Kunwinjku Painters – Dream Time Image Custodians
By Ian S. Newnham 2009

How to get full value from your visit to Kakadu. Some years ago when I first went to Kakadu an acquaintance pointed out an old indigenous man in a baseball cap and in a hushed voice whispered to me ‘He is a painter’.

Arriving in Kakadu with the same goal as most, which was to see the magnificent natural country, and enjoy the scenery and the wildlife, I had not given any thought to what might lie deeper within the heart and soul of the landscape and particularly the people. I was a complete rookie in the area of Aboriginal art and my only experience had been of the dot paintings of the Central Desert region and of course the paintings of Albert Namatjira.

It took me a long time to unravel just what a painter is, and what it means to be a painter in our First Australians culture. We late arrivals for the most part have a European view of painting as a singular activity, and accordingly view a lot of First Australian painting from a poor perspective.

Sure, if it makes economic sense to invest, we do, but not many of us take the journey to discover just how much more we can get from our foray into this intriguing world. As a result we miss a truly unique opportunity. We should take the journey; it is rich, rewarding and probably never ending.

In Kakadu the painters are from the Kunwinjku speakers and geographically cover an area now known as Western Arnhem Land and Kakadu. They straddle the East Alligator River in the Northern Territory. Originally there were separate groups but now as a result of extended families there is a large group, with sometimes slightly differing painting techniques, known as Kunwinjku painters.

For however long the First Australians have been here, and the debate ranges up to 150,000 years, there has been painting. Painting along with dream time stories, ceremonies and dancing has provided the means by which clans and families were able to visualise the stories of the dream time and the roles that various spirits played in the creation of Country

Painters hold this responsibility very carefully and nurture it within their culture. They are the keepers of much knowledge and share it with others only when they are sure that it will be treated with the utmost respect. They also have the responsibility of teaching younger painters the importance of their painting and they pass the knowledge onto them when the young ones are prepared adequately.

A Kunwinjku painting of a Barramundi is to some the painting of a Fish. To others it is a pictorial representation of a dream time sacred animal that we have shared this earth with for thousands of generations. Able to provide us with sustenance and help us in times of need. Able to fulfill its role as part of creation along with all of the other food sources.

Paintings often contain Mimi spirits. Some believe them to have done the first rock paintings whilst others believe that they are simply mischievous spirits who can cause pain and anguish or be a source of inspiration and fun, depending on the mood that they are in. Painters are not able to paint all subjects; they are limited in painting their own dreaming totem but can paint close friends. The stories that are from their Country provide a richness of material and give painters that particular view that makes those works very special.

A Kunwinjku painting of a dream time story is a journey through that story with depictions and images that the painter personally brings to the medium. Many stories are complex but have lasted for ever, in part, because of the paintings. First done on rock, then on bark and now paper. An understanding of these realities means every viewing of a Kunwinjku painting is a full sensory experience, not just visual. A chance to see far back into the distance when mankind was surviving in this marvellous place in a time different, but in a culture the same.

A very humbling experience, meeting with painters. The skills and the far-knowing attitudes are wonderful to share. The furrowed brows and the humour just waiting to bubble out as another tiny line is added with precision to a Raark painting. Constant referrals to senior painters by apprentices on content and style. The ever-present recognition that, with minor exceptions to medium, this has been going on here in the same way for thousands of years.

The willingness to share, to teach Balanda (non aboriginal) those things, which should be self-evident to all. Of course Balanda does not always take the time to look deeply into the meaning of things and occasionally it is easier to teach the children. This, subsequently mentioned to me by the gentleman in the baseball cap. This willingness to share is a feature of the area and is a wonderful way to learn directly about the history and the structure of a large group of human beings who have made their home here for those many thousands of years.

Enrich your visit to the Top End and allow plenty of time to reward yourself with a life altering experience. Sure it is Art but, it is much more than that, it is a tangible link to what went before and there is nowhere else on Earth that you can experience it to the same degree as you can in the Top End of Australia. The Kunwinjku painters are a unique Australian phenomena and bring something very special to your visit to Kakadu. Embrace it while you are there.

Now, when I have the opportunity, I like nothing better than to pass on the information to my guests in a way that befits the subject. My message is simple, speak reverently my friend, ‘He, is a painter.’

© Ian Newnham. 2009

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