fact recording the details of the Dreaming. In the story that was recorded by these men on the crayon drawing we actually see the different acts that the ancestral beings undertook when they entered the Jillakurru ranges, and we also have geographic features which in fact are taken to be signs of that fact. On the left up here is a range. This is where the two men are said to have climbed a sand dune and unfurled their long beards. As you look at this image you can sort of see an Aboriginal face at the top and this very long beard coming down. This geographical landscape is incredibly important in terms of people actually understanding and seeing what people have done when they’ve got to this part of the desert. And then when you look out across the sand plains you can see where the snake went and where it laid its eggs. And these small mounds of rock out on the claypans are seen as being, again, the natural aspects of that story and the actual recordings of those actions. The other extraordinary thing about this crayon drawing is the fact that it includes figurative images. This is very unusual in early crayon drawings. Most Aboriginal people when they are asked to do a drawing of their Jukurr, or their Dreaming, drew the sorts of images that you see today on contemporary paintings. This however has actually got an actual figurative image of two men, it’s actually literally showing us the two men, and it’s showing us three snakes. Now what’s the significance of that? Well if you actually read Tonkinson’s description about the story of the two men’s actions when they get to the gorge, the two men went to sleep one night, they woke up in the morning, the sun was being blocked by a huge rock, so they split the rock with the weapons they had with them, they then went off and they cut down some trees and actually made some clubs and they went off to hunt. When they came back in the afternoon they found that those three clubs had turned into snakes. Well when you get to this particular place in the gorge, which is recorded by Tonkinson as the place where this action took place, you find the rock that’s been split and you also find three large engravings of very large snakes; the snake here on the left is more than three metres long. Now interestingly when I first was taken to this place in 2000 I looked on the flat rock — which you can see with the arrow — and there are only two rocks there, and I was thinking, oh so this must be one of those times when two doesn’t mean three or three — you know, they’re not being very accurate with their numbers. Anyhow ten years later I went back with another Aboriginal person. I said, ‘So, weren’t there supposed to be three snakes?’ and he said, ‘Oh yeah, there’s the other one’. And there was a rock that had split off and the third snake was in fact on a rock below. So incredibly literal interpretation of the Dreaming on the crayon drawing and in the rock art. The significant thing about this in terms of Tonkinson’s early understandings of rock art and the Martu’s engagement with that is, the Martu believe that engraved art as opposed to pigment art was created by the ancestors. It’s always been there. It’s been left in the landscape by the ancestors so that the Martu could come along later and feel reassured by those things being in the landscape. Interestingly, we get similar imagery of the three snakes and split rocks in various other places, on that journey which is recorded in that crayon drawing. Tipirl spring, which is about 40 kilometres away, a large split rock, three engraved snakes. Pirli rock hole, similarly, three snakes engraved on a rock near a rock hole. And we find pigment rock art at these nodes also of these two men as they’ve travelled through the landscape. Pirli, Pinpi, again. So in this very brief discussion with you today about an object which has great significance to me, not particular great beauty probably to anybody else. I’ve described how this object creates an intersection between crayon drawings and totemic geography, and how that allows us as rock art researchers to actually begin to understand how rock art actually plays a recursive role in understanding the Dreaming. Aboriginal people have used art in a variety of contexts and they continue to use it in a way that allows them to understand and to remember, and to explain and to pass on ritual memory. And so from our point of view that’s an extremely useful piece of objectivity, and this is the sort of object that I think could have been number 101 in this exhibition. [audience laughter]

Jo: Thank you. [audience applause]

Peter: So I’m going to talk about Wanjina, ‘Art of the Wanjina’, as described by Ian Crawford. Wanjina are at the most simple level, cloud spirits, rock art from the Lalai or the Dreaming in the Kimberley. Extraordinarily it’s one of the oldest continuous living traditions practiced in the world, 4,000 years, possibly 6,000, based on some recent dates just released last year. In a sense the chronology’s not totally relevant in the linear sense but it is a very deep and ancient practice. Rock art and specifically Wanjina has a unique ability to tell us and provide windows into Aboriginal peoples’ origin narratives, which are woven in clearly, strongly with their own origin narratives. It provides insights into cosmology which very few other material objects, lithics and so forth, can do and it obviously provides insights into societies in very unique ways, and I’ll try and share some of those today briefly. Wanjina is the most recent art style, as I mentioned, 4,000 years. Incredibly there are at least six or seven or eight earlier phases and styles depending on how you wish to define them, and here just to give you a sense of that I’ve got a map showing earlier dynamic Gwion, previously called ‘Bradshaw figures’, in the Kimberley, which have this northern plateau distribution, a wider static polychrome or multicolour tradition of human forms that continue right through here to the Northern Territory, and then really importantly the Wanjina, the living tradition, the curator tradition, the repainter tradition, covers this large area here which you can see in that dotted line. It’s no coincidence that that particular tradition correlates with the Worrora language family. In other words it’s a language family in a constellation of some 50 languages, which more or less demarcates the practice of Wanjina Wunggurr. The other distributions belong to an earlier time, different climatic and sea level stands, and in fact our current or future project, Kimberley Visions, will look at some of this shared repertoire across the Kimberley to the Northern Territory and, we believe, much of the northern extent of Gwion in fact is now underwater and was part of that original land mass across the Bonaparte Shelf, right through to East Timor, only 100 kilometres short. Another way of looking at that long chronology — or let’s call it an intermediate one, not to be too controversial on the dates that we have — shows Wanjina here. The living tradition and a whole range of other really extraordinary figurative and obviously non-figurative forms back to what we consider to be early markings on rocks, the kind of cupules that Sven mentioned before. And there are hard dates on these coming out now as recently as late last year, between about 20–100,000 years ago. The other thing to remember in the figurative traditions, the Wanjina compression technology, if you like, is that there are many other forms including the depictions of plants. So we have the world’s oldest, we believe, depictions of plants with lilies, yams, staple foods from certainly Gwion and pre-Gwion times which probably dates from the terminal Pleistocene. Here are some examples here. That’s quite an extraordinary record that is just partly an act of serendipity but obviously a reflection of highly complex inscriptions and imbued behaviours from early Aboriginal colonisation. And certainly it’s worth remembering that people mark and create art from the very first time that they map onto country as first peoples, and in Australia that it’s at least 50,000 years ago. Earlier than Eurasia. So how did Europeans see this art? Well, George Grey who became Governor in New Zealand and had various other roles in the 1830s, saw and depicted Wanjina, and here are some images of those hand stencils of the four Wanjina figures you can see on the right in a cave, and of the halo headdress figure. In fact this iconography, these publications, became globally known so that people around the world particularly in the west actually had to question what it was that so-called ‘primitive’ peoples could do in terms of their embladic figurative traditions, it was an anomaly. Grey was a reasonable moderate as opposed to the more flamboyant explorer-narrator Joseph Bradshaw, who saw the — or recorded —the first Gwions, as Agnes Schultz called ‘The Bradshaws’, in the 1890s. Here are some watercolour depictions which are now at UWA, photographed by Sven Ouzman. And here they show from the original sketches the interpretation of these unbelievable figures in what was effectively filtered as classic Phoenician or Egyptian. In other words Bradshaw and many others and still people today can’t believe that these very complex figurative forms showing accoutrements, weapons and so forth, could indeed be associated with the Aboriginal cultures seen at contact, understood through ethno-history, all continuing into the present,. And so the racist notions of a pre-Aboriginal phenomena or culture group in Australia grew partly from these kinds of depictions. ‘Primitive’ peoples were not able to make this art, that was the false argument, but as we know from ethnography and actually working with Aboriginal people, these belief systems are very complex as is obviously their art. These taxonomies of the Wanjina and their sacred and spiritual understandings came from solid anthropological work starting with people like Elkin and others, where they look at things like the Wanjina having lightning headbands, hair, but cosmological elements actually built into their bodies. So they’re not just depictions of these monsoonal rain-bearing regenerative species, they actually represent people, ancestral beings, natural order, regenerative processes, cosmologies and so forth, highly complex. This complexity was also borne out by the act of repainting, so as people like Reverend Love and others started to record acts like the repainting of Namarali right through to the time of Donny Woolagoodja repainting that for the Olympics. It was understood that these paintings were living entities, that they were corporeally related to the people who were custodians, the groups who actually regenerated them, so we know from archaeology and we know from oral testimony that people repainted and overpainted these particular images. There’s one example here, up to 32 times and probably a lot more. And here’s the picture of Donny Woolagoodja repainting that particular image, which was seen in the Sydney Olympics, so an image of Aboriginal identity is seen by a billion people. Donny and his clansmen still paint those paintings today in the West Kimberley, and if you have a chance to go up to that part of the Worroran country you’ll see that practice continuing. Then we had some fairly eccentric linguists like McCaffrey in the 60s come and actually get people to create portable art, invited them to do it on things like wooden dishes, and Kim Ackman and others have recorded this. And the taxonomy of the Wanjina was pushed further. So we actually have snake skin Kaleru or Unguud, the creator Rainbow Serpent built into the Wanjina figure. We have yams depicted in the Wanjina figures. We have lightning, we have a whole range of corporeal human features such as bones, skin and blood shown in the Wanjina. So you’re starting to get a sense of just how complex these depictions are. And then indeed if we look at some of the more detailed anthropology ethnography, which we do as archaeologists, we get records from Helmut Petri talking about the black cockatoo red feathers in the headdresses of the Wanjina figures, and as you can see with the songmen on the right actually in their bodies, the cockatoo speaking, the blood dropping to the ground, the blood turning into red ochre, that red ochre then being mobilised and painted on people’s bodies, and therefore the entire thing becomes this very, very complex story of ochres and paintings off the rocks onto bodies, into the ground, and the creation sagas that make the entire environment. Here’s a picture of Modum the same one that the Frobenius expedition and Elkin recorded before with Sven. Here we can see on the head figure where it’s slightly faded and flaked at least ten or twenty episodes of repainting. These very major figures are well known to people, they’re on the marriage tracks, they’ve become part of the regional ethnography and origin narratives. Mythological significance of Wanjina, they originate from the sky or the sea, they provide marriage partners, they provide templates for your correct behaviour, but you can have an iterative relationship; people dream-travel, they actually speak to Wanjina, they’re given instructions in terms of how they can conduct various activities. Wanjina provides you with correct marriage partners. People, mythological beings of regeneration are linked in this very simple yet highly, highly complex image. They are essential to identity, they’re in the Indigenous Protected Area ranger program, badges on vehicles, on shirts just as sun iconography and rock art is in the South African coat of arms. They are actually central to people’s identity. And of course Wanjina incorporate contact and so here we have these wonderful images from the Kimberley, from Bigge Island, on the top right and the bottom left showing introduced canoes, and the Wanjina have actually got 19th Century rowlocks and oars and they’re smoking pipes. On the left they’ve got the snake, they’re smoking, and they’re also carrying pearlshell. So the point is that Wanjina have the ability to accept change. People curate country, they fire country to protect art. Here we’re coming in by helicopter to look at a particular rock shelter site, and intriguingly and importantly we actually have people like Leah Umbagii as a Worroran descendant, possibly of some of the original TO’s that the Frobenius expedition worked with at those same sites, as an artist depicting and recording that very same art, which has been schematicised and turned back. There she is at the actual Grey site, we went back and relocated that with assistance and it’s being recorded by Leah as a Worroran woman at the very typesite 177 years later. So in a sense I think this provides a beautiful full circle of bringing the Wanjina, which was in a sense was appropriated and contested and used as a representational hot potato or football globally, back to the Kimberley through visitation by traditional owners, through respectful curation, through Mowanjum and other arts centres in the Kimberley, and obviously being recorded and curated by those very same Aboriginal descendants, and of course in collaboration with European researchers. Thank you very much. [audience applause]

If you would like this video to be captioned or transcribed, please email us at onlineservices@museum.wa.gov.au and we will work with you to provide an alternative format as soon as possible.