Water is a complex subject to capture visually on a dry bark or a flat canvas. Australian Aboriginal artists remind us that observing water can guide life, as people consider the depths of rockholes and billabongs, the tidal ebb and flow, the rough and calm, to be an analogue for ancestral knowledge. Artists do their best to render water’s reflections, transparence, surface, depth and many symbolic references.
Knowledge of the sources for fresh water is essential to survival. In the Australian desert, people rely on a vast matrix of underground deposits and billabongs. These water sources are sacred sites which are watched over, protected and now painted on canvas. In Australia’s northern territories, artists paint on bark, referring to places where fresh water joins saltwater, and sacred laws are contained in water. Some are diagrams of deep seated laws, while others depict the turbulent waters of conflicting ideas and emotions.
Image: Wayampajarti, 2001, Mawukura Jimmy Nerrimah, Australian Aboriginal, Walmajarri people, Fitzroy Crossing, Kimberley, Western Australia, born ca. 1924, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 35 13/16 x 40 3/16 in., Promised gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan. © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VISCOPY, Australia.
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