Sometime after the painting Incubation: Lizard Dreaming was done, I looked online to find any references to animal totems in Australian Aboriginal culture. This is when I gained my first real understanding of the concept of Dreamtime. The English word ‘Dreamtime’ is a significant idea that tries to capture how aboriginal people relate to their period of creation that are expressed in their many tribal and land specific creation stories. Generally, Dreamtime refers to the time of creation, the time before time, when the world came into being. It was during the creation period when ancestral beings created landforms such as lagoons and mountain ranges as well as the first plants and animals.
Aboriginal people often interpret dreams as a memory of things that happened during this Creation Period and consider dreams as a means to transport us back to Dreamtime. The term “Dreamtime” in Aboriginal mythology is not really about a person having a dream or a vision but rather a dream is a reference to this Creation Period. Given this understanding, for example, this incubation time in my life, where I am nurturing a vision for my future and receive significant imaginal material in waking states and dream states, is not Dreamtime in the Aboriginal sense.
If you ask an Aboriginal person today, they will tell you the Creation Period/Dreamtime goes back 40,000 to 60,000 years depending on what archeological studies they are familiar with. However, before aboriginal people incorporated Western science into their understanding they referred to creation time as being about five to six generations ago or as far back as they remembered specific knowledge of certain relatives such as great-great grandfather. Relatives living in creation time took on forms of certain animal people or plant people, which made them the owner of a dream such as the honey ant dreaming, kangaroo dreaming or lizard dreaming. A complex land-based and kinship system lays out how these dreams and stories are passed on and only the keepers of a specific dream are allowed to share the dream through story or art. Many aboriginal people try to maintain these traditional practices today, especially when it comes to representing a story in art.
The existence of a mythological Dreamtime raises many questions for me that I would love to talk about with an aboriginal elder. I wonder, for instance, if creation time or Dreamtime has to be truly restricted to the time of our original creation? Aboriginal people refer to the time before colonization as a timeless time when their way of being was maintained and fairly unchanged for millennia. This is in stark contrast to rapid changes they have experienced over the last two hundred years of colonization. Some aboriginal people left or were forced out of their traditional lives in the bush as recently as 40 years ago. And now with their old ways of life largely destroyed and reconciliation activities underway (however limited), aboriginal people are joining us in creating new personal and local futures for themselves as well as participating in creating new social, ecological and global futures for all of us. Would their participation in the creation of new futures not put them into a current creation time or Dreamtime? And would not current events eventually become the past and ultimately turn into stories that are held in Dreamtime? I wonder also what feelings would be evoked for the aboriginal elder with whom I would raise these questions? Would I overstep my boundaries by trying to apply an ancient concept to contemporary phenomenon that crosses cultures? It is clear to me that my experience with actual aboriginal Dreamtime is limited and perhaps, if I learned more about aboriginal Dreamtime directly from aboriginal people, my questions would change.
Gary Simon Jagamarra
A meeting with Gary Simon Jagamarra at a coffee shop in the close-by suburb of Bondi Junction profoundly shifted the emerging meaning I attributed to this painting. I first met him at the Parliament of World Religion where he was part of a panel of Ngangkaris who are aboriginal healers from the Central and Western Desert. There he shared with us his healing story and how he came to be a Ngangkari. He grew up away from his traditional culture and family. As an adult an aboriginal medicine woman healed him from a disease in his feet that had prevented him from being able to walk for many years. As a result of being cured he committed himself to this healing craft and became initiated into his traditional culture. Aside from being a Ngangkari and an accomplished performing artist and storyteller, during our conversation I learned that he is also an accomplished painter. Later this year he will have a permanent exhibit in the Louvre in Paris. Gary is in his late thirties. His long black hair is tied back into a ponytail and his energetic appearance and demonstrative expressions makes it easy to approach him.
During our time at the café I shared with him about my own emerging interest in creating art using aboriginal techniques and symbolisms. I showed him a digital copy of my painting on my I-phone. Before a moment had passed he declared that this painting was an icon rather than just a painting. According to Gary a painting becomes an icon when it brings together at least three sacred objects, which in this case were the lizard, the songlines (wavy lines), and the waterhole (nested circles above the lizard). He also pointed out that the slanted lines of dots depict shifting sand and that this lizard was out of place and belonged elsewhere. Of course, he was right about the lizard! The lizard I had illustrated in the painting is home to North America.
Gary’s classification of the painting as an icon strongly resonated with me. Making this painting had felt like a prayer. The repetitiveness of meticulously placing the dots on the page created for me a kind of focused and contemplative awareness. In this prayer I was honoring the spirit of the lizard and thereby created a sacred space for incubation. I had lived in the United Sates for the past 25 years, and it now seemed especially appropriate that the lizard was American and that she symbolized the ‘medicine’ I was bringing with me from there. The lizard supported the creation of a darker, uncertain and less known but sacred space for a more specific vision of my future here in Australia to come into existence. The songlines assure me of the presence of pathways that will guide me through the years I live here. The waterhole reminds me that there is nourishment along the path. Aside from these interpretations, I am left wondering about the symbolism of the shifting sands. Is there more change to come? If so, how soon? Or could this mean that my spiritual work here will be in the desert amongst the shifting sands? Only time will tell.
Having made this painting in the context of exploring aboriginal culture while I am charting a way through my own process of change, this painting is no longer just a painting. It is a story as well.