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The stories, art and dance of Arnhem Land, the longest running show in history

Categories: Art, Assimilation, Culture, Environment, Human Rights, Mining

by: Bakchos
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NAIDOC week seems a fitting time to diverge a little from the normal themes of Blak and Black and have a peak into what was our culture prior to the British lead European invasion of our lands, which commenced in earnest on 26th January 1788. Prior to this faithful day, all 700 or so Aboriginal cultures inhabiting continental Australia had their own religion, law and lore. Those of us living in the south-east corner of the continent bore the brunt of the invasion and our cultures were quickly submerged by European/Christian avarice, greed and high-handedness. That is not to say that we have not survived as a kind of Atlantis where our stories and Dreaming survive, though submerged beneath layers of glass and concrete. However the cultures of our brothers and sisters, living in the more remote and then seemingly, to white man’s eyes, less desirable parts of the continent continued and in some cases still continues to this day.

To fully appreciate the true breadth and meaning of Aboriginal culture prior to the British lead European invasion, it is necessary to be present at one of our ceremonies, to hear the songman chanting and tapping his sticks or boomerangs, setting the tempo and rhythm. Hear the didjeridoo or drone-pipe player in diapason tone giving depth and breadth to the rhythm, a base for the superstructure of song and stick-taps, of the accented exclamations, hisses, “breathings”, shouts and stamping of the dancers. See the drama, with stamping in time with the songman, arms and bodies expressing the theme of the chant in perfect time and representative movement. There indeed is the true chorus, bystanders included, clapping their hands or cupping their thighs to the beats. If it is not a men’s secret ceremony women may be seen on the edge of the dance-ground, bodies swaying, feet moving up and down, in and out, but always in the one place, their hands playing a string game, perhaps without string. All taking part are painted and adorned with patterns belonging to their various ceremonial groups symbolising their totems. Often the didjeridoo and tapping boomerangs may be painted. Secret rites also usually include painted or engraved symbolic objects of wood, stone or composite constitution which are used as a means of directing thoughts to the Dreamings, each pattern designed for a specific soul.

In the ritual dance we see the embodiment of the sacred art of Aboriginal Australia with its dance, singing and poetry as well as the visual arts of painting, engraving, molding, carving or sculpture. They are part of the symbolic Dreamtime, ensuring eternal life to nature and man. They are part of the mystic world, representing on the physical plane conceptions of this mystic world of shades and Dreamings, the virtue of which is expressed through symbol and sacrament.

While traditional and authentic Aboriginal culture in South-Eastern Australia went into terminal decline with the arrival of European settlers in 1788, the Aboriginal tribes of Arnhem Land in the north-eastern corner of the Northern Territory were able to maintain their traditional way of life until relatively recently. It is for this reason that I look to Arnhem Land as a source of authentic Aboriginal art; art that is not purely a means of documentation, but a spiritual connection with another plane.

The artists of Arnhem Land have had the longest running show in history, commencing at least 50,000 years ago and continuing uninterrupted until 1956. In June of that fateful year a young Czech artist by the name of Karel Kupka visited Arnhem Land, an arrival which heralded the end of traditional Aboriginal art in the region and the recognition by UNESCO of the significance of this art.[1]

Arnhem Land … a place of legend, of beauty and wildlife, some of the world’s most priceless and vivid natural assets. A place of Dreamtime and an ancient way of life that against the odds, continues to this day.

Within the borders of this ancient land is a place the local Aborigines call Rock Country, a moonscape containing one of the most spectacular collections of ancient art anywhere in the world. These galleries house millennia old art where human and animal combine to portray the interconnectedness of the physical and the spiritual worlds, an interconnectedness which extends to all humanity regardless of ethnicity, religious beliefs or geographical location.

From a cave opening high up on Obiri rock, a stunning view over the lush plains of the Alligator Rivers commands awed silence. Standing on the vantage point with a Nikon F6 slung around my neck, sunglasses protecting my eyes, I felt an interloper. And so I was. My boots were treading rocks worn smooth by the bare feet of Arnhem Land’s Aborigines over eons. My camera was clicking away, recording art work painted on the cave walls millennia before Europeans had sighted this country.

Obiri Rock, with its sheltering caves and sandstone overhangs, was an important camping ground for Aborigines of the district. When the great floods swept over the coastal plains in the wet season they retreated to these shelters on higher ground.

One can imagine the activities of the camp. A hunter stands on the ledge at the cave opening, peering over the flood plains for signs of wildlife at the water’s edge. Outside women and children congregate around cooking fires. Nearby, the men are mixing ochres for what must have been a busy art ‘school’.

On the faces of the rocks in brilliant red, orange, yellow and white is a gallery of some of the most superb rock art in the world. In the main Cathedral-like gallery, protected by a large rock overhang, the art depicts many different species of fish as well as turtles, kangaroos and other animals hunted for food. There are several examples of Aboriginal “x-ray” paintings in which the artist shows the internal organs of animals as well as their external appearance.

On the wall of another rock shelter opposite is a gallery containing a remarkable painting of seven men running across the wall. The first man has ornaments on his elbows, a bag hanging from his shoulder, a goosewing fan, a spear in one hand and a spear thrower in the other. The second figure is about to launch a barbed spear and so on, through the line of seven, each in a different motion.

Nearby is a painting of two women of the Namarakain tribe holding between them a string, the means by which tribes kept together when travelling at night. Another fascinating painting in this cave is that of an archer fish blowing droplets of water from its mouth to snare an insect for food.

Other paintings record contact with people from overseas, such as the sailing ships of the Macassan fishermen who fished off the coast of Arnhem Land every year for centuries. The Obiri rock gallery traces the history of Arnhem Land to the present age with the arrival of Europeans, pictures on the cave walls showing European muskets.

Professor Robert Edwards wrote in his seminal text The Art of the Alligator Rivers Region that:

In international terms [Obiri rock] rate [sic] with the great Paleolithic art sites of France and Spain and the Bushman paintings of Africa

Nevertheless, as valuable as it is, the Obiri gallery is only one among hundreds of equally outstanding Aboriginal cave paintings in the Alligator Rivers region. The Obiri sandstone formation extends to the Cannon Hill-Hawke Dreaming region where more than one hundred art galleries have been identified. The Cannon Hill gallery was identified by buffalo shooters Carl Warburton and Lawrence Whittaker, who established a base camp near the cave shelter in 1920. Warburton’s account of this exciting find in Buffaloes – Life and Adventures in Arnhem Land:

Inside it was too dark to see beyond a few yards; so we gathered some dry bracken and made a torch. We entered warily, not knowing what might be lurking within.

It was a revelation. The walls rose about forty feet, and along one side was a ledge of stone … Apparently the cave had been used for hundreds of years. There was now no sign of life.

In the flickering light of the torch our eyes suddenly alighted upon a group of Aboriginal paintings along one side. They held us in amazement. Exceptionally life like reproductions of kangaroos, turtles, crocodiles, emus, nude lubras with well developed breasts … had been painted in red, yellow and white ochre … I had no idea that aboriginal art could reach such a high level.

The densest concentration of painting sites in the Alligator Rivers region is on Hawke Dreaming, a high tableland between Cannon Hill and the East Alligator River. Twenty-two major sites are in one small group of cave shelters. One of the paintings done in white ochre appears to be a representation of a white man with a rounded body and muscular limbs. This gallery also contains paintings of sailing ships; not only the Macassan praus, but also ships of European origin. The Arnhem Land escarpment, the magnificent outcrop of broken rock mountains and deep ravines which rear abruptly out of the Alligator Rivers plain, has more art galleries than the Louvre, or all Paris for that matter.

Mt. Brockman, the huge sandstone mountain that rises 185 metres above the plain just two kilometres from the Ranger Uranium Company’s mining sites is a sacred place to Aborigines. No fewer that fifty-five painting sites have been found around the base of the mountain. One of the most important is the Serpent’s cave, featuring a long snake painted in red ochre.

Nearby is Nourlangie Rock Art Gallery, where there is evidence that Aborigines have camped, lived and painted near the waterholes and lagoons for millennia. One of these magnificent galleries shows ten tall decorative figures surrounded by legendary heroes and fish in “x-ray” style including a ‘lightening-man’, responsible in Aboriginal culture for thunder, lightening and storms. When he became angry he struck the ground with the stone axes which grew from his head, arms and knees. While it is unlikely that there was any pre-historic contact between the Aborigines of Arnhem Land and the North American Aborigines of Arizona, the Nourlangie ‘lightening-man’ bears striking similarities to a ‘storm-god’ petroglyph known as the Hohokam petroglyph in White Tanks Regional Park just outside Phoenix, Arizona. The Hohokam petroglyph has been dated to around 1,000 AD.

One of the largest galleries of the escarpment is in the Death Adder Creek valley. Among the many figures painted here is one carrying a rifle. Another is of a ‘bird’ or ‘owl-man’. This mythological figure has wings as well as arms and hands and the head of an owl. The similarities between the ‘owl-man’ and a similar depiction of a winged-man found near the Colo River on the outskirts of Sydney strengthens the argument in favour of a continent wide Aboriginal spirituality.

The two main painting styles of the Alligator Rivers region are polychrome and monochrome. The many-coloured polychrome paintings of animals, birds, reptiles and fish depict both the external and internal details of the subjects. These ‘x-ray’ figures seem to be linked to “increase ceremonies” held to ensure a plentiful supply of food. Monochrome drawings, according to Aboriginal lore, were painted by the Mimi spirits and display a strong feeling for composition and movement. Their main subjects are men in action, running, fighting and throwing spears.

There is an inseparable association between Aboriginal mythology and the painting galleries as well an inseparable association between the destruction of these sites and mining. For example, the ‘old woman site’ (Kabulurr) 16 km northwest of the now defunct Nabarlek uranium mine is intimately connected with the legend of the old woman who came from the west. The Nabarlek mine was both relatively small, yielding about 11,000 tonnes of uranium oxide over its life and extremely corrosive as its ore was of a very high grade and consequently highly radioactive. The corrosive powers of Nabarlek’s yellow cake ore have left an indelible scare on the ‘old woman site’, one that might yet prove to have Continent wide significance for all Australian Aborigines through its connection with a continent wide fertility cult centered about the concept of an ‘old woman’.

According to legend, she traveled up the East Alligator River to the Oenpilli landing creek, where she left her dog before traveling on to make her camp near Birraduk Creek. There she went for a swim in the waterhole, but the river came up and she was drowned. The old woman became a rock and remains there in stone to this day. We (Aborigines) are forbidden to climb the rock.

It is estimated that the Aboriginal Art in the Alligator Rivers region is a pictorial record of the region stretching back fifty millennia. Sacred figures painted in the rock shelter galleries were believed to be the work of legendary heroes of the Dreamtime. Myths associated with such paintings tell of the formation of the landscape and perpetuate a link between the mythological past and the present. Shelters richly decorated with paintings record the daily life of Aborigines of the region, while the numerous figures depicting aspects of contact with the outside world tell a graphic story of the arrival of new cultures in north Australia and their profound and generally negative impact on Aboriginal society.

The Arnhem Land Aboriginal rock art galleries are one of the artistic wonders of the world, the significance of which was recognised by UNESCO dedicating the third volume of its series on rare art masterpieces of the world to these paintings in a volume titled Aboriginal paintings – Arnhem Land. This recognition by UNESCO is testimony to the importance of the rock art of Arnhem Land, to the shared history of humanity. These remarkable and valuable works of art are being endangered by the greed of multi-national mining conglomerates in conjunction with the ‘here and now’ mentality of the Western world.

The Australian Government never tires of singing its own praises about weathering the Global Financial Crisis while delivering on its election promises to provide paid maternity leave to mothers and increased pensions to the elderly. Both laudable, though made possible through the tax revenues generated by the mining boom.

Mining, whilst good for the Australian economy, comes at the expense of someone else’s culture, a culture that forms part of the vast tapestry we call humanity. Every new mine opened, every ton of ore shipped overseas causes a diminution of the Dreamtime and a further separation of the world’s oldest continuous culture from its roots.

The rock paintings of Arnhem Land, recognised by UNESCO as being one of the wonders of the world are in themselves inextricably linked to the Dreamtime through the Mimi in the same way that everything existing on, below or above the land is linked to the Dreamtime. Unless all Australians sit-up and take notice of the cries of the land and the spirits there will be nothing left for future generations. Everyone’s Dreaming will be lost to the politics of now and the culture of greed.

Given the violent nature of the world on account of gender, ethnic and religious antipathy, it is perhaps time we turned to our common humanity to learn where, when and why we went wrong. The answer in part lies in the art galleries of Arnhem Land.

[1]Aboriginal paintings – Arnhem land” is the third volume in the UNESCO World Art Series


  1. It’s good to see Blak and Black devoting some space to the positive aspects of our culture

  2. A glimpse indeed Bakchos of what could have been had the British invaders taken more time to consider the value of ‘other’ peoples culture instead of assuming that everything white, Christian and European was best. History has shown this arrogance to have been misplaced.

  3. It’s good to see you putting the positives of our culture out to the public. I wonder what the East-Coast of Australia would have been like prior to the genocide of 1788. What a loss to humanity.

  4. Enough to make Andrew Lloyd Webber weep with envy!

  5. And the Poms claimed that we had no culture, no civilization a claim that gave them in their eyes to steal our land for their own purposes. Hos is this justice?

  6. I like this post, yes we had a real culture until it was destroyed by a foreign invader. Is this what they call genocide?

  7. What a great show it has proven to be! The gallaries of the escarpment contain some of the best examples of real art that the world has to offer. Do we value it. Judging by the way Australia puts mining profits before culture, I would suggest not.

  8. It would be a crime beyond imagination if the mining industry was allowed to destroy the worlds oldest art gallery in the name of corporate profits.

  9. Anne Shiny via Facebook says:

    When the rights of others to practice their culture are trampled upon, the lives of all humanity are lessened. Has anyone seen what has happened to the shrines in Timbuktu? Destroyed due to religious intolerance. This is no different to the indiscriminate destruction of heritage by mining that will be permitted under the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act. It is religious intolerance that affords one group of humanity the hubris to believe that their rights and beliefs (or lack thereof) are worth more than those of another.

    Destroying the sacred sites of others is to destroy the rich tapestry of life that feeds individualism, defines difference and accepts variation. Mining is fine, provided it proceeds with respect for the rights of others to express and practice their own beliefs. Protecting the Obiri Rocks and Cannon Hills of WA or any other state should be a priority, for they are our links to our past.

  10. Our Federal MP’s have just given themselves yet another pay rise, now its time they showed some leadership on the mining issue.

  11. NAIDOC seems like a good time to start putting meaning behind KRuddMP’s sorry. Sorry must be more than a word for it to mean anything. I’m yet to see the action behind the word. Don’t ever forget, the wall paintings in the NT are as sacred to Aborigines as a Christian church or cemo. is to Christians – destroying our sacred sites is a form of religious intolerance – the very thing we accuse the Muslims of being.

  12. Mahmud Ahsan via Facebook says:

    Bakchos Glass and what a show its been. Hopefully it can survive the mining onslaught.

  13. And what great theatre it is, the songs, the dance, the music – the tales from long ago, but still within living memory. What a treat and how undervalued all this is by white society.

  14. All this beauty being put at risk by the greed of the mining inustry, backed by a pack of greedy white lawyers – genocide by lawyer!

  15. And what beautiful art it is, keep the miners away signals the foot of Shivia!

  16. I’m sure that the greed of our miners will ensure that Arnhem Lands 50,000 year old show won’t last much longer!

  17. When I first arrived in Australia I made a point of visiting the sites that Karl Kupta wrote so elequently about. The art is truly something to behold. If we let miners destroy this art, it really will be a crime against humanity.

  18. Our stories, our art – part of the story and art of humanity. Miners, hands off!

  19. I really hope this gallery lasts for another 50,000 years. Though greed and the mining industry will probably see its destruction well before then.

  20. Bakchos Glass this post was an education and a delight to read.

  21. But will they survive another 50 years in the face of the mining onslaught?

  22. The art work in Arnhem land is just beautiful, a sight to behold.

  23. Sweet post Bakchos Glass sweet post

  24. Really enjoyed reading this post, more like it – please! It pushes OUR culture is a positive way.

  25. And what great art, poetry and stories they are, man you should go and see for yourself!

  26. Totally agree Paul, it is certainly well worth the effort to travel and see the art for yourself.

  1. […] Mullins commemorates NAIDOC week by exploring the art and culture of Arnhem Land on his blog Blak and […]

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