'Alien abductions', Kimberley Aboriginal rock-paintings, and the speculation about human origins: on some investments in cultural tourism in the northern Kimberley.
The issue of cultural tourism in the northern Kimberley, Western Australia, became fraught during the 1990s. To a great degree, this is the result of the socioeconomic implications of the tourist trade itself. There is an ever-increasing desire amongst visitors to the region to experience something of the cultural world of the Indigenous peoples of the area. Indeed, it is exactly this desire that has brought many European and North American visitors to Australia in the first instance. (1) Many local cattle stations have been operating 'farm stay' tourist facilities (with or without licences) that, in addition to giving visitors a glimpse of the highly iconic Kimberley cattle industry at work, also capitalise on the presence of Indigenous peoples as 'local colour', as well as on the Indigenous cultural heritage sites located on the pastoral leases (WWWNT 2001:6928-9). This arena of cultural tourism, which for many years has operated largely as non-Indigenous owned businesses employing local Aborigines as paid-by-the day 'guides' for tourists, has lately become a site of hotly contested political and economic power between pastoral and Indigenous interests tourists (Schulz 1999). This contestation has thrown into stark relief some of the contradictions previously buried within the longstanding system of non-Indigenous patronage of Aboriginal communities located on these remote pastoral leases.
As Indigenous interests have moved towards establishing tourism operations under their own proprietorship, and indeed been encouraged by Commonwealth funding agencies (such as the Indigenous Small Business Fund) to achieve exactly this, the issue of ownership of cultural materials, narratives and the landscape itself has become highly salient. In this article, I look at one particular controversy that, on the face of it, has been cast as involving a simple contrast between Western epistemological practices, namely the 'scientific view', and Indigenous explanations of the origins of the world. In fact, a closer scrutiny reveals a very pragmatic battle over Indigenous cultural heritage values that the native title process has brought to a head in this particular region. At stake are not just personal reputations, theories of racial origin, questions of art history and aesthetics, and the question of Indigenous control over significant cultural sites and the public statements made about them. Also at stake is the 'serious money' invested in the tourism operations run from non-Indigenous owned pastoral leases. Indeed, some of these leases appear to have been purchased recently not just for their pastoral potential, which remains extremely low (ILC 1998: satellite map of pastoral potential of Kimberley Region), but also in order to control access to culturally significant places located within their boundaries with a view to their future tourism potential. It is not unusual now for leaseholders offering their properties for sale to try to capitalise on this potential by attempting to factor in cultural heritage values as part of the package being sold and thus raising the price being asked. Much to the dismay of local Indigenous peoples, this has sometimes succeeded in raising the price of pastoral leases in the region beyond the reach of Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC) buy-back programs for groups with traditional connections to the land. In a cruel irony, the presence of Aboriginal places has proven to be a financial liability when buying back pastoral leases in the Kimberley for the 'cultural significance' made most concrete by the presence of these very sites.
Grahame Walsh and the Gwion Gwion or 'Bradshaw' figures
The public controversy (Walsh 1994; AAA 1995; Wilson 1995; Roff-Smith 1995; Sunday Program 1996; Australian Story 2002) prompted by Grahame Walsh's speculations about the 'Bradshaw Figures' in the rock-shelters of the northern Kimberley is based on his claims that these paintings were the work of a now-extinct invading ethnic group rather than that of the ancestors of present-day northern Kimberley peoples (Walsh 1994:60), that the painters must have arrived on the Australian continent with a fully developed style of painting (1994:41), and that contemporary Aborigines bear no substantial relationship, genetically or culturally, to this 'mystery race' (Walsh on Sunday Program 1996). For these reasons, Walsh, a passionate self-taught rock-art documenter, and the pastoralist and commercial interests that have supported him (2), infer that northern Kimberley Aborigines have no claim of ownership over these sites, since they are no more related to the culture of present-day Aborigines than are the European-Australian pastoralists. (3) In a related argument, Walsh claimed that many academic archaeologists are refusing to accept his conclusions because of 'political considerations', including their need to secure continued funding from 'politically correct' funding bodies (Walsh quote by Moran 2000). I consider that these claims about Indigenous heritage sites are best assessed in a broader framework, one that includes its historical and sociopolitical contexts.
In this article I address only briefly the strictly archaeological issue of a possible cultural incorporation by the ancestors of contemporary northern Kimberley peoples of imagery that may have preceded the anthropomorphic Wanjina paintings, paintings that are undisputedly part of their living cultural repertoire. Populations clearly shift over 17 000 to 20 000 years; one of the suggested datings for the Gwion paintings (Michaelson 2000). But so are cultural ideas and styles transmitted and exchanged between, and reworked within, relatively stable populations (Redmond 2001). I am presently more interested in the social impact of Walsh's work, both in the Kimberley and in the wider arena of the popular media, tourism and the academy.
Early speculations about the Wanjina figures
The early days of exploration and colonisation of the northwestern Kimberley gave rise to a wave of speculative theories about the origins of a distinctive Kimberley rock-art that provides a close parallel to the obsessive speculation that rages now about the origins of the Gwion Gwion ('Bradshaw') figures. Given that the non-Indigenous theories of origin of the anthropomorphic Wanjina rock-art figures involved the very same geographic region, the earlier controversy might have some important insights to offer the present debate. By bringing the earlier controversy about the Wanjina into focus, it becomes possible to make a comparative study of the sociocultural context within which Walsh's current arguments are made.
Arndt (1964), following McCarthy (1958), usefully reviewed the various historical theories of the origin of the Wanjina paintings that embody the contemporary cosmology and cosmogony of the Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunambal peoples, and I retrace here some of these steps.
The surveyor and explorer, Major George Grey, in the diaries of his 1838-9 expeditions, was the first European to comment upon northern Kimberley rock-paintings. He came across Wanjina paintings at the headwaters of the Glenelg River and was prompted to describe them as '... robed and haloed priests, apparently of some recent foreign origin' (Arndt 1964:161). In 1886, Curr, on the temporal crest of the first pastoral invasion, suggested an origin in 'Chinese and Malays living among the Aborigines' (Arndt 1964:161). In 1902, Brockman, and in 1917 Basedow were inclined to ascribe the Wanjina to foreign origin; Thomas, in 1906, attributed the paintings to shipwrecked Timorese; Hill suggested a resemblance to Amain from Thebes in Egypt; Campbell and Statham favoured a Japanese origin; Carroll suggested an introduction of the figures by Arab traders; Mathews believed them to be representations of an Indian deity and other writers followed with suggestions of an origin in Persian sun cults (Arndt 1964:161).
Capell, who collected extensive mythological texts in the northern Kimberley during 1938 and 1939 while working with the missionary-ethnographer Howard Coate, was at first inclined to accept an origin of the Wanjina paintings in 'migrant hordes' from Timor (Arndt 1964:161), but came to accept Elkin's strong conclusion that 'there do not seem to be any features in the wondjina that might be supposed foreign to the ideas and practices of the natives' (Elkin 1930:274). Elkin had spent several months in the northwestern Kimberley during 1927 and 1928, and was quickly convinced of the local origin of the paintings and the accompanying oral/performative cosmology. D.S. Davidson (1936) later also 'argued for an entirely Australian origin' (Arndt 1964:162).
Thus, it took a century after Grey's first descriptions of Wanjina imagery for Australianist researchers and casual commentators to accept an Indigenous origin for a visual genre that previously had been construed as necessarily belonging to the 'great tradition' of the literate monotheistic religions: Hinduism, Bhuddism, Zoroastrianism and Islam. Why, we might ask, was there such a resistance to the more parsimonious assumption that the very peoples living with and relating stories of these images might be their authors? Why indeed did this 'alien origin' assumption continue into the 1970s with Erich von Daniken (1968) taking the idea ad absurdum by proposing a prehistoric invasion of aliens, an invasion that he believed found representation in the Wanjina and various other Indigenous religious traditions.
This century-long period of 'alien' speculation was also, not surprisingly, the first century of colonisation of the Kimberley by aliens of a more terrestrial nature. Von Daniken's populist 'science faction' (and the 'New Age' incorporation of Indigenous religions into amalgams of the 'great traditions' that has followed it) emerged at the same historical moment that the question of Indigenous Australian land rights entered into the mainstream of Australian political life. The 1970s was also the moment at which Grahame Walsh began his adventures in Aboriginal cave art in Kimberley, having begun his researches in the Carnarvon Gorge area in south-central Queensland in 1957 (Moran 2000).
As McNiven's and Russell's (1997) article was also at pains to point out, I stress here the parallel between the current controversy about the Gwion and the historical controversy about the origin of the Wanjina figures. Walsh has not claimed that the Wanjina are the product of anyone other than contemporary Indigenous peoples of the northern Kimberley and their immediate ancestors. But he has provoked dismay among Kimberley peoples by claiming that the Wanjina mark a degenerated form of culture compared to what he calls the 'erudite'(Crib 1995; Hogath and Dayton 1997) culture represented in the 'Bradshaw figures'.(4) Walsh goes so far as to imply that the Wanjina are a sort of cultural vandalism, painted as they are over the 'elegant Bradshaws' (Hogath and Dayton 1997 (5)).
This theory of a radical disjunction between contemporary Indigenous peoples and the painters of the 'Bradshaws' finds very little support among most Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunambal peoples; those knowledgeable in local law can elaborate a body of belief linking their current cultural repertoire to these figures, which they call 'Gwion Gwion'. They have recently published a volume of photographs and texts concerning them (Ngajno et al. 2000; Mowaljarlai 1991; Crawford 1968). This term denotes the 'bird people' who are believed to have created these paintings.
These theriomorphic bird-beings are known as the 'inventors' or the 'messengers' (Ngajno et al. 2000) who introduced stone-age technology into the world
and who also brought the contemporary practices of initiation and sharing through the Wurnan ceremonial exchange system that links Ngarinyin, Worrora and Wunambal people to the eastern Kimberley cultures and further afield into the southern Kimberley deserts and on into South Australia.
Current archaeological opinion
As further background to understanding the terms of this controversy, I briefly review current archaeological thinking on the Gwion Gwion figures. Dating of these figures by Watchman indicated that the red paint used to produce a particular tasselled Bradshaw image near Drysdale River is 'likely to be only about 3000 years old' (Watchman 1997: 42), though he notes that 'this age estimate is approximate because neither the paint nor the silica under the paint can be radiocarbon dated' (1997: 44). For another painting in the category of so-called 'Cane Bradshaw Figures', Watchman obtained results from 'the accreted paint layers containing carbon associated with these oxalate salts [that] gave a date of 3880 [+ or -] 110 BP' (6) (1997:44; cf. Michaelson 2000).
When Watchman compared these results with work done in neighbouring areas on the Mitchell Plateau and in the eastern Kimberley he found the evidence pointed towards a conclusion that 'occupation and associated rock-paintings in upland sites began less than about 4000 years ago' (1997:44). This evidence of the temporal proximity of the Gwion and Wanjina imagery, tends to contradict assertions by Walsh (1994) that the so-called 'Bradshaw' figures clearly pre-dated the production of Wanjina images in the same area, and belong to a completely different cultural tradition widely separated in time from the modern Wanjina paintings. Morwood, in contrast, has reported in support of the radical disjuncture hypothesis that Roberts obtained OSL dates on a wasp nest over a Bradshaw figure showing the painting to be at least 16 400 years old (Morwood 1997:6).
In Watchman's view, the 'succession of painted forms shows a continuous tradition of rock-painting stretching from at least 4000 years ago until today' (1997:44; cf. Michaleson 2000). As noted above, evidence of North Kimberley stone spear-points begins to occur at the same time as the Wanjina style emerges, separated by less than one thousand years from the minimum dates obtained by Watchman on Gwion figures. This evidence tends to be congruent with the view of current Indigenous informants that the Gwion Gwion were 'the inventors' or 'looking forward people' who introduced stone spear-tip technology to the Kimberley tribes, who before that used only nets and jalid (wooden spears) for hunting (Ngajno et al. 2000).
Crawford (1977:357) agreed with the view that 'a major cultural change took place about 3000 BP: before that date the artefacts are of the flake scraper tradition and after it the deposits are dominated by pressure-flaked spear heads and resultant debris. But the nature of the replacement is as yet obscure'. Crawford then went on to describe possible intermediate forms between the classic Wanjina and classic Gwion figures, yielding suggestive evidence for transitional developments rather than radical disjunctions in the art style.
The invasion hypothesis
The example that Walsh takes of a painting of figures, perhaps Gwion figures, travelling in a Melanesianstyle canoe in no way leads to the conclusion that the painters of the Gwion were therefore of 'foreign' (Hogarth and Dayton 1997) origin. Indeed the rarity of images of vessels in Kimberley rock-markings suggests to me that this was an extraordinary sighting for Indigenous people who felt compelled to include the vision among other supernatural phenomena in their paintings. There are many representations of early European sailing vessels in rock-paintings and carvings across northern Australia (Layton 1992:89ff) but no one is suggesting that these were therefore painted by European explorers. These are representations of strange and troubling events, not self-portraits.
Walsh claims (Hogarth and Dayton 1997) that he has not, until this controversy, met any Aboriginal person who knew any stories about the Gwion. And yet those who can and do speak of them presently live in the settlements situated in the country where these images occur. Walsh has largely ignored their publications and oral statements on the subject, including the 1991 explication/elucidation (for a non-Indigenous audience) of the Gwion by the recently deceased senior Ngarinyin man, Mowaljarlai (1991). (7) This reference indicates that the Ngarinyin interest in the Gwion is not a recent claim of ownership in response to Walsh's alienation model. Also ignored has been the positive references to the Gwion by Crawford (1968) and Lommel (1996). During the last decade, senior Ngarinyin have been engaged in documenting knowledge about their traditional life-world in a joint archival enterprise, the 'Pathway Project', an ongoing multi-media project. (8) Walsh has, nevertheless, continued to damn funding bodies for being 'politically correct' and unscientific (Sunday Program 1996; Moran 2000); for having, over the last decade, introduced codes of ethics that require researchers to demonstrate consultation with the subjects of the research before receiving financial backing. (9) Walsh himself received Commonwealth funding up until 1987 and it seems disingenuous for him to castigate these same research and funding bodies now that there are guidelines requiring local Indigenous communities to be consulted about the scope and purpose of research projects in their countries/communities. This last requirement merely recognises the essence of Aboriginal social etiquette, the need to ask first (AHC 2002).
The senior Ngarinyin with whom I have worked, far from being proponents of a bureaucratic political correctness, have spent many years of their lives guiding research and in conducting research themselves, and presenting their results and views to interested parties (extensive expositions offered to researchers have been published by Lomell 1996 , Capell 1972, and Crawford 1968, as well as by local Aborigines under their own names: Mowaljarlai 1991; Mowaljarlai et al. 1998; Ngarjno et al. 2000; Rumsey and Mowaljarlai 1995).
Rubbish is not garbage
Ignoring Aboriginal statements that do not fit his model, Walsh has continued to quote and re-quote a line from Crawford's 1968 work that a senior Aboriginal man said to that researcher that the Gwion are 'rubbish paintings' (Walsh 1994:13, Crawford 1968:86). A quick discourse analysis of this statement reminds us that the Kriol use of the term 'rubbish' as an adjective can be used to describe someone who is very old and maybe no longer active. This doesn't imply that nobody knows anything about such a 'rubbish' person or object any longer. Rather, that this person, except in the stories told about them, may no longer be an active participant in social life, and is perhaps 'halfway to the grave'. Another connotation of the term 'rubbish' in Indigenous English is 'not dangerous, friendly'. Thus a python might be described as a 'rubbish' snake as opposed to a King Brown that is 'cheeky'. The python figures centrally in northern Kimberley mythopoeia and could hardly be considered as peripheral to the local interpretation of the life-world. The term 'rubbish' may also be used to describe someone who is too young and inexperienced for an important political role.
I could not say what the person who made this statement was thinking of at the time but, among various possibilities, he may have been emphasising the hierarchical shift in the total visual and cosmological Gestalt that has made Wanjina a 'well-known bloke' and Gwion, a more background one; forever present but not interacted with in the same way as the Wanjina. While the focus of living connection may have shifted long ago to the Wanjina, the Gwion form an essential part of a living sense of identity for many contemporary Ngarinyin and related groups in much the same way that the early paintings are overlaid by, but seldom entirely obscured by, the Wanjina. The ways in which the Gwion form an essential part of the pervasive backdrop of Ngarinyin cosmogony has a social parallel in the way that preceding generations, beyond the third degree, form the genealogical backdrop of presently incarnate individuals. The importance of the Gwion to local cosmogony emerges most strongly in the restricted walungarri ritual context, since it was the Gwion who are said to have introduced the 'circle dance' for initiation, as well as the stone-tipped spear; a technology that is intimately bound into Ngarinyin concepts of 'making men' from boys.
All of this is consistent with the fact that contemporary Ngarinyin do not re-paint or re-mark the Gwion figures as they do the Wanjina. (10) The evidence suggests that new figures were certainly added to the same rock-shelter and new figures drawn over older motifs, often creating a dense layering and complexity of lines. In my experience it is empirically untrue to claim that 'the distribution of Bradshaw rock-art sites tends to be at odds with that of later periods' (Walsh 1994:75). I have found most Wanjina galleries to be replete with Gwion figures, or at least to be immediately adjacent to painted Gwion panels. There is much evidence that the same sites were utilised by the creators of both types of images.
The 'Erudite culture'
What to make then of Walsh's quest for the 'Erudite culture' (Walsh 1994:19; Sunday Program 1996; Moran 2000), and how does such a debate intersect with the
very pragmatic issues discussed above? I discern here strong similarities with the earlier search for the 'erudite' origins of the Wanjina. The early commentators postulated non-Indigenous, literate culture sources for the Wanjina, clearly indicating their desire to seek out the signs of a super-intelligent, transcendently rational culture, cherishing the essentially narcissistic hope (as many science fiction writers also do) of finding an 'intelligent life form' amidst the debris of the world they are in the process of colonising.
The still commonly heard litany of loneliness and intense alienation, while not unique to the frontiers of Australian settlement, certainly appears to have proliferated there, particularly among those engaged in intellectual/administrative tasks. As well as harsh environmental conditions, a researcher or visitor to the remote north is also confronted with a social world in which the long-term effects of dispossession on the local population are often disturbing. Because of the ways in which northern Aborigines often make use of public spaces, a visitor to a northern town often witnesses shocking levels of poverty, demoralisation, brutalisation, bodily disease and personal injury. Even in the early days of European contact with the Kimberley peoples, the minimalist production/ consumption ethic guiding Indigenous life must have seemed wildly incommensurate with the highly elaborated oral/performative and visual traditions of the local peoples. Walsh, for example, is even now convinced that 'a people shown in such paraphenalia' (as depicted in the Gwion figures) must have been developed 'beyond the cave dwelling level ... [to] at least some form of housing' (Walsh 1994:74). This contrast between an elaborate ritual life and a largely disposable material culture seems to be a constant stumbling block for Euro-Australians attempting to empathise with Indigenous Australians of the remote areas. In Walsh's case, this psychological blind spot is even more glaring given that the contemporary peoples of the region can be regularly observed, for example, wearing the various ceremonial paraphernalia depicted in those ancient paintings (Ngarjngo et al. 2000; Welsh 1996). Walsh has expressed deep longings for a lost 'Erudite' civilization (Sunday Program 1996; Moran 2000). His reminiscences of growing up as a lonely child on a vast western Queensland cattle station, with a powerful predilection for books about lost civilisations, seems to have predisposed him to a fascination with what must have been 'lost' from the Indigenous world of that area (Australian Story 2002; Moran 2000), things that can still be seen there in rock markings but could not speak to him directly. His mother, by his own account, used to read him books about long gone civilisations, one of which included pictures of the 'Bradshaws', inducing visions of the Kimberley as 'this mythic place with all these mysteries' (Walsh as quoted by Moran 2000).
In the Kimberley, though, the persons who can speak to him about their rock markings have been largely ignored. He has preferred to work alone (so as not to interrupt his fantasy?), musing over an imagined time of super-abundance when hunter-gatherers had little to do other than paint idealised images of themselves upon the walls of rock-shelters. With visible emotion he remarked, 'there can't be so many beautiful people in any society' (Sunday Program 1996) as though the function of these paintings was to reproduce a commonsense reality, albeit in a somewhat idealised form. The Gwion paintings are said by local Ngarinyin, though, to represent not ordinary individuals but primordial creative beings, 'bird-people', whose movements emulate aerodynamic flight. The fact that they are often painted in seemingly impossibly high locations in caves where no ledges exist is seen by local peoples to underscore this principle of flight. The Gwion are held to be representations of supernatural beings, not portraits of the super-rational engineers who Walsh likes to imagine built elaborate scaffolding in order to display their mathematical prowess. All this seems to be somehow to prove that the Gwion are on a par with the 'splendours of Egypt and the Mayans' (Moran 2000), thus confirming their place in an imagined evolutionary prehistoric order. Apart from the fact that a few poles lodged against the shelter walls would have sufficed for practical purposes, Walsh demonstrates a deep need to put the creators of the Gwion in the company of the intensely hierarchical classical societies of the past, as though this would somehow prove their intelligence and sophistication.
Walsh sees in the Gwion imagery of an Arcadia, where freedom and beauty emanate from an imagined triumph of Reason: the same fantasies that propel the widespread fascination with Egyptian and Aztec architecture and extra-terrestrial civilisations (Walsh 1994: 20). It seems that when we confront a real or imagined civilisation that has created works we find awesome, our imaginations play with desires for transcendence of bodily limitations and rekindle infant dreams of omnipotence. Immortality beckons in such dreams. John Morton has recently offered an interpretation along rather similar lines of T.G.H. Strehlow's search for the idealised Arrente, born of a similar sense of alienation from his peers and family. Morton drew here upon Wolfe's (1999:198) notion of the realm of 'Homo superorganicus--that indigenous species that leads a perfectly rounded life in communitarian ritual splendour' (Morton 2002).
Walsh, for example, concluded one interview with the aside that perhaps 'There could be a whole civilisation of people living in the west Kimberley ...' (Sunday Program 1996) just waiting to be found. While this may well be true for non-Indigenous visitors about to encounter this world for the first time, for local peoples this area is an extremely known social/physical universe, not a vast unknown space. Quite a few enterprising and supposedly discreet marijuana growers have found this out to their own cost.
The Wanjina, which present a dramatic vision of personages symbiotically bonded with the land and skyscape, part-human, part-lightning, part-rain, partcloud, are no longer seriously denied to be part of a living cultural tradition. Nevertheless, any serious appreciation of these images and the peoples who make them proved, for a hundred years, to be too much of an imaginative leap for many observers. As the review of the early literature shows, the peoples of the northern Kimberley were once seen as too 'primitive' (Grey 1841 and others cited above) to have created such images. Now Walsh sees them as the perpetrators of a cultural decline into a more 'primitive' and 'poor' (Hogarth and Dayton 1997) abstraction that has diminished his lofty vision of a 'mystery race' (Sunday Program 1996); a people who really knew how to paint the human figure, whose line work was impeccable. Walsh sees only decline in the change in visual representation from the supposedly cool representation of the Gwion human figure (subjected to a controlled distortion, in his view, in order to convey movement) collapsing into the Wanjina figures, perceived as some sort of violent abstract expressionism.
We are dealing here with a richly documented instance of a significant shift in an Indigenous visual style in the pre-European contact era. The challenge this represents to the popular imagination is to see beyond the stereotype of Aborigines as 'timeless people in a timeless land'. The challenge for archaeologists wishing to reconstruct the conditions under which such a change may have happened is to draw up possible sequences of change within these different but apparently continuous painting traditions. Crawford attempted to do exactly this in his 1977 article but reached an impasse that was almost inevitable given a methodology of speculative formal analysis not entirely dissimilar to the more sophisticated formal statistical analysis later applied by Michael Barry (1997). (11) This is not to say that both authors, working within an etic tradition of aesthetics, did not reach some very interesting conclusions. Crawford's article attempts to describe 'intermediate forms' by extending (as Walsh himself was forced to do much later) the formal categories of what had been hitherto thought of as the mutually exclusive groups of Wanjina and Gwion images.
The battle for recognition of Indigenous ownership and the tourist dollar
The debate concerning the origins of the Gwion Gwion figures has had substantial socioeconomic implications in the northern Kimberley. At least two of the pastoral stations in which the Gwion galleries exist have made these images one of the marketing hallmarks of their tourism facilities (cf. Anon. n.d.). It has even reached the point where the then-owners discussed dispensing with cattle altogether in order to concentrate on tourism enterprises (Anon. 1999). What complications may be encountered from the regulations of the Western Australian Pastoral Lands Board remain to be seen. Given that one of the Board's prominent current members has been observed taking groups of tourists to heritage sites on the neighbouring station, strenuous objection by the Board to such a radical change of land use may be unlikely (Ngarinyin Aboriginal Corporation personal communication 2001).
In 1996 the Ngarinyin Aboriginal Corporation (NAC) went into a partnership with a tourist operator in order to provide visitors to this same area with an Indigenous explication of the landscape, its storied places, and the modus vivendi of local peoples (Ward 2002). At the same time it was hoped that such an enterprise would provide economic benefits in an area where employment and enterprise opportunities were extremely limited, especially for Aboriginal peoples whose access to the local country was largely confined to unsustainably small excisions from pastoral leases. Starting up such a project was beset with difficulty. Finding a tour operator willing to contest the status quo of local leaseholder control of access to heritage sites was the first obstacle among many. Eventually, after many local operators refused, an operator was found on the opposite side of the continent. The local operators did not wish to unsettle the prevailing informal system of patronage, through which leaseholders benefit from the flow of tourists purchasing fuel, goods from station stores and accommodation sites, as well as fixed-wing and helicopter flights into areas too remote from the vehicle accessible mustering tracks.
Ngarinyin Aboriginal Corporation's 'Bush University' encountered some highly publicised opposition when it began its tours to Ngarinyin heritage sites. Roads were blockaded, its vehicles were banned from purchasing fuel or stores at nearby stations, committee members of the local tour operators' association lodged bogus complaints with licensing authorities, and a most acrimonious argument was carried on in the press and in the local region (Compass 1997 (12); Wedgetail Tours personal communication 1998 (13)). Nevertheless, the persistence of the NAC in this enterprise appears to have slowly won over some of the local station owners who recognised that their own businesses would benefit from the increased general trade to the area. However, because of the frequent change of ownership on some of these leases, it has been necessary to 'reinvent the wheel' with each new set of owners/managers, thus complicating issues of informal access agreements across pastoral leases. These issues remain unresolved at the time of writing.
McNiven and Russell made a clear critique of Walsh's 'alien origin' theory as part of an ideological justification of contemporary 'dispossession and struggles over land control' (1997: 807). This is demonstrably true in the contemporary northern Kimberley where cultural tourism on cattle stations is increasingly supporting an ailing pastoral industry (Anon. 1999). Walsh himself admits that he partly supports his research by taking the wealthier tourist sector to these sites (Australian Story 2002).
As well as the plainly economic factors involved, the general population's obvious fascination for Walsh's argument derives from some of the less conscious psychodynamics of contemporary race relations. These factors appear to over-determine the economic and historical struggles being played out in the region. The sheer amount of popular press space devoted to Walsh's work and theories, even though his interpretations of the origins of the paintings are mostly dismissed by archaeologists, suggests that there is more to the story than rational speculation and debate. Roheim, working in central Australia in the 1930s, dealt at length with the 'riddle of the sphinx', as a metaphor for the psychological search of the child (and the child within the adult) for the mystery of human origins; the mysteries of parental sexuality. Walsh's notion of an erudite, transcendentally sophisticated, 'mystery race' (Roff-Smith 1995) seems to fall into this category of an obsessive speculation about 'what goes on in the dark', as the old saying goes. The quest for an 'erudite alien race' engages with the fantasy of the search for the all-powerful, omniscient, parental figure. The ultimate culmination of such a position occurs in Walsh's apparent belief that he is now the most knowledgeable person about (and therefore chief curator of), the Gwion Gwion paintings. Walsh's rejection of the repeated statements about the significance of these paintings to contemporary Indigenous peoples of the Kimberley seems to have a parallel in the way in which Strehlow is described by Morton as holding a contempt for those Arrente who he considered 'did not live up to the image: they too were relegated to the same space of unknowing' (Morton 2002: 10). In the case of Walsh's search for the 'erudite culture', it seems that this is also partly a projection of his profound ambivalence about the academy, another 'erudite' world that he experiences as hostile towards him in a very personal way, despite his decades of 'hard slog' fieldwork, often providing the materials and locations from which academic archaeologists have drawn their results. These two 'erudite' worlds, the lost civilization and his image of the academy, seem to have become somewhat conflated for Walsh.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
A primary projection occurring in theories of the 'alien origin' of Indigenous painting is the incontrovertible sense of how alien the non-Indigenous researcher/traveller/tourist is--both in the physical landscape and as a non-Indigenous person in the Indigenous psychosocial world. The things that Walsh can most identify with, and even love, in the Kimberley are the lengthening shadows of a 'mystery race' (Sunday Program 1996). Since the anthropomorphism of the Gwion falls within the parameters of representation of the human body that, at least since Brancusi (14), are readily incorporated by Euro-Australians into their own aesthetic vision, these figures lend themselves to the fantasy of ideal human beings inhabiting a serenely silent world. This vision is experienced as being at odds with the visceral, noisy, 'all too human' world of living Aboriginal Australia.
In this respect, Walsh, much to his surprise perhaps, is far from being alone, since the notion of a transcendently wise civilisation located in the heart of the continent is a stereotype that more or less subtly informs cultural tourism in Australia and much else besides, including representations of Indigenous Australia in film and text (e.g. Weir's The Last Wave (1977), Marlo Morgan's now infamous fantasy (1995)). If there is a 'wisdom' to be found in the heart of this life-world, it may lie in the often great good humour with which Aborigines entertain guests in their country, enduring and even trying to understand their guests' many and diverse fantasies about Indigenous life and culture. Such fantasies, after all, propel the search for exotic experiences in all 'other worlds', something that is well attested to in all of the great travel narratives of the West. These fantasies are consciously manipulated by tourism agencies selling tour packages to the centre and far north of Australia for the simple reason that it is fantasy, not stark realties, that many want from a holiday. While Aboriginal tourism enterprises may wish to take advantage of this image created of their cultural world and milk it for its economic benefits, it is clear from the kind of fantasies generated around the Gwion paintings that such stereotypes eventually become irksome to living peoples, who feel constrained and eventually 'written out of the picture' by such fantasies.
The original version of this paper was presented to the Australian Rock Art Research Association symposium, 'Making a Mark', at The Australian National University, 7 February 1998. Thanks to Graeme Ward at AIATSIS for his careful consideration and many helpful suggestions in the preparation of the final draft of this article.
(1.) In 1999, 422 000 domestic and more than 50 000 international tourists visited the Kimberley region, spending over $230 million dollars (KDC 2002).
(2.) Walsh quoted by Moran 2000: 'It's just through private patrons and support I can do this work'. Walsh also lists his patrons in the acknowledgements for his 1994 book. In September 2001, Mark Drummond wrote in the Australian Financial Review that 'While Theda and Doongan were expected to fetch about $3.5 million when put up for sale this year by owner Mr Russell Timms, Mr Myers paid $5 million. ... Since buying the properties, Mr Myers has organised for renowned archaeologist Mr Grahame Walsh to be based on the stations, travelling by chopper to study the known rock art and to catalogue new sites'. K. Legge (2001), in The Weekend Australian, reported that 'Dame Elisabeth thinks the Myers's purchase of Theda and Doongan was inspired in part by a desire to 'ensure accessibility which has been difficult for Grahame in recent years'. The father of Australian archeology, John Mulvaney, who agreed to launch two of Walsh's books at the request of Mrs Myers, echoes the view that these properties have been acquired for philanthropic rather than commercial gain. 'I gather they were bought to promote Grahame's work and to preserve the Bradshaws', he said, speaking enviously but generously of his colleague's ability to win such handsome private sponsorship.'
(3.) This is an inference of some suggestions made during the Wilinggin Native Title hearings which Walsh attended at various sites to give advice to the lawyers for the Pastoralist and Graziers Association opposing the claim. Whether or not there is a direct line of continuity between the Gwion and Wanjina painters is likely to be irrelevant to the outcome of this case.
(4.) P. Neowarra and L. Gowanulli; personal commmunications, 1996.
(5.) '...the theory dismisses the Ngarinyin as unsophisticated Johnny-come-latelies, implying that they possibly dispossessed or even wiped out a superior culture' (Hogath and Dayton 1997).
(6.) That is, 3880 radiocarbon years before the present, plus or minus 110 radiocarbon years
(7.) Mowaljarlai 1991: 'The painting is of Jungatgu people. They are the people of the early history. Jungatgu were the first people to use gimbu (stone flakes) in spears. A long time ago much of their story disappeared./'Koion, a small brown bird with a white beak, touches up these paintings with his beak. He hits and hits the rock wall with his beak. His beak bleeds while he does this and he uses the blood from his beak to touch up the painting.'
(8.) Public excerpts from which have been presented over a three-month exhibition period at the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, and at a related forum at UNESCO's Paris headquarters, 16 June 1997 (Pathway Project 1997a; exhibition catalogue details are at Pathway Project. 1997b), to an academic audience at the Canberra AURA inter-congress in 1998 (Mowaljarlai et al. 1998), in a major publication (Ngarjno et al. 2000), and recently at the opening of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, October 2002 (Pathway Project 2002).
(9.) '... the political correctness that is going on at the moment, its a dark age we are living in. The last thing people seem to be interested in is science'. And, in regard specifically to funding bodies: 'Effectively they are literally controlling the direction of scientific knowledge and publication in Australia.' (Walsh in Moran 2000).
(10.) Recent photographic techniques have suggested to Per Michaelson (2002) that the Gwion figures actually were retouched over time.
(11.) Barry conducted a formal statistical analysis (multivariate) that concluded that the Gwion as a gestalt are sui generis, and could not have arrived as a fully-formed art style from outside the region because 'there is nowhere for them to have come from'.
(12.) Cf. The Law Report (ABC Radio National: three-part program was broadcast on Tuesdays 10, 17 and 24 September 1996), accessed December 2002 <http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/8.30/lawrpt/ lstories/index.htm> .
(13.) 'Bush University' is now operated by NAC and Kimberley Wilderness Adventures: http://www.kimberleywilderness.com.au /bush%20university.htm (accessed December 2002).
(14.) Brancusi (1876-1917), influential abstract sculptor.
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Tony Redmond is a social anthropologist with five years fieldwork experience in the northern Kimberley, completing his doctoral dissertation, 'Rulug Wayirri: moving kin and country in the Northern Kimberley' in 2001. He has also worked as a consultant anthropologist in the Wanjina/ Wunggurr Wilinggin native title matter, currently in the Federal Court, and has worked for Kamali Land Council, Ngarinyin Aboriginal Corporation and the Kimberley Land Council.
Independent scholar, Valla Beach, <redmondmccarthy@ bigpond.com>
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|Publication:||Australian Aboriginal Studies|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2002|
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