Dreaming is not just some ancient mysticism, but true, real and palpable. It is like DNA: the language of all life, the power in all things, animate and inanimate. It began when Ancestral Beings first roamed a featureless earth and sky. Changing shape at will, they travelled all over, their tracks making today’s differences of geography, biology and culture. Thus their tracks are the key to understanding these things, how they relate and what they do.
Dreaming gave each country, species, group and gender its own autonomy, language, culture and authority, but more importantly, it established within this autonomy and difference a rhythm of relationships and obligations. It is a dynamic system in which things often appear other than what they are. As Darwin discovered, the seeming boundaries between things are not entirely immutable. ‘Clever’ people and ‘clever’ animals can, like the Ancestral Beings, actually inhabit Dreaming, cross these boundaries and assume the shapes of others and even converse with them in their language. To be alive is to be alive to this otherness and communicate across its differences.
While we cannot all be ‘clever’, there are, as Shane Pickett demonstrates in his art, other ways of feeling Dreaming. Dreaming has an aesthetic form: it relates differences without reducing their complexities. Pickett uses his hunting skills to feel it. He carefully scans ahead, not just with his eyes but all his senses, looking beyond the appearance of individual things to what is moving in and between them: alert to the shifting light, breeze, scents, sounds, to patterns and rhythms of shapes and colour tones, the passing clouds and the sun inching across the sky, even the pull of the moon. Likewise, to properly understand the content of his early landscape paintings, look past their figurative literalness to the patterns and rhythms that hold across the surface of the canvas. Notice how they take on a new intensity as they converge towards the horizon or another fold in country. Here one finds the origins of his later abstractions. They are the culmination of a project that had its genesis in his childhood, when he was taught the cultural values and skills of his Balladong and Jdewat traditions: how to read weather patterns and signs, the seasons and movements of animals and stars; how to feel the Dreaming tracks.
Pickett was born in the wheat belt of south-west Australia in 1957, but has lived in Perth since the mid 1970s. He grew up at a pivotal time in Nyoongar and Aboriginal history, during the end of the assimilation period as Aboriginal people across Australia lurched towards self-determination in a series of radical events centred around land rights and cultural revival. Like most Aboriginal groups torn apart and displaced by colonialism, Nyoongar families treasured and re-told the stories and language of their ancestors. From this emerged a vibrant postcolonial Nyoongar school of landscape art, of which Pickett’s painting is a legacy.
Far from being a nostalgic yearning for something lost in the colonial holocaust, Pickett’s paintings are proof of the continuing everyday power of Dreaming. Whatever might have been lost in the way of knowledge, language and ceremony, Dreaming continues, always waiting its discovery by those who will look with open hearts, with care and respect. To understand Pickett’s paintings is to feel this revelation of Dreaming. They remind us that we are never without Dreaming, but without knowledge of it we are lost in an empty and indifferent space with no map to plot our course. This is why it is often said that Dreaming is a map. And this is why Pickett’s paintings, especially his more recent abstract ones, are also like maps, not the static drawings of western cartography but more like weather charts, always changing as the complexity and subtleties of meteorological pressure systems ebb and flow.
The greatest joy Pickett gets is seeing the tears of the old men and women from remote Australia as they recognise in his paintings the traces of Dreaming. Then he knows his personal journey as an artist has become an integral part of his people’s return from their exodus, for in these quiet moments in his studio with these old people from long away, he feels their respect for his Balladong and Jdewat ancestors and so for him.
 See John Stanton, Nyungar Landscape: Aboriginal artists of the south-west: the heritage of Carrolup, Western Australia, Perth: Berndt Museum of Anthropology, University of Western Australia, 1992; and Brenda L. Croft, Southwest central: Indigenous art from south Western Australia 1833–2002, Perth: Art Gallery of Western Australia, 2003.