Lessons under a tree in Kakadu

I spent the morning with two very well respected cultural men painting under the trees at Bowali. There is something very special about joining a senior artist and cultural teacher for a painting session. In doing so, you are participating in a cultural activity that has taken place since time began - and it’s not what you think you’ve signed up for!

Graham Rostron’s story as told by Mikaela Jade.

Some people call Graham Rostron an artist. I can see why. We’re sitting under the shady trees at Bowali, surrounded by flattened bark, ochre paint, and sedge grass paintbrushes called manyilk.  I watch Graham dip his manyilk in the ochre then paint a long, perfect line across the thick bark. His precision is astounding and I’m mesmerised by his attention to detail as line after perfect line starts to map out Ngalyod – a baby rainbow serpent.

“You gotta be quiet around Ngalyod. If you wake him up he can be a bad spirit,” says Graham in a soft but serious voice. He tells me Ngalyod creates whirlpools in the water.  I immediately start to think about the places I’ve been in Kakadu where Ngalyod might have been watching me and I make a mental note to tread quietly next time.

We chat about Graham’s upbringing while he continues to fill out Ngalyod body with perfectly fine white lines. “My father died when I was just crawling. I did not know him. Then we were living at Madjinbardi. Then we went to Maningrida to be with family, following my mother.”

As his life story deepens, the painting in his lap becomes more intricate. He tells me his second father brought him up at his outstation at Korlorbirrahda, and that Graham watched as he painted, finally picking up a paintbrush himself at 17 years old. “This is part of the knowledge thinking, Mikaela. We slowly learn until we are able to start,” he tells me.

Graham begins painting the domdom as he reveals the next part of his story and our conversation is briefly interrupted by an impromptu language lesson. Graham leans in, pointing to the water beetle. “You say it – domdoms.” I repeat with the enthusiasm of a five year old hearing a word for the first time. He smiles. “Domdoms. Water beetle from around here. Domdoms.”

With the new words etched in my mind Graham switches back to his personal story. “My second dad brought me up at his outstation at Korlorbirrahda. He was keeping me when I was little and he showed me hunting and painting and explaining to me everything. He gave me confidence,” he says in his quiet tone.

I’m curious about the flat bark and ask Graham how they prepare it. He says that in the wet season they go and carefully cut large pieces of stringy bark and then put them over the fire to dry it out and make it flat. Once it is flat, they cure it for weeks, then paint it ready for the dry season artworks. I learn that sometimes for special paintings they used to coat the ochres with the sap from a local orchid which made the ochre last longer. “Today we just use glue,” says Graham in an accomplished spirit.

Respected Elder and artist Abel Naborlhborlh shows visitors the new bark painting bracing they have adopted at Children’s Ground

Graham is working with Children’s Ground, Wurdurd Garriyigarrmerren, where they have created a new way to brace painting barks to improve preservation and presentation of bark paintings. He says they are embracing innovation and new ways of doing things. “I’m excited to teach the young ones, too.”

As our session ends, I realise Graham isn’t painting ‘art’ at all, he is teaching me cultural knowledge and language in the way his ancestors taught him. This is Bininj/Mungguy way of learning the lessons for living on Country the right way, as told by the Creation Spirits.

Today I’ve learned a small part of ‘knowledge thinking’ as Graham would say – I know to be quiet at Ngalyod places, and how to say ‘baby rainbow serpent’ and ‘water beetle’ in the right way for this Country.

Raw materials used for painting are available for visitors to view and hold

Join Graham for lessons under the trees at Bowali Visitor Centre each Tuesday between 9:30am - 1pm, from now until 30 September 2016.

Graham’s art is also for sale at the newly reopened Marrawuddi Gallery at Bowali.