You’ll see two different styles of Aboriginal art in the Kimberley and both are world-famous. The Aboriginal rock art is some of the oldest art in the world, and it is painted in natural ochres onto sandstone or carved into the rock.
Contemporary Aboriginal art is mostly painted with acrylic paint on canvas. Some of this art shows that the Aboriginal people of the Kimberley belong to one of the oldest living cultures in the world. The art illustrates Dreamtime figures that are still painted by Aboriginal artists working today.
There are two distinctive styles of rock art. There is the Gwion Gwion paintings and Wandjina rock art. Wandjina rock art belongs to the Mowanjum community, and they continue to paint the Wanjina figure. Some of the Wanjina rock art is touched up by the traditional owners as a way of caring for their heritage in much the same way we will restore a Cathedral ceiling. Some of the Wandjina rock art is dated at 4,000 years old.
The Gwion Gwion paintings which were once known as Bradshaws are much older. A pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw discovered some of the art and made it his life’s work to research and document it. The local people prefer the name Gwion Gwion, and they regard these places as spiritually important.
We’ve been told that the Gwion Gwion figures are about 65,000 years old. We see this art as a legacy of the people who arrived in the Kimberley on the coast and settled in the Kimberley and moved over into the Arnhem land area. It seems some of the oldest people who arrived in Australia arrived up in the Northern regions.
It is a moving experience to see the artwork this old. You realize what you’re looking at is the bringing to life of human experiences from an ancient time. Animals feature in much of the art because they were an important food source. There’s crocodiles, emus, and other animals that they would have hunted.
We can tell from the art that part of the culture involved ceremony. We visit a site that has what they call capules, which are pounded indentations into rock. Those capules exist right across the whole world on every continent and they’re believed to be based on ceremony. Research found that it takes 7,000 blows to make a single capule in the very hard rock. The indentations represent a commitment of time and effort.
Aboriginal artwork is mostly associated with stories that are Dreamtime creation stories. Some stories can be shared by artists in their work and other stories still remain a secret from outsiders. As children grow older, they learn more complex stories. The theme of these stories is often about the correct ways to behave. They might be about not stealing and how you respect each other, especially older people. These stories were a way to pass on important cultural practices as well as passing on information about good food and water sources.
You’ll see a lot of ochre handprints on the sandstone. The thinking is that this was a way for people to mark their presence and claim of ownership over the land.
The art is a precious connection with humans from long ago. On the tour you will see some of it right there in front of you. It’s not in a museum but there where it was originally created. It is vivid and exciting. Many people feel a sense of awe in seeing something so ancient.
There is also a sense of mystery about the early forms of rock art because it was so long ago and there was a break in the art style of the Gwion Gwion work. It ceased at some point. Then a long time later, the very different Wanjina artwork started.
The contemporary Aboriginal art we see in shops is produced in communities and art centres around the Kimberley. It’s interesting because the making of art has never stopped. We see it as a legacy of the people. They brought this heritage with them because they painted in other places in the world. They’re discovering artwork that’s very connected to the Kimberley region up in Asia, especially in Indonesia.
The art is evolving, and it’s important to the local people as a source of income and a way to express pride in their culture. There are lots of places that we visit where we see the art, and we talk to some of the artists. They’re very welcoming and encouraging of us chatting to them. They will talk a bit about their life experiences when they’re not busy painting.
At the beginning of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement in the 1970's people quickly noticed that Indigenous people had an outstanding natural gift for composition and use of colour. This is partly why contemporary Aboriginal art is celebrated around the world as world-class modern art.
You’ll notice a diversity of styles in the contemporary artwork. It is usually very colourful and bright. On the other hand, the Gidja art still uses traditional ochre paint. It very symbolic and powerful. The diversity of Aboriginal art is one of the big surprises for a lot of visitors. Just as Aboriginal artists are a very diverse group of people and their art can sometimes reflect extraordinary diversity in style, approach and palette.
There are some good art shops in Kununurra that are worth a visit. People enjoy seeing art from all around the region. It can often reflect the places where it was painted. People often purchase a piece of artwork because it feels that its a connection with the local people of the Kimberley. It is also a wonderful way to support the artists of these remote communities.
If you come to the Kimberley, you’ll discover why Aboriginal art has attracted international attention. Some of the rock art is 65,000 years old, making it some of the oldest art in the world. Wandjina art is 4,000 years old, and this suggests that the local Indigenous people belong to the oldest continuous living culture in the world. Whether you are into art or not, we promise you’ll find yourself fascinated by the history and the culture of this region.