Painting on Country: capturing ancient practices in a digital age

A new exhibition, Painting on Country, brings the ancient practice of rock art into the digital age.

Now on display at the National Museum of Australia, Painting on Country is a collection of six two-metre digital photographs of traditional rock art, done on country by five senior artists from the Tjungu Palya art centre in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in South Australia.

Keith Stevens, Nyapari Tjukurpa, painted at Nyapari Rockhole, 2016, natural pigment on rock, detail. Photo: National Museum of Australia

Keith Stevens, Nyapari Tjukurpa, painted at Nyapari Rockhole, 2016, natural pigment on rock, detail. Photo: National Museum of Australia

The project was conceived by one of the artists - Keith Stevens - who wanted to renew the ancient practice of his ancestors.

“A long time ago when we were young, our fathers and their fathers made drawings on rock to teach people but this is the first time we have done those drawings,” he said.

“We wanted them to be big photographs because where we did the painting was on really large rocks inside big landscape, some have rock holes or special rocks and we wanted for those to be seen along with their stories.”

Artist Marita Baker was at the museum for the launch of the exhibition and she said the experience of painting on country was different to painting on canvas.

Marita Baker with her photograph Kalaya Tjukurpa,  painted at Kanpi Rockhole.  Photo: Jamila Toderas

Marita Baker with her photograph Kalaya Tjukurpa, painted at Kanpi Rockhole. Photo: Jamila Toderas

“We decided to paint on country to show our country, it was my father’s country and he taught us the dreaming.”

The paintings were done in 2016, the photographs taken and ensuing rains washed the project away.

For the museum’s head of Centre of Indigenous Knowledges, Margo Neale, that was half of the beauty of it all.

“It's painting about country, on country, with country - the natural ochres - which, after the rains, seeps back into country,” she said.

Beryl Jimmy, Nyangatja Watarru, painted at Watarru, 2016, natural pigment on rock. Photo: National Museum of Australia

Beryl Jimmy, Nyangatja Watarru, painted at Watarru, 2016, natural pigment on rock. Photo: National Museum of Australia

“Being able to capture that moment works on so many different levels, you can view it simply as beautiful, large-scale, contemporary art or view it as a fusion of the ancient and the contemporary.”

The photographs which were bought by art collector Christina Kennedy who has loaned them to the National Museum.

Ms Kennedy said she first saw the images as tiny little images on a computer.

“My interest in all this began many years ago with my involvement with the Kimberley Foundation, an organisation geared towards rock art research with a view to establish ways of conservation and preservation of the rock art galleries in the Kimberley.

Angkaliya Curtis, Cave Hill, painted at Cave Hill (Walinynga), 2016, natural pigment on rock Photo: National Museum of Australia

Angkaliya Curtis, Cave Hill, painted at Cave Hill (Walinynga), 2016, natural pigment on rock Photo: National Museum of Australia

“In 2016 I went to the APY lands with the Art Gallery of NSW on a collectors’ tour and when I saw these little images of rock art, on stunning landscapes, they had just been done, the idea that it was temporary, but showcased this beautiful country, it was a fascinating new concept to me, I was hooked.”

Ms Kennedy put in a strong offer of interest and on the trip back to Sydney wondered how she would tell her husband, businessman Trevor Kennedy.

“I thought there were only six photographs, he wouldn’t mind, but fortunately it was our 50th wedding anniversary and instead of a diamond ring or whatever I got six photos.”

Which she has now kindly loaned to the museum.

The Painting on Country exhibition also includes 27 contextual photographs of the artists at work, which are part of a limited edition hardcover book published by Tjungu Palya. It runs until September 29.