When European artists first arrived in Australia they struggled to draw the local fauna and flora. Their landscape art had an “englishness” about it and kangaroos and other Australian fauna had an unnatural resemblance to foxes, stoats and the like.
Not surprisingly, Aboriginal artists faced the same problem when they first encountered European beasts.
These paintings from a site in Djok clan country, Western Arnhem Land make the point quite visually.
The artists were well used to drawing kangaroos. The horses they drew were influenced by a mental macropod template for large mammals — big back legs, small front legs and looking like they are bounding rather than running.
We believe these pictures may have been painted in about 1865 when Captain Frances Cadell put a mob of horses ashore on the Liverpool River and went exploring on horseback.
The paintings are part of the Fragile First Impressions Exhibition of photographs of contact rock art from Western Arnhem Land at the International Council of Museums Conference here in Melbourne this week. The photographs were taken by Top End photojournalist David Hancock.
The show is open only to delegates to the conference but we hope to show it later in Canberra, Darwin and maybe Sydney.
Will keep you posted.

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.