The Gunbim in the Anbangbang Gallery
The Gunbim in the Anbangbang Gallery
A Story of Aboriginal Rock Art
This was a personal journey for Michael as he hosted us through the private lives of his ancestors. I felt the burden of respect for what he was saying and for the need to behave in a way that was considerate towards his memories and the sacredness of the surroundings. People actually lived, made many sounds with chatting and sometimes loud dancing, went through their daily round, just as we do, of chores, gathering food, see the still sharp lines of the kangaroo and hunter holding the tether on the spear so he can propel it even more quickly and accurately just as dog walkers can whip the ball away using that floppy spoon toy today.
Jamey back in Nitmuluk Gorge had said that because women were busy caring for children and the elderly and gathering food and water they didn’t have time to do rock paintings. I question that because men also had their work to do, so it seems more likely that men and women contributed to telling their story for future generations. Besides, if women were doing the domestic chores and looking after children they were nearer the rock walls for more time than the men and would have been the ones to teach children the stories of the spirits and flora and fauna from which they came.
I felt a real collection with these ancestors as we looked at the little circular hollows in the rocks where they used to grind the rock and mix their paints, imagining their bronzed hands working away, the same hands that held the little pooters or straws through which they blew the paint over the hands of another straight onto the rock.
The Bogeyman or Nabulwinjbulwinj was a terrifying character with his fat legs and fan shaped headdress. Children were warned about him just as they are today. All societies seem to have them. While we were in Australia and just previously in New Zealand an Israeli girl in Melbourne, Australia and an English lass, Grace Milane recently arrived on her travels to New Zealand were both murdered by men acting alone with evil intent and all through my adult life I can remember many such assaults on beautiful young women.
Another purpose of rock art was to record occasions of dancing just as a newspaper or TV report might today. These dances were not only celebratory. The song lines of the aborigines also gave directions for routes as they travelled across country and were sung to children as a way of preparing them to travel around the area where they lived.
Today aborigine professionals including professors who have chosen a life in the white man (balanda) society of Darwin ‘go to country’ as Michael explained, to learn the ways and laws of their people if they want to become elders of the clans.
One interesting aspect of their more recent work was the export of buffalo and kangaroo hides. The men would have hunted them between the 1890’s and 1960’s on the Nourlangi, a cluster of creeks where escapees from farmed herds wandered free. The women would prepare the hides and then punt them down the South Alligator River to the sea. They learned about tide times and would punt on out to the waiting ships with their lucrative cargoes.
One of the paintings, the one with lots of stick figures shows a pregnant woman up on the right hand side with her rounded belly. Other women are discernible as they are painted with breasts. When a woman was ready to give birth she would go to a women only area and be supported by a group of other women from her clan. I think it likely these aspects of their lives were depicted by the female side of their society. Isn’t the painting of the foot delightful? Apologies for the poor quality of the enlargement.
Another reason behind their artwork is to preserve the story of the spirits. Ones that stood out for me were the Lightning Spirit and his wife, Namarrgon and Barrginj and the tail and head depictions of the Guluibirr or Saratoga fish show a careful attention to the detail of this attractive fish.
On our coach journey back to Darwin Michael told us about how some clans were run by women and those were always civilised and well organised and they “forged successful ways” which ensured their survival. This reminded me of the video Rob and I watched at the National Library in Canberra. The lady commentator was explaining that her ancestors in the 1760/70s were the women who ran the community at what is now called Cooktown, where Cook first landed on the east coast. It was their civilised and hospitable attitude towards this complete stranger and his ship’s crew that made this auspicious event a success.
It was Michael who made our visit so interesting and enjoyable with his talent for embracing a group of strangers with warmth and generosity. The aborigine attitude towards the first arrival of balanda is not universally as benign and accommodating as we were to learn the next day, Australia Day, or Invasion Day as it is also called.