One way of thinking about the rock art of Australia’s indigenous people is like an unwritten library – of knowledge and belief. The stories, songs, dances and ceremonies that go along with the rock art have been handed down for thousands of generations. Some paintings are even believed to be from the time of the creation or Dreamtime.
History books on stone
At Ubirr, as you walk up towards the Nadab lookout where everyone goes to watch the stunning sunset over Arnhem Land, there are a number of rock art galleries. The roof of one gallery is covered with spindly figures and people believe these were painted by powerful (and very tall) Mimi spirits. They are also believed to have taught Aboriginal people how to paint. After the sun goes down the parks people hurry you off the lookout because the local people believe the Mimi will get you.
There is also a sort of illustrated menu with specific types of fish, turtles, mussels and other locally found foods. This rock art in Kakadu National Park may be drawings by a particularly successful and proud hunter but the pictures also represent the spirit of the animal, like this Almangiyi or long-neck turtle:
These rock shelters provided good campgrounds from which to exploit the rich resources of the East Alligator River and the Nadab floodplain. Also found in the Ubirr rock art galleries is the powerful creation ancestor – the Rainbow Serpent or Garranga’rreli. Many are a bit like x-ray paintings and are an estimated 1,500 years old. Here is a Mabuyu hunting figure.
This is a picture of a person sick with Miyamiya – see the swollen joints – said to be contracted if you disturb the stones of a sacred site downstream from Ubirr near the East Alligator River.
Aboriginal people in Australia are very concerned about people disturbing certain sites, and often with good reason. There have been a number of connections drawn between such sites and the subsequent discovery of substances dangerous to people like uranium.
Aboriginal artists have pictorially represented different aspects of their lives on the sandstone rock of Kakadu. Another important site is at Nourlangie, where the top layer of painting we can see is often a recent (by which I mean in the last century) re-painting – a traditional practice. Underneath will be layer upon layer, sometimes going back over 20,000 years of Aboriginal habitation of this area.
The famous image of the Lightning Man – Namarrgon – is again about spiritual ancestors creating the landscape of Kakadu. During the ‘build up’ in October/November, Kakadu sees spectacular electrical storms, signalling the beginning of the Wet Season.
I lived in Melbourne for two years and one time I saw an Aboriginal person, an indigenous Australian, it was a kid being shouted at on the tram (by a white person). So travelling in Australia’s Top End it was a relief to find Aboriginal people shopping next to me in the Darwin supermarket. Yes there are many Aboriginal people in Darwin camping out on public or communally owned land – and some of them are destitute but at least they’re not invisible.
There are over 600 indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, although most of those have a population of less than 50. Many are beset by serious social problems including alcoholism and violence and the efficacy and ethics of government intervention are inexcusable after centuries of abuse and neglect.
Clearly, they should have the same chances and options as other Australians. I’m grateful they can share their magnificent country with us, and their magnificent rock art history because it was one of the most memorable moments of my travels in Australia.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you seen Aboriginal rock art in Australia?
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