9 November 2020

A decades-long research engagement with the Yanyuwa people from the south-western Gulf of Carpentaria is reframing the meaning of ‘rock art’, through a Discovery Project led by ARC Future Fellow, Associate Professor Liam Brady, with colleagues Professor Amanda Kearney and Associate Professor John Bradley.

Working on Yanyuwa traditional country, the team has been recording hundreds of images in caves and rock shelters, and is reassessing the roles and meanings of this archaeological heritage in the lives of the Yanyuwa people today.

Associate Professor Brady, who is based at Flinders University, says that the research team was approached by the community in 2010 to begin the rock art recording project, but with a key goal of involving the younger generation, and to understand what underpins people’s relationships to rock art today.

“As archaeologists we construct chronologies, and ask questions about their deep time significance,” says Professor Brady. “But with this project we are also interested in what the older people are saying, and what are younger people saying today. We wanted to tell the story of the Yanyuwa rock art that way.”

“We found out that interpretations and discussions of the meaning of rock art change over the time, and from older generations to younger generations. The meaning can also be tied to so many different things, to Dreamings, to spirit beings, to kinship, to health and wellbeing.”

As the researchers’ understanding of rock art changed through conversations with the Yanyuwa men and women, they found that the images are one part of a web of relationships that transcend any western sense of the idea of an ‘artefact’. The images aren’t even considered to be paintings.

“There is no word for ‘rock art’ in Yanyuwa,” says Associate Professor John Bradley, an anthropologist who is based at the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre. Professor Bradley learned Yanyuwa while working alongside the community in the 1980s, and is now one of a dwindling number of fluent speakers.

“A lot of these conversations in the first instance we didn’t have to do in English,” explains Professor Bradley. “We could just let people talk using their own language, and from that we began to sense how this term—what we express in the west as ‘rock art’—isn’t really present in those languages.”

Professor Bradley says that the images are often simply ‘Ancestors’ to the Yanyuwa.

“We found cave after cave of handprints. When we told the community what we’d found they said, “That’s because these Dreaming beings have been through there and you’re actually looking at their hands.”

“The term ‘rock art’ kind of flattens it, it takes some of that dynamic quality out of it,” says Professor Amanda Kearney, an anthropologist from Flinders University, who has been engaged in deepening cross-cultural conversations with the Yanyuwa for 20 years.

“Our job as researchers has been to wise up and get into the flow of how to leave behind some of our western academic baggage.”

“We are dealing with paintings that can appear and disappear, depending on the health of the people themselves, and the health of the land and water. It’s a very conversational, communicative aspect of country. When you start to understand it in that way, it’s no longer something of the past, but of the present moment.”

Other language groups from the region such as the Marra have heard about the Yanyuwa project and invited the research team to carry out similar rock art recordings in neighbouring Country. An animated video about Marra rock art was created as part of the research project and uses ancestral spirits to tell the story of colonial violence against the Wilangarra people, as remembered by the elders of the Gudanji, Marra and Yanyuwa people who survive them. The story is told in the form of a song line that was shared by all three language groups. The animation of rock art in Marra Country is one of many animations that is adding to the store of cultural heritage now in community ownership.

Professor Kearney says that their research helps to build the evidence base that underpins the Yanyuwa’s ongoing claim to land and sea rights, and has previously fed into the drafting of an Indigenous plan of management and an Indigenous protected area.

“The Yanyuwa have embraced working with us—the more knowledge that fills up around country, the stronger the case for land rights and protected areas. The people see our work as different, but with outcomes that the community can hold on to.”

“This is really key for us,” says Professor Kearney. “We’re in it for the long haul.”

Image: Recording rock art at Liwingkinya on Vanderlin Island in Yanyuwa Country with Graham Friday, John Bradley, and Warren Timothy. Credit: Amanda Kearney, June 2019.