Throughout northern Australia can be found many spirit-figure paintings from the Dreaming that are said to be the actual ancestral beings rather than the work of any human artist. People inherited these sacred pictures and it has been their responsibility to freshen colours, repair any damage, and repaint them from time to time.
The Wandjina paintings of the Kimberley are believed to be the powerful creator figures themselves – beings who control rain, storms and floods. Their painted images show them as human in form, with large bodies outlined in red, great dark eyes, no mouths and ‘haloes’ of cloud and lightning.
Similarly, Aboriginal people of western Arnhem Land say that their Mimi rock pictures were painted not by humans but by the Mimi spirits. The drawings, usually in red ochre, show elegant, graceful stick-like human figures in action – fighting, running, dancing, leaping and hunting.
The Mimi live in the nooks and crannies of the rocky landscape, coming out at night. They are said to be so thin and frail that they can emerge from their hiding places only when there is no wind, otherwise they would be blown away. The Mimi not only created these lively self-portraits, but also are the Dreaming ancestors who taught people to paint, hunt, dance and compose songs.
Human figure said to be painted by a Mimi spirit – from Kakadu National Park
Rock art is part of a living tradition
Rock pictures are still very important to Aboriginal people, in many different ways. Originally each site belonged to a particular group which had the right of access and the responsibility for looking after the paintings or engravings and for any necessary ceremonies. Many religious images were more than mere pictures. They represented the actual spiritual energy of the creative ancestors and when repainted or retouched in a ritual context their sacred power was released, ensuring that the seasons came at their proper time, plants and animals were in plentiful supply, and children were born.
In some areas, such as Arnhem Land and Central Australia, rock painting retains its religious significance. The Warlpiri and Pitjantjatjara people of the deserts still retouch their sacred images for specific ritual purposes. Larry Jakamarra Nelson, a Warlpiri man and teacher of the old traditions who lives at Yuendumu in the Northern Territory, says:
When I look at my tjukurrpa [dreaming] paintings it makes me feel good – happy in kuturu (heart), spirit. Everything is there: all there in the caves, not lost. This is my secret side. This is my home – inside me . . . Our dreaming, secret side – we must hold on to this, like our fathers, looking after it . . . We give to our sons when we die. The sons keep this from their fathers, grandfathers. The sons will remember, they can carry on, not be lost. And it is still there – fathers’ country with rockhole, painted cave . . . The people keep their ceremony things and pictures – they make them new. They bring young boys for learning to the caves – telling the stories, giving the laws from grandfathers’ fathers, learning to do the paintings – tjukurrpa way.
(From the preface to Elaine Godden and Jutta Malnic, Rock Paintings of Aboriginal Australia)
As Larry Jakamarra Nelson indicates, the paintings demonstrate group ownership of sites and country, Aboriginal connections to their land. Even where images are no longer painted or repainted, they can still be very important to Aboriginal people who know the stories and meanings associated with them.
In many parts of Australia, however, the history of the last 200 years has meant the loss of land and of traditional religious beliefs and practices. Nevertheless, the rock paintings and engravings found in these areas still have great symbolic significance to Aboriginal communities. They are regarded as a major link with the past, a part of Aboriginal heritage, a record of Aboriginal history, and a source of identity to present generations of Aboriginal people.