A faded hand print marks the starting point of an art gallery, here on the cave wall at Nourlangie, in Australia’s Arnhem Land. Who was this ancient Aboriginal painter who signed his rock art paintings in this unique way? His right hand has been placed palm down against the rock surface with his fingers spread. A stream of red ochre paint was blown from his mouth onto the back of his hand, to produce this stencil image. Part of the image of his index finger has been eroded, as have several of his other paintings on the walls of this rock art gallery.
As early Aboriginal people had no written language, all their laws, cultural beliefs and creation myths were preserved through stories, dances, songs and paintings. Their long history of environmental and social change is found here in more than 5,000 rock art sites. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of over 25,000 years of Aboriginal occupation within this area, and Kakadu’s rock art (gunbim) represents the longest historical record of any group of people in the world.
Kakadu National Park is a vast and timeless place–a landscape of exceptional natural beauty and diversity. I am always attracted by its stillness and intense colours. There are many regions here: mangrove-fringed coastal areas blend into expansive flood planes, low-lying hills are flanked by tall sandstone escarpments to the east, and are interwoven between open bush woodlands and forest habitats. The park is teeming with wildlife in its waters, on the land and in the air. With the daily passing of the sun overhead and the changing of the seasons, this land also assumes constantly shifting forms and colours. In this context, a knowledge and appreciation of nature is fundamental to understanding the culture of Kakadu and its people.
The Mimi spirits are fairy-like beings of Arnhem Land in the folklore of indigenous people of northern Australia. Westerners would equate them with elementals and nature spirits. They are depicted as having thin and elongated bodies–so thin as to be in danger of breaking in a high wind. To avoid this fate, the Mimis spend much of their time living in rock crevices. As creation spirits, they are human-like but exist in a different dimension. It was the Mimis who first taught the people how to hunt, to cook and paint.
Ochre is the most valuable painting material used traditionally by aboriginal people. Red ochre was available for mining from many sites, in crumbly to hard in texture rock, and heavily coloured by iron oxide. The rock was washed, pounded into a pigment powder then blended with saliva, orchid sap, or turtle egg yolks to create a sticky fluid paint. When a deeper ceremonial colour was desired, kangaroo blood was mixed into the pigment. Red ochre was particularly important as its use symbolized the blood of ancestral beings.
Ochre also comes in a variety of hues from yellow to dark reddish-brown and these ores lend a rich warm colour to traditional rock art paintings. Charcoal provided black pigment, pipe clay–fine white river clay–was worked then moulded into small blocks to make white pigment. Haematite (red), limonite (yellow), charcoal (black), and pipe clay (white), expanded the artist’s palette. Ochre was also traded extensively across Australia – this precious commodity traveling hundreds or even thousands of kilometres from where it was mined, to where it was used.
The traditional materials were applied in several ways. The oldest included blowing a fine spray of paint from the mouth, to produce stencils or silhouettes on the rock surface. Paint was also applied directly to the rock by brushing it with a small crushed stick. Bodies were painted using fingers and hands to beautify and decorate the participants for important ceremonial songs and dances. When Aboriginal women painted their bodies for ‘secret women’s rituals,’ breast milk was used to bind the ochre powders.
In Arnhem Land, bark and wood surfaces were painted with great care using various brushes and styles for different effects. After covering the background with a coat of red ochre, the main forms of the design were outlined in black, yellow or white, using a brush made from a stick. This had fine grass or fibres tied to the end. Next a distinctive cross-hatched pattern was produced with a special fine brush made from human hair bound to the end of a stick. The final step filled in the cross-hatched areas with white ochre, using the hair tipped brush. The figure below is of a malevolent and dangerous ghost who hunted and ate women, after striking them dead with a yam.
Because of its great age, rock art can be damaged by natural processes. Park Rangers do what they can to remove or redirect these events by building board walks and handrails, to prevent visitors from touching or rubbing the paintings. Silicon drip lines redirect water flow away from the paintings while boardwalks prevent dust from becoming stirred up and coating valuable art works. Occasionally a contemporary Aboriginal artist, using traditional brushes and ochres, will repaint early art works to prevent them from fading. Just before his death in 1964, Nayombolmi, also known as Barramundi Charlie, repainted the following magnificent group picture.
The large figure at the top is that of Namonjok. He is a Creation Ancestor who lives in the sky and can be seen only at night, when he appears as a dark spot in the Milky Way. To our right is Namarrgon, the Lightning Man. He creates the violent lightning storms that begin in November, during the North Australian monsoon season. The white band around him from his right ankle, joining hands and head, and down his left ankle represents the lightning he creates. The white female figure below is Barrginj, the Lightning man’s wife, painted in white with a black outline and decoration. Beneath these three Creation Ancestors a large group of men and women are elaborately dressed and possibly on their way to an important ceremony. Several women have dashes painted across their breasts indicating they are breastfeeding an infant.
Images both sacred and secular adorn the many caves here at Nourlangie Rock. The figures are usually represented through the painter’s unusual perspective that views the images from above, while looking down on them. Artists from this area show a preference for open spaces with a concentration on the main figures, where there is an expression of suddenly arrested motion.
Language, ceremonies, kinship and caring for the land are aspects of the cultural responsibilities that have been passed from one generation to the next. Aboriginal people all believe that they do not own the land–rather the land owns them–thus the land and its people have always been linked. This spiritual connection, spanning tens of thousands of years, has been recognized globally in Kakadu’s World Heritage listing, which honours one of the oldest living societies on earth.