Tuesday, 2 June 2015


‘Kungkarangkalpa’; Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington,; 2013; Acrylic on canvas. © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.
Can civilisations be judged by the richness of the stories they tell? If so then the indigenous people of Australia must rank amongst the highest of civilisations. Yet when James Cook arrived on the shores of Australia in 1770 he was dismissive of the people living there despite their deep sense of history and landscape and stories they told in their art – an unbroken tradition for 40 000 years from the time of the earliest hand stencil on a rock wall.

In the darkened space of Room 35 at the British Museum I find myself in another world. The abstract images that dominate the entry space hold me mesmerised. The longer one looks the more the stories emerge. Tiny dots of colour that seem applied with a fingertip, pulse with light and create shimmering circles and the outline of fabulous creatures. It’s a 'dreaming' of a mythical past and of a landscape well known. Uta Uta Tjangala’s painting Yumari, describes a 'dreaming' of women with digging sticks and King Brown Snake and tells the story of the artist’s own biological conception. Ironic that a portion of this painting is printed as background on every Australian passport like DNA.
‘Yumari’, Uta Uta Tjangala (c. 1926–1990), Pintupi people, Papunya, Northern Territory, 1981, Acrylic on canvas. National Museum of Australia

I make a quick note of something I see written in one of the cases. 'These images were put down for us by our creator so we know how to stay alive. We should dance these images down into the ground in our 'corroborees' ceremonies. That would make us learn the stories and put new life into these images.' And I'm reminded of a wonderful children's picture book called The Dancer written by Nola Turkington, illustrated by Niki Daly and published by Frances Lincoln about a girl dancing the magical dance of the rainbull... and the thought that perhaps illustrators dance images into the minds of readers so they become part of our psyche. I hope so.
The exhibition is incredibly moving and for me particularly unsettling as it connects so strongly with my own background – the way the San people in Southern Africa were dismissed by white settlers and the later years of ‘apartheid’. There are too many parallels. One painting in a more Western style of landscape with whitened gum trees is the most moving of all. Albert Namatjira, famous in the 1950s as one of Australia’s leading landscape artists was granted Australian citizenship, long before other Northern Territory Aboriginals. Then in 1957 he was imprisoned for supplying alcohol to one of his family members (alcohol was forbidden to Aboriginals) and died soon after his release. 

Equally sad are postcards sent home to the UK from Victorian visitors depicting indigenous people almost as objects – the dismissive words scrawled across one postcard – ‘I spent two days here’.

One of the most beautiful exhibits is a line of biface spearpoints. The chipping detail on these minute blades is exquisite, made even more so by being of reflective materials like glass and agate and precious stone as well as ceramic (made from insulators on telegraph poles).

For the full impact of this beautifully curated and spare exhibition, it should be seen on a quiet day when the artefacts speak for themselves without distraction. The amazing crocodile masks, one bartered for with a few paltry beads and a mirror, the bark paintings, the etched shell pendants where the shimmer of shell was seen as a connection to lightning, water and ancestral power, the message sticks, the incredible ancient knotted bags and amazing biconical baskets – surely one of the most beautiful shapes in the world, that seem to trap and hold air in a moment of stillness – and the video of a basket-maker’s story, whose regular work is at the local dump, whose fingers are large and squidgy and yet can weave the finest of biconical baskets.

Pearl shell pendant with dancing figures. Kimberley region, Western Australia, before 1926. Pearl shell, charcoal © The Trustees of the British Museum.
 Bark painting of a barramundi. Western Arnhem Land, about 1961 © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Don’t stay away. Go for all the stories that this exhibition plaits together – the sadness of the past as well as the artistry of an ancient nation, where knowledge of the past and history of landscape is reclaimed and put down in ochre on bark and in paint, and stories woven into threads of grass and reed. And look forward to the possibility of the artefacts held here in Britain, being given back to the people whose stories they tell.

(Permission to use these images was given by the British Museum and the copyright is as stated in the captions.)


Twitter @dihofmeyr

Zeraffa Giraffa, written by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Jane Ray and published by Frances Lincoln, is on The Sunday Times List of Children's Top 100 Classics for the last 10 years.


catdownunder said...

For two years as a child I lived in a remote rural community in South Australia where my parents were the teachers in the two teacher school. The community we lived in was called "Wirrulla". It means "wild turkey" in the local indigenous language. I often wondered why it had that name as there were no turkeys anywhere. There was also a "Nunjikompita" which meant "no man's land". We got lost going there one Sunday morning when my father was, as teachers were required to do, helping the Methodist priest by taking the service. The name always seemed very apt after that!
The area also boasts some other wonderful names such as Mudamuckla, Yantanabie, Yaninee, and Chilpanunda. They all had meanings but, as "whiteys", we were not told most of them.
Indigenous culture is extraordinarily rich in story and picture although much of it has been lost along with the many languages which were spoken.

Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely post, Di - is this a temporary exhibition? I hadn't heard about it.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Cat wonderful that you commented on this with your REAL insight. A two teacher school! Your childhood must've been so different and rich compared with that of a city child. I wonder if the wild turkeys were another sort of bird like we have in the wild in South Africa which is flightless and looks like a turkey, called a Ground Hornbill.

The exhibition is very moving. My first exposure to real indigenous Australian artefacts. I believe the stores of the British Museum were opened to the elders who came from Australia to see and touch and authenticate before the exhibition was actually opened.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...
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Nick Green said...

The age of the aboriginal culture is another remarkable thing. I've heard claims (don't know if anyone can verify) that aboriginal legends can pinpoint undersea mountains that were last above sea level some 10,000 years ago, or longer... I can't find the article where I read this. And there are similar theories that tales of creatures like the Bunyip may be genuine accounts of now-extinct creatures handed down the generations - believable, if the mountain story is true.

catdownunder said...

RMW Dixon, a linguist, mentions myths that talk about the geology and the geography of the landscape Nick. Ditto the "bunyip" as a now extinct animal. He didn't get everything right - anymore than some of the other academics have - but Dixon raised the awareness of "cultural memory" and the way it has been passed down for thousands of years.
Some of the taboos in indigenous culture make it very difficult to study it with any degree of accuracy. The indigenous "languages" now taught would not be understood by the people who spoke them prior to white settlement.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I am in Italy at the moment and can't lay my hands on a book about mnemonic memory which sites some of this ancient knowledge that is passed on through devices like memory sticks as well as maps made of pieces of cane tied in a certain patterns that show ocean currants etc. Thanks for that Nick and Cat.

Joan Lennon said...

Wonderful images - thank you!

adele said...

Fascinating post! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

What a compelling description of what must be a very moving exhibition, thank you Di - the British Museum curating with its great skill the stories and lives of an Australian indigenous people as shown through art. As mentioned in the blog, life into the images, but though life goes into the images life and culture also arise out of these images and fill passion pride and meaning into aboriginal Australians who are expressing their own civilisation in these current times. Namatjira and his particular genius using European technique with an aboriginal sensitivity to the Australian bush, along with other geniuses of aboriginal creativity, both artistic and technically inventive, may show us the way to an Australia that will see aboriginal and non- aboriginal Australians grow together and form roots to grow strong like the gum trees in our native land. These exhibitions and blogs like yours Di, will demonstrate the depth of the aboriginal culture and provide the basis on which we can form a great country together, separately but as one ...Beverley Fry ... An Australian

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Bev.. phew! Thank you! This is so brilliantly put...

"with an aboriginal sensitivity to the Australian bush, along with other geniuses of aboriginal creativity, both artistic and technically inventive, may show us the way to an Australia that will see aboriginal and non- aboriginal Australians grow together and form roots to grow strong like the gum trees in our native land."

Dianne Hofmeyr said...
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Howard Morphy said...

a very strange comment from catdownunder. Australian Aboriginal languages are of great antiquity and in those cases where the languages have survived the horrendous colonial history there is no doubt that people speaking them today would have been understood by speakers of those languages before European colonisation. The languages are dynamic and is the case with all human languages change overtime, but the relationship between language and country has been very durable over time in Australia helping maintain language diversity.