There’s a fellow living in Brisbane by the name of Grahame Walsh. He’s just like you and me, no one particularly important, except in one very important respect. He is the world expert on the so-called Bradshaw Aboriginal Rock Art of the Kimberley. No one else even comes close.
Every dry season for the past several decades Grahame has made his way, alone most of the time, to the Kimberley to seek out and record what is perhaps the earliest available record of the human occupation of this continent. Surviving on silence and tinned tuna, he has amassed thousands of pages of notes and literally millions of meticulously catalogued images. He is responsible for the creation of the only working system for delineating the phases of this art.
‘It’s my life’s obsession, and I’ve devoted everything I had to it,” Grahame told a Fairfax journo a few years ago. “Health, wealth, personal happiness and friendship, I’ve sacrificed the lot in the quest. Now I’m 60, two buggered knees, my wife’s gone, and I’ve got no dough – but I’ve gained a higher understanding of the cognitive development of humankind than probably anyone else in this country.”
What makes this interesting is that Grahame has no formal art history or anthropological training, no degrees in archaeology, paleopsychology or cognitive philosophy, indeed no formal training at all. He was however, awarded an honorary doctorate from Melbourne University late in 2004 in acknowledgement of his life’s work. He is entirely self made, an autodidact; and like a lot of autodidacts he’s got some ideas that tend to get the hackles of more formally trained academics well and truly up.
His ideas include the notion that the Bradshaw art is not strictly speaking “indigenous”. Grahame doesn’t think there’s any cultural connection between the art and the indigenous communities living in the Kimberley at this time. He may be right. Linguistic analysis seems to suggest that the current locals, while claiming both guardianship and a cultural connection, are none the less as separate from the artists as Grahame himself is. Further; physical analysis of the art has proven a minimum age of greater than 17K years. This was achieved by dating individual silicon grains in the fabric of a wasp’s nest built on top of an artwork. Not exactly a clincher, given that this doesn’t in any way actually date the art. Other attempts to date the material of the art itself have been unsuccessful to date as the pigments and binders used by the early artists have petrified. There is strong evidence to suggest that the preparation of these colouring agents and the binders is another lost technology. Current indigenous artists need to readdress their work from time to time to keep the colour in the work, whereas the Bradshaws have maintained their strength of colour over tens of thousands of years.
So what is it about the Bradshaws or Gwion Gwion, as the Ngarinyin call them, that makes them so compulsively fascinating to Grahame and almost everyone that claps eyes on them?
Well they’re different, really different!
More like rock art from areas of The Sahara, or South East Asia, than anything else in Australia; the Bradshaws depict such strange things as hoofed deer. Not at all common this side of the Wallace Line and suggesting that the artists had some familiarity with these beasts. The images incorporate such diagnostic elements as an “horizon line” and rudimentary perspective. These elements are almost entirely absent from later indigenous art. They also depict what are arguably large ocean going vessels carrying goodly numbers of people, 29 in one instance. In contrast archaeological evidence relating to the current indigenous people of this continent suggests that water-craft of any kind, obviously present at the time of colonisation, must none the less have been a technology that was discarded or lost after landfall and only re-invented many thousands of years later. Maritime iconography is entirely absent from later aboriginal art right up until the last few thousand years when simple river and harbour canoes begin to appear.
Ian Wilson in his 2006 book, “The Lost World of The Kimberley” suggests that the art may predate the movement of the current indigenous population into this country. He reminds us that at Glacial Maxima the lower sea level would have extended the coastal plain beyond the current shore and connected and enlarged Australia and New Guinea into what geologists and paleogeographers call Sahul. The Indonesian Archipelago would have been a continuous land mass incorporated into a huge low plain connecting the highlands of Malaysia, Sumatra and Java with Borneo, with an enlarged Sulawesi to the East across a narrow strait.
Wilson suggests that this may have created a kind of equatorial Mediterranean. A protected sea almost entirely surrounded by land across which the many peoples of this environmentally rich area would have travelled to trade and for the acquisition of new territory. The so-called Banda People or Bugis are sometimes called the sea gypsies and it is from their name that the expression “Boogieman” originates. One only has to think of the Bangkok water markets to understand the longstanding utility of a water-based way of life in Asia. Wilson suggests that maybe it was the ancestors of these Asiatic people that worked the Bradshaw magic; but that at some point, as the sea level began to rise rapidly along the low gradient Kimberley coast at the end of an ice age, these people simply filled their ocean going canoes and abandoned their Austral experiment for greater certainty across the Banda Sea in the north, once again leaving the The Great South Land empty until the next wave of colonisers arrived probably via a route to the north and down through New Guinea. Later indigenous art, while wonderful in itself, simply doesn’t have the dynamism and freedom of form and execution characteristic of the Bradshaw art. It’s driven by a different aesthetic and almost certainly has a different cultural motivation.
You see, we do just strut and fret for a moment and then we go, to be heard from no more; and I wonder who it was that executed these stunning works. These people that transformed thousands of rock overhangs into galleries of great art and then passed away leaving nothing but the art and a mystery still waiting to be teased out of deep time.
Graham Walshe is probably there now. I wonder what he’s found this year.