Two of the great artists of Western Arnhem Land, Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek AO (left) and Mick Kubarkku. My recollection is that I took this photograph at the Manmoyi airstrip around 1980. Lofty’s painting is of the euro Kalkberd (Macropus robustus) and Mick’s the saltwater crocodile Kinga (Crocodilus porosis). Kalkberd is a beast of the rocky ridges and hills and the males have very powerful arms and shoulders. Mick’s crocodile is shown either in an underwater cave or amongst fallen trees in the water — hard to tell. These men were prolific artists, for decades often producing one of two such paintings every two weeks. Both were beautiful and humble men. As well as his role as artist and ceremonial leader Bardayal went on to found Warddeken Land Management Limited, an indigenous NGO that now looks after the natural and cultural wonders of the Western Arnhem Plateau. The paintings are on flattened sheets of bark from the stringybark tree (Eucalyptus tetrodonta) and the pigments used are natural ochres from the bush which the bininj of western Arnhem Land have used for perhaps 50,000 years to paint on caves and bark shelters.
Western Arnhem Land indigenous art often incorporates use of an “X-ray” technique in which internal organs like heart, lungs and liver are shown. Mick Kubarkku (1922—2008), another old master from the Liverpool River in Western Arnhem Land has used X-ray style here but in a very unusual way. The figure is a Yawkyawk, a mermaid-like female water spirit. The water spirits may leave their homes in watery caves beneath banks of rivers and billabong and come out onto dry land at night and so Mick has shown them with arms and legs as well as the usual fish-tail. Their breasts project out under the arms, another West Arnhem Land artistic convention also used when painting mortal women. He has captured the sinuous movement of the Yawkyawks through the water. But running through the figure is a snake-like shape and he has cleverly blended both the head of the Yawkyawk and snake together. Yawkyawk is said to be the daughter of the great female rainbow serpent Yingarna, a being which gave people their social identities and languages in the beginning. He has brought together mother and daughter into one image. This painting travelled Australia as part of an exhibition of works by Kubarkku and Bardayal Nadjamerrek. She is now back closer to home. In the billabong Mick is using a wily fishing technique in a shallow billabong which has many small fish and freshwater prawns. A hollow log, blocked in one end with grass and weighted down with stones is left in the billabong. Fish and prawns go inside for safety from predators, for shade and cooler temperatures. All the hunter has to do is quickly tilt the open end upwards and the fish and prawns are trapped inside.
I took this photo in 1980 when I was employed by the Aboriginal Community at Maningrida to market their art and craft and to take a mobile store to families who had chosen to leave the Government settlement and live on their traditional estates. Aboriginal master painter Peter Marralwanga, his eldest wife Nalmabama and three of his 35 children wait at their dry season camp at Kudjalrdordo to exchange their works for cash and then to shop from the back of a truck loaded with supplies. Peter’s painting, on a flattened sheet of stringybark, depicts Barrk, the black wallaroo, an endemic macropod of western Arnhem Land. The baskets are of the highest quality and made from split fronds of pandanus palm which are dyed with vegetable dyes sourced from the bush. Peter is smoking a Larrwa, or long pipe, a style adopted from the Indonesian trepang fishermen from Macassar who traded with north Australia until the Australian government shut them out in 1905. Peter smoked the strongest pipe tobacco around — Erinmore flake. His addiction was passionate, but eventually it killed him. He died of lung cancer in 1987.
Perhaps, just perhaps, one day I will be in the right place, at the right time and with the right lens on my camera. But until then I will have to rely on words and this painting on paper by Billy Yaluwangka to share the remarkable story of Buludjirrk, the Black Kite (Milvus migrans) — the hawk than hunts with fire. In North Australia if you find wildfire you’ll find Buludjirrk there— swooping into the smoke and ashes to pluck lizards and insects off the ground or take the insects in the air. Often there are dozens wheeling around a fire front, along with whistling kites and other avian carnivores. It’s decades now since I first heard Aboriginal people tell me how Buludjirrk doesn’t give up when a fire is stopped by a natural firebreak — a river or creek, or these days sometimes a road or track. I’m not sure how many firsthand accounts I’ve heard, but it’s a lot. I haven’t seen the act of fire starting by Buludjirrk but I come close to it. We had been fighting a fire west of a creek on the Arnhem Plateau and from a helicopter I saw the fire pull up on a wide creek. We went off to deal with another front and came back to find the fire across the creek — travelling into the wind, not a case of sparks blown across the creek. Of course, there were plenty of black kites on the scene hunting as usual. Billy Yaluwangka tells the story of Buludjirrk in his picture. The hawk grabs a stick which is alight at one end, flies across the firebreak and drops the stick into grass. If he’s lucky he’ll have a new happy hunting fireground. Veteran birder and blogger Bob Gosford also has been fascinated by the story of the firebird of the north. Here’s a link to his blog on that subject in Crikey. And just maybe, one day I’ll be there with a camera.
Same story, settlers—miners. Painting by Jacky Green, artist and indigenous activist, Borroloola. 2012 (Private collection)
“The painting is about how we are tryin’ to pull up the mining companies from wrecking our country.
“We live in this country. It belongs to us. We tryin’ to stop them from wrecking our country.
“In the bottom left of the painting are the miners entering our country. First they come with their ‘agreements’, but they override us; they still come, it doesn’t matter what. Then they come with their dozers.
“Lined up on the edge of the river are Aboriginal people ready to drive the miners out of our country.
“It’s not the first time that we have had people invade our country. It happened, first time, back in
the 1870s when white explorers with their packhorses started moving through our country, looking
round to see what was there. Aboriginal people were watching them from a distance, staying back,
not wanting to be seen. Others were ready to spear them. “You can see this story in the bottom right
hand side of the painting. Above this is a group of Aboriginal men at the foot of the stone country.
“They have been watchin’ what is going on and talking about what to do, how to protect our country.
” Nothing has really changed since whitefellas first came into our country. First time it was horses and now bulldozers.” — story from Jacky Green.
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.