Mystical Journey through Time: Australia's Aboriginal Heritage

By Anne Carson

I recently returned from a month's tour of art and other treasures in France and Greece. Whilst there I became aware again of the lack of continuity for many Australians with their cultural heritage. I had always thought that continuity for me was Europe, and visits there had the quality of cultural homecomings. It was a place where I felt my roots go far back in time, beyond the bloodline I could trace to a less personal but keener sense of connection. Being at Delphi in Greece, for instance, the feeling of human lives and all the rich and associated mythology was palpable for me, right back through the years before and beyond the time -- around 500 BC -- when Apollo installed himself in place of Gaia as the source of wisdom. I could feel connected to this culture over the two-and-a-half thousand years I was contemplating, and was not a little awed by this length of time, just how many lives it was and how many years.

My mind roamed back to thoughts of Australia and with them came a yearning for this sense of cultural connection. The two-and-a-half thousand years evident in Greece paled as I discovered on my return that Aboriginal people have lived here for a staggering 60,000 years and are the oldest living culture. All this stirred questions in my mind about whether it was possible for a white Australian to receive from Aboriginal culture as a heritage. Returning to Australia I saw advertised an exhibition of Mythscapes. Aboriginal Art of the Desert at the National Gallery of Victoria, and wondered anew whether I would have the sensitivity, the emotional and spiritual receptivity, to appreciate art from such an ancient, timeless culture.

My visit to the exhibition evoked many mixed and deep emotions. The power of the works was such that in two lengthy viewings I was able to take in only 15 of the 100 displayed works. On first glance what struck me was the purity and simplicity of the brush strokes, communicating with such clarity and sureness. It seemed that the artists had gone to the depths of themselves and their world and brought back the pure essences of people, places, and animals that animated life for them. These essences confounded my mind. I needed to stand for many minutes in front of each painting to allow the simplicity and ritualistic forms to penetrate through all the surface layers to some deeply buried core inside. It was like a mystical journey back into the timeless past, far beyond the twenty-five centuries that had so impressed me in Europe, through many, many more millennia to find the answering reverberations.

It was a sacred journey, not without a deal of pain, because of the great and gaping gulf that has widened over the years between this ancient and primeval vision of the world and our contemporary "developed" and "progressive" society -- one that is so spiritually impoverished for all its material sophistication that it continues, to its ever increasing peril, to witness and allow threats to Aboriginal continuity and renewal.

The world that opened for me was a mystical one where each person, animal, plant, place, each life form is revered and cherished, each with its own Dreaming and all connected, one to another, in the greater Universal Dreaming. Each painting is the story of a being's life cycle and is honored with images that symbolize significant events in that being's life. A granddaughter celebrated in soft and mellow tones the life of her grandfather: the events that gave meaning to his life, folding one upon the other to weave a work of harmony, a work sublime in its beauty and poignant in its expression of her feeling for him.

Animals, plants, and places are as important in this Dreaming as people, and the experience of seeing this connection evoked in me a recognition (and yearning) for a sense of belonging in and to a life that has all but vanished from modern city living. In paintings, such as Snake Dreaming and Sun Chasing Away the Darkness this theme of belonging, of having a natural and accepted place in the world is captured and given a simple and powerful reverence. I'm reminded of Laurens van der Post's work with the Bushmen of the Kalahari and his translation of an ancient and enduring greeting between them: "I see you and greet you, O son of a Bushman" -- capturing both the need and fulfillment to be truly seen, and in that seeing find a sense of belonging.

In these paintings it was to me as if all the great philosophical questions had been reduced down, and further down, alchemically to their simplest and abiding truth -- a universe whose laws are both mysterious and ordered, with people having their allotted and honored place alongside and together with other beings. They conjured up in my mind a place, a dreaming where a trust and acceptance of life, full of an innocence totally devoid of the sentimental, was taken for granted. A world of sacred union full to brimming of meaning and significance.

I came away from the exhibition profoundly moved and shaken, feeling I'd received from these works so much, and yet also aware that it must be only a fragment of all they have to offer. Aware too of the great distance in me from this image of the "first things in life," as Van der Post would have it. He says of the Bushmen, and I think it could equally be applied to where we stand in Australia:

"Love is the aboriginal tracker, the Bushman on the faded desert spoor of our lost selves." There was a great lost world to be rediscovered and rebuilt, not in the Kalahari but in the wasteland of our spirit where we had driven the first things of life, as we had driven the little Bushman into the desert of Southern Africa. There was indeed a cruelly denied and neglected first child of life, a Bushman in each of us. -- The Heart of the Hunter, ch. 10

For me this exhibition necessitated a deepening of the search for these buried "first things in life." Not only did it allow me to receive from Aboriginal culture as a heritage but, more importantly, it impressed upon me the necessity for all of us to undertake in some form the uncovering of "the first things of life." This would ensure not just the continuity and renewal of Aboriginal culture but that of us all.

  • (Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, June/July 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Theosophical University Press)

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