Imagining Landscapes

What can we know of the Australian environment before European settlement wrought such great changes? While painting and photography are by no means infallible guides to nature as it was, or as it is, we can learn from both. And of course we can learn also from the historical and anthropological records that remain. However, any effort to uncover the authentic early Australian landscape presents us with two very different (indeed in some ways entirely opposed) cultural viewpoints: that of black Australians and that of white Australians. The Aboriginal perspective is that of a profoundly spiritual and yet intensely practical people, living close to the land. Their distinctive culture has excited interest around the world. The European perspective, on the other hand, is that of a displaced people, largely alienated from the land. Their derivative culture provided them with a powerful technology which has seemingly enabled combative triumph over the land and over the people who first inhabited it. Whereas the indigenous Australian perspective evolved over tens of thousands of years, the European-Australian perspective has developed over only two hundred years, applying attitudes to nature which were honed and refined on the other side of the planet.

Still glides the stream


Arthur Streeton, Still glides the stream, 1890
Oil on canvas, 82.5 x 153 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

This Yarra River landscape, almost certainly the very view over which Streeton's axeman gazes, is now covered with suburban Melbourne bungalows for ten to twenty miles in every direction.

Djarrakpi landscape


Narritjin Maymuru, Djarrakpi landscape, c.1978
Traditional bark painting
Reproduced by courtesy of Film Australia, owner of the painting, and the Aboriginal Artists Agency on behalf of the Manggalili clan.

This painting depicts both the topographical features of a particular site and the mythological events which shaped them.

The selector's hut: Whelan on the log


Arthur Streeton, The selector's hut: Whelan on the log, 1890
Oil on canvas, 76.7 x 51.2 cm
Collection Australian National Gallery, Canberra

Map of item 4.4

Map of the landscape depicted in ITEM 4.4

Water dreaming


Johnny Warrangula Tjaparula, Water dreaming, 1977
45 x 62 cm
Custodian: Tjaparula-Tjakamara
By permission of Mr Geoff Bardon

Map of item 4.5

Map of the landscape depicted in ITEM 4.5

Children's water dreaming with possum story


Old Mick Tjakamara, Children's water dreaming with possum story, 1973
45 x 58 cm
Custodian: Old Mick as custodian for his father, Old Dan Bugger Tjaparula
By permission of Mr Geoff Bardon

To pursue this cultural comparison of human/landscape relations in Australia, we must first attempt to see the landscape through the eyes of its indigenous people – a task in which we can have only the most limited success. Anthropologists tell us that the Aboriginal people discuss the land primarily in terms of its natural products for use in daily life, in terms of their activities and the mythic activities of their ancestors, and in terms of seasonal change. The land is conceived of and understood not only ecologically but mythologically or perhaps better said, religiously. Aboriginal artists present this vision of the landscape at several levels of reality. Many Aboriginal landscapes are at one level a map of a real landscape, at another level a simple and decorative depiction of objects and creatures in that landscape and, at a third level, a telling of a sacred myth.

Paintings are important to clan members in two main ways: they establish links between living clan members and the world of the Ancestral Beings who created it, and they are seen as a charter to the land. The intricate background patterns are the unique property of individual clans and are often said to provide the clan with it 'permission' from the Ancestral World to occupy their land ... The paintings represent a way of looking at the world and of ordering life's experiences in terms of the relationship between man and the environment ...

Each place depicted in the paintings is associated with a set of mythological events which underline the landscape and endow it with meaningful form. The paintings are said to show people the way by revealing the ancestrally determined order of the world. There is a right way and a wrong way to learn and use knowledge.

Howard Morphy, Manggalili Art: Catalogue, 1983

Every feature of a given landscape may be endowed with meaning. The paths of the Ancestral Beings became rivers and lakes and their bodies were transformed into rocks and trees. A line of rocks at the beach near the mouth of a river may be a manifestation of one of these Ancestral Beings. Thus, much of Aboriginal art is concerned with defining the relationship between objects in the cultural and natural environments. The revelation of new 'meanings' for elements of the art does not negate the old, but adds further to the individual's perception of the multiple and complex relationships existing in the natural world.

Description of a journey from Ormiston Pound Description of a journey from Ormiston Pound 2


John Wolseley, Description of a journey from Ormiston Pound to an ochre mine in the Heavitree Range, Northern Territory (detail), 1979
Watercolour, each sheet 23.5 x 31.5 cm, overall (inc. frame) 86.2 x 236.2 cm
Geelong Art Gallery
Purchased 1979 Capital Permanent Award

The other ten panels of Journey from Ormiston Pound are found on pp. 69-71.

An English Australian artist John Wolseley has commented on the influence of Aboriginal perspectives on his own work.

It is interesting how much we take for granted our own visual symbols. Many of us think that the ubiquitous gum tree and 'view' found in so many Australian lounges is a wonderfully true expression of reality. Whereas it is in fact just one – and often a debased, badly reproduced and trite one at that – of a great variety of models of reality.

I was recently in a house in Alice Springs where there was one of those gum tree reproductions hanging near an acrylic painting of a Yam Spirit Dreaming by Tim Leurah Tjapaltjari, similar to one by the same artist illustrated in Geoff Bardon's Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert. I decided one way of analysing the nature of the extraordinary difference between the two paintings was to examine how the 'Western' painting as compared to the Aboriginal one was the product of a compartmentalised way of life. The 'isolation' of different elements was apparent all the way from the initial perception of the objects described through to their expression and finally in their significance as finished products.

In the case of the Yam dreaming painting the 'perception' of that plant had come through a lifetime of experiencing it. Not as something out there, but as haptic experience through finding/gathering/eating and also through song cycles and ceremony, the performance of myths about it.

And so when it came to the expression of that plant in the painting several levels of meaning flowed into each other. A 'Western' picture of the same subject would probably not have included the roots – the flowering part would have been cut off and isolated in a pretty vase. The Tjapaltjari painting described the tubers and stems of the plant, and showed how it flowed out into root systems deep in the ground; and then out to the woman searching for the yams, describing with a dark stippling how the grass had been burnt away in the search; and then beyond them to the children playing, watched by birds, dogs and kangaroos. In ways difficult for us to understand that yam dreaming was part of the person who painted it. And yet it also flowed out of him as a totemic expression of the collective unconscious of an ancient culture.

When such an image takes the form of a giant ritual painting on sand (as opposed to this Western-inspired acrylic version on board) its importance is over when the ceremony has been completed, and then it is left behind to be smudged by the feet of geckos and blown away on the desert winds. That seems to me to be the most symptomatic illustration of the difference between the two attitudes to art. The ultimate dislocation! For the urban art product will probably end up as a separate entity on a strangers' wall, appreciated in terms of its relationship to the colour of the curtains or as a totemic expression of its financial value.

(Wolseley, in Carmichael et al., Orienteering, DUP, 1983, pp. 141-143)

Yam spirit dreaming


Map of ITEM 4.7

Map of the landscape depicted in ITEM 4.7

Tim Leurah Tjapaltjari, Yam spirit dreaming, 1972
54 x 70 cm
Custodian: The artist's father Barney Turner Tjungarrayi
By permission of Mr Geoff Bardon

The painting portrays the ecological associations of the yam plant and includes figures representing kangaroo, lizard, dingo, crow, men, women and children, all connected by the roots of the yam plant and depicted against a background of grass (dark stippling), burned grass (red stippling), and marsh (large dark spots).

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