Aboriginal Rock Art
– A Cultural Experience in Cooktown –
Today we had a taste of Aboriginal culture in Cooktown as we visited historic rock art sites.
We joined a half day tour guided by Aboriginal elder Willie Gordon who gave us a lot of local and historical information as we headed bush.
The landscape was surprisingly familiar, reminding me very much of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in Sydney. My grandparents had property bordering the national park and as children my cousins and I would spend many hours exploring the bush, seeing which native flowers were in bloom, and listening to the variety of bird calls. The large flat black rocks were a great picnic spot and play area.
The Cooktown tour today took us past scenic rocky ledges and through narrow gorges as we approached the rock art caves.
In this region the paintings are fine art rather than dot style, and Willie showed us how they make the paint (ochre stone and water) and the brushes, which are feathered pieces of strong reed that is also used for basket weaving.
The Rainbow Serpent
Aboriginal art reflects the surrounding environment – its plants, animals and practical things like tools used for hunting. But it is also very much about the story behind the art, and a lot of paintings represent Aboriginal mythology. There are many folk stories that Aboriginals use to explain their natural environment and surrounding landscape, this is referred to as The Dreaming. The story of the Rainbow Serpent would be the most familiar to non-Aboriginal people, and is their symbol of creation.
Art is also used to record significant historical events and to show respect for esteemed members of society. In Aboriginal culture, people of great knowledge who are able to teach others are ranked most highly in society. This painting shows a teacher, with the stripes representing levels of knowledge that have been obtained. The stripes are actually scars formed from the tradition of cutting the skin with sharp pieces of quartz crystal. Our guide likened it to openly displaying your resume′ on your body.
Other paintings depict sacred locations such as birthing sites. This picture shows the mother, the baby, and an upside-down male, signifying that the male is out of place in this location. The birthing site also provided people with a connection to place and a spiritual identity, similar to a nationalistic attachment that we may feel identifying ourselves as citizens of our country of birth.
The handprint stencils you see are usually the signature of the artist or a way of marking your place of belonging.
My favourite piece of art represents the Aboriginal spiritual belief that all life is created from ‘the light’, and although there is also darkness in this world, the message behind this artwork is to insert your face onto the body that has the’spirit of light’ shining through.
Shine on beautiful people!
Copyright August 2012