When Europeans arrived, the old ways of painting changed … We have changed the law, the old fashioned way of painting has finished and we are new people doing new kinds of painting together for non-Aboriginal people as well.1John Mawurndjul, ‘My head is full up with ideas’, a conversation between John Mawurndjul, Murray Garde and Apolline Kohen, February 2001, in Au Centre de la Terre D’Arnhem: Entre myths et réalité Art aborigène d’Australie (In the Heart of Arnhem Land: Myth and the Making of Contemporary Aboriginal Art), Musée de l’Hôtel-Dieu, Mantes-la-Jolie (France), 2001, p. 54.
Marking Time: Indigenous Art from the NGV looks at the persistence of images, signs or text painted or drawn on a range of surfaces in Indigenous Australia, from ancient times until now. The impulse to draw and make images and symbols is deeply embedded in Indigenous cultures throughout the world and is fundamental to the human experience.
One of the first and most prolific forms of mark making, both figurative and non-figurative, has appeared across Australia on rock surfaces since the pre-historic era. Other forms of visual culture are ephemeral and comprise meaningful markings and designs made on the ground, the body and objects, for use in ceremonial contexts. The removal of such ritual markings from the body and the ground after ceremony, along with the loss of other more durable designs and images through natural processes, such as erosion, is compounded by other forms of loss through the socially fragmenting effects of colonisation. In response, Indigenous artists have found new ways of prolonging this visual language of images and signs, by reimagining it in new and more durable art forms, such as acrylic paintings, neons, sculptures and limited-edition prints. This exhibition reveals many nuances of mark making as an artistic practice in the Indigenous Australian context, with multiple aesthetic consequences and modes of practice.
From rock face to bark
Rock faces and shelters throughout Australia bear markings of painted figures, schematic signs and symbols, and are the earliest figurative paintings known. Current bark and sculptured forms by Jimmy Midjawmidjaw and Crusoe Kuningbal give modern presence to this enduring visual tradition in a Gallery setting. Figurative rock art informs a bark, wet-season shelter by Bardayal Nadjamerrek and Ngulayngulay Murrmurru, commissioned by Czech-Australian archaeologist George Chaloupka. In marking the overhanging canopy with their stencilled handprints, created by blowing delek (powdered white pipe clay) from their mouths, the artists have registered their personal mark or signature as in rock art. This shelter honours a practice that co-existed with painting on rock and celebrates the origins of bark painting in Western Arnhem Land and beyond.
From ground and body to board
In 1971, senior Aboriginal men at Papunya appropriated the walls of the Papunya School to reclaim identity and provide an alternative narrative of Country. Their Honey Ant Dreaming mural (which was painted over in 1974) established a mode of visibility, valorised the primacy of their culture and reiterated their right to remain on Country. The dynamic legacy of their act of cultural assertion precipitated the Western Desert Art Movement and this creative explosion quickened the transfer of designs from ceremonial ground, body and object on to board.
In 1986, Warlpiri senior men of Lajamanu, accustomed to making vast ground paintings for closed ritual contexts decided to make public and permanent their kuruwarri (signs or marks of ancestral beings) in modern materials. Working spontaneously with found materials in the local TAFE centre, the men transplanted ephemeral ochre and wamalu (plant fibre) designs from the ceremonial ground to rough sheets of composition board. Their radical artistic initiative protracted and communicated their language and reinforced cultural and historical authority over Country. The shiny enamel and acrylic paints echo and critique the incongruous elements of settlement living, such as electric colours, video images, trail bikes and tucker eaten out of tins. The paintings serve as charters to the land and attest to the strength of Warlpiri law in a contemporary environment.
From street to gallery
Modern forms of mark making scribbled on street walls and alley ways is a prominent visual element of nearly every city around the world, and its power as a political mode of expression has been adopted by some Indigenous artists. Such impromptu image making and messaging is a voice of protest and affirmation apparent on exterior façades such as the Aboriginal Tent Embassy of 19722The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is a permanent protest occupation established on 26 January 1972, which is made up of signs and tents on the lawn opposite Old Parliament House in Canberra. and the commissioned bark shelter. In the hands of urban Indigenous artists, it can remain a visual element on the street, discernible in the works of Richard Bell and Reko Rennie or make the transition to a gallery as fine art where it forges a dynamic relationship with another audience. Rennie inhabits both spaces with Initiation, 2013, proclaiming an unbroken link between diamond inscriptions on dendroglyphs (carved trees) and a hip hop vibe. Among the icons presented in this work are his own personal tag of a crown, a Kamilaroi diamond and the Aboriginal flag. While each symbol speaks to Aboriginal sovereignty, their application in Rennie’s hand quotes the aesthetic of American street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
From body to classroom to gallery walls
In contrast to these masculine urban expressions of identity politics and resistance, the transmission of Warlpiri women’s customary cultural knowledge is enacted through performative acts of mark making, which have also been adapted to a modern context. When preparing to perform yawulyu (women’s ceremonies), Warlpiri women of Lajamanu, Northern Territory, gather communally to mark their bodies with ochre paintings. Each of these cultural signatures or kuruwarri creates a dialogue from a women’s perspective that addresses questions of place, creation and identity. In 1986, the women, who were actively involved in bilingual and bicultural programs at Lajamanu Community School, painted more than fifty works on cardboard or paper, which were designed to teach the children their jukurrpa (Dreaming).
Exploring genres of land, body and performance, these Warlpiri artists reasserted their authority over women’s business in a new medium. They prioritised and rendered durable ritual designs that enshrine their role as nurturers of people, land and relationships and leaders in cultural maintenance; not merely food gatherers. These powerful drawings, which have their origins as ochre designs on the female body, bear witness to profound cultural knowledge. Like the markings on a rock wall or streetscape, the female body functions as both context and site for Warlpiri ways of being prior to being transferred to the Lajamanu classroom and finally on to gallery walls.
In conclusion, Marking Time suggests that an unbroken visual repertory of images and designs inherited by different Indigenous peoples underpins diverse practices in the creation of social identity and meaning in urban and traditional settings. Such forms of mark making negotiate and embody context, performance and history. Incising or painting surfaces, whether historic or contemporary, is quintessentially a way of being seen, a complex cultural manifestation and a voice of resistance that seldom accords with dominant colonial narratives. What makes past Indigenous Australian rock, ground and body art unique is its continued relevance and immediacy through re-invented patterns of form and meaning. An unbroken visual phenomenon, such visible signifiers of sovereignty are a powerful form of Indigenous cultural expression. Communicating with others through visual narrative, symbolic languages or iconic marks is a tool in our quest as humans to make sense of the world and ourselves.
John Mawurndjul, ‘My head is full up with ideas’, a conversation between John Mawurndjul, Murray Garde and Apolline Kohen, February 2001, in Au Centre de la Terre D’Arnhem: Entre myths et réalité Art aborigène d’Australie (In the Heart of Arnhem Land: Myth and the Making of Contemporary Aboriginal Art), Musée de l’Hôtel-Dieu, Mantes-la-Jolie (France), 2001, p. 54.
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is a permanent protest occupation established on 26 January 1972, which is made up of signs and tents on the lawn opposite Old Parliament House in Canberra.