I spent last week working with people of the Marrirn clan in Western Arnhem Land recording rock art images made anytime from tens of thousands of years ago to the mid-twentieth century. At one site (top) we came across a line of symbols made by an artist blowing a slurry of white pigment from his mouth past a hand with a bent finger to create stencilled images. The symbol on rock and hand signal signifies karndayh, the female antilopine kangaroo (Macropus antilopinus). When out hunting, someone spotting karndayh would not (for obvious reasons) speak to communicate but rather perhaps touch their companion’s arm and use the bent-fingered hand symbol to say “game on” and gesture “karndayh over there”. The symbol can be made with right or left hand — the rock stencil is with a left hand, my example with my right. The act of making a symbol on rock in this way is called bid-kuykmerren. Hands of adults and children are often stencilled and sometimes the feet of infants. Boomerangs and other material culture objects are also stencilled. We have no idea or way of knowing when the row of karndayh stencils was made and we can only guess that perhaps the group indicates a hunter creating a record of his prowess. The central element of the rock painting below is karndayh and off to the left at shoulder height is the crooked finger symbol. This painting was made mid-twentieth century by the famed artist Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek AO. This is the only example I know of a rock painting with a caption.
Thanks to Tim Lee and ABC Landline crew for the great job they did helping Warddeken get the story of the crisis in rock art conservation out to the public. And well done Jesse and Catherine who were great on camera. Follow link on my earlier post to watch the whole story online.
More on representation of horses in Western Arnhem Land contact rock art.
The horse in the picture at the top, next to Samuel Namundja, was drawn by someone having difficulty sorting horse and kangaroo anatomy. The horse is very kangaroo-like.
In the painting below the artist has a firm grip on horse anatomy, other than issues of scale for head and body. Pipe-smoking riders sharing one horse is not something you would see every day and the intention seems to be humorous and quirky.
It seems reasonable to conclude the painting at the top was drawn by someone who experienced horses only briefly before putting brush to rock while the artist below had spent more time amongst the white people and their beasts.
Both photographs are by David Hancock and are from the Fragile First Impressions exhibition being shown in-house at the conservators conference of the International Council of Museums currently happening in Melbourne.
Saturday’s Guardian newspaper features a long article which reports on the threat to Australia’s extraordinary treasure house of indigenous rock art — much of which is still not recorded, let alone being properly conserved.
The Guardian’s Oliver Milman writes that experts warn that half the country’s rock paintings – some dating back 30,000 years – could disappear within 50 years. Oliver Milman met with the Indigenous rangers and researchers working to protect delicate sandstone from the triple threat of mining, graffiti and feral animals on Cape York and produced this report which can be found at:
On the Arnhem Plateau, within the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area indigenous rangers are working to locate, document and protect what has been described as a “painted landscape”, with thousands of sites and countless images.
A recent threat to the art is the arrival of feral buffalo, pigs and cattle on the plateau. Feral buffalo came up into the high country around the mid 20th century and feral pigs and cattle much later.
Where the sites are accessible the buffalo, pigs and cattle are known to rub up against paintings — with predictably disastrous results. Where they choose to make a camp in what are often old human habitations the soil is pounded into a fine tilth, mixed with powdered dung.
In the times of strong SE winds this dust is blown onto paintings and in times of high humidity becomes to a degree attached to the painted surfaces.
Some problems require a high level of technical conservation expertise — something often beyond the budgets of organisations like Warddeken.
However, rangers are doing what they can and in particularly important and vulnerable sites they are flying in prefabricated metal cattle yard panels which clip together in an attempt to fence the ferals away from paintings and out of the occupation sites. The buffaloes, cattle and pigs also damage the integrity of the archaeology of occupation sites, breaking fragile stone tools and sometimes fibre and wooden implements found there.
In the picture at the top Warddeken Rangers proudly show fencing they installed at a site called Yenamarraway where the many images include a horse painted by the venerable elder Wamud Namok in his youth.
The other picture is at a site in Djok clan country where the images include two almost-life-size horses, (one with a rider) as well as a buffalo shooter, guns and a goat. At this site feral cattle had been camping right inside the large shelter during the wet season.
The Guardian is right in asserting that the conservation of Australian rock art urgently needs help. Technical conservation expertise is needed to support indigenous initiatives and most importantly greatly increased Federal funds need to flow to save a heritage that is both indigenous heritage and the heritage of all humanity.
Painted sometime between the mid-nineteenth century and early twentieth century this humourous depiction of two pipe-smoking Europeans riding a horse is located high on the rugged Arnhem Plateau at Bodbang Workwork near the Liverpool River in Djorrorlom clan country.
Warddeken Land Management’s rock art conservation program seeks to preserve and restore relationships as well as conserve images.
Lachlan Jumbirri grew up at Manyallaluk near Katherine hearing stories of his country from his father but was not able to visit that country until a trip sponsored by Warddeken in 2004. Lachlan’s family history is like many from the Warddeken diaspora, people who left the country for various reasons but who, through reasons of marriage or of health issues, or indeed of getting sustained access to 20th century western “essentials” were unable to return.
Moving back permanently to country remains too hard for many of their descendants today, but Warddeken assists where it can reconnecting country and people and in particular with keeping new generations in touch with their heritage and management responsibilities.
In March this year Lachlan brought his sons Seth and Oscar to see the art sites at Bodbang Workwork (pictured).
These images and 34 others can be seen in room 101 at the Melbourne Conference and Exhibition Centre during ICOM-CC 2014.
Is this from the REAL real Banksy? Who knows, but it seems the right picture as Melbourne prepares to welcome about 800 delegates to the 17th Triennial Conference of the International Council of Museums Committee for Conservation (ICOM-CC).
The conference will attract leading international keynote speakers and up to 800 delegates, including conservators, scientists, historians and art historians, curators, librarians, archivists, students, collection managers and directors from the world’s leading cultural institutions and the private sector.
The conference offers technical sessions of the twenty-one specialist working groups, keynote speeches, behind the scenes visits to local conservation laboratories and sites of historic interest, cultural and social events as well as numerous opportunities to meet and forge ties with colleagues from every region of the world.
Warddeken Land Management, managers of the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area in Arnhem Land have brought an exhibition of photographs of rock art to the Melbourne Conference and Exhibition Centre and it will be open to conference members and the public in Room 101 at the MCEC from lunchtime Monday 15 to COB Friday 19 September.
The photographic exhibition, entitled Fragile First Impressions, features photographic work by Top End photo-journalist David Hancock.
The theme is first contact between the Aboriginal people of the Arnhem Plateau and europeans, as depicted by Aboriginal artists in the caves of the plateau. Most of the images are indeed the first impressions of the settler frontier by adventurous indigenous people who went down from the plateau to buffalo camps, tin mines, pastoral properties and later Christian missions.
They painted these images to illustrate their stories when they returned to the folks who stayed at home.
Over the coming week I’ll share some pictures and stories from the show here on Tumblr. I will be at the show most of time during the week to share the story of Warddeken and the rock art treasures of Western Arnhem Land.