Aboriginal art is among the oldest in the world. The visual and performing arts of Aboriginal society express the ancient origins of life and the landscape, stretching back into the infinite past, the Dreaming. Like Aboriginal oral history, the visual arts illustrate and record a monumental time span through which the Aboriginal way of life has adapted and changed. Geological changes and seasonal and weather variations over the centuries have affected food, animals, plants and vegetation, and therefore the people's way of life. Aboriginal culture developed in response to the natural environment and sometimes modified it.
In other continents of the world, environmental changes and contact with other cultures led to the spread of new technologies such as pottery and metallurgy. However, Australia was too isolated for such contact to have far-reaching effects on the indigenous people. Instead of developing a sedentary life with refinements such as agriculture, the Aboriginals used their ingenuity in intellectual and religious pursuits, expressed through elaborate art and ceremony. In the temporal sphere, techniques of physical survival were refined by the effective harvesting and use of natural resources. Men became extraordinarily skilled with the spear, the spear thrower and the boomerang: women with nets and fishing lines and in the making of utensils. In the technology of fishing alone, appropriate techniques were developed to suit every situation. Different net were made for river estuaries, tidal waters and the sea coast. Finely honed hooks and barbs were carved for different fish; special poisons were developed for stunning fish or for bringing them to the surface.
Dancer(s) from Aurukun, Cape York
Aboriginal exploitation of natural resources could well have drastically changed not only the Australian environment and vegetation by the use of fire, but may also account for the extinction of many animal species. Populations increased in areas that provided the greatest food resources, particularly the sea coast, rivers and estuaries. Harvesting of fish and game in heavily populated areas was intense. At the very centre of Aboriginal culture is a rich oral mythology expressed in ceremonial life. When Europeans invaded Australia in 1788 about 200 different Aboriginal languages were spoken, each representing a different people, often descended from different creation ancestors or from the same ancestors in different parts of the country.
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There were few general beliefs, though some concepts were common to many tribal groups. Essentially all believe that the creation ancestors entered Australia in the creation time, when the landscape was partly formed. Some, such as the giant serpents, came from beneath the ground; as they moved, they created ridges and valleys and behind them rivers flowed to the sea. Some great ancestors, such as Baiame of the south-eastern people, came from and returned to the sky and others, such as the Djankawu of eastern Arnhem Land, travelled from distant islands across the sea. Creation ancestors caused and still cause climatic changes, the wet and dry seasons, thunder and lightning. Many Aboriginals also believe that the creation ancestors filled and fashioned the cosmos, becoming the sun, moon, stars and planets.
After the creation ancestors appeared, they began their epic journeys across the land. At times they clashed with other creatures and in the resulting cataclysm the landscape itself was formed and changed. Men and women ancestors metamorphosed into stone and rock or created rivers and waterholes. These ancestors held the first ceremonies, sang the first songs and created the designs that have continued into the living present and are painted on the body, on bark and on the ground, as well as carved on weapons.
Aboriginal group with body painting
The relationship of people to their land and to every living creature in it was well defined all over the country. Family relationships and the behaviour of each person to every other were always determined by kinship laws, generally ordained by the actions and decrees of the creation ancestors. Each clan or family grouping 'owned' its tracts of land by virtue of descent from the creation ancestors. Certain people had the duty of guarding sacred sites, visiting and retouching art, conducting ceremonies at special places or clearing unwanted vegetation from sacred rocks and trees. Intellectual life revolved around recalling complex and extensive genealogies and ceremonial songs. The ceremonies enacted the song cycles that described the travels, movements and actions of the ancestral beings at different places, and recalling genealogical information enabled all Aboriginal people to trace their relationships with sometimes distant tribes.
The songs also defined the land owned by the clan. They recounted the stories of the travels made by animal or human ancestors in minute detail and described each place the ancestors visited, thus defining lands and boundaries. Neighbouring groups shared elements of the same mythology, and the songs they owned would extend the journeys of the ancestors across their own land, introducing new totems and describing new events that left their marks on the landscape. The ancestors have remained permanently at the sacred sites and when Aboriginal people visit them, even briefly, they often sing parts of the songs while cleaning or caretaking. This exceptionally strong relationship with the ancestral heroes and with the landscape forms the basis of all Aboriginal art. Dance, song, ceremony and material arts all combine to form a unified whole, a complete artistic network that articulates the landscape and the Dreaming. Traditional Aboriginal culture connects the arts with every feature of religious and daily secular life. At the core of the arts is Aboriginal ceremonial life. Music, dance, song and paintings were each part of the same process of constantly connecting the life of the people with the Dreaming. On special occasions ceremonial life would be heightened. Seasonal changes produced a plentiful supply of food, resulting in a gathering of people and a flowering of ceremony, dance and art. The arts include all facets of human creativity and need for expression, decoration and adornment. In the area of ceremonial art, the graphic arts include body decoration and ornament, paintings on rock and bark, ground designs and sculptures and special emblems of wood, stone, feathers, string or bark that may be regarded as religious sculpture. In daily life, Aboriginal arts include the making of simple personal adornments of clothing, headbands, necklaces and pendants, as well as the carving and incising of utensils and carrying dishes. Mats, bags, mesh nets and dilly bags are spun or woven.
Painting or engraving on rock is the oldest form of Aboriginal creative expression. In Koonalda cave, beneath the Nullarbor Plain in south Australia the earliest known art in Australia has been found. The site is decorated with finger impressions made in the soft limestone walls of deep underground caverns. Archaeologists have provided evidence that the marks were made up to 20,000 years ago, which means that the art is some of the oldest known in the world. Elsewhere in Australia much of the huge body of engraved and painted symbols and images has a time span of at least 10,000 years, and some sites may be almost as old as Koonalda.
Aboriginal bird carving from Arnhem Land
Rock art is predominantly magico-religious. Haunting white or red figures with dislocated limbs or with bodies pierced by spears testify to the ancient practices of malevolent magic. Paintings of animals, kangaroos, fish or turtles ensure a successful hunt, the continual reproduction of the species and a fertile land. Others powerfully evoke the likenesses of spirit ancestors themselves, such as the Wandjina in the Kimberley region or the lightning spirit in the Kakadu national Park. Living people will admit only to retouching the great spirit paintings, never to having created the original images. These came from the ancestors in the Dreaming. Legends and songs tell of places where the ancestors 'put themselves on rock' and where their painted images are their very spirits.
Legends recount that sacred objects and designs were either brought with the creation ancestors or made and painted by them and taught to their descendants. In either case, it was through the ancestors that these designs were handed down through the generations. In desert areas the exact nature of this exchange is a closely kept sacred secret, forming the core of the religious life of the older, fully initiated people; in other areas some 'outside' details have been disclosed about the nature and meaning of the designs. This limited exposure of religious belief and constant only serves to indicate the true complexity of Aboriginal religion and the symbolic art that expresses it.
SYMBOLISM IN ABORIGINAL ART
All Aboriginal art is symbolic; much of it is geometric or non-figurative. Symbolic art is featured in body designs, carved trees, ground drawings, many rock engravings and paintings, bark paintings and designs on message sticks, boomerangs, and sacred objects. Representational art showing human and animal forms exists beside abstract symbols. Essentially, the symbols can be used for a number of purposes, and members of other groups understand them in varying degrees. For example, the Walbiri-Pintubi create magnificent ground designs from plant down, ochre and clay. These are patterns showing the land, as well as events of the creation era.
The circles in the above art from Papunya symbolise camping sites and sacred areas.
A range of symbols are used, including arcs, concentric circles, circles, bars, dots and wavy lines. The meanings of the symbols vary in every painting, depending on the site shown, the religious inferences, the degree of information the authors have been allowed to convey (their ritual status) and the status of the intended audience. In a sense, some of the symbols can be used like an alphabet, but when put together they cerate a meaning that is totally accessible only to the creators and their immediate group. Even related clans or language groups may guess at the meanings of the juxtaposition of arcs, circles and dots, but without 'inside' knowledge of the related mythology and ceremonial information they cannot be sure of giving an interpretation that will fully coincide with the intentions of the artists.
When the symbols are used together to form the ground plan of a design, they map the landscape, showing special features with important mythological relevance to the subject matter depicted. They also tell 'stories'. The symbols, whether running feet, patterns of flowing water or fire symbols, indicate events that occurred in that landscape. For the artists - the guardians of the landscape depicted - the paintings embody their own spiritual presence. men trace the tracks and circles and sing the songs in the process of creating the designs. Thus reproducing the designs becomes a religious act, a reaffirmation of belief in the creation ancestors and the absorption of some of their essential power. Arnhem Land painting has a symbolic visual language distinctly different from that of other areas. In eastern Arnhem Land, each clan owns a wide range of patterns and designs that signify areas of land, natural features or specific objects.
A carrying dish showing women seated at three different sites
Representational figures of men, animals, fish and plants are incorporated into the art, but a full interpretation depends on the patterns and designs used in relation to the figure. For example, a turtle design painted by a young man may show the turtle swimming, with little decoration on his back and some lines flowing from his legs to indicate running water or movement. a more senior artist may include a pattern on the turtle's back, specifically denoting reeds from a special site, and another artist may show other areas of pattern around the figures, denoting the place from which the turtle has travelled and suggesting events of the creation era. Only the senior artist is permitted to paint the 'full' story, with, for example, the image of a great creation hero, Barama, in the centre, the turtles on either side and the body designs that denote this Dreaming painted on the figure.
Information is contained in the shapes of animate and inanimate objects, in the patterns painted on these, in colours used and in the superimposition of different colours in the cross-hatching. Additional information may also be conveyed in major paintings through the plan or layout of the design as it relates to the actual features of an area of land. Thus a story about the arrival of ancestors from the sea, their actions on the beaches and their travels past waterholes into the bush beyond may be painted in geographical sections: sea, sand, and bush. Interpreting the paintings is much easier if the associated mythology is known. Symbolic markings occur all over Australia. Body decorations follow ancient prescribed patterns symbolising the totemic ancestors, weapons are carved with geometric patterns that symbolise the ownership of specific land tracts and grave markers or coffins are painted or carved with designs that have specific meaning to the deceased.
The giant carved trees, or dendroglyphs, of the south-east were made to mark initiation grounds and burial sites. The patterns of spirals, lozenges and zigzags denote territorial ownership. Ceremonies and trading visits between Aboriginal tribes were announced by messengers sent from one to the other. So that the messengers would be received at their destinations and would pass unmolested through strange country, they were given message sticks, which were sticks incised with symbols and patterns. The patterns not only indentified the carrier by symbolising his territory, but, in some instances, they conveyed the message itself.
Aboriginal bark painting of an emu and snake from Arnhem Land
Symbols and signs continue to be part of traditional Aboriginal communication . Stones are left in patterns to signify the shifting of camp; marks are made on trees to denote the place at which a man died and patterns of tracks, circles and lines are drawn in the sand as an aid to conversation and storytelling.
REGIONAL VARIATIONS IN CULTURAL EXPRESSION
Throughout Australia, Aboriginal people expressed their relationships to their ancestral spirits and their lands in differing forms. Song, dance and ceremony spread and changed from group to group and aspects of ritual were shared and traded. With the sharing of ritual went diffusion of design, body decoration and technique, and in the secular sphere, changes in weapon and utensil technology. The culture of any one tribal group has therefore never been static; it has continually absorbed influences and adapted to environmental and social change. At the time of European invasion in 1788, for example, some groups used spar throwers, whereas others held spears in the hand; the giant carved trees of the south-east were found nowhere else; the desert peoples were enacting their totemic ancestral dreamings covered in down and ochre; and the people of the south-east spoke of Biame and made earthen bora ceremonial grounds. Over the centuries, the coastal people of the 'top end' had most contact with outsiders, and their culture differed strongly from that of the desert people and the people who occupied the river valleys of the south-east. yet with these differences - in religion, language and the visual arts - there were essential similarities that still bind Aboriginal Australians together. There is a close affinity to the land and its features, to the spirits of the creation ancestors and in all communities there is a strong reluctance or total taboo about speaking of the deceased for fear of a pervading contact with their spirits. In most tribes, these two areas of belief gave rise to the fullest flowering of the visual arts: religious ceremonies of the Dreaming connected to the creation ancestors and mortuary rituals designed to send the spirit of the deceased to its final resting place.
When the European settlement of Melbourne was first established, the Murray River area was well populated. Tribal areas were well defined. The southern peoples, like those of the north, guarded their territory carefully. Well-worn routes crossed the countryside, marking paths followed when visiting other peoples to arrange marriages, inviting people to ceremonies or making economic exchanges. Trespassing on lands or misuse of these routes led to battle, as did 'women trouble' and other transgressions.
Food, particularly fish and birds, was most plentiful along river estuaries. Here the people camped on high ground, overlooking the valleys and plains that formed their hunting grounds. Shell middens or deposits of food debris and remains of centuries-old campfires are scattered throughout the countryside close to sheltered sandy areas which were favoured as campsites.
when the European settlement of Melbourne was first established, the Murray River area was well populated. Tribal areas were well defined. The southern peoples, like those of the north, guarded their territory carefully. Well-worn routes crossed the countryside, marking paths followed when visiting other peoples to arrange marriages, inviting people to ceremonies or making economic exchanges. Trespassing on lands or misuse of these routes led to battle, as did 'women trouble' and other transgressions. Much of the tribal art that remains from these areas is embodied in the men's weapons; the clubs, boomerangs, spears and shields. Like the abstract designs from Arnhem Land or symbols from central Australia, many of the patterns on these weapons represent the country and the special sites belonging to the maker or the original owner. The design on one club in the collection of the Museum of Victoria has been interpreted as being a lagoon and a tributary of the Broken River in north-eastern Victoria, the space between two curved patterns being the country owned by the man concerned. The weapons made throughout the south-east of Australia were actively used until perhaps the turn of this century. Warfare or fighting between Aboriginal groups was real, though sometimes it took the form of ritualised displays of aggression with few fatal or debilitating results.
The last great battle between Aboriginal tribes in Victoria occurred in Gippsland in 1856-7. The fight - between the Omeo people and the Kurnai -began because of an inappropriate marriage between a Kurnai woman and an Omeo man. The two tribes had been hostile, but European intervention had forced contact between them, resulting in the marriage. The undercurrent of tension needed only an excuse to erupt into violence, and it came when the man mistreated his wife. The Kurnai woman's relatives took revenge. The battle, waged with a combination of Aboriginal weapons and European guns, was protracted and took place in stages, each one revenging previous offences. At one point, people from a wide grouping of tribes were involved, each group calling on relatives for help. The battles ended at Bushy Creek in 1857, with great loss of life on both sides.
The beautiful and deadly weapons were also employed to great effect against the white man who transgressed the natural codes of Aboriginals; those dealing with land boundaries, sacred sites and behaviour towards women. Although heavy, deadly and deftly wielded, the wooden weapons eventually proved no match for guns and steel, and many massacres occurred. These conflicts, as well as diseases and the destruction of natural habitats of traditionally hunted animals through pastoral activities, decimated the Aboriginal population very quickly indeed. The exquisite carved patterns on the weapons greatly impressed the European invaders, and the patterns on those they collected provide the only evidence of the wide-ranging symbolic arts of the south-eastern people. More ephemeral art objects (Body ornaments or sacred objects) were usually kept hidden from the white invaders' eyes or destroyed after use. Only a handful of objects associated with Aboriginal ceremony in south-eastern Australia survive in the collections of the world. Unlike the peoples of the centre and north, southern Aboriginals had to cope with extreme cold in winter. Most wore possum skin cloaks and wraps, often with the fur on the inside. Possum fur was also used to make fluffy headbands and the skins were used for water containers. The interior of the cloaks provided a soft surface on which designs were scratched and painted. These lovely works were fragile in the extreme and all have disappeared, except two or three in collections. One, an extremely valuable testament to the first and most ancient clothing art of Aboriginal Australians, is now in the Museum of Victoria, too fragile to travel and rarely shown to the public.
The pattern on the cloaks is divided into many vertical and horizontal rectangles, each containing an autonomous symbolic design which might have accurately reflected the artist's own mental picture of his land. The cloaks might also have denoted individual status. There may be a link between the distinct curvilinear patterns on the cloaks and body scar decorations. However, little can be established, as few records remain of the patterns, meaning and distribution of either form of design. The most important ceremony in any tribal community was the initiation ritual known as the bora. Initiation ceremonies and the associated arts celebrated the great all-father spirit, Baiame, who, with Dhurramulan his son (known as Bunjil in Victoria), were the central figures in Aboriginal mythology. The rituals were conducted by large gatherings of the tribes, and for the event a large earth mound was made. These mounds ranged from long bands of patterns to simple circles of raised earth. Man-made patterns and circles of loose stones were also included in the ceremonial practice.
According to Aboriginal mythology, Baiame created the first bora. He is given much of the credit for shaping the world and for giving the laws of life to the people. He is a sky spirit hero who was on earth for a time in the creation era but who returned to the sky. (His voice or that of Dhurramulan his son is heard through the mouth of the bullroarer, the sacred whirling object heard in the bush at the initiation ceremonies.) Eventually the spirit of Dhurramulan entered different trees, in which he still lives except when initiation ceremonies are going on. A piece of wood cut from a tree will make a bullroarer, which may also be called Dhurramulan, as the humming sound represents his voice. He likes to live in the large irregular protuberances characteristic of many eucalypt trees, and old men say that the upper sides of these protuberances have been worn smooth by him. Like many other mythical heroes, he can change his shape from the size of a little bird to that of a giant. A few bora rings remain as overgrown humps of earth close to dendroglyphs. These sites are very special to Aboriginal people today, as they provide tangible evidence of their ancestors' spiritual activities. Although dendroglyphs were made along the coast in central New South Wales and in the Dividing Range as far south as the Victorian border, they were mot frequently seen on the north coast in the Kempsey and Forster areas.
Dendroglyphs were used to mark the graves of important men and in connection with initiations. When such men were buried, several trees near the graveside wee carved with symbolic designs; the cuts were made through the outer bark to the inner layers of the trunk. Being so deeply etched, the designs became part of the tree, remaining long after the tree etched, the designs became part of the tree, remaining long after the tree itself had died. Not many of these works survive today in their original locations, though some have been preserved in the Australian Museum. Their symbolism and their precise meaning, however, are obscure. The available information is being gathered and preserved by the descendants of these artists in the form of verbal records obtained from old men who remember trees being carved when they were children. The thousands of rock engravings of the Sydney-Hawkesbury district remain the most tangible evidence of Aboriginal artistic activities along the New South Wales coast. These include isolated images of animals or abstract shapes and whole galleries of flat rock outcrops covered with animals, fish, bird and animal tracks, and marks. Huge ancestor figures appear at the most important places; a site upon which these are combined with other designs leading to and from an exposed flat area is most likely to have been a ceremonial site. Aboriginals once occupied all parts of New South Wales; the sea coast, rivers, hills and valleys, the mountains, the open plains and the dry interior.
Large groups of people assembled at different sites along the coast to take advantage of seasonal resources. The oral history of surviving Aboriginal groups and the diary records of early white colonists mention great gatherings and feasts and archaeological excavations have corroborated these. At one site at Durras North on the south coast of New South Wales, great quantities of mutton bird bones were found; the birds were harvested on their annual southern migration. At Wombah at the mouth of the Clarence River on the north coast were large quantities of oyster shells. In fact, most references to tribal gatherings in the northern coastal riverine areas set the numbers at between 200 and 300, who occasionally met in one place and at other times travelled in smaller groups along the coast and river streams. Along the Murray River the pattern appears to have been the same, with families splitting into groups of young men going through or preparing for initiation, large groups of men, women and many children and other groups of a single family unit consisting of husband, several wives and their children.
The fertility of the northern coast made these gatherings practical, and the area is still lush; the sea and river network provided ample fish, whilst the rainforest areas yielded small animals, wild fruit and vegetables, including yams and macadamia nuts. Kangaroos were hunted on the open slopes. One of the early European settlers remarked that the young men were very muscular and athletic, some weighing up to fourteen stone (eighty-nine kilograms). The climate, food supply and general environment obviously accounted for the good health of the people. And in other areas, men and women both collected the food. As well as kangaroos, wallabies and possums, the men hunted koala bears, echidnas and flying foxes, the birds caught and eaten included ducks, swans and scrub turkeys. To catch the birds large fibre nets were spread between trees. One report described these nets as being up to 800 metres long. The net was strung up in a semicircle and many men and women drove the birds and animals into it. There they were trapped, caught and beaten with clubs. This technique was often used when substantial amounts of food were needed before large ceremonial gatherings. When individual hunters went after kangaroos or birds, the weapons' elegant design, combined with skills learned from childhood, were highly effective. Kangaroos were run down until they tired and could be speared, while birds were knocked from trees by boomerangs, sometimes from almost thirty metres away. Womerahs and pronged or tipped spears were not used in the Tweed and Richmond River areas. Instead the men used a single straight spear which they threw direct with accuracy and skill.
Most of the wooden implements they used - spears, boomerangs, digging sticks and clubs - were made from hardwood. However, the shields could be made from the green wood of a spongy tree and were elaborately decorated when dried and carved. Women made bags and nets from bark which was soaked and chewed, then spun on the thigh into string. Containers for water were also made from the hollowed-out whorls of gum trees and from the leaves of the bangalow palm, which were bent into containers. No description of the Tweed-Richmond people would be complete without commentary on the bunya festivals. Every three years, many people travelled north into what is now Queensland to the mountains behind Moreton Bay where grew the bunya trees (Araucaria bidwilli). The trees bore edible fruit that looked like pine cones, and in the right years invitations were sent to neighbouring people to gather for a feast. The nuts are about 3.8 centimeters long, thick, very sweet and nourishing. The north coast people have strenuously held on to their cultural identity; some elders still speak the Bandjalung language, which is being revived and taught to the young.
Groups were generally drawn together for ceremonial purposes and it is more than likely that the ceremonies were arranged to coincide with seasonal food supplies. All over Australia the blossoming of certain trees or flowers heralded the movements of animal species, the spawning of fish or other changes in food resources. Small groups of people gathered together their belongings and moved to a predetermined site for ceremony and feasting. Initiation ceremonies and the associated bora grounds formed the core of ritual life, but little evidence remains to show the extent of the magnificent body art that must have been such a closely guarded secret of the Aboriginal tribes during the early stages of European contact. Some early drawings, paintings and lithographs show something of the early European view but we can only imagine the context and extent of this and other ephemeral arts. The higher ridges and mountainous areas that separate the coastal plains formed the tribal lands of different and unrelated groups, but the techniques of Aboriginal adaptation and survival in these cold and inhospitable regions are worth noting. The uplands may be divided into three regions: the Southern Highlands, often snowbound for part of the year, the Blue Mountains, and the New England Ranges. Most of these areas reach altitudes up to 2200 metres. Skin cloaks kept the people from the extremes of the climate, and housing occupied choice sheltered spots.
Carved trees were much less common in the south than the north, but ceremonial life was celebrated with rich rock art, particularly in the New England area. Rock carvings from this area feature red human figures, bird tracks, reptiles and circles. To the west, the Darling River formed a natural boundary separating the lifestyles and economy of the arid centre of the continent and the more heavily populated river regions of central New South Wales.
The differences in rock art and material culture between groups west of the Darling River and the Wiradjeri to the east reflect religious differences. In central Australia, the ceremonies re-enact the travels and deeds of ancestors from the totemic past who emerged from the ground and who now live on or in it; the eastern religious beliefs concerned the creative beings from the sky, including the all-father Baiame. Carved trees and rock paintings cease at the Darling. West of the river, rock engravings of circles and animal tracks occur near waterholes, as they do in Queensland and in central Australia. The rainfall in western New South Wales is unpredictable and long droughts are common. After enough rain to make the river overflow, normally dry creeks that drain the surrounding plains run, stimulating growth and food supply. In times of plenty, Aboriginal groups gathered every fifty kilometres or so along the river and would fish and hunt in groups, using large nets and fish traps that needed to be operated by many people. Fishing and game nets could be up to 100 metres long, and fish traps made from stones, an example of which is still at Brewarrina, caught many fish as the waters flowed from river estuaries.
A feature of food collection that reflected the changing vegetation in the west was the widespread harvesting of grass seeds which were then winnowed, ground into flour and baked as bread or damper in the ashes of the fire. When Thomas Mitchell explored along the Darling River in 1835, the scene reminded him of a hayfield; the grasses had been harvested and stacked into hayricks extending for miles. Women used large grinding stones to grind the seeds and many of these remained behind at camp when the time came to leave the grassfields and to travel to another source of food. Until recently, the grinding stones remained scattered around the country as evidence of past campsites and Aboriginal presence in the deserted landscape. One man who spent his boyhood with the Ngemba people (whose territory was the central Darling River in western New South Wales) has commented that in this area the women harvested grass seed and other seeds of white wood, mulga and acacias to make bread. They gathered seed on the way back to camp after a morning's hunting.
The same commentator has also described techniques of hunting emus and catching ducks in the area. emus were brought close to the hunter by a decoy horn made from a piece of hollow coolibah tree (Eucalyptus microtheca) rubbed down with stone until it was about as thick as heavy cardboard. One end was almost stopped up with beefwood gum, though a circular hole was left. By blowing across this hole, the hunter made sound that attracted emus from anywhere within hearing distance. A large cord net set up like a triangular palisade was sued to catch the birds, which were driven into it by a small party of hunters and beaten with clubs. On the plains, the ever-curious emus were enticed close to a hunter who lay on his back, waving his legs in the air. Wild ducks were meshed by a net suspended across a narrow portion of the waterway at dusk. By imitating the whistling eaglehawk and adroitly using a returning boomerang, the hunter ensured that the ducks flew into the net, where they were captured.
Aboriginal relics in New South Wales now comprise natural sites of known significance to Aboriginal people; ceremonial sites, historical places, rock engravings and paintings and carved trees. Few carved trees are now left standing and some that remain have had the design partially or completely covered by the regrowth of the surrounding bark. The 'portable' artwork showing the elaborate pattern vocabulary are housed in museums, striking reminders of a highly developed aesthetic sense that has been used to great effect on elegant weapons. In the lands of which Adelaide is now situated, the Kaurna people once lived. To judge from early accounts, the Kaurna had a lifestyle similar to that of other south-eastern coastal peoples, feasting on fish, birds and game during the summer months and retreating inland in the winter. They fished along the coast in groups, with several men holding long nets in a semicircle and dragging them to shore with the trapped fish inside. The Kaurna have left their most striking art legacy in their weapons, particularly their painted and decorated shields, some of which are in the South Australian Museum. The shields are of two types, one made from the red gum, the other from bark. Both were incised or painted or smeared with ochre. Beautiful but deadly clubs were also made. Wirris, made from acacia wood with the root forming the knob, were hardened by fire and decorated with grooved patterns. The use of natural fibres reached a high level of skill in the part of Australia which includes the Coorong area at the mouth of the Murray River. Here the lakes and water catchments have created a wilderness that supported fish and game all year round, and mesh nets were used for hunting and fishing. Round coiled rush mats were made by the Kaurna and used as ground mats, cloaks and support for children on the mother's back.
Body ornaments and decorations were made and used here as elsewhere. Men wore bone and reed nosepieces, often decorated with bird feathers, through pierced nasal septums. Literature and early sketches have described ceremonies in which elaborate hair and fur string constructions topped with feathers and mounted on sticks were carried and worn by dancers who were decorated with designs in ochre. The art heritage of the people in this area is precious and deserves recognition and respect.
In Cape York, Torres Strait Islanders have continued sea contact over the centuries so that some songs and dances are known to both cultures. Today, Torres Strait Islanders are present in most Aboriginal settlements and communities in the Cape and many have married Aboriginals. Their culture remains distinct and very different from that of mainland Australia and Papua, though each area has interconnected mythology. From Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria to Bamaga on the tip of Cape York and right up the west coast, people sing and praise the ancestral hero, Chivaree.
Chivaree the seagull man paddled his canoe from the Torres Strait Islands down the coast of western Cape York and then back up the coast to near Mapoon. He was camped with his brother Ee-all and they were making dances, beating drums made from hollow logs. Ee-all made a headdress of cockatoo feathers and danced the cockatoo dance.
After some time, Chivaree left his brother and went to Mapoon, where he made a big camp at Janie Creek. He made a paddle there for his canoe out of a big mangrove tree. Then he looked at the daughters of Nyungaoo, the pigeon, and wanted them as his wives. Despite Nyungoo, who was against the marriage, Chivaree stole the two women and pushed off in his canoe. As he pushed his paddle in the mud it stuck there and now it marks a freshwater well at Janie Creek. The canoe, however, moved by itself and travelled north to the island of Badu. ON the way, one of the pigeon women complained of a sore breast and Chivaree put her ashore. She remains abandoned there today as a rock near Verillion Point, and as the tide washes over her she cries salt tears.
In the Torres Strait Islands, Chivaree continued his travels, creating waterholes and having many adventures.
Chivaree was finally killed in a great fight in the Torres Strait Islands and bent trees mark the place. White cockatoo feathers, as were made by Chivaree and his brother, are worn in headdresses for dances throughout the area.
In Cape York, a drum is also made in a form unknown elsewhere in Australia, and it is thought that this reflects Torres Strait Islands cultural influence. Around Aurukun and Edward River, a unique form of ceremonial carving is practised. The ancestral heroes are carved in their animal forms in soft light wood and painted with strong ochre colours. These carvings form an integral part of totemic dances and they include crocodiles, fish totems, dogs, birds and human effigies. Masks have also been used in Cape York ceremonial dancing. The Cape York peoples developed distinctive aspects of material culture, including spear throwers, which had fine handles made from bailer shell, stingray-barb-tipped spears, and deftly made baskets and bags, which are still made with pride in the communities of Aurukun and Weipa. The fibre arts of this area continue to exhibit a full repertoire of patterns and techniques in the twined and knotted bags and fishing nets.
The high-rainfall areas of north-east Queensland broadly extend from Cooktown to Townsville and inland to the mountain ranges. This is a rainforest area which was fully occupied by Aboriginal people until very recently. Some aspects of these people's culture have remained obscure and little understood compared to the better-known picture of Aboriginal culture drawn from the people of the open plains or the sea and river areas. In general, rainforests had minimal resources of animal protein; the Aboriginal diet in these areas consisted mainly of vegetables. Many of the artefacts were therefore developed for processing plant products. The people developed stones and hammers for cracking the numerous varieties of hard nut, the kernels of which were processed if necessary by roasting and leaching in water to remove toxic substances. One stone, the morah, was a flat oval slate with transverse grooves cut into the stone. Nuts were broken on this, the grooves helping to secure them, so that they did not roll off on impact; they were also ground on the morah. These stones were often decorated. The most common nuts were the black walnut (Endiandra palmerstonii), or the yellow walnut.
Finely finished cane baskets of various sizes but similar shapes were constructed with supple lawyer cane. Fish traps were made from the same material. They took the form of long, pointed cylinders set in shallow streams. From the inner bark of the fig tree, a strong, heavy twine was made with which turkey nets were constructed. These were stretched over cane hoops that were set over turkey tracks. The nets were baited with fruit and the turkeys were called to the spot by the women. As well as supplying nuts, fruits and seeds, tall rainforest trees yielded some animal protein in the form of possums and snakes. The people cut niches in the tall trunks and climbed to the very tops where they caught the snakes in the tree ferns or raided native bee nests for their honey. The notable weapons of these people included rainforest shields and long wooden swords or clubs. The shields are the only ones of this type found in Australia, the soft wood and strong plaited designs making them immediately recognisable. Walter Roth has described the making of these shields in the Tully River area. The wood was obtained from the buttress of the lower trunk of the native fig tree. The shape of the shield followed the curve of the wood; this accounts for the irregular kidney shape of many examples. The fully decorated shields had handles on the back. They were used in defence against clubs and wooden 'swords'. The swords could be used with one or both hands. To make them, slabs were taken from the tree, split down the centre and chipped into shape. The handles were bound with fibre twine and covered in beeswax. The swords were either naturally straight or slightly curved and could be up to 1.5 metres long. They were formed with one or two cutting edges.
The rainforests have dwindled in area, much of the lowlands having been cleared for sugar cane and maize growing. The people who once lived throughout the district have mainly dispersed to farms and reserves. Beyond the rainforests and in the Laura-Cooktown area in the southern interior of Cape York lies one of the richest bodies of rock art in the world. Some paintings are tens of thousands of years old. Others date to within the time span encompassed by European presence. They include large humans, animals, fish, birds and reptiles and the most recent examples include horses, pigs and men with guns. There are also rock engravings that have been dated to at least 13,000 years ago and consist exclusively of bird tracks, circles, geometric shapes and meandering lines. Later engravings include humans, weapons and fish, as well as purely geometric motifs.
In western Arnhem Land, along the ridges and rock outcrops and beside plunging gorges, large tracts of land house magnificent rock galleries that date to near-prehistoric times. The walls and ceilings of overhanging shelters display brilliantly coloured paintings in a wide variety of styles. Designs range from simple animal tracks and hand and weapon stencils to detailed images of powerful ancestor heroes associated with the formation of the landscape. Some of these sites were retouched and maintained by their guardians until relatively recently. It has been postulated that the most ancient art consists of abstract and symbolic circles and straight and meandering lines. Then came the painted red monochrome stick figures, known as Mimis in Arnhem Land and Bradshaw figures in the Kimberley area of Western Australia. The most recent paintings are those of people, spirit figures, x-ray animals and other multicolorued, fully formed images.
In western Arnhem Land, Aboriginal artists paint exclusively on bark. Cave and rock painting have ceased to be practised and the last known painting was done in 1963 by the old artist, Mandarg, who still lives and makes bark paintings on an outstation near Maningrida. Ceremony and religion are closely guarded possessions of the older men among the Gunwinggu and Maialli, the largest tribal groups. Earlier this century anthropologists were able to collect details of sacred ceremonies and rites and to publish these in learned articles, but in recent years the people have placed an embargo on continued release and discussion of their sacred lore, even by anthropologists. Because the wishes of the guardians of traditional values must be respected and their beliefs protected, the art of this area can be explained only at a very elementary level. The Rainbow Serpent, for example, figures largely in the religious life of the people. It once travelled over the land making rivers, settling in remote waterholes where it waits to trap the unwary and the transgressors against tribal rules. Bark paintings frequently celebrate the power and ferocious awe that the Rainbow Serpent inspires, whilst subtle additions suggest other features of the mythology. Maraian or sacred ceremonies celebrate Kunapipi, the earth mother. The ubar drum is beaten at another sacred ceremonial series, and dances performed at these ceremonies often mime birds, animals and past events.
Looking at the rugged escarpment of Arnhem Land, only sixty-one metres up in a small plane, one can easily understand the widespread belief in evil, supernatural spirits that dwell in the remote reaches. These have been given different names such as Nyol-nyol or Namorodo and each lives at a particular site. Paintings of these frequently show grotesque features, the wildest products of human imagination. Other spirits, such as the Mimis, are mildly benevolent and are therefore shown as inoffensive and attractive. These small creatures inhabit the sandstone escarpments near the Liverpool river; one man, Guningbal, caves and paints them exclusively. Other artists have shown Mimis in action, hunting kangaroos, travelling in family groups or having other adventures. The best bark paintings of Mimis come close to the ancient rock art that shows them in elegant red line drawings, their bodies leaping and twisting with great energy. Women of western Arnhem Land, in common with others in the east, have retained most of their ancient fibre craft skills. The need for containers has not diminished, and traditional receptacles, single fibre baskets, string bags and conical-shaped dilly bags are made for personal use as well as for sale, even though other vessels can be easily obtained. These bags and containers are made from hand-spun bark twine or woven pandanus fibre, dyed and decorated with feathers and ochre. On the other hand, traditional weapons are infrequently made, the gun having usurped the role of the spear in hunting birds and game, although the fishing spear is still the weapon of choice. Weapons in use are seldom decorated, although of necessity they are elegantly made, strong and reliable. The core of art tradition remains ceremonial body painting, regalia for sacred dances, carvings and paintings on bark.
In eastern Arnhem Land the Aboriginal people collectively call themselves Yulngu, which translates simply as 'the people'. The term adopted for outsiders is balanda, an Indonesian word taken from the Macassan fishermen who made visits to the Arnhem Land coast for four centuries, collecting and processing trepang, the sea slug prized in Chinese cooking. The rocky escarpment that houses a multitude of rock paintings falls away abruptly in the centre of Arnhem Land and there are few large rocky outcrops in the east. There is therefore no tradition of rock engraving or painting among the north-eastern Yulngu. In eastern Arnhem Land, Yulngu ceremonies provide an opportunity to fully explore the range of art techniques and to express the relationship of the people to their Dreaming ancestors through such diverse media as sand patterns, painted or carved memorial posts, the wearing and use of feathered string and regalia in dance and the painting of ancestral clan designs on bodies of dancers and on the lids of coffins.
Paintings or designs are the central elements of Yulngu arts - the designs are sets of religious patterns and symbols owned by a clan. The designs express that clan's descent from the ancestral heroes who created their land, and because of this, some have compared them to title deeds. There are also strict rules about who can paint the designs, the context in which they can be produced and, in the case of some sacred objects, who is permitted to see them. At a ceremony in north-eastern Arnhem Land, a visitor close to a Yulngu family may be privileged to see one of the clan's ceremonies, perhaps a mortuary ceremony or the public side of an initiation. In many cases, photographs have been taken with the permission of the participants, though, when the pictures are reproduced, the people have been outraged and hurt. This reaction highlights a most sensitive issue: the objects, dances and designs may be displayed in certain contexts only. The authority to reproduce paintings and objects, whether through art works or photographs, is closely guarded.
In common with all Aboriginal art, the designs express the Dreaming and give visual presence to all aspects of Aboriginal history, including the oral legends, the song cycles and the great stories that tell the saga of the formation of the land and the creation of life by the ancestral beings. In north-eastern Arnhem Land, these creation ancestors include Djankawu and his sisters Barama and Laintjung, Wuradidi, Nyapilingu, the Wawilak sisters, Djambuwal the thunder man and many more. After the main work of creation had been finished, when the rivers, waterholes, trees, rocks, people into a state of rest in the landscape, often remaining in special rocks or trees. They can still act to influence life; ceremonial songs and dances and the painting of sacred designs bring the living into contact with the ancestors again.
At death, mortuary ceremonies reaffirm membership of the clan. Songs and dances send the spirits of the dead on a journey to the land of the spirits. In eastern Arnhem Land, the spirits of the dead, known as mokoy, can remain and cause trouble to the living, even killing them. These mokoy can take the physical forms of living animals such as the wild buffalo. During funeral ceremonies, dancers coat their bodies with white clay to prevent pollution from the dead, which in turn could cause their own sickness and death. The body of the dece3ased is carefully painted with the ancestral designs of his clan; if a coffin is used, its lid may be painted instead, often on the inside. The designs guide the spirit to its resting place by representing the country where the spirit must go. As they do in western Arnhem Land, women actively contribute to the material welfare of the family by making a range of traditional fibre bags and nets, particularly pandanus dilly bags and hand-spun fibre mesh bags. Magnificent feathered string creations feature in many ceremonies. One of the most important ritual items is the feathered dilly bag. Made of tightly twined pandanus interwoven with white and orange feathers, and having long strings of feathers hanging from the rim, dilly bags are held or worn by initiates and hung in trees during ceremonial preparation. They symbolise the stored power from the ancestors. In mythology and song cycles, stories tell that the women once stored the sacred objects in their feathered bags, but the men stole them.
Although all Yulngu art has a religious basis, not all is made for ceremonial purposes. Fibre and net bags are made for everyday use, although their origins lie in the teachings of the ancestors. Relatively new forms of art have appeared in the carving of birds, crocodiles, goannas and other figures, and the making of the long 'Macassan' pipes that are now preferred by Aboriginal people all over Arnhem Land. The Macassans left not only their pipes and a smattering of their language, but also some influence in design. Some of the old artists, now deceased, maintained that the Macassans wore beautiful cloth which they traded with Aboriginals. The sarongs had geometric prints and the triangles and diamond patterns on some carved figures may be Indonesian-influenced. The women work to provide additional income for their families by carving and decorating their totemic animals. The surfaces of these softwood cavings are finely gouged in the manner of wood blocks; the surfaces are then painted in natural ochres.
Throughout Arnhem Land, strong forces may affect the art in the future. At Gove, one company has been mining bauxite for over ten years and a large township is well established, and at Elcho Island the fundamentalist Christian religious beliefs of some influential Yulngu have tended to weaken the traditional ceremonies. Without casting judgement on the changes in art that have resulted, it is fair to say that the Yulngu are certainly entering a transitional phase. Many wish to retain and strengthen traditional values; others want mining, royalties and material 'progress'. The future will often be determined by the outcome of struggles within communities whose members hold these opposing views. There is little doubt, however, that Aboriginal artists will continue to freely express their beliefs and values through their own distinctive arts.
The reasons for these differences become obvious when it is understood that the Tiwi believed the mainland to be the home of spirits of the dead, and the mainland people spoke of the Tiwi as violent and aggressive enemies. This isolation ended when Europeans first came to the islands in the nineteenth century. A British garrison was established on Melville Island from 1825 to 1829. During that time, no contact was observed between the people of the islands and the mainland, although this came with increased European involvement in the area at the beginning of the twentieth century. A further reason for the isolation was that the Tiwi used bark canoes as water craft. Although the distances are small, the currents through the twenty-four-kilometre channel are rapid and dangerous. The journey was possible in such canoes, though inadvisable. Most of the Tiwi arts are connected with the pukumani ceremonies. Pukumani is the term given to the ceremonies performed after a death, including the actual burial, as well as later dancing and erection of carved and decorated poles. It is also the term used to denote the taboo associated with the close kin and all the belongings of the deceased. They remain in a state of pukumani. The name of the deceased cannot be spoken; this practice extends strongly into present-day life, so that if a person who dies has a european name such as John, all other Johns in the community, or visitors, must be called by an alternative name until the pukumani interval has expired. Tiwi language names are carefully chosen to guard against this possibility.
The body is elaborately painted with geometric designs and decorations of cockatoo feather hair ornaments; bark and cane armbands and false beards are added. Dancers use ceremonial, larger than life carved and painted wooden spears with multiple flanges; a single-sided spear is known as the male spear, a double-sided is the female. The decoration of the bodies and performances of dances and songs during the pukumani ceremonies have their origins in the decree and actions of a great ancestor figure in Tiwi mythology, Purukapali. Purukapali ordered that all people make poles, dance, sing and conduct this ceremony after the death of his young child. A Catholic mission has been established on Bathurst Island for most of this century. although the influence of Christian values is keenly felt by the modern Tiwi, the practice of pukumani remains strong. Often funerals are bicultural, with a priest officiating for one segment and the pukumani dancers following afterwards. The grave may be marked by both a cross and a circle of pukumani poles.
Adaptation in Tiwi art continue, and striking carvings have been features of the last twenty or thirty years. These carvings are of ancestral figures, including Purukapali, his wife Bima and their child. Others depict birds, particularly pelicans and owls, as well as turtles and crocodiles. The pieces are chopped with an axe out of the same hardwood used for the burial poles. Metal axes were introduced in the early part of the nineteenth century and it is unlikely that the elaborations of some of the burial poles or the carved figures were made before then, as the artists used only stone tools. The grave poles reported rotting in the bush by the earlier observers were barely shaped tree trunks, perhaps with a few flanges - the emphasis had been on surface decoration. Contemporary examples include holes through the post, 'ears' on the top and other embellishments, which could probably not have been achieved without metal tools.
The art of the desert is rarely representational; it is generally symbolic. ancestors are shown in sacred cave paintings and incorporated into sacred ground constructions. The symbols used include single and concentric circles, straight lines, animal tracks and curving lines. These occur in all art forms: as well as decorations on weapons and utensils. Many decorative features found among the desert peoples to day were also common to tribes living west of the Darling River in New south Wales and the peoples of north-west of the Darling river in New south Wales and the peoples of north-west Queensland, as well as the Pitjantjatjara and Yangkuntjatjara, whose lands extend into south Australia.
Researchers have established that this art is probably the most ancient on the Australian continent. Techniques for dating abstract rock engravings have put some at about 20,000 years old, with many more than 10,000 years old. Western desert designs are also used to decorate wooden carrying dishes and shields. These are made from finely carved quondong or mulga woods. The surface is usually coated with red ochre, over which the design is painted. Patterns and symbols are identical to those used in other art forms and convey visual information about a particular ancestral site important to the artist. By government legislation and by traditional law, the Pitjantjatjara now own the largest area of land of any one Aboriginal group in Australia. These lands extend through north-western south Australia into central Australia, including Ayers Rock. They include the main ranges in the central desert: the Mann, Musgrave, Tomkinson, Blackstone, Rawlinson, Peterman and Warburton ranges. The climate in this area is very dry with an unpredictable rainfall and the Pitjantjatjara therefore ranged widely across the desert, following food supplies and travelling from the water supplies at soaks, waterholes or to larger trees or roots.
Since the mid-1970s, the Pitjantjatjara have established decentralised communities close to the available artesian water supplies. The groups comprising each community have special ties to the totemic sites in the area, though some mixed groups have been established pending negotiations to sink bores or establish supply routes. The people connected to the malu (kangaroo) have moved to Pipalyaqtjara, near their important sites. The Ngintaka (goanna) people have moved to Lake Wilson, where sites are found. These groups are based on mythology inherited through the father of 'Dreaming tracks', and the obligation of caring for the sites and performing ceremonies for the ancestral beings. The elaborate ground patterns are not a part of Pitjantjatjara expression, though decorations and body paintings are.
In a secular context, the Pitjantjatjara concentrate on wood carving, making exceptional weapons and utensils which are as immaculately balanced as any of the old weapons used for survival in other parts of Australia. One of the most ingenious is the leaf-shaped womerah or spear thrower. This particular type was once found from Barrow Creek in the Northern Territory to south Australia and across to eastern Western Australia, and is similar to others found in western Queensland. The spear thrower was immensely useful, not only to launch spears. Its curving interior and the sharp stone edge fixed to one end allowed it to serve as an adze, a receptacle and a fire saw. Multiple-use utensils ensured that during long treks, people were not burdened with a great number of implements. The range of weapons and utensils was small and versatile. Women make three types of curved wooden carrying dish, each shaped to accommodate different functions: winnowing seeds, carrying water and possessions and digging. These coolamons, as they have come to be called, are also decorated on the convex surface with blackened designs burned into the wood with heated wire. This decoration technique is a relatively recent development, though women artists recall that the designs originated in their own 'women's stories' about creation times.
Papunya, a settlement about 300 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs in the desert of central Australia, is the home of over 1000 Walbiri, Pintubi, Anmatjera and Aranda people. The art of these people reaches its fullest expression in the elaborate ceremonial ground designs made from plant down, earth ochres and feathers. These are found only in the central, northern and western areas of central Australia. Most of this art can be described as geometric as the motifs usually consist of circles, arcs, barred liens, curved sinuous lines, dots and animal tracks. The symbols used in the ground paintings and in the body paintings of dancers performing ceremonies around the designs are similar to cave art of the same era. The people of the desert are extremely careful about telling outsiders of their secret ceremonies and rituals. Communication about ceremonial events is frequently in secret or in a code known only to the older men.
When constructing a ground painting, many people participate and the ceremony is planned for weeks beforehand. The announcement of a ceremony and the organisation and behaviour that go into making sure people are assembled at the same time and that their material and ceremonial needs are met are the most important political and social elements of community life. According to male observes the largest ground paintings can cover over 100 square metres of ground and may include, as well as the flat patterning, raised and decorated mounds of sand, several sacred objects and a large decorated pole. The ground design, the objects and the dancers are decorated with red ochre, down or feathers and leaves. The bodily shapes of the dancers may be completely obliterated; their faces, heads, hair and bodies become masses of eerie white padding as they move in the dust of the desert in time to the chanting of the song men. Although the native daisies that provide the plant down used for these constructions grew freely, in the past a great deal of time was spent in collecting sufficient quantities for a major painting. Similarly, the feathers required for a major ceremony were only available from flocks of birds, and they had to be gathered over long periods. Red and yellow ochres and white clay were gathered or traded over great distances or carried carefully in small bark containers bound with human hair string. The gathering of these things today is much easier, using modern tools, motor vehicles and suitcases as well as rifles. Occasionally new materials are used; these are not regarded as inferior to the old in any way, provided they create the same effect. Red and yellow cement mix powders, cotton wool, flour and chicken feathers are occasionally used to make the ground designs.
Groups of different people - Anmatjera, Pintubi, Walbiri and others - have for some years been establishing smaller camps away from Papunya. Each group has moved into its own lands and towards its own important sites. Here the physical proximity has helped the continued ritual performance of ceremonies to ensure the procreating of species, initiation ceremonies and manhood training rites. The ground paintings, together with body designs and ritual songs and dances, are physical manifestations of the religious process, the celebration of the meaning of life and a form of communication with the ancestors.
The images of the Wandjina have enthralled all who have seen them. Somehow, with their large white heads and staring mouthless faces, they seem to capture the timelessness of the mythology.
This is Wandjina. There was a time when this Earth - he made Earth and Sea and everything. This is Wandjina - he made people. Wandjina is Wandjina. He gave Man to live in this Earth, for this World, this Tribal Country. He put the Wandjina in the cave for him to remember this Wandjina, to follow his Laws, to go about the right ways.
Wandjina, he said. You must believe Wandjina. If you won't believe Wandjina, you won't live. This is because Wandjina gave us the Law to follow. And then he says, I give you this Land, and you must keep your Tribal Land. You can't touch somebody's land because it is your body, and your body is right here, and the Aborigines believe his body is his own Tribal Land. Aborigines believe that the Wandjina give rain. Then it ways that the Earth is hot and that it breathes; the Earth it breathes - it is like live Earth. When it breathes, it's steam blow up, and it gives cloud to give rain. Rain gives fruit, and everything grows, and the trees and the grass to feed other things, kangaroos and birds and everything.
If the Wandjina are angered they will summon lightning to strike the offender or cause torrential rain. They are responsible for the wet season monsoonal rains in the area. In the past, the magnificent Wandjina paintings were retouched by men who were the traditional custodians. Now the paintings are not retouched, and many are fading or flaking, as is so much of the great rock painting throughout Australia.
One older artist who visited one of the sites in the early 1970s repainted one of the images. The words he spoke to the image hold immeasurable sadness, yet they afford us a deep insight into the relationship of the people to the painted images of the ancestors.
I don't know what happened to you, but all your spirit has gone out of you. No men or women watch over you, for the people who belong to this place - my aunties, sisters, fathers and grannies - they are all dead now. Only I, that belong to another place, came to visit you, but you were lonely for all those people who died and your spirit has gone away now. Because you are looking all dull - you're not looking bright - I'll try and draw you. I'll try and put new paint on you people ... Don't get wild, don't send rain! You must be very glad that I'm going to make you new - don't try and get wild and don't send the rain to me ... I made you very good now - I don't know how I did it. Very good! ... You must be very glad, because I made your eyes like new. That eye, you know, like this my eye ... I made them new for you people. My eye has life, and your eye has life too, because I made it new ...
Don't try to bring rain, my wife might drown with rain. The rain might drown her.
The Mowanjum people and related tribes construct elaborate string crosses and emblems known as waninga that they wear and carry in dances. These usually consist of crossed sticks supporting a pattern of woven string. They may have additional decorations of ochre, paint, or more modern equivalents - coloured wools.
Although the north-western peoples permit the open display of these objects, the Pitjantjatjara and other people of the desert have secret-sacred objects that are almost identical, and they have requested that the Kimberley people keep the waninga hidden from view. The rituals that gave rise to these constructions are centuries old; ritual, like art, was gradually dispersed along well established routes connecting the people of the centre and the west. Until pictures of these objects were published in a 1971 copy of the Aboriginal journal Identity, the central Australian people had no idea that these objects were made and displayed in dance in the Kimberleys. Such incidents occur frequently in Aboriginal Australia - widening communication affects all aspects of their society.
Pearl shell was traded along the same trade routes that carried other cultural and material goods between the north-west and the centre. Pearl shell was common on the north-west coast and in its natural state had little intrinsic value. However, when sacred designs were applied to the shells and they were incorporated into ritual apparel, they were accorded greater significance. That significance increased the further inland they travelled as traded objects. In central Australia the decorated pearl shells were objects of rarity and therefore of value. They became invested with sacredness in their own right and were accorded considerable respect. As they were traded inland from the coast, the pearl shell pendants known as longka-longka were transformed from being ordinary objects to secret and possibly dangerous objects with power attached to their possession. They became, as waninga also did, links between the world of men and the world of the spirits.
Australian Aboriginal Sites in Temperate Australia
Australian Aboriginal Anthropology
Australian Aboriginal Music