After a satisfying picnic lunch at Angbangbang Billabong, our little group made our way to Nourlangie Rock (Burrunguy) to view Kakadu’s famous rock art gallery. Aboriginal art is the oldest ongoing tradition of art in the world and this is no surprise as Aboriginal people have lived in Kakadu continuously for at least 50,000 years.
Rock art consists of paintings, drawings, stencils, engravings, bas-relief and figures found in caves and rock shelters, on rock platforms and boulders. The paintings connect past and present, the indigenous people and the land, the supernatural and reality. Some indigenous paintings date as far back as 20,000 years old – so little wonder that Kakadu enjoys World Heritage status.
The Bininj/Mungguy (Aboriginal people) believe that Kakadu was shaped by their Creation Ancestors who travelled across the country creating landforms, plants, animals and of course, the Bininj/Mungguy. The Creation Ancestors left Bininj/Mungguy a legacy of kinship, linking people to the land and the cultural responsibility to look after the land. From then on, Aboriginal people became caretakers of their country. Laws including ceremony, language, kinship and ecological knowledge were introduced, and subsequently passed down from one generation to the next.
Our guide explained that we were standing right smack on one of the biggest uranium sites in the world. The traditional owners had rejected a very lucrative offer by a huge mining company to buy the land, as they felt it their duty to preserve the bond between Aboriginal people and land, and pass it down for future generations to continue this tradition.
We embarked on a 1.5 km circuit climb that took us through a shelter used by the Aboriginal people for over 50,000 years . Its exit opens out to Angbangbang’s Outdoor Art Gallery.
Reasons for rock painting
Story telling and education — The art sites are dreaming places, depicting dreamtime legends and images that communicate valuable lessons to be passed down from one generation to the next. There are more than 5,000 art sites that tell the story of Creation Ancestors and how they came to shape the landscape.
Hunting — animals were often painted to increase their numbers and to ensure a successful hunt by placing the aboriginal hunter in touch with the spirit of the animal.
Religious purposes — at some sites paintings depict aspects of certain ceremonies.
Magic and sorcery — pictures were drawn to manipulate events and influence lives.
Past time – for enjoyment, recreation and practice.
Some of the world’s finest examples of X-ray art can be found in this gallery. X-ray art is where animal bones and internal organs are drawn together with the outline. This detailed drawing gives the picture a three-dimensional effect.
The basic colours used Kakadu’s rock paintings are derived from several naturally occurring minerals.
- Haematite – An iron-rich rock used for red
- Limonite and goethite – For yellow/orange
- Ochre – An iron-stained clay used to make red, orange and yellow and can be stained darker by baking it in a fire before grinding
- Kaolin (pipeclay) and huntite – For white
- Manganese oxide and charcoal – For black. Charcoal does not last long as it is not a mineral.
Of all the paints, haematite lasts the longest. This is why the majority of rock art that we see today are completely red.
To make the paint the Aboriginal people crushed the pigments on a stone palette and mixed it with water to make a paste. They made brushes from human hair, chewed sticks, reeds and feathers. To create a stencil, they would blow wet pigments of ochre, water and animal fat from their mouths across their hands and other objects. The mixture is absorbed into the rock just like dye or ink on paper.
Generally, it is the act of painting that was regarded as more important than the painting itself. The act of painting put Bininj/Mungguy in touch with their Creation Ancestors – a powerful, spiritual experience. I suppose this is a bit like praying or meditating. As the artist was not painting for posterity but simply to tell a story, many images have been painted over each other.
For those of us who are non-Aboriginal, we view rock art as an individual piece of art. We admire the beauty and intricacy of the work, and then walk on to the next piece, just like in a museum.
Most Aboriginal art sites were not intended that way. The sites or places are in fact inter-linked – all adding up to an overall story whose sum is more than its parts.
A local rock art site might tell a particular creation story which is connected to another rock art site located a few hundred metres away. While some sites are a long distance apart, they are connected through the Dreaming stories they relay.
The stories associated with the rock paintings have a number of levels of meaning. Younger Bininj/Mungguy and non-Aboriginal people are only told the first level – that which is suitable for public consumption. Access to the ‘full story’ depends on an individual’s progression through ceremonial life, their inclinations, and their willingness to take on the responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with the ‘advanced/secret’ knowledge.
Here is a short introduction to some of the Creation Ancestors seen on the walls of Angbangbang Gallery.
The single male figure is Nabulwinjbulwinj. He is a dangerous spirit who eats females after killing them by striking them with yam.
This dramatic painting seen is Namarrgon, the Lightning Man. He is responsible for the spectacular lightning storms that pass through the area every year.
The band from his left ankle, joining his hands and head, and extending down to his right ankle represents the lightning he creates. The stone axes on his head, knees and elbows are used to split the dark clouds and create thunder.
Namarrgon’s rock home can be seen from the Gunwarddewarde Lookout. It’s not difficult to imagine Lightning Man standing on the rock, conjuring the lightning storms that overun the valley during the wet season.
Aboriginal people from different clan groups have different stories associated with Namondjok. To some, he is a Creation Ancestor who lives in the sky and can be seen as a dark spot across the Milky Way.
To others, he is a Creation Ancestor who travelled through the Burrungguy (Nourlangie Rock) area and broke the kinship laws with his ‘sister’.
Kinship laws dictate who Aboriginal people may and may not marry. Aboriginal people have a much more complex kinship system than those of European descent. An Aboriginal person’s ‘sister’ also includes first cousins (mother’s sisters’ children and their father’s brothers’ children). Just as marriage between brother and sister is unacceptable in non-Aboriginal society, the same applies to Aboriginal society.
A solitary boulder on Nourlangie Rock (Burrunguy) is a feather taken from Namondjok’s head-dress by his ‘sister’, after they had slept together. The boulder is visible from Gunwarddewarde Lookout to remind others of what they had done. As the story goes, the feather turned to stone and can still be seen there today.
Beneath these three Creation Ancestors is a group of men and women. Their elaborate dress suggests they are probably attending a ceremony. The dashes across the women’s chests indicate that they are breast-feeding.
These kinds of stories are told to explain the layout of the land and act as a reminder of the sacred practices and beliefs of the Aboriginal people.
A short walk through the bushes behind the Gallery led us to some rocky steps where we made our way up to Gunwarddewarde Lookout. The climb was short but difficult in certain places. Upon reaching the rocky top, however, all my tiredness dissipated and I was all over the place trying to capture the rugged beauty of the Kakadu escarpment.
Rock painting is rarely done by the Aboriginal people nowadays. Among the reasons for this is the fact that Aboriginal people no longer live in rock shelters, and there are fewer people with the necessary knowledge to paint at certain sites. Nevertheless, modern day Aboriginal artists continue to paint on bark, paper and other materials.