Injalak Arts, Gunbalanya (Oenpelli), NT

There were many moments on our trip across the Northern Territory and the Kimberley that were memorable, but none I think were as astonishing or breathtaking as our adventures at Gunbalanya, when we climbed Injalak Hill to visit truly sacred sites where stunning rock art still stands fresh near caves and crevices and overhangs that housed traces of ancestors.

Gunbalanya, or Oenpelli as it may be better known, is also the home of the Injalak Arts & Crafts Association, and surprises waited in store from us there as well. Immediately upon embarking from the troopie in which coordinator Anthony Murphy retrieved us from the airport, we were introduced to Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, the senior artist of this stone country, rock painter, bark painter, fire warden, and perhaps the person who comes closest to the ideal of a national treasure living in Australia. His presence at the art centre is relatively rare, and so we felt both honored and fortunate to meet this giant among men.

Inside the art centre another surprise encounter awaited us, as Louise Hamby was stopping by on her way through to Maningrida. Hamby is an authority on Indigenous weaving and curator of the Twined Together: Kunmadj Njalehnjaleken exhibition, which showcases fiber art techniques from the community. (I was fortunate to later see this stunning show at the Dell Gallery of the Queensland College of Art; if you haven’t been so lucky, the catalog is a superb recreation of the experience.)

We didn’t linger long at the Centre, though, as time was short (always) and the climb up Injalak Hill is a somewhat strenuous exercise that really requires several hours to do it justice. So we quickly piled back into the troopie to head across the East Alligator River to where the base of the verdant and rocky outcrop rises above the floodplain.

The air and water along the river’s edge were bursting with wildlife: fish broke the surface of the river with astonishing regularity, egrets waded along the banks, other water birds rested on lily pads, and hawks soared in black silhouettes low in the air, searching for a kill. Something of the lushness of the countryside can be seen in this aerial shot taken as we approached the airport.

From the base of Injalak, we were overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the landscape–little understanding then what lay in store as we ascended. Forested slopes mixed with grassy clearings stood before us, giving glimpses of rocky cliffsides, but not revealing the geological complexity that was about to be unveiled as we climbed higher. The sun dazzled as it broke through the greenery, giving the tufted heads of tall grasses a spectral quality that made me feel like we had truly entered an enchanted wood. 

The path required a cautious ascent. Even though tours are a daily occurrence through the area in the dry season, the hillside still had an untouched feel to it, almost as if we were treading in only occasional footpaths. The stillness of the air added to the sense of having been taken out of time into a land of eternal sunshine.

As we climbed higher up the hill, the thrust of the underlying rocks became more and more evident and the nature of the countryside changed. No less welcoming, the country’s sense of majesty increased, and the depths of time and true changlessness began to dominate over the seasonal beauty of the cool, sky-drenched day. 

Soon afterwards we left grasses and trees behind, passing through tall towers of rock that felt like gates into another world, and our guide, Wilfred Nawirridj, asked us to move quietly and to stop taking photographs. Soon we were surrounding by rock walls, and skirting the entrances to shallow caves that had once been burial sites. The coolness, the dim light, the gray walls, all added to the sense that we had now truly stepped out of time. Despite the low ceilings, the mental comparison to cathedral space was inevitable: it took no imagination at all to understand this as sacred ground.

We quickly passed beyond the burial sites and threaded our way along chasms and corridors into galleries of rock art. A different kind of awe settled on our group now. The freshness of the paint, even on designs that had long since been partially obscured by later generations of artists, was hard to comprehend. The artistry was magnificent, the brilliance of color vying for admiration with the delicacy of detail with which fins and claws and lungs and backbones were depicted. 

All of these qualities can be seen at once glance in this barramundi. I have never seen such an expressive face on an aquatic animal before. The scales along its back are delicately suggested above an x-ray image of its spine, and the yellow infill gives the image surprising heft in contrast to the intricacy of the red line-drawing.

The exquisite workmanship is even more pronounced in this barra. The characteristic small fins below the jaw are beautifully detailed, and there is even greater strength in this fellow’s backbone. The detail that enchants me in this photograph, though, is the depiction of the spines on the barramundi’s back, airily suggested by short, quick strokes of white, without the red outlining that is used to draw in features everywhere else in the portrait.

In some places, nature has lent its own hand to artistic effect.

In this gallery of images, the blacks, gray, and white of rock and water create a marbled easel on which successive generations of artists have cast their imaginations. More barras jostle with a long-necked tortoise and what looks like the plunging purple figure of a spirit being in the right half of the photograph. 

It is hard to capture in the flat medium of photography the sometime vertiginous effect that the curves and overhangs of the rock add to the imagery. The lizard shown in the photograph below clings to the curve of a roof as though startled by our sudden intrusion.

Similarly, you can barely glimpse the curve of the ceiling on which this assortment of creatures is painted.

At the right, the snake coils along the turn of rock. To the left, an inverted, x-rayed kangaroo slides across the ceiling’s surface. In between, butchered segments of fish are archetypes of images found in many early bark paintings that invoke hunting stories.

The creation story in Gunbalanya country centers on a female ancestor, the mother known as Yingana. Perhaps a local variation on the Wagilag sisters, she emerged from the Arafura Sea and traveled across the inland regions. As in the Wagilag story, Yingana gave birth to the bininj, the people of this country, and taught them each their proper language. Suspended from a headband were many dilly bags that contained yams, which she planted and taught the bininj how to harvest. 

I knew nothing particular of this at the time I arrived in Gunbalanya, only the general outlines of Arnhem Land creation stories. But even had I been prepared with this knowledge, nothing could have primed me for what we saw next, and which Wilfred, who frequently paints Yingana, revealed with a mixture of reverence and pride I have never otherwise experienced in my travels across the country.

As we slowly drew ourselves away from this extraordinary portrait, I had the sense that we had had our fill of marvels for the day, and that our journey would be (literally and figuratively) downhill from here. But the country surprised me again, and although nothing else we were to see had quite the transcendence of this painting, there was still much to marvel at as we emerged once more into the sunlight at the top of the hill.

Tilted masses and terraced towers sprang up out of the dried grasses at the summit. As we worked our way among them, vistas of the countryside began to appear in the distance. Even though, once I reach heights like this, my eye tends to be drawn towards the horizons, the complexity of the hilltop’s construction drew gaze back, demanding that I give in to the sense of wonder once more. In many ways the landscape resembled the one we had left behind before entering the maze of caves and chasms that held the sacred spaces of the hill, but now we approached it with a new sense of its magnitude.

And then suddenly we came out into the unsheltered spaces at the very crest of the hill and still another world opened out before us. The panoramas changed each way that you looked. Dramatic rock formations still dominated the foreground view, their very size teasing me into believing that I could leap across the deep crevasses between them. I can be prone to vertigo in situations like this, but instead I felt as if I could easily take flight and soar from ledge to ledge.

Margo and Wilfred found a comfortable shelf of rock to seat themselves on and look out towards the town.

This was a moment to pause, and we broke up into small groups to rest from the climb and take in the multiple prospects spread before us. It was impossible to believe that just a few hours ago we had been standing on the other side of the water running down below us, gazing up at the spot where I now stood. Off in the distance, more stony hillsides tempted with visions of what they might be concealing.

Soon we were on our way again, descending into even narrower passages than we had encountered on our ascent. Vertical columns of light penetrated dark walls of damp stone, and the ground beneath us grew uneven and tricky to navigate. Our line began to attenuate as we moved along: a sudden opening would allow those in front to speed up while the stragglers and tarriers (of whom I was one) still struggled for solid footing amid the canyons of the hill’s weathered ridges. On more than one occasion, I emerged from one of these narrow confines into what looked like a crossroads in a clearing with none of my company in sight ahead of me. At these moments I was seized by a sense of being all alone in the world, lost until the echo of someone’s voice told me which turning to take. 

Nana, leading Wolf and Anthea, takes a sharp left turn downwards Wilfred Nawirridj, artist and guide

This sense of unreality and downright spookiness was only enhanced as we passed by a sunlit split in the wall that seemed to glow of its own energy and sparkle in the slightest puff of a breeze. We had encountered the largest kingdom of spiders I have ever seen in all my days, obviously undisturbed by the elements, and certainly by man, for an age whose duration was impossible to imagine.

I would gladly have given the rest of the day–maybe even the rest of the week–to remain in the grip of this magic, but we’d already spent most of the morning on Injalak and had barely visited the art centre at all. When we arrived back at the base of the hill, I looked at the arriving visitors with a mixture of superiority (“They have no idea what awaits them….”) and envy at the journey they were about to experience. The ride back to the art centre was a quiet one, filled with backward glances as our distance from Injalak increased and the road gave us new perspectives on where we had been.

Our arrival back at the art centre, bustling now with midday visitors, was a bit of a shock after the tranquility of the morning’s expedition. Anthony led us into the back storeroom of the centre, where bark paintings were crammed against the walls, some of them showing signs of water damage from the floods in March of 2007 that left the tiny building standing in three feet of water.

But there was still an abundant supply of beautiful work for us to choose from, and I have never appreciated the art of Injalak in quite the way I did at that moment. Anthony cleared a space in the middle of the floor and laid a series of exquisite compositions in ochre on Arches paper down one atop another for us to choose from. As one work spilled onto another, I almost felt like I was being transported back to the riot of images that graced the walls of the rock galleries we had just left behind. My resolve to be judicious in selecting works to take home with me was sorely tested at every stop on our tour, but never more so than at that moment.

Somehow I managed to choose among them all, and quickly retreated outside once more, to sit under an the spreading branches of enormous tree on the grounds of the art centre, content for the moment to watch the comings and goings of the resident dogs and reflect on the splendor we had partaken of.

That country is crucial to Indigenous people can become axiomatic. It is a truth the heart of every exhibition, every review, every decent critical piece of writing about Aboriginal art and culture. And although throughout ten days of steady exposure to masterpieces, meetings with artists famous and unrecognized, in flights over deserts and jungles, we had yet to become desensitized to the enchantment of it all, something truly out of the ordinary happened on Injalak. There was a physical immersion in country that became a psychic experience as well. I don’t mean to imply some kind of New Age revelations. It was more a sense of recognition–of re-thinking–when we came back to the art centre and saw images scattered about and piled one on another: this was kin to what we had seen on the mountain. This was art and land and spirit.

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2 Responses to Injalak Arts, Gunbalanya (Oenpelli), NT

  1. Susan Theron says:

    hi Will, I like the vividness of how you’ve described your experience, and how you convey the sense of meaning in the landscape. I am researching the art of Gunbalanya in West Arnhem Land – I just purchased a small bark painting of two spirit figures, because I love how they look and how sensitive they are. A friend of mine frowns on me purchasing indiginous art because he says I am taking it away from the indigenous people, however I feel protective towards this art and I don’t want to see it falling into the wrong hands so to speak. Anyhow, thanks for the small insight in to the land where hopefully my little bark has come from. Cheers Sue

  2. Will Owen says:

    Please tell your friend that this art is made only to be sold to outsiders–Aboriginal people don’t keep art for themselves, or hang paintings in their houses. Art is a means of communicating the value of their culture to people like you and me who don’t know much about it.

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