Introduction to the Bradshaw Paintings / Gwion Gwion
Kimberley region of north west Australia could be among the earliest figurative paintings ever executed.
The work of Professor Stephen Oppenheimer in the Journey of Mankind Genetic Map, tracing the migration of modern man out of Africa 85,000 years ago from our ancestral home, proves that we had beachcombed our way along the coastlines to reach the Timor Sea. Between seventy and sixty thousand years ago our ancestors would have stood on the shores of South East Asia, then known as Sundaland, where without doubt they would have observed the smoke from the distant bushfires caused by lightening on a land that had not yet been reached. With fluctuating sea levels, Oppenheimer shows how our window of opportunity to get to Australia was between sixty five and seventy thousand years ago - by boat.
The painting below of a four man canoe with upswept prow and stern, quite possibly the world’s oldest boat painting, is located at a site in the Kimberleys which has other art. Significantly, another panel depicts a long line of twenty-six or more antlered, four legged animals standing along a simple, single base-line.
Not only does the discovery of this particular Bradshaw painting have profound implications for the Bradshaw peoples’ capability to voyage by boat between Southeast Asia and northwest Australia, it also demonstrates the artists were painting from memory. The presence of a base-line is rare in ancient rock art. Does it represent a horizon? Did it become a symbol that conjured up for the ancient voyagers, having inadvertently crossed the Wallace Line, the departure from one world to enter another?
Bradshaw Paintings, or Gwion Gwion, is not. Infact, the mystery surrounding this distinctive style of rock art, who the artists were, when they were painted, and for what reason, is part of their attraction. Unfortunately this mystery has sometimes been used as a political vehicle to hijack the art, and in so doing, obscure their beauty and sophistication. It also complicates their preservation.
This Foundation was named after these paintings; they were the first specimens of ancient rock art studied by a small group of individuals intrigued by the art, and from a small picture gallery, the Foundation has become what it is today. The fact that the Bradshaw Paintings are still being discovered, or rediscovered, can only emphasize the importance of a balanced and dispassionate debate regarding their conservation. From the research, exploration and documention of Dr. Andreas Lommel with the Unambal tribe, to Grahame Walsh, Ian Wilson, Hugh Brown, Dan Clark and Leif Thiele, the sheer scale of this genre of ancient rock art is being realised. The Australian Rock Art Archive currently focuses on the rock art of the Kimberley region, featuring the Bradshaw Paintings and the Wandjina paintings. We hope to expand the AustralianArchive and the rich array of rock art in the future. If the opening premise of this Introduction happens to be true, then surely for this reason alone, the paintings must be seen as a priceless and irreplaceable legacy, not a political rag to pull or a minor irritant to corporate development.