The World from Malarrak: Depictions of South-East Asian and European Subjects in Rock Art from the Wellington Range, Australia

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper investigates contact histories in northern Australia through an analysis of recent rock paintings. Around Australia Aboriginal artists have produced a unique record of their experiences of contact since the earliest encounters with South-east Asian and, later, European visitors and settlers. This rock art archive provides irreplaceable contemporary accounts of Aboriginal attitudes towards, and engagement with, foreigners on their shores. Since 2008 our team has been working to document contact period rock art in north-western and western Arnhem Land. This paper focuses on findings from a site complex known as Malarrak. It includes the most thorough analysis of contact rock art yet undertaken in this area and questions previous interpretations of subject matter and the relationship of particular paintings to historic events. Contact period rock art from Malarrak presents us with an illustrated history of international relationships in this isolated part of the world. It not only reflects the material changes brought about by outside cultural groups but also highlights the active role Aboriginal communities took in responding to these circumstances.

Introduction

Few changes would have been as dramatic and confronting as the early encounters between Indigenous groups and strangers arriving in their country after having crossed the sea. This research is concerned with the contact period and the rock art that documents this period of change from an Aboriginal perspective. We argue that Aboriginal artists have produced a unique record of their experiences of contact since the very earliest encounters (with groups such as Macassan/South-east Asian (1) fisherman, British explorers and Christian missionaries). Their art often illustrates experiences not otherwise understood from historical literature.

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Surprisingly, the detailed study of contact rock art within Australia has been a recent development. Previous studies of contact rock art include work undertaken by Layton (1992), Frederick (1997, 1999), Clarke (1994; Clarke and Frederick 2006) and Roberts (2004). Since 2008 publications addressing contact rock art have also emerged from the Australian Research Council-funded project titled Picturing Change: 21st century perspectives on recent Australian rock art (May et al. 2010; Paterson 2012; Tacon et al. 2010; Tacon et al. 2012).

Outside Australia, contact rock art has been the focus of some important studies, particularly in South Africa (i.e. Ouzman 2003; Ouzman and Loubser 2000; Ouzman and Smith 2004; Smith and van Schalkwyk 2002), North America (i.e. Keyser and Klassen 2003; Klassen 1998; Klassen et al. 2000; Molyneaux 1989) and, more recently, Malaysia (Mokhtar and Tacon 2011).

This paper centres on research results from north-western Arnhem Land. More specifically, we explore recent Australian Aboriginal rock paintings of introduced subject matter at the rock shelter complex called Malarrak in north-western Arnhem Land. We examine the historical significance of these paintings, as well as their role in interpreting both South-east Asian and European contact histories.

Site overview

The Malarrak complex is located within the Wellington Range (Figure 1), the northern-most outlier of the sandstone Arnhem Land Plateau, and is bordered by the Arafura Sea to the north, the Cobourg Peninsula to the north-west and the King River to the east. The Wellington Range is home to extensive and diverse rock art, including many examples of paintings that reflect contact between local Aboriginal groups and visitors to their shores. This range covers a large geographical area and is associated with various clans. The Malarrak sites (Figure 2) are located on the Namunidjbuk estate, within the traditional country of Maung speakers, where Ronald Lamilami is the Senior Traditional Owner.

We define two overarching and overlapping phases in recent centuries during which local Aboriginal people experienced periods of cross-cultural contact: (1) Macassan (South-east Asian sailors and trepangers) and (2) European contact. …