'For Australian Aborigines, Rock Painting Is a Title to Their Land.'

By Fox, Tim | UNESCO Courier, April 1998 | Go to article overview

'For Australian Aborigines, Rock Painting Is a Title to Their Land.'


Fox, Tim, UNESCO Courier


Tim Fox talks to three Australian Aborigines invited to a UNESCO Forum on rock art

The Aborigines of Australia have always been hunter-gatherers, living in harmony with their surroundings. They believe that through ritual they help sustain the cycles of the natural world and that they are as much a part of nature as the wind, the rain and the soil. Understanding nature's secrets is a lifetime process, completely revealed only to tribal or clan elders.

Art for the Aborigines is the expression of present-day life, that is, a life that has been considered in the present tense since the beginning of time. Theirs is both the oldest and the youngest continuous civilization in the world, the oldest as attested to by the dating process called thermoluminescence; and the youngest because the practices depicted by rock paintings are still a part of Aboriginal culture to this very day.

According to the Aborigines, what is etched in or painted onto stone is the expression of the world's immutable laws, which emerged from the Dream Time, the gelatinous, amorphous time before the world emerged in the form we know today. These laws were placed there by ancestors and were until recently only for the eyes and understanding of a few initiates, the elders who have demonstrated their worthiness to know.

In June 1997 three elders and a young disciple of the Ngarinyin community left their native Kimberley Plateau in Australia's remote northwest and travelled to Europe to exhibit photographs of their sacred rock drawings and explain what the drawings meant. By this act, which not so many years ago would have been punishable by death, they sought to protect their access to their sacred sites against pressure from cattle-grazing, mining companies, tourists and souvenir hunters.

Without immediate contact with their lands, the Ngarinyin people cease to exist, for they are an integral part of the land, and the land is an integral part of them. If they do not actively maintain the land, the Aborigines believe it will cease to sustain life just as they will cease to exist if they are removed from it. This is why. they had asked a painter/film-maker friend, Jeff Doring, to record on film some of their rock drawings so that the outside world could learn of their existence and understand the ways in which they bind Aborigines to their land.

The role of delegation leader seemed to fall to David Mowaljarlai, who has perhaps had the most extensive contact with Westerners through his many encounters with ethnologists and anthropologists and the many conferences on Aborigines he has attended in Australia. Paddy Wamma is a walking encyclopaedia of the plants found on the Kimberley Plateau and their medicinal, practical and nutritional applications. Paddy Neowarra is president of the Ngarinyin Aboriginal Corporation and People (N.A.C.) and a firm believer that traditional law must rule in all aspects of social life and predominate in deciding land rights. Even when asked direct questions, the youngest of the four, Jason Ninowatt, deferred to the older men, who answered for him protectively. The group of four was accompanied by Jeff Doring and anthropologist Tony Redmond, who often clarified or provided background to points made by the Aborigines.

* Why this reversal of the age-old practice of keeping the meaning of the rock drawings a secret?

David Mowaljarlai: Our paintings are our title to the land. If we lose our title, the paintings are empty. It's as simple as that. Besides we are not revealing all the secrets. Not the most essential ones. We are grateful to UNESCO for inviting us to tell our story. We don't normally travel so far from our land. …

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