The artists from Injalak Arts and Crafts Centre, Gunbalanya, worked closely with the British Museum on the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation. Here they write on the importance of rock art and its relevance to today’s visitors of West Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia.
Injalak Arts is a unique centre based in the town of Gunbalanya. One of only two fully Indigenous-governed and continuously operating organisations in the town, it plays an important role within the community, functioning as a social hub, a charity and an enterprise that generates livelihoods for local people. The sale of arts and crafts to tourists is an important source of self-generated income for many people, and the Injalak Rock Art Tour developed by the Centre has enabled a fruitful cultural exchange with the Aboriginal people.
Gunbalanya lies at the limits of the Arnhem Plateau, the sandstone escarpment country at the heart of West Arnhem Land. This escarpment, and its outliers such as Injalak Hill in Gunbalanya, is one of the most important rock art areas in the world. It is from this rock art – as well as ceremonial body and object designs, and paintings on the walls of wet season bark shelters – that the art of the Injalak artists finds its origin.
Injalak Hill boasts extensive galleries, literally thousands of paintings scattered amongst the boulders and breathtaking views of floodplains and the famed Arnhem Land escarpment. Injalak Hill was a significant occupation site for the inhabitants of the region.
The paintings in the rock art galleries show continuous habitation over millennia, with images layered over and over one another. Carbon dating shows some are more than 15,000 years old.
Since the beginning of time the traditional owners of West Arnhem Land have used rock art as an important form of visual communication. Together with dance, music and oral stories, rock art has been used to express and pass down ancestral beliefs, traditions and laws regulating the life of the Kunwinjku people of the Northern Territory.
As well as being a form of visual communication, rock art was also made to document daily life. Hunting and harvesting of bush foods still plays an important part in the life of Aboriginal people (bininj), and revolves around the traditional calendar of six distinct seasons. For example, in bangkerreng (the late wet season) the dragonflies over the water tell people that the fish are fat and plentiful. Game and bush tucker are some of the most important subjects in rock art and this continues in the art of today.
Namarnkol, the barramundi, is a very important fish for bininj. Barramundi are found in the ocean, in floodwaters, and in freshwater billabongs, rivers and creeks. In the old days, people used to spear them with djalakirradj (three-pronged fish spears) and walabi (traditional triangular nets). Nowadays, they are caught with fishing lines and modern nets. You can see a bark painting of a barramundi in the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation.
According to the Kunwinjku, Mimihs were the original spirit beings and taught Aboriginal people many of the skills they needed to survive in the bush along with ceremonies, dance and song. These spirits continue to live in rocks, trees and caves but are rarely seen by humans. They are frequently seen in the rock art of Arnhem Land as small, dynamic figures.
The Kunwinjku of West Arnhem Land, one of the longest continuing Indigenous cultures today, leave a lasting impact on all those who come into contact with them, whether it be through working with them, by visiting Injalak Hill or through the walls of an exhibition. From Gunbalanya to the British Museum in London, one can only hope that we are contributing towards keeping culture strong and sustainable for the generations to come.
The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015
Supported by BP
Organised with the National Museum of Australia
Logistics partner IAG Cargo
The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online