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Ritual, art, and performance in Aboriginal Australia

The East Kimberley painting movement: performing colonial history

Arnaud Morvan

Texte intégral

This paper is based on PhD research undertaken at the EHESS -Paris and the University of Melbourne between 2005 and 2010. My fieldwork was based in the East Kimberley Region of north-west Australia around the community of Turkey Creek, and the towns of Kununurra and Wyndham. I collaborated with a group of contemporary artists named Jirrawun Arts, on the everyday running of the corporation and as archivist and anthropologist. The present paper will be mainly based on artworks by Rover Thomas, Paddy Bedford and Rammey Ramsey.

The Kimberley Region of north-West Australia hosted an important amount of anthropological research during the 20th century. Some of this early research took as subject Australian indigenous temporality, and in particular the dynamic local responses to colonization, through ritual performances (including, songs, paintings and body movements). Some of these ritual performances later developed into independent art forms that circulated internationally within the art market.

My own research focuses on one of these art movements called the East Kimberley school of painting, in its relation to colonial history.

European settlement began at the end of the 19th century through the development of cattle industry. Violent conflicts erupted between two groups, on one side the local Aboriginal people, on the other farmers and local police. This period is remembered today by local indigenous people as the “killing time”. . As a result of colonization, local populations were displaced, many suffered from disease, and various forms of mistreatment. By the 1920's, most Aboriginal families were living on or around cattle stations, working as cheap labor for the cattle industry. This situation of interdependency lead to a high level of intercultural exchanges.

It is in this post-contact context that several ethnographic fieldworks were conducted. In 1937 an archeology and ethnography expedition was sent from Germany by the Frobenius Institute in Frankfort to study Kimberley rock art and record firsthand accounts from indigenous people who had lived and worked with ancient and contemporary rock art.

The mission was led by anthropologists Elmut Petri and Andreas Lommel who worked in the West and Central Kimberley among the Wunambal, Ngarinyin and Worora language groups in 1937 and 1938.

Beside rock art material, Petri and Lommel's most valuable contribution to Australian anthropology was their precise description of several so called “traveling ceremonies” or myhto-history, showing how local groups integrated some element of the colonial contact into mythical narrative. The most famous and well documented of these ceremonies was called Kurangara. (also documented by Berndt in the south Kimberley and Tanami regions). This ritual, coming from the east, was reported by Lommel as transposing the destructive impact from European settlement in what he analyses as an apocalyptic myth.

Lommel explains that the Europeans were mythically associated with a new cultural hero named Tjamba, described in the following abstract:

  • 1 Lommel Andreas,The Unambal, A tribe in North West Australia, (trad Ian Campbell), Takarakka Nowan K (...)

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