Before British colonisation in 1788, every part of Australia was populated by different Indigenous groups, each with their own territory, language, laws and customs. It is estimated that in the late 18th century there were about 350 languages spoken on mainland Australia.
The Dreaming is an
English term describing the complex religious philosophy governing Aboriginal
life. Ancestral beings travelled across a flat and lifeless landscape, creating
all living things and the geographical features that we see today. By retelling
and painting stories of spirit ancestors’ journeys, senior men and women pass
on the law and knowledge of country to younger people. Designs on rock, bark, canvas and the body depict the many
guises of spirit ancestors in both human and animal form.
The arid lands of the Spinifex people are dotted with clay pans and salt lakes. The traditional owners of this country see it as a sacred geography rich in meaning and crossed by Dreamings, or songlines, of creation ancestors.
‘When I finish, my
paintings will keep going. They will keep telling all the people, my family,
and whitefellas the story of Kamanti where I was born.’
Lennard Walker, Spinifex people, 2012
This painting is
It is a men’s Tjukurpa (Dreaming) in Spinifex country in the Great
Victoria Desert. The painting depicts the story of Wati Kutjura (Two Men) –
father and son in the form of water serpents. They are travelling on the son’s
journey of initiation. The son, going a
little mad, decides to take off for a place called Mulaya to start a fight. His
father chases after him. Their actions and encounters along the way create the
geographic features and meanings of the land. One of the artists, Roy Underwood, describes this as ‘a big story’, meaning that it holds high ritual significance.
Only senior men with detailed ceremonial knowledge understand the full meaning
of the story. The artists, all senior men, collaborate here to paint storylines
that cross a large area of country for which they hold shared authority.
Kungkaragkalpa is a major Dreaming story that crosses a vast area of Australia.
Painted by senior women from Spinifex country in the Great Victoria Desert,
much of the story is about sacred women’s business. The women wish that the
details remain private. The painting depicts holes made by women digging for an
edible carpet python. The python is in fact Wati Nyirru, a lustful old man chasing the sisters. The Australian
authorities removed Spinifex people from their land in the late 1950s and early
1960s, as the British and Australian
governments needed large empty spaces to test atomic weapons. Between 1998 and
2000, both men and women painted major canvases to demonstrate their knowledge
of traditional law and land in their bid to have their native title recognised.
They are now able to live on their land again and continue to paint and pass on
their important stories of country.
You can see these significant paintings in the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation (23 April – 2 August 2015).
Find out more in the book accompanying the exhibition written by Gaye Sculthorpe and Lissant Bolton, British Museum, John Carty, Howard Morphy and Maria Nugent, Australian National University, Ian Coates, National Museum of Australia, and Aboriginal artist Jonathan Jones.
Spinifex salt pans. North-west Tjuntjuntjara, Great Victoria Desert, Western Australia. Photograph: Louise Allerton.
Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington, Kungkarangkalpa (detail). Acrylic on canvas, 2013. © the artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project. Acquired by the British Museum with the support of BP.
Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) in production. Photograph: Amanda Dent.