Tag Archives: Art

Rock Art

It sends a shiver down my spine.  I see strange elongated figures dancing, wearing tall headdresses, limbs swaying to the beat.   They share a space with crosshatched echidnas, giant kangaroos and striped thylacines.   I almost hear the voices from the past, ancient humans communicating across tens of thousands of years.   The rock art in the Kimberley region is unforgettable.

On our way back from Mitchell Falls, we find two aboriginal art sites.  The land here is flat and sandy, dotted occasionally with stacks of quartzite boulders.   The cultural sites at Munurru are well marked and easy to find from the road.   The well beaten path from the car park leads the way, but then you are on your own.  There are no signs telling you where to look, or even what to look for.   We become explorers, searching the jumbled pile of flat rocks and rounded boulders for the best place to paint.  We look for a hidden recess, the underside of a rocky overhang,  the roof of a small cave – a flat piece of rock, easy to reach, well protected from the elements.  We try to think as the artists did, to adjust our eyes to look for a red, white or yellow line that is man made.  And suddenly the art begins to reveal itself.


Echidna rock art

The paintings are drawn in red ochre, yellow, black and white.   Many are overpainted.    Some are clearly recognisable human figures, animals and plants.   Kangaroos are easy to recognise.   There are root vegetables, maybe yams?   A striped animal with a straight tail has to be a thylacine, the Tasmanian Tiger, painted thousands of years ago when he still lived this far north on the mainland.  He’s sadly now extinct.  Two huge birds painted lying horizontally, head to head, look like brolgas.  Thankfully these elegant birds are still with us.

Human figures wear what appear to be grass skirts and pointed head dresses with tassels.  They are shown moving, with bent knees and elbows, I assume in a dance.  They are beautifully painted in a very distinctive style.  Apparently they are examples of the famous Gwions or Bradshaw figures that are found throughout the Kimberley region.  People are also painted more simply, carrying bags or boomerangs and wearing skirts.  Pictures of daily life.

Leaving the obviously human figures, we move on to panels of otherworldly creatures.  Odd squatting frog like figures appear in one shelter.  I learn later they are child spirits, the first sign of new human life.  When a woman is found to be pregnant it is believed her husband has dreamed of a child spirit and allowed it to enter his wife.


Wandjina rock art at Munurru

It is said the child spirits came originally from the Wandjina, the mythical ancestors who sang the land into being.  The Wandjina panels at Munurru are eerie.  The ancestors have stark white alien faces with large blank eyes that stare impassively back at the observer.  They guard a burial site where a human skull and bones have been placed on a rock ledge in the sacred site. A common practice in this tradition.

A cooling wind blows gently through the boulders, but the air is heavy here with human history, with stories of the oldest surviving human culture on the planet, with images representing powerful myths that have endured for millennia.

Research continues, but recent dating of artefacts in the Kakadu indicates that aboriginal people have lived on this continent for 50-60 thousand years.   Imagine that.  It’s humbling.

Kimberley foundation:  Kimberley Foundation on YouTube

The Artist’s Studio

The artist’s studio. A place to be creative.

A house plan these days will often include two or three bathrooms, a home movie theatre and a double garage, but very rarely does it consider the need for a special place for creativity.

I’ve been thinking about this since I visited Hans Heysen’s studio in Hahndorf in South Australia. Hans Heysen was an acclaimed artist, a German who settled in Australia. His stone-built studio is located high up on his sloping property, positioned perfectly to take in the view of the eucalypts and cedars in his garden. Clear daylight streams into the building through enormous windows that fill its south-facing wall.

Hans Heysen Studio

Hans Heysen Studio

The studio stands apart from the house where Heysen lived. Apart both by location and appearance. A national treasure, it is said to be the oldest artist’s studio in Australia.

So much love, time and money was spent on this building. The artist commissioned a local Hahndorf firm to build it, using raw materials from the area. He worked closely with a team of architects to perfect the design. The resulting studio is faintly reminiscent of an alpine lodge, but in sturdy local stone. It is a man’s building, solid and strong.

Inside, you can see it is more than Heysen’s workshop, more than somewhere to keep his tools of trade, his paints, charcoal sticks and brushes. The essence of the man is here. The house, it could have belonged to anyone.

Heysen loved nature. He loved painting the day to day agricultural activities in and around Hahndorf and was deeply inspired by the stark, majestic beauty of the nearby Flinders Ranges. He toured the area to find his subjects, deftly capturing light and shadows with his charcoals, drawing from life, outside in the open air.

Returning to his studio, he painted from the black and white preliminary drawings, reproducing by memory the fall of the light, the tints and hues of the natural world. His oil paintings document his time and his place, giving us a secret window into South Australian life in the early twentieth century.

Perhaps that is how creativity works. We live, we love, we travel. We see for ourselves the beauty and the dark horror of the world, then we return home to our special place, our studio, to interpret these experiences in our own unique way. In the process of creating something from our experiences and our emotions, we understand ourselves better and communicate more deeply with the people around us.

We can’t all build a self-standing studio, like Hans Heysen. We can’t all afford that luxury. But, a desk, a shed, a special corner of a room? That’s possible.

You might say you are not creative, not an artist. Think again. You might not use a paint brush, but your unique work may be produced with a welder, a camera, a garden trowel, a drum machine or a laptop computer. Creativity takes many forms.

How different would our world be if every house included a special place set aside solely for us to be creative? How different would our lives be if we valued art and creativity that much?

Build yourself a studio. Who knows where it might lead.