Australian Aboriginal Sense of Belonging … and Nawarla Gabarnmang

Christopher Allen, in The Weekend Australian, 22/23 June 2019, with this title “Timeless Sense of Belonging”

Our concept of the spirit of place has a long history. The Latin expression genius loci referred originally to the tutelary divinity of a place, within a pre-­religious animistic system of belief such as those found in many early cultures, and which often prove remarkably enduring, even in later times, coexisting with more developed theological or philosophical ways of thinking.

John Gollings’ Ancient rock art, Nawarla Gabarnmang, Arnhem Land (2015). Image courtesy Heide Museum of Modern Art

Thus the Romans continued to venerate the spirits of places even when they had adopted the more elaborate religious system of the Olympian gods, and the Greeks themselves turned those associated with woodlands, springs and rocks into fauns and nymphs. In Euripides’s Electra, Aegisthus offers sacrifice to the nymphs of the rocks — elemental and amoral entities who are foreign to the ideal of justice associated with Zeus — to protect him and to bring destruction upon his enemies.

In more recent centuries, the idea of spirit of place has become more secular and more subjective, referring to the particular character that we sense in a cultural setting, such as a city, or in a natural environment. It may be what attracts us to live in one place rather than another, and it is one of the things we ultim­ately seek in travel: it is the spirit of place that we yearn to find in Paris or Naples or Istanbul and that can prove so elusive, especially in the age of mass tourism.

It is the intangible quality that exists beyond or between the buildings, ruins, landscapes and marketplaces of cities and regions that travel writers try to evoke, and that the titles of their books attempt to distil into a memorable turn of phrase: DH Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia (1921), Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana (Iran and Afghanistan, 1937), Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons (Cyprus, 1957), Dorothy Carrington’s Granite Island: Portrait of Corsica (1971) or Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily (1996) or Street Fight in Naples (2010).

In the more general sense, spirit of place is the subject of the first set of work in this exhibition by John Gollings, whose oeuvre includes views of many notable places, from mining sites to modern cities and ancient ones. One striking series is devoted to the ruins of the ancient city of Turpan, in the Chinese province of Xinjiang and the meeting point of the Iranian, Turkish and Chinese cultures that between them dominated the Silk Road.

The first suite of pictures at Heide is a series of moody black-and-white images of places connected with Aboriginal myths and legends, and originally taken for publication in Aldo Massola’s Bunjil’s Cave (1968). Gollings rediscovered the negatives and digitised them, so the images here are inkjet prints from the digital files and on a much larger scale than in the original book.

  Detail from John Gollings’ Sandhills in the Mallee Victoria (1967). Heide Museum of Modern Art

The second set of photographs, far bigger and in colour, records a place more literally connected to animistic spirits. It is a set of Aboriginal rock paintings, on the ceiling of a rock shelter at a place called Nawarla Gabarnmang in Arnhem Land, where for thousands of years totemic figures have been painted and overpainted in a constantly evolving palimpsest.

The site is extraordinary, a vast cave-like space open on two sides and supported by natural columns of rock. The open space was originally eroded by the waters of the sea, wearing away the softer sandstone and leaving harder stone as columns supporting the vast weight of the stone ceiling and the hillside above it.

Gabarnmang was unknown until 2006, when two officers engaged in an aerial survey noticed a deep shadow that betrayed the existence of an open space under the shelf of rock. Landing their helicopter, they found this astonishing space and its gallery of ceiling paintings.

The local Aboriginal community had been unaware of the cave’s existence, although eventually a couple of older members recalled having been taken there as children. The last visits to this place must therefore have been 60 to 70 years ago, in the early 1950s, a fact probably explained by the removal of the indigenous population from this region to other locations during World War II.

John Gollings’ Ancient rock art, Nawarla Gabarnmang, Arnhem Land (2015). Image courtesy Heide Museum of Modern Art
John Gollings’ Ancient rock art, Nawarla Gabarnmang, Arnhem Land (2015). Image courtesy Heide Museum of Modern Art

Archeological study of the site began in 2010 as a Franco-Australian collaboration. Investigations reveal the shelter had been occupied or visited for more than 40,000 years, while the oldest surviving paintings can be dated to about 28,000 years ago, making them the oldest dated rock art in Australia. An aspect of the site’s archeological study has been to show that the people who used this shelter so long ago did not simply occupy it as they found it, but made certain modifications, including removing some of the natural columns and some blocks of stone from the ceiling. The archeological team has adopted the French term amenagement for this behaviour, since there is no English term that quite suits this kind of intervention.

While the earliest surviving paintings go back 28,000 years, the latest were produced within the past 500 years, the last perhaps as recently as a century ago. Whatever the best estimates of archeology suggest, however, the really striking thing is that this is a site that was used by the local people for almost 30 millennia without any notable shift in cultural paradigms.

There are many places in the world that have been occupied for countless millennia, but elsewhere they have been destroyed and rebuilt by successive cultures, by different people with different and changing beliefs. Australia is one of the few places where such unchanging or imperceptibly changing continuity can be found because the indigenous people were left to themselves and barely subjected to external influences until about 250 years ago.

This continuity is fundamental to Australian Aboriginal culture, and it is rightly claimed as a strength; but it must also be acknowledged as a challenge for indigenous people seeking to come to terms with the modern world.

In subject, many of the pictures are of totemic animals and fish, especially barramundi, and this is probably due to the fact the site is near the origins of several important rivers. Presumably, as is assumed to the case with Palaeolithic art in Europe, the painting of the totemic animals is designed as a magical engendering or seeding of these creatures that are vital food sources.

Interestingly, though, there are also paintings of animistic beings that are objects of dread. There are female figures without legs, or Ngalworreworre, mermaid-like creatures of the waterways who tempt young men and lure them to their death. These beings, surprisingly analogous to the water nymphs that draw Hylas down to perish in the waters in Greek mythology, must represent archetypal fears, both of nature and of the feminine.

As if that were not enough, another group of female spirits, this time with legs, is called Ngalenjelenje and are in effect a kind of rock nymph, once again threatening young men who wander alone into the dangerous rocky wilderness. Another maleficent figure is the demon of the shooting star, who devours babies; life in a prehistoric culture may sometimes look as though it must be closer to nature than our own, but it is full of fears and menaces as well as hard and often dangerous.

To visit the site itself is hard because it is accessible only by helicopter or by a two-day walk and cannot be entered without the permission of the traditional owners.

But Gollings’s photographs give a vivid impression of what it must be like to experience Gabarnmang, and somehow the effect is even more dramatic when counterpointed with the pared-back modernism of Heide II, the new house made of white stone that John and Sunday Reed had built for themselves in the early 1960s. The modernist austerity and the intimacy of the domestic spaces at Heide II contrast with the organic, naturally produced and artificially adapted rock shelter in the images.

A modern art gallery or museum is a neutral space, which implies nothing but the intention of scientific neutrality and objectivity in the display of its collections. But Heide II is a house that has been turned into a museum, and each room naturally and rightly retains the vestiges of its own character. Thus our experience of the Palaeolithic rock shelter is qualified by seeing it from the vantage point, as it were, of another dwelling shaped by millennia of history that have not touched Gabarnmang.

But the most remarkable thing about these photographs is the skill Gollings has brought to the recording of a subject that is not easy to capture on camera. Perhaps the hardest challenge was to convey simultaneously the impression of the great columned space from the outside and the profusely painted ceilings on the inside.

Part of the problem is the vastness and breadth that needs to be encompassed to convey a sense of scale, but the other is one that we may all be familiar with: how to photograph subjects where foreground and background, or inside and outside, are in very different light conditions.

Gollings resolves this difficulty by the use of elaborate artificial lighting for the interior, bringing it up to a level equivalent to the exterior. And this also allows him to achieve what, without such resources, would be impossible: to capture the sumptuous colours of sunset and the glow of the ceiling paintings at the same time.

In addition to all this, there is darkroom or today digital magic in the stitching together or overlaying of different shots to create the final image.

All art entails artifice, but it is not falsification to distil, from the disparate data of the everyday, a memorable and quintessential idea of the whole.

It is, after all, the same sort of thing that the writers I mentioned earlier do in evoking the spirit of place of the cities, islands and countries that they love, sometimes conjuring a vision more vivid than the reality that most visitors experience for themselves.

John Gollings: Spirit of Place, Heide Museum of Modern Art, until July 28

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