Aboriginal art in Sydney Dreamtime stories in contemporary art

Aboriginal engraving on the grounds of the Bondi Golf & Diggers Club
Aboriginal engraving on the grounds of the Bondi Golf & Diggers Club | © Sophia Höff

On the cliffs, where the waves of the Pacific Ocean break and froth, where the wind whips the dry grass and amplifies the roar of the sea, there is an ancient Aboriginal stone engraving.

I left the surfers and sunbathers of Bondi Beach behind and followed the rolling hills of a picturesque golf course until I reached the site. As I surveyed the slabs of rock on the ground, a found a whale staring back at me. A voice in my head recited what I had learnt during a tour of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW): The Aboriginal people have one of the world’s oldest living cultures. In awe, I shift my gaze down the cliffs and take a look at my guidebook. I learn that this place may have once been an important ceremonial site. The engravings depict a whale, a shark and a man holding a fish. It could be the scene of a shark attack. I looked at the stone slabs again, after all, you only see what you know.

An ancient culture

As I made my way back along the golf course, I wondered how old the engravings might be. On the AGNSW tour I discovered that some indigenous cave paintings, which are found throughout Australia, are up to 60,000 years old. Aboriginal culture is expressed through various artistic forms including cave painting, stone engraving and dance. These creative practices have been used to pass on traditions and beliefs for millennia. The designs have sacred meanings. They relate to events that took place during the lives of the community’s ancestors, events that shaped and gave meaning to the surrounding landscape.
Unsurprisingly, the indigenous population wants to protect its ancestral lands from mining and other forms of appropriation. A significant example of this is the Yirrkala Bark Petition of 1963. The Yirrkala community’s fight for the recognition of their rights went all the way to the Supreme Court, where their claims where finally rejected on the basis of the ‘terra nullius’ principle. Borrowed from Roman law, this principle states that any land not under the control of a sovereign power or ruler consequently belongs to no-one. The land rights of indigenous Australians were not officially recognised until 1992.

Vernissage „The Bold and The Beautiful“ in der Cooee Art Gallery in Paddington „The Bold and The Beautiful“ exhibition at Cooee Art Gallery in Paddington | © Sophia Höff

Contemporary art

Like so many before me, I was drawn to Australia to gain a better understanding of contemporary Aboriginal culture. On my first stroll through the inner city I passed ornate, late Victorian residential houses with wrought iron balustrades, as well as modern skyscrapers made of glass and steel, yet I did not come across anything relating to indigenous culture. So I did some research before setting out a second time and discovered the Cooee Art Gallery. Established in the 1980s, it is one of Australia’s oldest galleries for contemporary indigenous art. I thought that sounded promising and attended the opening of an exhibition of Kitty Napanangka Simon’s work titled The Bold & The Beautiful.
With a glass of rosé in my hand, I contemplated the colourful abstract paintings. I could hardly wait to find out more about the stories behind the artworks. Thanks to the AGNSW tour, I knew that contemporary Aboriginal art often reflects the Dreamtime stories of the artist’s clan. The Dreamtime, or Dreaming, describes past events that are recounted and brought to life during traditional ceremonies. The school teacher Geoffrey Bardon played a particularly important role in the development of contemporary indigenous art. In the early 1970s he took a job in the remote settlement of Papunya, near Alice Springs. He encouraged his students to recreate their traditional sand drawings on canvas. He subsequently initiated the Men’s Painting Room, which was also a great success. When the elders of the community became involved, it marked the beginning of the Western Desert Painting movement. The shapes and patterns that had been dawn in the sand or painted on bodies for ceremonies were reproduced in their paintings. The resulting artworks are as unique and varied as the Dreaming itself. Painting gave Aboriginal people an opportunity to maintain some of their traditions during a time when they were forced to suppress their indigenous identities.

Uta Uta Tjangala: Untitled (Jupiter Well to Tjukula), 1979, Art Gallery of New South Wales Uta Uta Tjangala: Untitled (Jupiter Well to Tjukula), 1979, Art Gallery of New South Wales | © Sophia Höff One of the founding members of this artistic movement was Uta Uta Tjangala, who had led his clan to Papunya in the 1950s. Religious missions ran institutions in Sydney and Melbourne. When they began offering the paintings for sale, it became clear that there was a market for indigenous art. Art centres soon opened in other remote regions.
The Warlpiri community – Kitty Napanangka Simon’s clan – was one of the first to join the Western Desert Painting movement. The community spans two outstations: Lajamanu and Yuendumu, which are located on either side of the Tanami Desert. As the artist movement in Papunya was taking off in 1971, the Warlpiri elders established a museum for cultural indigenous artefacts. The building itself was designed for ceremonial events and features large-scale wall paintings. The Yuendumu Men’s Museum was reopened in 2015.

The Warlpiri Dreaming

Mirri Leven, the gallery director, explained to me that the story depicted in all of Simon’s works is a central part of the Warlpiri Dreaming. In the Warlpiri language, the Dreaming is known as Jukurrpa and this story is the Mina Mina Jukurrpa. Mina Mina is a sacred area near Lake Mackay in the Northern Territory. The region consists largely of salt lakes, claypans and sandy hills. The Mina Mina Dreaming belongs to two different groups of women, the Napangardi and the Napanangka.
The paintings reveal a landscape seen from a bird’s eye view. Locals can easily recognise the region based on its major landmarks. For the Aboriginal people, knowledge about water holes, plants and animals was crucial for their survival, so it was carefully passed down from one generation to the next in the form of pictures and stories.
The Mina Mina Dreaming tells a tale about a group of women who walk from Mina Mina to the east, towards the rising sun. Three dots on the painting symbolise the places where Karlangu (digging sticks) emerged out of the ground. The women collected the digging sticks and used them to create many new places as they made their way across the land singing and dancing. Along the way, they gathered plants for medicinal use or turned them into ceremonial objects. The rhythm of their dancing sent vibrations into the earth, causing the formation of sandy hills and creeks. The water that collects in the salt and claypans is represented by circles. Significant cultural sites and Dreamtime stories are linked to this journey. Yet the Dreaming is by no means consigned to the past. It is present in today’s ceremonies, which are still performed according to traditions that are many thousands of years old. Simon is one of the main custodians of the Mina Mina Dreaming and a guardian of the Warlpiri women’s laws. Her artistic style references the Yawulyu, the ritual designs of the Warlpiri women.
There are a number of renowned artists who depict various aspects of the Mina Mina Dreaming, such as Judy and Maggie Napangardi Watson and Dorothy Napangardi. But unlike Simon, they depict the events from the opposite perspective – from the east, looking west.

Dorothy Napangardi: Salt, 2004, Cooee Art Gallery Dorothy Napangardi: Salt, 2004, Cooee Art Gallery | © Sophia Höff According to the exhibition catalogue, “Kitty’s paintings are very different to the Lajamanu style, but the Warnayaka Art Centre has always had one or two controversial artists in its ranks.” I’m looking forward to discovering more indigenous artists.