Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Painting and Repainting in the West Kimberley

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Painting and Repainting in the West Kimberley

Article excerpt

Abstract: We take a fresh look at the practice of repainting, or retouching, rock-art, with particular reference to the Kimberley region of Western Australia. We discuss the practice of repainting in the context of the debate arising from the 1987 Ngarinyin Cultural Continuity Project, which involved the repainting of rock-shelters in the Gibb River region of the western Kimberley. The 'repainting debate' is reviewed here in the context of contemporary art production in western Kimberley Indigenous communities, such as Mowanjum. At Mowanjum the past two decades have witnessed an artistic explosion in the form of paintings on canvas and board that incorporate Wandjina and other images inspired by those traditionally depicted on panels in rock-shelters. Wandjina also represents the key motif around which community desires to return to Country are articulated, around which Country is curated and maintained, and through which the younger generations now engage with their traditional lands and reach out to wider international communities. We suggest that painting in the new media represents a continuation or transference of traditional practice. Stories about the travels, battles and engagements of Wandjina and other Dreaming events are now retold and experienced in the communities with reference to the paintings, an activity that is central to maintaining and reinvigorating connection between identity and place. The transposition of painting activity from sites within Country to the new 'out-of-Country' settlements represents a social counterbalance to the social dislocation that arose from separation from traditional places and forced geographic moves out-of-Country to government and mission settlements in the twentieth century.


In 1987 an Aboriginal resource agency obtained a Community Employment Program (CEP) government grant 'to undertake conservation and restoration work at several Wandjina-style painting sites in the West Kimberley' (Clarke and Randolph 1992:17). During the Ngarinyin Cultural Continuity Project (NCCP), some rock-shelters containing paintings in the Gibb River region were repainted, 'while others were subject to major restorative over-painting' (Clarke and Randolph 1992:17). The NCCP sparked a controversy that resonated through the academy, State and federal authorities and the popular press, and that continues to be a controversial topic today. A recent popular book on the rock-art of the Kimberley described the NCCP project as an act of 'cultural vandalism to which all the Kimberley's rock art is currently prone' (Wilson 2006:79). Ulf Bertilsson (2002), President of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) International Rock Art Committee, elected to single out Kimberley repainting in Rock Art at Risk when he wrote:

   A related phenomenon ... is known from the
   Kimberley area, Australia, where a group of
   Aborigines have renewed the habit of repainting
   on rock surfaces with prehistoric paintings.
   Whether these people may or may not
   have the right to re-use the same surfaces for
   making new paintings is the object of rhetorical
   debate among archaeologists, anthropologists
   and administrators. Regardless of the
   outcome of that debate, it is a sad fact that
   millenary underlying pictures run a constant
   risk of being destroyed--although most of
   them have never been documented. These
   images also contain the testimony of human
   beliefs and concepts, which we might lose

Central to the debate are the issues of ownership of sites and who has the right to paint them, the ethics and aesthetics of repainting rock-art, and what constitutes continuity of traditional practice.

Mowanjum is an established Indigenous community near Derby, which represents the most recent settlement site in a process of forced removals from traditional lands, a process that gathered momentum from the early twentieth century (Figure 1). …

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