Location, location, location: two contrasting Dreaming narratives

Linda Namiyal Bopirri, 1990, Yolngu Matha, Dhuwa moiety, (Liyagalawumirr), Guruwara, Ramingining, Central Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Birds on Oyster Bank, (‘Oyster Dreaming’, ‘Wayanaka’), Acrylic and Natural Pigments on Canvas, 122x122 cm. © the artist's estate, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd; Burkhardt-Felder Collection, Switzerland

Location, location, location.

The real estate agents’ hollow, hackneyed mantra takes on real purchase when applied to the distribution of Dreamings and Dreaming narratives across this continent and its surrounding islands.

Underpinned by what has become commonly known in imperfect English translation as “The Dream Time” or “The Dreaming”, the subject matter and attendant narratives of traditional Aboriginal visual artworks vary considerably across the mainland and islands of this place we now call “Australia”. These artworks portray key episodes in, or elements of, Dreaming narratives in a highly condensed visual language.

As far as Dreamings, Dreaming narratives and associated doctrines of “The Dreaming” are concerned, locality rules. And because these extended oral and painted narratives are grounded in particular “country”, they differ in subject matter from place to place, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on specific environmental features, landmarks, and the local flora and fauna.

Certain Dreamings do, however, extend over the length and breadth of the Australian continent and surrounding islands. Typically these include diverse “Water Dreamings”, since fresh water, above ground or subterranean, is the sine qua non of all human (and other species’) continuing existence. Various astronomy-related Dreamings, including “Seven Sisters” and “Milky Way” Dreamings, for instance, can be viewed from virtually any vantage point in Australia; hence these are also part of the Dreaming repertoire of virtually all Aboriginal groups.

Many Dreaming narratives take the form of lengthy epics, and involve journeying, detailing the inter- and intra-species encounters that take place in the course of those travels. These epics, cast in elevated language, are comparable with other great epic poetry. As with Beowulf, the Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, and the Portuguese Lusiads, these narratives often include high drama. They chronicle the full gamut of human transgression and capital vice, including lust and sometimes even rape and murder. A common trope is that of “men behaving badly” – and, sometimes, women too.

Creation narratives also encompass accounts of the foundational enactments of Ancestral Creator Beings, while simultaneously encrypting information about land navigation, and mapping ownership of group territory.

By considering two contrasting Dreaming narratives we can get a sense of their diversity, depth and groundedness in specific locations.

Charlie Matjuwi Burarrwanga’s Baru – Crocodile Dreaming

(Northeast Arnhem Land)

Charlie Matjuwi Burarrwanga, Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island, North East Arnhem Land, Yirritija Moiety, 1990, Baru, Crocodile Dreaming, acrylic with natural pigments on canvas, 84x105 cm. © the artist, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd; Burkhardt-Felder Collection, Switzerland

The celebrated Gumatj artist, and leader of the Burarrwanga clan, Charlie Matjuwi Burarrwanga (born c. 1925 –) lives a semi-traditional way of life on Galiwin’ku, (Elcho Island) in northeast Arnhem Land. Several years ago, he recounted just one episode from the lengthy epic of Baru, his Crocodile Dreaming (see above), to a non-Aboriginal friend. That rendition, only one of the many parts contributing to the full account, took seven and a half hours in the telling, told in a single sitting.

Saltwater Crocodile, Crocodylus Porosus. Wikimedia Commons

The lengthy narrative underpinning Matjuwi Burarrwanga’s Baru – Crocodile Dreaming relates not only to the food chain in swampy crocodile country, but encapsulates a Creation story. At the visual level, the Mardayin (Marrayin) designs the artist deploys indirectly in this work reveal that the narrative is connected to men’s sacred ceremonial lives.

The artist’s affiliation with the Yirritja moiety is evident in his choice of red, diamond-shape designs, closely connected (inter alia) to the scales on the crocodile’s back, and to an Ancestral fire that swept through that country with great intensity, severely burning the crocodile and leaving the characteristic diamond-shaped scars on its back, as well as reducing its previously much longer legs to short stumps.

Desmond J. Brennan, 1990, Painted for Ceremony, Watercolour on Paper, 74x93 cm. Copyright the artist; Burkhardt-Felder Collection, Switzerland.

Parenthetically, it should be added that there are many Aboriginal Dreaming narratives detailing out-of-control bushfires. We ought not regard these life-threatening and life-changing events involving fire and water as exclusively contemporary phenomena.

Charlie Matjuwi Burarrwanga’s affiliation with the Yirritja moiety is equally apparent in the portrait of the artist standing on his own country (see above), painted by his non-Indigenous friend, the water colourist Desmond Brennan. Brennan’s work reveals the close connections between a clan member’s body painting designs and his or her artwork on introduced media. In fact, Baru – Crocodile Dreaming was the first painting Matjuwi ever produced on canvas.

An important part of all Dreaming narratives is the transmission of site-specific factual data, encapsulating natural science. The saltwater crocodile feeds on many other, smaller swamp dwellers with which it co-exists, including the Mangrove Jack fish (Lutjanus argentimaculatus), called warrta in Burarrwanga’s language, Gumatj. Two Mango Jack are depicted in his artwork, disclosing their significance as part of saltwater crocs’ staple diet.

Apart from the central focus on the narrative relating to Baru, the saltwater crocodile, a number of design elements in this work are figurative, differentiating it from most Central and Western artworks.

Lily Hargreaves Nungarrayi’s Liwirringki Jukurrpa or ‘Burrowing Skink Dreaming’

(The Tanami Desert)

Lily Hargreaves Nungarrayi, Warlpiri, 2003, Liwirringki Jukurrpa (‘Burrowing Skink Dreaming’), 2003, etching, sugar lift painting and acquatint on two plates, on Magnani Pescia paper, image size 490x320 mm. Image courtesy of Warnayaka Artists, Lajamanu and Aboriginal Art Prints Network, Oxford Street, Sydney

To illustrate the differences in Dreamings and their attendant narratives and their all-important relationship to specific “country”, I’ll discuss a contrasting Dreaming, a Burrowing Skink (lizard) Jukurrpa (see image above) from Warlpiri country in the Tanami Desert of Central Australia.

As a senior Warlpiri Law woman, Lily Hargreaves Nungarrayi has the right to paint a number of different Jukurrpa (“Dreamings”), including the Yilpinji (poorly translated as “love magic”) theme associated with the Liwirringki Jukurrpa or the Burrowing Skink Dreaming.

The burrowing skink, (liwirringki in the Warlpiri language, lerista species, squamata order) whose name was Wamarru, belonged to the Japangardi skingroup. Wamarru came from a place west of Yuendumu.The burrowing skink is a smallish lizard, smooth-skinned and hairless, similar to a little snake.

In earlier times, especially in pre-contact days, this lizard, like other small game of the Tanami Desert region, was an important food source for Warlpiri people. Because the liwirringki characteristically digs itself into a burrow, Warlpiri women would dig it out with digging sticks (karlangu). This enabled these hunter-gatherers to capture liwirringki with relative ease, and kill, cook and eat it.

Burrowing Skink. Adam Stow, Macquarie University, Biological Sciences

According to this Yilpinji Dreaming narrative, Wamarru, who was already married, fell in love with Yurlkirini, a young Nungarrayi Burrowing Skink woman. Because the young woman was Wamarru’s classificatory mother-in-law, she was in the “wrong” skin group relationship to Wamarru for any kind of love match to occur between them.

According to Warlpiri law, and that of other Aboriginal groups, almost all forms of contact or communication between sons-in-law and mothers-in-law is strictly forbidden. In fact, the ultimate Warlpiri taboo, the love that dare not speak its name, is a sexual liaison or marriage between a mother-in-law and her son-in-law.

Notwithstanding, Japangardi the burrowing skink was so consumed by passion and sexual desire for Yurlkirini that he travelled to the place where she lived. At that point, Wamarru turned himself into a man and spun some bush string and then a hairstring love belt. It should be noted that it is not uncommon for Dreaming Ancestors to possess the ability to metamorphose from animal to person, and in and out into other states, then back again.

Equally, hairstring is an important accoutrement of seduction by Yilpinji, and is closely associated with a range of Dreaming narratives and Yilpinji artworks.

As a man, Japangardi put on the hairstring belt that he had spun from his spindle, and sang Yurlkirini, the young Nungarrayi, towards him, using a powerful Yilpinji love charm. Powerless to resist, Yurlkirini succumbed to his advances. Japangardi repeatedly made love to that Nungarrayi woman, then took her back to his country to live with him.

Two men made a big bush-fire targeting the two runaway liwirringki (now known as the “lover-boy” and “lover-girl”) who had run off together into the bush. The latter is a reference to a method of entrapment by fire of native fauna used by Indigenous people. Known as “firestick farming”, and still practised by Warlpiri and other groups, the method involves the regular burning of vegetation to facilitate the hunting of various species.

Firestick farming also encourages regrowth of scrub into more edible grasses, thereby increasing numbers of non-carnivorous grass-eating species such as kangaroos and wallabies, also part of the food chain and which are a significant part of the hunter-gatherers’ diet.

Lily Nungarrayi’s artwork shows women, who are depicted as U-shapes – the shape that one’s backside leaves imprinted on the red sand – sitting in a group performing the Liwirringki ceremony. The male and female burrowing skink Dreaming Ancestors are also depicted on the left side of the print. There is also a reference to a women’s ceremonial digging stick.

L-R, foreground: Peggy Rockman Napaljarri (in profile, watching as ‘kurdungurlu’; Lily Hargreaves Nungarrayi (painting, facing); unknown child (back view); author Christine Nicholls being painted for ceremony (Kurrurumpa Napurrurla – back view) with Yarla Jukurrpa (‘Yam Dreaming’); Barbara Nakamarra (‘kirda’, painting, facing), photograph circa 1984. Photo courtesy Digby Duncan.

It is of scientific interest to note that all male reptiles of the Squamata order, including the burrowing skink, have two penises. This can be interpreted as a metaphor for Liwirringki’s aberrant sexual proclivities, as portrayed in this narrative. At another level this serves as a metaphor for Warlpiri polygamy.

Close analysis of the Liwirringki narrative in its entirety reveals that it, as with other Dreaming narratives, is replete with information about desert people’s traditional modes of managing the multiplicity of challenges presented by their harsh living conditions, climatic extremes, acute water shortages and resource-poor landscapes. The matter of responsible management of one’s close interpersonal relationships when one lives in a very small group is equally significant here, too.

In addition, people’s knowledge of practical ethology, the geographical distribution of various species of edible flora and fauna, methods of long-term environmental sustainability, and the solutions that they found in order not only to survive in such an inhospitable and arid place, but also to live well, are encoded in this and other Dreaming narratives.

These narratives involve a seamless synthesis of traditional Indigenous scientific knowledge with guiding principles for morality. The narrative structure of these narratives differs from Anglo-European traditions in that their “endings” often do not entail neat finales, but are often constituted as new beginnings.

Suffice to say a man needs to take great care, if he takes two or more wives, or the result may be more serious than small-scale marital disharmony.

In the next article I will look at the relationships between Aboriginal kinship systems and ownership of Dreamings and Dreaming narratives, which I’ve touched on in this and the previous articles in this series.



This article is the fourth part in a series on “Dreamtime” and “The Dreaming”.