Behind THE canvas
Peek into the heart and soul of Indigenous culture through art
WORDS SHAUN BUSUTTIL
As the oldest continuing culture on the planet, the artistic practices of Australia's Indigenous peoples are as ancient as they come. When an artist paints, the work becomes layered masterpieces of their knowledge, cultural status and deep connection to Country. But more than that, Aboriginal art plays a vital role in preserving the cultural practices, spirituality and languages of the 60,000-year-old-culture.
There were once over 250 distinct languages and 800 dialects across the country. Today, many of those that remain are endangered. However, these linguistic systems were not written down and instead, it is through the mastery of storytelling and the development of a highly complex visual language of meaningful symbols, the art, as we know it today, is a documentation of Indigenous knowledge, stories and ancient ancestral traditions that have been passed down through the generations. To this day, many artistic practices remain, albeit in a contemporary guise. While traditional substrates, such as rock and bark, and use of ochres and natural dyes are still used today, acrylic paint and cotton, linen and canvas are also commonly used.
Many traditional art practices are still used today.
Despite the modernisation of Aboriginal art practices, the role of art in Indigenous culture remains closely linked to its ancient origins and continues to play a critical contemporary role in First Nations cultures. Situated in the heart of Miriwoong Country in Western Australia's Kimberley region, Waringarri Aboriginal Arts & Tours is one of the oldest continuously operating art centres in Australia. Waringarri translates to 'people all together' in the local Miriwoong language, and it provides a space for artists and artisans to practice and share culture and preserve it - there are currently less than 20 fluent speakers of Miriwoong language.
"It's a way for us to tell our stories and a way to preserve our history," says Miriwoong/Ngarinyman artist Dora Griffith, who is Director of the Waringarri Aboriginal Arts Board. This Indigenous-owned art centre supports over 100 local painters, printmakers, wood carvers, boab engravers, sculptors and textile artists.
Waringarri Arts was established in the 1980s, in the heart of Miriwoong Country (Kununurra in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia).
Remote Aboriginal centres, such as Waringarri, are as much about bringing together a community – a place for meeting and sharing – as they are about the art. "Going to an art centre gives you this incredible insight into the positives and the cultural strength of Aboriginal people in remote Australia," says Cathy Cummins, manager of Waringarri Aboriginal Arts & Tours. A creative and collaborative environment for artists, Waringarri positions itself as the place to learn about the history of Miriwoong culture.
Regions across Australia have distinct techniques and art.
Proceeds at Waringarri are returned to the community.
"It’s like a school," says Dora, where both the local community and travellers can learn about the region's distinct cultural identity. "This place is a chance for us to share our history and culture with the wider world. All our history is kept here in the art. If travellers come to our Country, we want to welcome them and keep them safe in our Country." As well as hosting curated exhibitions and multi-media presentations, the centre also runs a range of authentic art and culture tours led by local Aboriginal guides and artists. It aims to preserve the Miriwoong culture, with tours led by Indigenous guides, taking visitors through galleries and out onto Country. Beginning her artistic journey by helping the senior artists mix paint back in 2004 as a way to support her kids and grandchildren, Dora paints culturally significant sites from her mother’s and father’s Country: Doojem and Timber Creek, in the Northern Territory. Like other Indigenous communities, Dora believes that spiritual beings once roamed across their Country during an era known as Ngarranggarni (or Dreaming), creating the waterholes, rivers and other natural features of the landscape. For Dora, and other Indigenous artists, painting these Dreaming sites is a way to preserve ancient knowledge, stories and beliefs, whilst maintaining a spiritual connection to this sacred land.
Visitors can watch, listen and learn as artists work at the art centre.
"I was taught how to paint by my parents, who are both senior artists. I paint Ngarranggarni sites such as Doojem, or Butterfly Dreaming. This is a place created by the butterfly in the Ngarranggarni," Dora shares. "I also paint his [my father’s] Country near Victoria River, in a similar way to how he painted Country – by mapping it." According to Waringarri, "When an artist paints their Country, they relate a map of the land to the knowledge contained within it." The significance of art is more than a decorative piece to adorn the walls of a home or gallery. These maps feature rivers, hills, open plains and waterholes, and share knowledge of the land, Ngarranggarni stories, bush foods and contemporary events.
Brian 'Binna' Swindley is passionate about the sharing of art and culture.
SHARING IS CARING
The imperative to keep Indigenous culture alive by sharing its traditions and stories to visitors through art is also what motivates renowned Kuku Yalanji artist Brian 'Binna' Swindley of Janbal Gallery in Mossman in Far North Queensland. An acclaimed artist in his own right and co-owner of the gallery, Binna began painting at an early age. "I wanted to be an artist from a child," Binna said. Thirty years later, he's still just as passionate about giving his guests a deeper and more personal understanding of Aboriginal culture.
A font of local knowledge and Dreamtime stories, Binna excels at his artistic interpretations of Kuku Yalanji life and Country: its flora, fauna and landscapes, which include the Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics' rainforests. "My gallery is about sharing our culture and passing it on to people from all over the world that come to visit," says Binna. "We explain to our guests what the different elements in the artwork represent… because most of the time they don’t have this information."
"My gallery is about sharing our culture and passing it on to people from all over the world that come to visit."
But what makes Janbal Gallery truly special is its focus on human connection. Visitors here get to meet the artists from the local region, learn about their lives, and then have their artwork signed and stamped by the artists. "Our guests love meeting the artists, sitting down with them and having a yarn about their life and the artwork. That's one of the most important parts," says Binna. It's also possible to meet, interact and learn from Binna himself through his fun and informative workshops covering everything from Aboriginal art history and storytelling to how to mix ochre paints, the medicinal uses of local fruits and different painting techniques. Participants can learn the stories behind some of his most prized paintings, too. Like other Indigenous artists, Binna only paints his own stories. "If people want to know about me and my paintings and stories, I tell them. But I have a lot of respect for my people in the past, so I don't do their stories," Binna says.
Interactive and immersive art experiences give visitors a hands-on understanding of art and its link to culture.
Visiting Aboriginal art centres and galleries leaves you with more than just a greater appreciation and understanding of First Nations culture.
Through listening, participation, workshops, and sharing of the narrative behind each element that makes up a story-on-canvas - through the eyes and words of Indigenous artists - everyone can play a part in the preservation of Aboriginal culture. One painting at a time.
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