From Cave to Contemporary: the Evolution of Songlines in Aboriginal Art
Although Aborigines have been telling stories via imagery for thousands of years, it is only in the last half Century that their culture is celebrated via contemporary art. With second-generation artists emerging through the kinship fraternity, we are starting to see variations on the original painting techniques representing songlines.
We know from ancient rock art in places such as the Kimberley (north Western Australia), Kakadu (in the Northern Territory) and Olary region of South Australia, that Aborigines have been telling their stories via imagery for thousands of years. But it wasn’t until 1971, when art teacher Geoffrey Bardon was first posted to a remote school in the Western Desert 240 km west of Alice Springs, that the channel for Aboriginal stories began evolving into the contemporary style we see today.
Bardon encouraged the children to draw their own stories, but was approached by the senior men who told him the children did not have permission to tell these stories. It was the men who were custodians for the Tjukurrpa (ancestral stories). They did so by drawing images in the sand with sticks.
Bardon subsequently coordinated a group project for the men to paint a mural on the school wall. They painted the story of the honey ant, and the Papunya Tula Artists Company was created.
The men transcribed body markings and sand drawings onto any surface they could find including scrap board and corrugated iron. Bardon began supplying them with canvases and acrylic paint. He would then sell the artworks in Alice Springs, and the ‘dot and circle’ style Aboriginal art movement was born.
Traditionally it is the songlines that Aboriginal artists draw on for inspiration. Songlines “are the long Creation story lines that cross the country and put all geographical and sacred sites into place in Aboriginal culture.”
Songlines tell the story of how the ancestors journeyed across the country, creating the landscape, the animals and the law under which human society was to live. They also define the ceremonies and culture that each tribe holds. They are passed on through the generations as song cycles, which were held in sacred custodianship via kinship lineage.
This means that only those charged with the custody of the songs were allowed to tell them. Indeed, they have the duty to share the songs, and to pass the songs on to the next generation.
So when the men who founded Papunya Tula Artist Company began their paintings, they were sharing their songlines via imagery. They used symbols and iconography to depict their history, their laws and ceremonies, and their physical world.
How the artists depicted these songlines varies, from artist to artist, geographical location, and even gender.
Some artists paint to a structure, where symbols are repeated across the painting. This can be seen in Sarrita King’s work, in which she shares her ancestors’ stories with us by taking an aerial view of the landscape where her people traversed from water hole to water hole.
“Using the symbol of the waterhole and underground waterways as the network by which knowledge and life are shared, Sarrita King creates an ethereal composition in her Ancestor series.”
In Ancestors — Dry (2014, acrylic on linen, 150x200cm), Sarrita uses a layer of fine dots to represent the ancestors who have gone back to this land. The waterways on top signify the knowledge of the ancestors that has seeped into the water system, to be perpetuated in the living who return.
It can also be seen in work by John Warangkula Tjupurrula, one of the original 1970s Papunya painters. His paintings, such as Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa sold at Sothebys in June 1997 for $210,000; three years later, it fetched $486,500.
The painting is an aerial view of the water dreaming site of Kalipinypa (400km west of Alice Springs), the area over which Warangkula had authority.
Warangkula sought to express the richness and fecundity Kalipinypa, where native food plants such as the wild raisin kampurrarpa grow after seasonal rains. In this aerial aspect of Kalipinypa, Warangkula captures the drama of the storms — drenching rains, hail, lightning and thunder.
Others focus on one aspect of their physical surroundings, such as Gloria Petyarre from the Utopia region in the Northern Territory.
Gloria became the first Indigenous Australian artist ever to win a major art prize at the Gallery of New South Wales when she won the Wynne Prize for Landscape in 1999. She paints leaves of the Kurrajong tree which is used for bush medicine.
Another artist, Jeannie Mills Pwerle from the Utopia region, also shares her immediate word by depicting the bush yam in her paintings.
The fine white dot work is the seed of the yam, and the thick colourful brushwork represents the flower and the vegetable. “By depicting the Yam Dreaming in their paintings, indigenous artists are able to pay homage to this significant plant and encourage its continual rejuvenation.”
The artists from the 1970s on, drew on their songlines as the subject for their work. Dance, ceremony, story, law, immediate physical environment. To connect themselves with the songline they are painting, traditional Aboriginal artists may sometimes sing the song that applies to the subject. Women painted of women’s matters; men of men’s. And, they focused on the specific story that their family is custodian for. This duty / privilege was determined by their kinship.
“The kinship system is a feature of Aboriginal social organisation and family relationships across Central Australia. It is a complex system that determines how people relate to each other and their roles, responsibilities and obligations in relation to one another, ceremonial business and land.”
This system gives each artist a skin name which decides how things get passed down inter-generationally, and determines who can tell what story.
The stories we get to see, as uninitiated non-Indigenous people, are the versions that the artists are willing (or allowed) to share. The stories we don’t get to see are secret business, shared only with the initiated men, women, elders and lawmen.
With second-generation artists emerging through the kinship fraternity, we are starting to see variations on the original songlines.
Kerry Madawyn McCarthy, for example, was born to an Irish father but learned indigenous culture and traditions of the bush through her indigenous mother. She was given the name Madawyn by her Aunty to keep the family line. Her art was greatly influenced by her maternal grandfather, Harry.
Growing up, Kerry listened to her grandfather’s stories which he tapped out on the table, as he hummed or sang in his language. On the eve of her second solo exhibition at Japingka Gallery, she said: “My stories are not only my stories, they are stories about my grandfather. There are stories about going out on land and on country. Because of the impact that my grandfather has had on my life, I feel like it is so important that I not only tell my parts of them but I also tell his parts of them.”
Kerry chose to interpret her grandfather’s song as part of her story, using pattern to create an abstract depiction of her heritage.
But in forging a new way to tell her story, she was challenged by not having traditional symbols to convey this new type of story — a visual narrative of what it was like to listen to songlines.
Although iconography in Aboriginal art can vary from region to region, they are generally understood in the story-telling process. These symbols are intrinsic to every depiction of a songline.
So how was Kerry going to depict something new — the story of how a story was told? The experience of sitting in the kitchen with him as he sang and tapped out his stories?
Without traditional symbolism or iconography to rely on, she had to come up with her own method for recording her grandfather’s songlines.
Kerry had a breakthrough when she started drawing and the tapping came to be the scan of his voice as he was singing — “Shorter vertical lines with dots in between represent the tempo of this song or tapping, lines with no dots in between his fast taps, and then lines with two dots slower taps, while lines with one dot in between are medium tempo taps.”
In so doing, Kerry has taken a step in the evolution of Aboriginal art. Bored with painting the same design for four years (“tourist kind of art about bush tucker, animals, all those types of things”), she has pioneered new ways of observing indigenous culture, and how to convey this culture to wider society.
She is not telling the story of dreamtime, or describing a ceremony, or sharing her landscape, as is the subject of traditional Aboriginal art. She has evolved into telling the story of the story-teller; of what it was like to listen to the song and percussion of her grandfather.
Kerry’s inspiration for creating a new style is simple. “My grandfather, he sang songs because years back they didn’t have any paper and pen to record all of these different stories. It wasn’t the same as white men. They could compose their music and all of that but indigenous people use song to record their stories and you’re talking about not only the stories. When you think about songs and their meanings, that’s what songs and paintings are. They’re a record of a ceremony, a record of your life as an indigenous person.”
Sarrita King is another young Aboriginal artist, born in 1988 in Adelaide, and daughter of artist William King Jungala (part of the Gurindji tribe from the Northern Territory).
She is described by David Wroth at Japingka Gallery as a rising star, whose paintings are homages to the first generation of mainstream Aboriginal artists.
Kate Owen describes Sarrita’s style as containing traditional Aboriginal techniques such as ‘dotting’, but someone who has developed unorthodox techniques inherited from her late father.
“Her art is a fusion of the past, present and future and represents the next generation of artists who have been influenced by both their indigenous history, and current Western upbringing,” says Kate.
Although Sarrita is creating her own contemporary style, she is retaining her cultural references that connect land, experiences, kinship and traditional ideas of story-telling.
She recognises the importance of waterholes in her ancestry, both as a sacred place because of their importance to survival, and as a receptacle to the stories and knowledge of the ancestors.
And yet, despite the stories contained in her art being deeply embedded in her culture and history, she herself describes her work as contemporary.
“Almost every aboriginal artwork could hang next to a contemporary artwork – they would be akin, but there would be this difference in the story behind them,” she said in an interview with David Wroth at the Japingka Gallery.
Both Kerry and Sarrita are influenced by artistic ancestors in their subject matter — their connection to the land and their culture.
They are also pioneering second generation indigenous art by evolving their painting techniques to push their work further into the contemporary scope. Many of Kerry’s paintings — such as Grandfather’s Song — are in black and white, as are the cubist-and-dot style paintings of Sarrita’s. Both styles feature fine line work with depth of detail, in which pattern makes up the entire piece to create an abstract depiction of the cultural heritage.
They are both considered emerging artists, who each have a piece in the Holmes á Court collection.
How they differ is subtle.
Sarrita paints using traditional Aboriginal symbols and techniques, whereas Kerry has developed a new iconography set by interpreting songlines into fine linework of her own invention.
Kerry has also been described as a gifted colourist, whereas Sarrita uses a more muted palette, such as that seen in Ancestors — Dry.
It is reported that the critic and writer Robert Hughes described the rise of contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art as “the last great art movement of the twentieth century”. The source of this quote is unknown, but the essence of it is true.
It is over 40 years since the Papunya Tula men were introduced to canvases and acrylics, but it is only in the last three years that the second-generation artists are emerging onto the commercial art scene with their own self-developed styles and interpretations of their culture.
In her article “What Makes Contemporary Aboriginal Art?”, Elena Martinique says Sarrita has a “very unique contemporary style combining (her) Aboriginal heritage with practices and techniques closer to the Western contemporary art.”
Kerry also credits her formal art education (a tertiary course in Art and Craft from Batchelor Institute of Advanced Education) for a new skill set that enabled her to move on from the traditional style of art she’d been taught by her aunty in kinship.
Regardless of their differences, both artists visually communicate their connection to the land, keeping their ancestral narrative alive.
Whereas the subject matter of the past 40 years has been overall telling of creation, land, law and ceremony, artists such as Kerry and Sarrita are fine-tuning the message.
We are seeing self-developed styles emerge, placing us at a turning point in the evolution of indigenous art.
Whereas we have been viewing Australia through indigenous eyes, via traditional art forms unique to ancestral groups, we are now starting to see these stories represented in new, unique styles to second-generation artists.
I look forward to seeing what the next decade brings with artists such as Kerry and Sarrita forging the way in presenting their deep messages, energy and spiritual impact of Aboriginal culture. In so doing, we can enjoy looking back into their history, while looking forward to stories to come.
(2016 | “Analyse Culture History and Theory” | Diploma Visual Arts.)