I went to Australia having predetermined how I was going to experience aboriginal rock art. It would be magical, shamanic, transformative, and would somehow single me out as connected to this ancient form of identity and communication.
My experience couldn't have been farther from my assumption. While absolutely transformative, I saw the human and historic meaning of these images for what they were: expressive recordkeeping, meant to record the story of a tribe and their creation. It's a temporary medium and at risk historic decay through wear and natural damage (like rock fungus). And it tells a human story of how a people interacted with and interpreted their world.
These images are from the Rainbow Serpant caves at Wangaar-Wuri near Cooktown, which I toured with Gurrbi Tours. Willie Brown is a Nugal-warra Elder and the storyteller for his people. With Willie we hiked over a ridge to his ancestral birthing site, where women would prepare for months in a tended cave then give birth under the sacred serpant rock. The placenta would be buried near the birth site, and after death the tribal bones would be returned to the area and reburied to complete the circle of life. The tribe tended to each other and recorded their creation stories, particularly that of the rainbow serpant from which all life is born (I believe this is the birthing cave shown in the top photo--the upper serpant was painted by Willie's grandfather and the lower serpant was painted by an unknown ancestor. Dingos, handprints and other images also adorn the cave).
Willie's tribe is dwindling in numbers and there's concern that the stories depicted in the rock art won't endure. (Indeed, there is concern that the Nugal-warra language, Guugu Yimithirr will soon be extinct.) Preservation efforts are under discussion and the rock art has been digitially captured, but I can tell you first hand images don't compare to experiencing the art first-hand.
I had a chat with Willie at the start of our hike and told him why I was there and how important it was to me to experience the rock art. He assured me I'd find what I was looking for and with a wink promised he had something special in store for me. As we reached the birthing cave, Willie called me up and handed me a rock, inviting me to use a reed to paint my own image from the watery ochre pot he'd prepared. I was thrilled to partiicpate in this honored tradition. After painting my rock, Willie invited me to walk around the corner and leave my rock under his guardianship. I was stunned to see hundreds of personal rocks lining the ledge! Wilie said this had become one of the most moving activities of his tours and he felt priviledged that people were willing to leave a piece of themselves under his protection.
In my search for mystical answers, I'd neglected the most elemental and powerful force behind the rock paintings--human artists expressing their beliefs and their feelings. I am part of this tradition, every time I step up to the canvas or put my pen to paper. It is the same creative force that drove Willie's ancestors to preserve their stories on the rocks that compels me to tell my story, to leave my mark for future generations and document these moments in time. The artist is society's storyteller, charged with reflecting back the community's history and beliefs for closer examination. With reflection comes growth and change, for the artist and the community. This is where the transformative, magical qualities of art reside.