Rock Paintings…Velvet Elvis Not Included

16 10 2008

Never mind the Pollocks                      (Aboriginal painting, Uluru, Australia)

Michelangelo spent four years lying on his back painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He was paid well by Pope Julius and his work has rightly earned the title of masterpiece. When I was very little I attempted to emulate the Florentine master by laying on my side and drawing on my bedroom wall and skirting board. For my hours of toiling I was confined to my room…and my crayons and pencils were confiscated. The gross double-standard has bothered me ever since.


Since the beginning of time, humans have left their mark on caves, rocks, walls, ceilings…and even skirting boards. There are surfaces all over the world decorated with everything from basic sketches and hand imprints to colourful abstracts and magnificent frescoes. From Europe and North America to Africa, Asia and beyond there are works of art that still draw admiration and awe.


Australia’s Northern Territory has wonderful examples of aboriginal rock paintings. When Paul Scully-Power – Australia’s first astronaut – went into space and gazed down from orbit at the Outback below, he was struck by the similarities between his view and the work of his country’s aboriginal artists. He marvelled at the colours and shapes that Alfred Namatjira and others had used long before mankind had travelled into space, satellites had beamed back colour images or even before we had learned to slip the surly bonds of earth. The similarities seemed to emphasise the deep and ageless connection between the Aboriginals and Planet Earth.


Uluru – or Ayers Rock – is an Australian icon. It’s distinct shape and brilliant red are instantly recognisable the world over. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people make the journey to Australia’s Red Centre to gaze at the monolith. At sunset, crowds gather to sip champagne and watch it’s pastel shades slide into deep reds and glowing purples before finally disappearing completely against the night’s jet sky.


But those who lace-up their boots and venture close enough to properly experience this sacred site are also treated to brilliant Aboriginal rock paintings. The works were originally made by the Anangu people to illustrate the stories they told and are rich in ochres, whites, reds and other earthy tones. The Anangu continue to paint in the same spots today, using the same rock canvasses as their forebears and continuing a tradition and an art almost as old as time itself.


Just as Paul Scully-Power was struck by the similarities between his view from space and the work of his earthbound compatriots, so it’s hard not to be struck by the similarities between these ancient works and the modern abstracts of the twentieth century. Yet unlike the stretched canvasses and boards in your local art galleries, these Aboriginal works continue to live, breathe and change with time.


Although originally painted thousands of years ago, the works remain vivid despite the harsh sun, driving rain and strong winds that constantly lash the rock and are well worth the effort of a hike to see.


And unlike my early artistic efforts, these works are not only closely monitored by park officials in an effort to ensure that they are preserved for years to come, but their creators were likely never confined to their bedrooms!



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan




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