In November 2009 I attended the Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne. The program offered hundreds of sessions for roughly 7,000 conference participants. Each day provided numerous sessions focused on indigenous and aboriginal culture. For me, attending these sessions became a fast-track introduction to the cultural practices and issues facing Australian aborigines from their perspective.
One session was led by several Ngarinyin elders of the North-West Kimberly region and was entitled Maama—The Untouchables Ones: From Cave to Canvas. The session introduced us to a Ngarinyin art project currently underway which involved participants in one of the Ngarinyin people’s essential ceremonies. This ceremony inadvertently surfaced one of many dilemmas that can mark attempts to share practices across industrialized and earth-based cultures.
Maama refers to images in ancient cave paintings of their God Wanjina who created the immutable law of the land that governs many aspects of their traditional lives.
Until recently the cave art was ‘untouchable’ and only shown to members of the Ngarinyin communities, and sometimes not even to them. A Caucasian woman who has worked with these aborigines for some years opened the session. As a creative director, she supports the Ngarinyin’s effort to share their creation story with the rest of the world by creating works on canvas of their ancient cave art. These iconographic paintings have been shown in a number of countries, including France and England.
The creative director explained that these paintings are a performance that renews the original spirit of the cave art and that the land, the law, the caves, and their works on canvas cannot be separated. The images on canvas are not art as we would usually judge conventional art. To the Ngarinyin peoples, these paintings provide protection and teaching in the same way as the ancient cave art did for their communities.
This project From Cave to Canvas also gives voice to an urgent message. Even though the Ngarinyin people have reacquired their status as traditional owners of parts of the Ngarinyin land through the land rights movements, it is still often impossible for them to access their sacred caves. Frequently they are unable to gain permission to cross land that is privately owned in order to reach the caves. Because of the removal of the aboriginal people from their homeland, they also often have to travel vast distances to reach the caves. Crossing these distances requires money and transportation which they basically do not have. Projects such as From Cave to Canvas raise some funds for bringing groups of Ngarinyin people to the caves to practice their custodianship and teach the younger generation their traditional ways.
Image: Cave Painting, photographic print by Connie Bransilver