The Mornington Island arts community in far North Queensland has long been known for the dynamic body paint designs worn by their Dancers. Each paint-up is particular to the wearer, and is inherited through complex systems of kinship and community relations. Artists including Lance Gavenor, Joseph Watt, Wayne Williams, and Reggie Robertson have recently begun to translate these body paint-ups onto canvas so that designs the Mornington Island people have carried on their bodies for many hundreds of years are now reaching new audiences. Adding their voices to the contemporary dialogue of ‘painting up country’ are artists Sally Gabori, Netta Loogatha, May Moodoonuthi, Paula Paul, Dawn Naranatjil, Beverley Escott, Joelene Roughsey and Annika Roughsey; women whose graphically clean designs and exhilaratingly coloured landscapes express the continuing vitality of Aboriginal culture and belief.
The ownership of designs has always been at the centre of Aboriginal intellectual property. Today Aboriginal designs continue to represent fundamental links between the expression of thought, the communication of details of religious ancestry, and the stating of land ownership and guardianship. Aboriginal belief sees all living things as deeply connected to the country in which they grow, and knowledge of the land and its resources is integral to culture. ‘Country’ is essential to their survival as a people and forms the basis of who and what Aboriginal people are. It is a concept that forms the basis of culture and identity in Maori belief systems also. As a former Chairman of Mornington Island Council, the late Larry Lanley, wrote; “At the heart of everything is the land. It is the way we think and feel about the land that makes us Aboriginal”. One could argue that the word ‘Aboriginal’ could be replaced with the name of almost any Indigenous people and the assertion would still ring true.
Australian Aboriginals trace their descent directly from the Spirit Ancestors who travelled across the land in the Dreaming, or Creation era. These spirit beings came up from the earth, and down from the sky, to walk the land singing and performing ceremonies. Rainbow Serpent was one of these great beings whose gigantic body created ridges, mountains, and waterholes as he moved across the barren and featureless earth. As they travelled the land the Creation Ancestors ‘sung’ life into it, and in the process created the Songlines that cross the Australian continent. These song cycles have been handed on from generation to generation, together with the body designs that were painted on the Ancestors’ chests, and it is these totemic designs that are today being transferred from the body onto canvas or bark. They are designs that continue to affirm the identity of Aboriginal people in both the spiritual and temporal world; designs whose extraordinary abstract qualities have not only caught the attention of the Western art world but which are also, for those who make them, religious documents, maps, personal histories, and title deeds to land.
Galarrwuy Yunupingu, leader of the Gumatj people and head of the Northern Land Council has written: “We are painting, as we always have done, to demonstrate our continuing link with our country and the rights and responsibilities we have to it. We paint to show the rest of the world that we own this country and the land owns us. Our painting is a political act.”
Photography: Kallan MacLeod