Aboriginal art is the oldest unbroken tradition of art in the world. And as we found out on the weekend Aboriginal art is not just a brightly coloured picture of swirls and dots. Each individual Aboriginal painting has a carefully crafted message behind each of its parts, which come together to tell a complete story. So in this case a picture can tell a thousand words.
As part of this year’s CFA and SES Community Engagement State Forum (2018) in Creswick CFA engaged Aboriginal artist Jida Gulpilil to do our first forum mural. Jida is a Dja Dja Wurrung man through his mother’s side and a Dhalatnhgu man through is father’s side from East Arnhem Land. He told us he spoke more than five languages and although more than comfortable up north in Arnhem Land feels very strongly about his mother’s country here in Central Victoria specifically around Boort.
I was privileged to get some extra time with Jida as he arrived early to set up the mural area whilst participants were still engrossed in the community engagement training. He talked about his current role in training as a paramedic for Ambulance Victoria in Bendigo and his passion to see traditional cultural burning return to the Victorian landscape.
As we rolled the canvas out on the table I could see how there would be plenty of room for CFA and SES members to pick up a paint brush and get involved. We got a one minute warning that the training was almost over. So we got the paintbrushes ready, we were armed.
As CFA and SES members gathered around, Jida asked what the forum was all about and we shared the key themes. He then began to tell us about his country around Boort, about the large trees that once stood proudly throughout the area, about the huge logging industry that at the turn of last century had dramatically changed the landscape. “90,000 tonnes of wood was removed. Those big 2,000 year old trees are rare now, but they were everywhere.” He talked about the stories of the volcanos in his country, “so you know Mt Franklin, it was a volcano and my people have a story about that”. And this is where I stopped to reflect on the age of these stories, as can you tell me when the last volcano erupted in Victoria? Actually I think it was Mt Eccles and that was about 8,000 years ago, but if we are referring to Mount Franklin that was over 400,000 years ago. So when you think about the age of some of the Aboriginal stories of this country it is truly remarkable. And let me put some perspective around this as I think Red Riding Hood is claimed to be an old story from the 1600’s and of course all the religious texts are between 2000 and 4000 years old. So when you hear an Aboriginal story about the landscape stop and think about how old it really is and how long the story has been passed down the generations.
Jida also talked about gold. The fact that the first white settlers to the Bendigo area were quite taken by gold was not how the first people (the Aboriginal people) saw it. Gold to the local Aboriginal people of the time was not as useful as other types of stone/metal as it was hard to bend and shape. They instead preferred to use quartzite, chert, flint, silcrete and quartzstone and in fact the oldest stone tools in the world are here in Australia.
All of the stories that Jida told were then transformed into the painting you see in the photos with this article. The three large circles represent the old volcanic mountains of the region, this is a depiction of the landscape. The shapes around the outside of the circles are people – men (with shields), women (with digging sticks) and children. The bright coloured dots around the outside of the painting have two meanings. They represent the stars and the planets – the night sky that was used by Aboriginal people to navigate the seasons (in fact Jida spent some time talking about Aboriginal astronomy and science, but to do that justice I would need to write a much longer article). The second meaning for the bright dots around the painting are the diversity in the community that is now beginning to understand more about Aboriginal culture (that is us).
And so the painting is titled “Sharing knowledge and engaging each other” as this is what it represents said Jida “engaging and sharing knowledge in a safe and culturally appropriate way”. And over 30 CFA and SES members contributed to the painting, even if shyly and without prior painting knowledge. The final mural will be framed and hung most likely at CFA HQ.
And this is also in keeping with this year’s forum theme – “the next step” which I feel in relation to Aboriginal engagement in Victoria is about genuinely and authentically engaging to really listen and learn more about the Traditional Owners of this land and their wisdom.
CFA would like to extend our thanks to the Traditional Owners of the land where the forum was held in Creswick, on Dja Dja Wurrung country and pay special thanks to Jida Gulpilil for the mural and Trent Nelson for the Welcome to Country.