Aboriginal history(s)

The rock paintings of the Australian outback are works of the oldest continuous art tradition in the world. Many galleries in northern Australia are still well preserved despite being exposed to the elements for 20,000 years. They create a sense of awestruck wonder among both Aborigines, as Australia’s indigenous people are known, and international visitors. And this despite the fact that they cannot be subordinated to any European-influenced concept of art.

Ehrfürchtig betreten wir die riesige Höhle, in der seit zig Tausend Jahren Menschen wohnen und ihre Toten bestatten / © Foto: Georg Berg
Reverently we enter the huge cave, where people have lived and buried their dead for tens of thousands of years / © Photo: Georg Berg

But first things first. Part of the nature of rock paintings is that they can only be experienced in their own place. These sites are remote and elude curatorial treatment. Some are so sacred that not everyone is allowed to go there. This restriction even applies to most Aboriginal people. This is because there are numerous tribes, each with their own language and cultural space. The rock galleries belong to the tradition of the tribes living there and shape their identity in the respective areas. They are not to be understood merely as works with which an artist expresses himself. Some drawings are even believed to have been created by spirits.

Thommo (Name geändert) zeigt auf das Abbild eines Mimi Geistes. Dabei hält er ängstlich einen großen Abstand zu diesem Bild ein. Er ist sich sicher, ein Bild vor sich zu haben, das nur von den Mimi-Spirits selbst gemalt worden sein kann / © Foto: Georg Berg
An Aborigine points to the image of a Mimi spirit. He anxiously keeps a great distance from this image. He is sure that he is looking at a picture that can only have been painted by the Mimi spirits themselves / © Photo: Georg Berg
Hände als Schablonen für weiße Farbe, die mit dem Mund aufgesprüht worden ist und Reckitt's Blue, einem Waschmittelzusatz aus Ultramarin und Backpulver, der früher in Australien Waschmitteln zugesetzt worden ist / © Foto: Georg Berg
Hands as stencils for white paint that has been sprayed on with the mouth and Reckitt’s Blue, a detergent additive made of ultramarine and baking soda that used to be added to laundry detergents in Australia / © Photo: Georg Berg

The reverse concept of ownership

In Australia, Aborigines living in their original tribal areas are called Traditional Owners. This choice of words is admittedly intended to show them the respect today that was denied them for a long time with British colonization. The concept of ownership, however, misses the core of the Traditional Own ers’ self-image. For in the deeply rooted attitude of the Aborigines, there can be no ownership of land. It is even the other way round: The inhabitants belong to the land and their life is essentially shaped by it. This attitude, which is difficult for white culture to understand, is still fraught with tension in today’s Australia.

Der verstorbene Outback-Pionier Max Davidson (rechts) mit Big Charly, einem Familienvorstand der traditionellen Landeigentümer (Fotoreproduktion) / © Foto: Georg Berg
The late outback pioneer Max Davidson (right) with Big Charly, a family head of the traditional landowners (photo reproduction) / © Photo: Georg Berg

Access by escort only

Guided by Sab Lord, our small group hiked for days through the hot steppe on the ancient dream trails until we reached – each time surprised again – another of the ancient galleries.

Sab Lord zeigt auf das riesige Krokodil über dem Eingang zur einer großen Galerie / © Foto: Georg Berg
Sab Lord points to the huge crocodile above the entrance to a large gallery / © Photo: Georg Berg

Sab Lord has the typical rough-legged manner of the white pioneers. Therefore he sets narrow limits for us tourists from the beginning and there is a reason for that. All rock galleries are located in areas where you are not allowed to enter without a permit and without guides approved for this purpose. This and also the long distances have certainly contributed to the fact that there has not yet been any significant vandalism. We have seen that hand axes or grinding tools for extracting the precious color pigments have been lying ready for free use in rock niches for centuries. It is this reality that poses a special challenge for guides like Sab Lord. After all, he enjoys the trust of the Traditional Owners only as long as the tourists he guides respectfully enter the cultic places of the Aborigines and leave them in their original state. He meticulously makes sure that nothing is stolen, no walls are touched and no photos are taken of bones that have been laid openly in rock crevices for their final resting place.

Ergonomisch geformter Faustkeil. Das Steinzeit-Handy liegt glücklicherweise wieder an seinem ursprünglichen Fundort. Ein amerikanischer Tourist hatte ihn vor ein paar Jahren mitgehen lassen und damit großes Unheil angerichtet. Im weit entfernten Tasmanien ist der Dieb kurz darauf von Sab gestellt worden, der sich sich an dessen Reisepläne erinnert hatte / © Foto: Georg Berg
Ergonomically shaped hand axe. Fortunately, the Stone Age cell phone is back in its original place of discovery. An American tourist had taken it a few years ago and caused a lot of trouble. In far away Tasmania the thief was caught shortly after by Sab, who had remembered his travel plans / © Photo: Georg Berg

“Blackfellas” they call themselves

Sab Lord is very familiar with the Aboriginal way of life, having spent his childhood as a Whitefella (white fellow) in the outback on his parents’ buffalo farm together with Blackfellas of the same age. Regardless of tribal affiliation, these terms are not perceived pejoratively.

Gabriel (links), der Entscheidungsträger der Volksgemeinschaft aus Gumbalanya im Gespräch mit Sab Lord (rechts), der als Weißer auf der Ranch seines Vaters im Arnhemland aufgewachsen ist und heute als einer der bestinformiertesten Guides Reisegruppen durch die verschiedenen Stammesgebiete begleitet / © Foto: Georg Berg
Gabriel (left), the decision-maker of the ethnic community from Gumbalanya in conversation with Sab Lord (right), who grew up as a white man on his father’s ranch in Arnhemland and today accompanies tour groups through the various tribal areas as one of the best-informed guides / © Photo: Georg Berg

Fundamental misconceptions

The way of life of the Blackfellas meets with a lot of misunderstanding in the westernized everyday life. In order that our readers do not prematurely condemn the outward appearances that catch the eye, there are no pictures of the housing estate at Sab Lord’s request. The houses are built according to all the rules of Australian craftsmanship. But since Aborigines live mainly in the open air, the houses serve more as storage rooms and do not look very appealing to us.

Künstler lassen sich von den klassischen Felsmalereien zu ihren Bildern inspirieren. Der feine Pinsel besteht aus den Fasern einer Schraubenpalme / © Foto: Georg Berg
Artists are inspired by the classic rock paintings for their pictures. The fine brush is made of the fibers of a screw palm / © Photo: Georg Berg

The magic of the rock paintings is hard to put into words

The art in Arnhemland is so fascinating that for a long time I could not find an adequate way to describe it. The magic that the rock paintings have exerted on me is still difficult to put into words. No wonder, because to this day they serve the Aborigines as a support for the oral tradition.

Am Lagerfeuer mit Sab Lord verarbeiten wir die Eindrücke des Tages. In einem Lager, das Sab Lord selbst betreibt, schläft man in fertig aufgebauten Steilwandzelten. Vorher wird das Kanguru-Geschnetzelte mit Gemüse vom Chef persönlich über dem offenen Feuer zubereitet. Gegessen wird dann stilvoll mit Familienerbstücken. Am Lagerfeuer wird der Outback-Macho sentimental und erzählt von seiner Mutter, die ihm das Besteck vermacht hat / © Foto: Georg Berg
At the campfire with Sab Lord we process the impressions of the day. In a camp that Sab Lord himself runs, we sleep in ready-built cliff tents. Beforehand, the kangaroo stew with vegetables is prepared by the chief himself over an open fire. Dinner is then served in style with family heirlooms. Around the campfire, the outback macho gets sentimental and talks about his mother, who bequeathed him the cutlery / © Photo: Georg Berg

In this context I should mention my travel companions Katja Bockwinkel, Rainer Heubeck and Cornelius Pollmer. Certainly, each of us remembered different aspects. But the common attempts to understand what we saw and the memory of the amazement of the others let me bear my own continuing lack of understanding more easily.

Stories are told in detail

Thommo, the local guide, has interestingly brought Sab Lord closer to us by not coming along himself. We climb up into a rock massif that is called Long Tom Dreaming in English. At first, almost shyly, Thommo tells the ancient stories and we feel very closely how oral tradition works. The detailed stories are mainly about the motives of the depicted figures, which thus become alive and do not need to be described in detail.

Geschichten werden lebendig. Thommo an den Felsmalereien von Long Tom Dreaming / © Foto: Georg Berg
Stories come to life. Thommo at the rock paintings of Long Tom Dreaming / © Photo: Georg Berg

Sab has previously given us as the only advice on the way to repeat each question at most twice. If then still no answer comes, it will probably not be because of the linguistic understanding, but because of the secrets, which no stranger is allowed to know.

Thommo (Name geändert) erklärt die Aborigine-Kunst seiner Vorfahren / © Foto: Georg Berg
Thommo (name changed) explains the Aboriginal art of his ancestors / © Photo: Georg Berg

Travel advice: Australia for European tourists

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