Creeping through the jungle
John Olsen 'Tree frog' 1973, lithograph, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia © John Olsen. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia
I’m a great big tiger creeping through the jungle,
I have sharp claws and great big teeth,
I’m creeping through the jungle.1
Creeping through the jungle gives visitors an opportunity to explore the tropical rainforests of Australia, the Pacific, Southeast Asia and South America. From an Australian artist’s views of the Queensland rainforest to an ancient Mayan ceramic jaguar from Guatemala, the Children’s Gallery comes alive with the flora and fauna of the jungle.
The journey begins in Australia’s north, with modern and contemporary art, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, taking visitors up through the lush coastal forests of Queensland, evoked by the prints of Australia’s William Robinson. His lithographs To the sea: morning sun 1998 and Rainforest 1992 immediately set the scene and draw visitors into the humid jungle canopy.
Crossing via Bathurst Island to Papua New Guinea, visitors will see spectacular works of art from the Sepik River region, nearby Madang and elsewhere. Highlights include a life-sized cassowary made of plant fibres and feathers, and a huge wooden sow from the Haus Tambaran, or Spirit House, at Kuminibus. One of the most colourful objects in the exhibition is a carved headdress surmounted by two kokomos. This splendid, brightly painted work is sculpted from wood and features two hornbill birds, called kokomo by the local people, perching back-to-back above a fierce face.
Maprik, East Sepik, Papua New Guinea 'Carved headdress surmounted by two kokomos' wood, paint, ochre, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
Moving further back in time, the journey continues across the ocean to the Indonesian island of Bali. The dense forests of Bali are home to many creatures that are represented in the traditional arts and crafts of the island. Sadly, hunting and other pressures on the jungle have upset the delicate ecosystem, and put many plant and animal species at risk. The Balinese tiger that features so prominently in temple carvings and textiles such as the early 20th-century saput is now extinct. The cloth, however, teems with life: tigers leap about the richly decorated surface, jostling with elephants, men on horseback and other figures in a glorious testament to the skilled weavers of Southeast Asia.
Finally, there’s a treasure hunt through the jungles of Central and South America, where the magnificent jaguar stalks the forest. Its powerful presence influenced the ancient cultures of the region. Several jaguars feature in the Gallery’s collection, including the jaguar sitting upright on the lid of a Mayan burial urn, one of the most striking objects in the exhibition. These big cats guard the treasure at the end of the journey – a small collection of exquisitely modelled golden birds made by the Tairona and Sinu peoples of Colombia.
Tropical rainforests contain between 50 and 90
per cent of the world’s plant and animal species, yet
many of these are under grave threat of extinction as
a direct result of human activity. The jaguar and many
of the other creatures represented in the exhibition are at risk of disappearing altogether along with the forests they inhabit. Creeping through the jungle encourages children to learn about the animal, bird, insect and plant life of
the rainforests and to think about their own place in the world and the environment. The works of art in this exhibition highlight the remarkable influence of the natural environment over artists through the centuries, and draw children into an appreciation of art through their fascination with the creatures of the forest.
International Painting and Sculpture
1 The green book: Play School, Sydney: ABC Books 1988.