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Rock Art of the Kimberley
Rock Art of the Kimberley
Rock Art of the Kimberley
Introduction
In association with Rock Art Australia and the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation

Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation Rock Art Australia
Rock Art of the Kimberley
The Bradshaw Foundation Australian Rock Art Archive currently focuses on the rock art of the Kimberley region in north-western Australia, based on a number of expeditions to this region over many years. In a global context, the Kimberley is one of the richest areas of rock art, although there are many thousands of rock art sites and styles currently being researched and recorded across Australia in conjunction with Indigenous Australians who are the Traditional Owners, makers and custodians of the rock art. In the Kimberley, the vast area and dynamic culture means there are many rock art traditions and they can have several names.

The earliest visible Kimberley rock art paintings are known as 'Naturalistic'. Researchers of Rock Art Australia describe the art as being dominated by large, sometimes life-size animals, fish, plants, and some human forms painted mostly in mulberry and red. Long flowing brushstrokes are used for motif outlines, solid infill to head, tail and limbs while body cavities have stippled irregular infill. This tradition may also include handprints/stencils and paint impressions of string and grass. Dating carried out by Rock Art Australia suggests the main period for Naturalistic paintings in the Kimberley spanned from at least 17,000 to 13,000 years ago. Also called: Archaic Period, Irregular Infill Animal Period.

Kimberley Austalia Rock Art Paintings Gwion Gwion
The Gwion motifs, formerly known as 'Bradshaws' after the English pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw who travelled to the Kimberley in the 1890s and first recorded and sketched the paintings, are finely painted human figures shown in elaborate dress with a rich range of artefacts including spears, boomerangs, dilly bags and ornaments. Colours vary from red to mulberry to almost black. Some animals are depicted. Research published recently by Rock Art Australia shows Gwion paintings flourished about 12,000 years ago - some 1,000 to 5,000 years after the Naturalistic period. These paintings are also referred to as Kujon, Kira Kiro and Diangargun.

A style of rock art known as 'Static Polychrome', these are schematized, usually straight human forms; they are dominated by groups of people rather than deities, depicting headdresses, multi-barbed spears and spear throwers. They are finely painted in red and orange, with faded white and yellow paints, creating the illusion of unpainted or ‘missing’ parts. They are often painted over Gwions, and may be up to 9,000 years old. These paintings are also referred to as Missing/Straight Part and Clothes Peg Figures.

Traditional Owner Ian Waina with the kangaroo painting that was dated between 17,500 and 17,100 years old
Traditional Owner Ian Waina
with kangaroo painting
© Photograph
Bradshaw Foundation
 
The Kimberley region of north western Australia
The Kimberley region
north western Australia
© Photograph
Bradshaw Foundation
 
Gwion motif rock art from the Kimberley
Gwion motif rock art
from the Kimberley
© Photograph
Bradshaw Foundation
 
Gwion motif rock art from the Kimberley
Gwion motif rock art
from the Kimberley
© Photograph
Bradshaw Foundation
 
Gwion motif rock art from the Kimberley
Gwion motif rock art
from the Kimberley
© Photograph
Bradshaw Foundation
 
Painted Hand motif
Painted Hand motif depicted
in Kimberley rock art
© Peter Veth and the
Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation

The Painted Hand motifs represent a rock art expression often involving broad brush strokes and superimposed over the earlier art styles. Some are striking with intricate geometric designs. This tradition is enormously varied with bichrome and polychrome depictions of objects, humans, animals, plants, lines, finger dots and non-figurative motifs. This diversity may show the marking of clan estates during the Holocene (last 10,000 years). They are also referred to as Clawed Hand and Compartment Infill Period.

Wanjina painting
Wanjina painting
© Bradshaw Foundation
The Wanjina paintings represent the spirit ancestors and their representation in anthropomorphic form. Aboriginal people in northern and central Kimberley continue to identify with Wanjina, a continuous tradition dating to the last 4000 years. As figurations of supernatural power, images of Wanjina are characterised by halo-like headdresses and mouthless faces with large round eyes, set either side of an ovate nose. These ‘Creator Beings’ and the ‘Wunggurr Creator Snake’ are painted in many forms and can be repainted to ensure annual renewal of the seasonal cycle and the associated periods of natural fertility. The actual Wanjina is believed to either reside in the rock where it is painted or to have left its body there. They are also referred to as Regular Infill Period and Polychrome Art Period.

Participants in Getty Conservation Institute rock art workshops in Kakadu 2014
Participants in Getty Conservation Institute rock art workshops in Kakadu 2014
© Getty Conservation Institute
Researchers interpret the change in rock art styles as a response to the social and cultural adaptations triggered by the changing climate and rising sea levels. Paintings of human figures with new technologies such as spear-throwers might show how people adapted their hunting style to the changing environment and the availability of different types of food.

Since the late 1980’s the Getty Conservation Institute has undertaken training courses and projects in rock art conservation and management, including a one-year diploma course in Australia and short courses in California, as well as a field project in Baja California Sur.

RAN Rock Art Network Bradshaw Foundation Getty Conservation Institute
The Rock Art Network subsequently emerged after a series of workshops held in South Africa from 2005 to 2011 as part of the Southern African Rock Art Project. This program was extended to Australia between 2012 and 2014 as an exchange between rock art specialists, managers, and custodian communities from southern Africa and Australia. It culminated in a forum in Kakadu National Park in 2014 and a document ‘Rock Art: A cultural treasure at risk – How we can protect the valuable and vulnerable heritage of rock art’ in which four pillars of rock art conservation policy and practice were identified.

Among the institutions and professionals affiliated with the Rock Art Network, the Bradshaw Foundation was identified as a key partner. Operating since 1992, the Bradshaw Foundation’s database of rock art information, visual resources and its robust social media presence made it an ideal partner to host the Rock Art Network’s online hub.

Making sure these galleries have curators
Making sure these galleries have curators
© Samir Patel
 
Cultural inheritance: Children of traditional owner families are taken on trips back to visit rock art sites in remote country in the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area in Arnhem Land, Australia. This is part of their cultural education as well as learning how Aboriginal rangers are looking after the country today
Cultural inheritance
© Jenny Hunter
 
Stories on rock
Stories on rock
© Cook Shire Council
 
The record of climate change and human adaption: Kakadu National Park, a World Heritage site in Australia, contains one of the world’s greatest concentrations of rock art
Kakadu National Park
© Nicholas Hall
 
Kakadu rock art workshop 2014
Kakadu rock art workshop 2014
© Paul Taçon
 
Hand paintings
Hand paintings
© Bradshaw Foundation

Rock Art Links

→ Australia Rock Art Index
→ Introduction to the Australia Rock Art Archive
→ Rock Art of the Kimberley
→ Dating the Rock Art of the Kimberley
→ Australia's Oldest Known Rock Art
→ Film - Griffith University's Laureate
→ ABC Radio National 'Nightlife'
→  Experts rush to map fire-hit rock art
→ The aftermath of fire damage to important rock art at the Baloon Cave tourist destination, Carnarvon Gorge, Queensland, Australia
→ Studying the Source of Dust
→ The Kimberley
→ Out in the Back Country - Hugh Brown → Bradshaw Foundation
→ Rock Art Network

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