Why Art?

By Tegan Burton, Grad Dip in Archaeology

In considering aspects of ‘connecting Indigenous youth to culture through rock art recording and conservation’ one of the questions that arises is ‘why art?’.  Is rock art, as I have presumed, more applicable to ‘connecting to culture’ than other types of archaeological sites?

Adam Goodes, Andyamathanha man and 2014 Australian of the Year, opened a recent episode of Australian Story by saying ‘It means a lot to Aboriginal people that we’re part of the world’s oldest unbroken tradition of art’ (Australian Story: Set in Stone 2014).

There is a plethora of references asserting the significance of art to Aboriginal culture. This time I stepped away from what has become my regular reference library over the last year – rock art and archaeology texts and journal articles – to track down comments from contemporary Indigenous people.

Richard Walley, in his role as Chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board in the early 1990s, said that ‘Art has always been integral to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s lives, as an expression of our spiritual connection with the land and sea, and as a ceremonial and educational tool of lore and Dreaming’ (in Miller 2013). In an Awaye! lecture on Radio National Lydia Miller, current Executive Director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board, explained that Aboriginal art is an important aspect of cultural expression and both individual and collective identity, which is connected to language, culture, heritage, land and sea and law (Miller 2013).

Ken Upton, a senior Darug man, described cave art and engravings as ‘an historical record, as I can look at hand stencils and they are the stencils of the old ones, the ancient ones’ and ‘a record of Dreamtime stories and the laws’ (Upton 1990:6).

Rock art provides a strong link between traditional and contemporary Aboriginal life and customs (Clottes 2002; Lambert 2007; Rosenfeld 1988). Of the continuing tradition of creating art, Warlpiri woman and Yuendumu artist Judy Napangardi Watson says, ‘Painting makes me in touch with my ancestors’ (Genocchio 2008:92), and Micky Durrug Garrawurra, a Yolngu man painting at Ramingining, says ‘I am the painting, and I am in the story that I tell there. It is my land. It is my story’ (Genocchio 2008:121).

Ken Upton takes the younger generation to visit rock art sites and talk about the stories behind them (Upton 1990). Philip ‘Pussycat’ Gudthaykudthay, highly exhibited artist currently based at Bula’bula Arts in Ramingining, explains that he continues to make art in order to share Aboriginal culture and stories not just with the world, but also with the young people whose lives are impoverished by the loss of tradition (Genocchio 2008:6). There is continual transition between the past and the now. This is ‘connecting to culture’.

Accessibility serves as another assertion as to why rock art is particularly applicable to ‘connecting to culture’. The simple visual accessibility of rock art is demonstrated by the suite of coffee-table style books with a focus on Aboriginal rock art (e.g. Brandl 1973; Chaloupka 1993; Coles and Hunter 2010; Donaldson 2010; McCarthy 1979; Roberts and Parker 2003). Further, it’s not just a photographic or illustrative record in books but also a tangible reality, the richness and complexity of human history and cultural tradition expressed visually in the landscape (Flood 1990, Tacon & Chippindale 1998). No wonder being an archaeologist with an interest in rock art can be so exciting!

Not all sites are publicly accessible, however, and for those that are there might be a walk or a scramble required to get there. But once you’ve arrived at a rock surface with engravings or a shelter with art, there it is right in front of you. There’s no need for excavations or lab analyses before an initial recording and preliminary assessment can be made.

Steven Trezise is the son of Percy Trezise, pilot and Quinkan rock art enthusiast, and now works as an interpretive guide at Jowalbinna, near Laura, Queensland. He summed up the accessibility of rock art nicely when he said ‘that’s what’s so exciting about it, the stone age is not some time in the past that’s not visible. It’s actually visible. There’s the images, there’s the tangible link of the hunter-gatherer past’ (Australian Story: Set in Stone 2014).

Without a similar level of deliberation about other aspects of archaeology, I still can’t say that art is necessarily MORE applicable to ‘connecting to culture’ than the diversity of other features, such as campsites, middens, quarries, grinding grooves, fish traps, stone arrangements, or the overall landscape in which they sit (Flood 1990). In the meantime, it IS irrefutable that art has a significant role to play.


Australian Story: Set in Stone 2014, television program, ABC 1, Sydney, 31 March.

Brandl, E. J. 1973 Australian Aboriginal Paintings in Western and Central Arnhem Land. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Chaloupka, G. 1993 Journey in Time: The 50,000-year Story of the Australian Aboriginal Rock Art of Arnhem Land. Sydney: Reed New Holland.

Clottes, J. 2002 World Rock Art. Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute.

Coles, R. and R. Hunter 2010 The Ochre Warriors: Peramangk Culture and Rock Art in the Mount Lofty Ranges. Stepney: Axiom Australia.

Donaldson, M. 2010 Burrup Rock Art: Ancient Aboriginal Rock Art of Burrup Peninsula and Dampier Archipelago. Mount Lawley: Wildrocks Publications.

Flood, J. 1990 The Riches of Ancient Australia. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Genocchio, B. 2008 Dollar Dreaming: Inside the Aboriginal Art World. Prahran: Hardie Grant Books.

Lambert, D. 2007 Introduction to Rock Art Conservation. Hurstville: Department of Environment and Climate Change.

McCarthy, F. D. 1979 Australian Aboriginal Rock Art , 4th edition. Sydney: The Australian Museum.

Miller, L. 2013 Art Connects and Creates our Culture into the 21st century. Awaye! lecture, Radio National, Australia, 28 December.

Roberts, D. A. and A. Parker. 2003 Ancient Ochres: The Aboriginal Rock Paintings of Mount Borradaile. Marleston: J. B. Books.

Rosenfeld, A. 1988 Rock Art Conservation in Australia. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Tacon, P. S. C. and Chippindale, C. 1998 An archaeology of rock-art through informed methods and formal methods. In Chippindale, C. and P. S. C. Tacon (eds) The Archaeology of Rock-Art, pp.1-10. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Upton, K. 1990. A Darug discussion: Oral history. In: G. Hendriksen (ed.), The Pemulwuy Dilemma: The Voice of Koori Art in the Sydney Region, pp6-8. Emu Plains: Penrith Regional Art Gallery.

One response to “Why Art?

  1. Robin Coles

    Well written Tegan. I agree about rock art being so applicable to culture and having a significant role to play.