World of Dreamings
Traditional and modern art of Australia

An exhibition held at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg | 2 February - 9 April 2000

English | Selected works | Pусский | 0тобранные работы



Partners and sponsors


  • Dr Brian Kennedy, Director, National Gallery of Australia
Chapter 1
  • An introduction to Aboriginal art by Susan Jenkins and Carly Lane
Chapter 2A | B
  • The Aboriginal Memorial We have survived, by Djon Mundine
  • The Aboriginal Memorial 1987-88 A description
Chapter 3
  • John Mawurndjul The resonating land by Luke Taylor
Chapter 4
  • All the world The paintings of Nym Bandak by Kim Barber
Chapter 5
  • 'Who's that bugger who paints like me?' Rover Thomas by Wally Caruana
Chapter 6
  • The enigma of Emily Kngwarray by Jenny Green
Chapter 7
  • High art and religious intensity. A brief history of Wik sculpture by Peter Sutton
Chapter 8
  • Laced flour and tin boxes The art of Fiona Foley by Avril Quaill
Chapter 9
  • The memory theatre of Tracey Moffat by Gael Newton

Artists' biographies



Further reading on Aboriginal art

Authors' biographies




The Wik peoples of western Cape York Peninsula became widely known in Australia in the 1990s through their historic native title claim, but they have also become renowned for their distinctive sculptural tradition.

The people who practise this tradition come from the area between the Embley and Edward Rivers on the Gulf of Carpentaria. When Aurukun Mission was set up on the Archer River in 1904, it very slowly began to draw in people from both north and south, although it was not until after World War II that the majority of the land's inhabitants had settled more or less permanently at Aurukun or at the nearby missions of Weipa and Edward River.

Those who lived in the Aurukun Reserve became significantly more isolated from their neighbours as a matter of conscious mission policy, from the 1920s until the 1960s. This may have contributed to the localised nature of the sculptural tradition discussed here.

Certain forms of traditional Wik life were encouraged by the mission in this period, including those ceremonial forms deemed acceptable to William MacKenzie, the all-powerful Presbyterian Superintendent 1925-1965. He himself was initiated at Archer River and spoke at least basic Wik-Mungkan, the regional lingua franca. Western-style changes were also imposed or encouraged, and among these were the engagement of Wik men as workers in the mission sawmill and in learning carpentry for building and repairs. The woodworking skills they already had were thus augmented not merely by the use of better steel tools but also by the use of carpentry techniques including morticing. The men applied these skills in the development of their pre-existing sculptural tradition, and at least since the 1940s have produced some of the most visually arresting ceremonial sculptures of Aboriginal Australia, with their attached or inlaid limbs, teeth, breasts, fins and eyeballs, their highly figurative approach to representation, and their strong use of bush colours.

The major general collections of Wik material culture come from Ursula McConnel, whose 1927 collection is mainly held by the South Australian Museum, and from Donald Thomson whose 1932-33 collection is held by the Museum of Victoria. The first substantial collections of Wik ceremonial sculptures, however, were made by missionaries J.B. McCarthy in 1949 and William MacKenzie in 1954, 1955 and 1958. These are held by the Anthropology Museum, University of Queensland. The largest single collection of Wik sculptures was made by Frederick McCarthy of the then Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, at Aurukun in 1962, and is held by the National Museum of Australia. It is from this particular collection that the works in the present exhibition are drawn.

Innovation or efflorescence?

In 1964 Frederick McCarthy wrote : Just how long these carvings have been made is not known. The natives say that they have made them in wood only since steel tools became available from the white man, but careful observers of Aboriginal customs who visited these tribes over long periods between 1890 and 1934 did not mention these sculptures.

In an unpublished report McCarthy had provided a little more detail : I was informed by one of the oldest men in the township that these figures have been carved in wood only since the Aborigines were able to obtain old horseshoes from the cattle stations, and steel axes from the missions (since about 1894), and that prior to the use of metal tools the images were modelled in clay (which was painted when dry) at the auwa totem centres.

Steel tools, especially the short-handled axe, had thus probably made their way into the region long before the people settled at missions, perhaps as early as the late nineteenth century. Given the relative isolation of the coastal Wik people at that time, however, the use of steel tools by Wik people was probably not common until after World War I. A practice of religious sculpture in a variety of forms, in media other than clay, and ranging from the abstract to the highly figurative, was certainly in place in the region by 1927.

Foreign influences

The east coast and northern tip of Cape York Peninsula down to about the Pennefather River, which is not far north of the Wik region, were classically characterised by a ceremonial tradition in which wooden drums, ritual grass skirts worn by men, and elaborate masks, including full-body masks, reflected an ancient Melanesian influence from Torres Strait. Dugout canoes of the same areas attest to an entrenched practice of large-scale wood carving. The making of dugout canoes had moved south along the west coast from Pennefather River to the central Wik coast by 1933, but had only done so 'since the recruiting of native labour for the bêche-de-mer [sea-cucumber] and trochus [shellfish] fisheries'.

This era, or slightly later, seems also to have been the period in which Torres Strait 'Island Style' singing and dancing were incorporated into Wik culture, with the songs being composed in local Wik languages but the outward forms being typically Torres Strait. Although Wik sculptures play no part in Island Dance performances, this does not mean that there has been no Torres Strait influence on Wik carvings.

Thus if the efflorescence of Wik sculpture is to be partly ascribed to outside influences, carpentry is probably not the only one. On the other hand, an 'inside influence' in addition to the drive and energy of the Wik clan members themselves was certainly that of the mission superintendent's own intentions.

The 1949-58 collections now in Brisbane and the major 1962 collection now in Canberra do appear to have been an elaboration of an existing tradition, but at least in the 1958 and 1962 cases William MacKenzie seems to have played a special role. This role was very much to do with the connection of the Aurukun Mission, and perhaps unintentionally the Wik peoples themselves, to centres of political power via the medium of cultural display.

The Governor's Dance

MacKenzie's Aurukun Diary entries for 1958, like those of most years, were dominated by notes on mechanical repairs and other humdrum matters, mingled with the odd prayer and records of misdemeanors and punishments for everything from 'rudeness' to adultery to assault. MacKenzie ruled Aurukun with a rod of iron. But on 2 September he records that 'Barry and men' were working on a 'dancing ground', as if this were official mission business. The next day: 'Had practice for Governor's arrival'.

The Governor of Queensland, Colonel Sir Henry Abel Smith, had visited Aurukun to witness a performance of the Apelech and Winchanam rituals during which 'sacred totemic birds & reptiles & fish' were displayed. On 24 November the diary records that these objects were packed and crated and sent to the University of Queensland.

In 1962 the political connection went federal. On November 16, MacKenzie noted in the Mission Diary that the 'Party to film dances' had arrived, including F.D. McCarthy (of Canberra's Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies), Peter Hinton (anthropologist then working at Weipa) and Ian Dunlop (film director, Commonwealth Film Unit), as well as camera operators and a sound person. McCarthy was the Institute Principal, Hinton an Institute grantee, and Dunlop and his crew were making the film for the Institute.

MacKenzie was taking no chances. The next day he Went to see carvings, had them shifted out to dance ground, had some men do dances with figures without dressing up, to time them.

The ritual lasted five days; on the second day W.C. Wentworth, a senior federal parliamentarian and the man credited with persuading the Prime Minister of the day to create the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, flew in to witness the performance. He left two days later.

MacKenzie's diary contains little description of these stunning performances of high art and religious intensity. The stories figured in the carvings and tableaux and poetically alluded to in the song verses were not 'just-so' stories used for the trivial purposes of entertainment. They addressed not only the spiritual essence and origins of the performers and their relatives, and some eternal psychological concerns with sexuality, conflict and other similar themes, but also the foundations of the people's political geography based on a complex system of social and local organisation.

 When The film crew left Mr McCarthy [was] sorting and packing figures gear from Dance, getting information from Woorta.

 On his return to Canberra, McCarthy reported that he and others in his party had been guests of the bauxite mining company Comalco at nearby Weipa on the way to and from Aurukun.

MacKenzie had pulled off a coup, one that would put Aurukun on the federal map, and one that engaged the good will of the only significant industry in the region. He had also made a great gift to the nation, without spoiling his tough regime at the Mission:

Despite repeated requests for valuation, Mr Mackenzie [sic] decided that the collection should be a gift from the Mission to the Institute. I feel that if the Institute wishes to reward the Mission for its assistance then it could make a payment of �100 for the collection of images. It is not the Mission's policy to pay the natives directly for work of this kind.

The Place of the Images in the Ceremonies

Of the five regional ceremonial groups which took part in the filmed 1962 performance, two are represented in the present exhibition. While their ceremonies may be performed without sculptures, at major events one or more carvings or 'images'(maany) are typically present.

The Winchanam group of clans have their estates in the inland of the Wik region. One of these clans, the Pambegan family, have their main traditional lands between 'Small Archer River' and the Watson River. The sacred totemic sites of Walkaln-aw (Bonefish Story Place, Plate X) and Kalben (Flying Fox Story Place, Plate X) are on these two rivers respectively. The performance in which the Bonefish sculptures play a central role celebrates mythic events at Walkaln-aw. There Bonefish and his sister Mangrove had a dispute over who should cook some meat. She hit him with a yamstick and he speared her in the head before they parted and descended into the earth at their respective totemic centres. The Bonefish tableau is just one of many episodes in the Winchinam song and dance sequence. The Flying Fox installation relates to the first stage of initiation (Uchanam), and refers to the story of two young initiates who disobeyed the older men and went hunting flying foxes (fruit bats) at a time when it was taboo for them to do so. They also broke the law by speaking with two young women while they were novices and by sharing forbidden food with them. One of the women discovered a bullroarer [sacred object] in the river, but decided to leave it for only men to use, and in initiations, from that time forth.

The Apelech regional ceremonial group consists of members of clans whose estates are south of Archer River to just north of Kendall River, along and near the coast. The episodes of Apelech performances are drawn from mythic events which occurred at the start of the world, when two men, the Pungk Apelech, travelled across the land and waters establishing the totemic centres in the many estates of that area. At Waayeng in the middle Kirke River area the Emu Hunter Ngalpa Ngalpan (Plate X) returned from a hunting trip to discover that his wife bore the smell of another man's sweat. A Plover Man had had intercourse with her while she slept. Ngalpa Ngalpan pursued him, covered in sheets of ironwood bark like a suit of armour, as far as Wankeniyeng (Ti Tree).

Further south, the Pungk Apelech established the Story Place of the Dingo (Wild Dog) at Eeremangk in the mouth of the Knox River. This is a tale of transformation linking the land and the sea. When Dingo leaves the land and enters the river or the sea, he becomes Nyiingkuchen the Freshwater Shark (Plate X).

In performances such as those in which these sculptures were used, dancers re-enact the dramatic events which occurred when sacred totemic sites were being revealed on the earth for the first time and the landscape was being allotted to distinct estates held by different clans. That the stories, songs and dances are of ancient lineage there can be little doubt.

An 'adaptation to special conditions and circumstances'

There is also, however, no doubt that in the 1962 case the event was carefully organised and promoted by the Reverend William MacKenzie:

There appears to have been a planned approach to the dances by Aborigines to enable them to accede to McKenzie's [sic] wishes and to eliminate (a) secret-sacred matter, and (b) anything unpleasant in McKenzie's views. The whole of the 38 dances appear to me to form an intensely interesting example of adaptation to special conditions and circumstances, of the extent to which rituals can be modified for public demonstration, and of the influence a mission and a long-reigning missionary can have on the Aborigines.

The ceremonies were organised by the Rev. Mackenzie [sic] because he was about to retire and was anxious to have a film record made of them. He had most of the sculptures made before our party arrived at Aurukun but the Aborigines were still adding touches to some of them. He also had rehearsals of the dances, apparently, to see if there were any parts of them that he would not allow us to film. … So far as I can remember he approached the Institute about this project…

The departure of MacKenzie from Aurukun in 1965 did not mean that the Wik sculptural tradition ceased to flower. It had and has its own reasons for being as it is. Indeed it has continued until the present, mainly in the context of mortuary performances held at Aurukun Township and principally for local and internal religious purposes. Some carvings have in recent years been sold onto the fine art market, and a number of unpainted sculptures were for a time sold through the Aurukun Handcrafts outlet. The making of ochre-painted sculptures for the purpose of sale has, however, been controversial among Wik people.

In the 1962 performance, at least, the revelation of the sacred had been part of an exchange between Wik people and the outside world, a world of which they knew little at that time. But the terms of the exchange were very much those engineered by powerful non-Aboriginal figures. Whether the sacred can survive under such conditions, even when 'self-managed' rather than stage-managed by a Superintendent MacKenzie, remains to be seen. The gift of the 1962 Wik sculptures to the Australian nation can, however, be understood as having achieved one of its main objectives very thoroughly: that of recognition and respect for a remarkably energetic and aesthetically powerful religious tradition, and for its custodians as a people.

Peter Sutton

Selected References and further reading

Bartlett, Judith 1989. Australian Anthropology. Pp13-70 in J. Bartlett and M. Whitmore, Cultural Exhibition of Queensland. Saitama (Japan) : Saitama Prefectural Museum.

Berndt, R.M. and E.S. Phillips (eds.) 1973. The Australian Aboriginal Heritage: an Introduction through the Arts. Sydney: Australian Association for Education through the Arts/Ure Smith.

Cooper, Carol, Howard Morphy, John Mulvaney and Nicolas Peterson 1981. Aboriginal Australia. Sydney: Australian Gallery Directors Council.

Dunlop, Ian (director), 1964. Dances at Aurukun. Sydney: Australian Commonwealth Film Unit for Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. Colour film, 16mm, 28 mins.

Kilham, C., M. Pamulkan, J. Pootchemunka, T. Wolmby 1986. Dictionary and Source-book of the Wik-Mungkan Language. Darwin: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Langevad, Barbara, and Gerry Langevad 1982. Editorial Notes. In L.P. Winterbotham (1982), The Gaiarbau Story, in Queensland Ethnohistory Transcripts 1(1), Archaeology Branch, Queensland.

Long, J.P.M. 1970. Aboriginal Settlements: a Survey of Institutional Communities in Eastern Australia. Canberra: Australian National University.

MacKenzie, Geraldine 1981. Aurukun Diary. Forty Years with the Aborigines. Melbourne: The Aldersgate Press.

McCarthy, F.D. 1962. Aurukun Filming and Collecting of Sculptures. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Doc. 62/10/7. Cyclostyled foolscap 3pp.

McCarthy, F.D. 1964. The Dancers of Aurukun. Australian Natural History 14:296-300.

McCarthy, F.D. 1967. "The Dances of Aurukun". Notes on the film. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Cyclostyled foolscap 6pp.

McConnel, U.H. 1953. Native Arts and Industries on the Archer, Kendall and Holroyd Rivers, Cape York Peninsula, North Queensland. Records of the South Australian Museum 11:1-42.

O'Gorman, Anne n.d.. Ursula McConnel: the Archaeology of an Anthropologist. BA Hons thesis, Australian National University.

Ramsay, E.G. 1986. Aboriginal Artefacts in the Donald Thomson Collection 1928-1965. Microfiche. Melbourne: Museum of Victoria.

Sharp, R.L. 1952. Steel Axes for Stone-age Australians. Human Organization 2:17-22.

Sutton, Peter 1988. Dreamings. Chapter 1 of P. Sutton (ed.), Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia. New York: The Asia Society Galleries & George Braziller/Viking.

Sutton, P. 1994. Material culture traditions of the Wik peoples, Cape York Peninsula. Records of the South Australian Museum 27:31-52.

Thomson, D.F. 1934. Notes on a Hero Cult from the Gulf of Carpentaria, North Queensland. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 64:217-35.