Aboriginal rock art provides a fascinating record of Aboriginal life over thousands of years. There are engravings on cave walls in Arnhem Land dating back at least 40,000 years - quite amazing when the cave art in Dordogne’s Vézère valley in France is roughly 12,000 years old. The ancient rock art and engravings depict figures, birds, animals, mythological creatures and non-figurative designs. Sometimes they were painted for religious significance, sorcery and magic, and other times as a way of telling stories and learning, or just for fun and practice.
Giwon/Bradshaw Rock Art from the Kimberleys
The colours used in rock art paintings come from natural occurring minerals. Pigments are crushed and mixed with water to create a paste & then a brush from hair, chewed sticks or reeds are used to apply the paint to the rock surface. Sometimes, pigments are placed in the mouth and blown out around an object, this is how you get the hand stencil effect which is quite prevalent in some rock art sites.
Wandjina Rock Art from the Kimberleys
In Sydney there are also some fantastic examples of rock engravings. Next time you visit ‘Sculpture by the Sea’ at Bondi Beach, take a closer look – there’s an incredible engraving at McKenzie’s Point!
Rock art is still very relevant to Aboriginal people and in many cases it shows cultural objects and activities that are still used and performed to this day. In some instances, rock art is maintained and repainted by the descendants who originally painted them. Some Indigenous Australians learnt the art of rock painting when they were growing up, and are able to bridge the rock art traditions of their ancestors with contemporary artistic methods – the results are highly innovative and extraordinary!