I am Kalkatungu (Kalkadoon), and we are the traditional custodians of the Mt. Isa region in north-west Queensland. I studied art at the University of New South Wales, and in 2018 I decided to return home to north Queensland to be with family, and continue my studies at James Cook University. Being home, I began exploring anthropological and archaeological studies into my Kalkatungu Indigenous heritage. This was then combined with a yarning process with Kalkatungu Elders and knowledge keepers.
I was fortunate at this time to reconnect with Uncle Jimmy, a wise and respected Kalkatungu Elder. I discussed my research with him as he passed on his knowledge to me, which guided my research and paintings. As my artwork and knowledge evolved it became necessary to redefine how I approached my painting practice.
I had established a reciprocal relationship between the oral, literary and artistic research I was undertaking, as each informed the other. My arts-based research required the inclusion of Indigenous Research Methodologies (IRM), which are methods for including Indigenous ways of knowledge keeping and sharing. This new, integrated process for learning and understanding, incorporated traditional and more formal methods of inquiring into my heritage, researching anthropological and historical texts, alongside more informal IRM which included yarning with Elders.
An important documented source of Kalkatungu culture is the work of amateur anthropologist Walter E. Roth. Ethnographical Studies Among the North-West Queensland Aborigines, was published in 1897, and is the earliest study of the Kalkatungu people. Roth’s ethnographic series contains information on varied subjects including descriptions and illustrations of the artistic culture of the Kalkatungu people.
In the 1890’s Roth described methods employed by both men and women throughout the north-west Queensland region, that enabled one to, ‘…make him flash-fellow’.1 Roth, described the practices of everyday ornamentation of the body as 'personal flash', which could include oiling of the skin and hair, scarification, piercing of the nose and ears, avulsion of teeth, wearing of headbands or necklaces, and painting the face and body with ‘grease’, which is a combination of ochre and animal fat.2 Kalkatungu men painted their bodies with bands of white grease in curvilinear lines from the elbows, across the shoulders to the waist, with parallel lines across the thighs. Women painted themselves with trilinear bands of yellow or red ochre grease known as the 'female flash-mark'.3 Both patterns are similar to the ceremonial costume patterning, although in the case of men, blood-feathering was used more often than grease. Blood-feathering consists of balls of feather down coloured with ochre and applied to the body with blood as an adhesive.4 Art historian Ian McLean related how blood-feathering creates a shimmering flash during corroborees, and why this aesthetic device was translated in contemporary Indigenous art 'The dancer’s tremor … creates the flash of the down in the firelight … the down is the origin of the ubiquitous dotting in Western Desert painting, which performs a similar aesthetic role to Yolngu cross-hatching or rarrk'.5 In artistic and ceremonial contexts, ‘flash’, and its local variants are used by many Indigenous peoples to describe the spiritual essence and power of the Ancestors, and more broadly it can be a verb or an adjective that can describe any brilliant colours, patterns or dots, that are either natural or artificially produced. Contemporary Indigenous artist, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (c 1933 – 2002) was once assumed to have got the idea for some of his paintings directly from Western maps, to which he replied: 'Nobody. My idea. I think, I do it this way: make it flash'.6
Uncle Jimmy also paints, and he will sell his paintings to buy a car, or put petrol in the car. He will even trade them or generously give them away. Even though Uncle Jimmy’s paintings are of a naive, self-taught quality, the essential power of flash is obviously present. He will often use fluorescent or ‘fluoro’ colours in the backgrounds before using darker colours to paint Kuathuat (rainbow serpent), circle motifs as people or places, emu footprints which signify Kalkatungu Country, and other elements including dot outlines and dash marks to fill the negative spaces. One day I commented on how it was unusual to see fluoro colours in Indigenous art.
'It gives it power!' Uncle Jimmy exclaimed.
'To make it look flash hay Uncle?' I asked agreeably.
'You got it son…', was his answer.
As time went on and my project developed, Uncle Jimmy encouraged me to paint like him but in my own style. For example, he instructed me to paint Kuathuat sinuously, and never paint all the story in one painting.
'Look at the rock art', he would say encouragingly before continuing. 'Do not copy it, but interpret it in your own way.'
It is only now, as I contemplate further research tracing the Kuathuat Dreaming line, that I am considering the use of fluoro colours in my own paintings. I am also coming to terms with the stylistic choice of light-to-dark painting, rather than the more traditional dark-to-light that I was taught. As I began to show an interest and a talent for art at a young age, my aunty Dawn taught me that painting is a re-enactment of the initial creation, and I should start with a dark background to represent the void of creation. Then a dot border to frame and contain the story-image that is then built up with bright colours, patterns and dots.
Regarding Uncle Jimmy’s fluoro paintings, the flash is generated from behind; from within. My understanding is that because the ‘flash’ element is behind, the figures and motifs are casting shadows of themselves. This style is a metaphorical interpretation of the Dreaming where reality is a shadow or projection of the spiritual.
Dark-to-light reveals the spiritual dimension through the building up of bright colours, patterns or dots on a dark ground. While light-to-dark paintings emanate from the spiritual which is why, either way, bright colours, patterns and dots are considered flash.
Kuathuat: Rainbow Flash
A major Kalkatungu Dreaming line relates to Kuathuat. In the Dreamtime, Kuathuat was travelling with some dingoes. There was a red, yellow, black and white dingo. One day Kuathuat shed its skin generating all the colours of the rainbow, while the red dingo created red ochre in Kalkatungu Country. The other dingoes created their respective ochres in other Countries, and these special ochres are sought after, and traded through this Dreaming line.
In Kalkatungu Country, Kuathuat can manifest in a variety of forms which display different aspects of its behaviour. There is a black male serpent, a white female serpent, and in animal form it is a water python, Liasis fuscus.
Archaeologist Josephine Flood documented that the archaeological record is extant across the last ten thousand years accounting for Rainbow Serpent Dreaming as being 'the longest continuing religious belief documented in the world'.7 Archaeological studies have now included the significance of bright colours to Indigenous peoples and their relationship with Rainbow Serpents. Archaeologist Paul Taçon noted that throughout Australia stones were chosen 'because they were the most bright and colourful – and thus the most powerful. … Rainbows and Rainbow Serpents are among the most outstanding examples of things both intensely colourful and powerful'.8
In the past, rainmakers (or more accurately rain-askers) in human and other forms traversed the land, meeting up, exchanging and performing ceremonies. At the time of contact with Europeans, Indigenous peoples shared this legacy, and it was noted that many of them had the ability to produce rain, thunder and lightning. The Kalkatungu were recorded as rainmakers by Roth in the 1890s.9 And so too, Uncle Jimmy inherited this skill, and he has explained to me that if by placing a painting of Kuathuat on the ground, and singing the accompanying song, it will rain. It is a positive manifestation; asking for rain while maintaining an expectation of success.
Not all Indigenous peoples are capable of producing rain, and if required a request is sent to those who can. On one occasion, Roth noted that some Miorli men had produced a flooding rain event at Boulia which is in Pitta-Pitta Country. Roth asked them to stop the rain, and they replied that because their rain-stick had been submerged in the flood 'the rain would have to run its course!'.10
When big rain ceremonies are held, Kuathuat can be seen rising from its waterhole as moisture-laden air, before travelling on to the next Country. These ceremonies offer the opportunity for people to arrange marriages, trade and generally strengthen political and cultural alliances. In Kalkatungu Country there are a number of rock art sites that depict Kuathuat in a sinuous manner explaining its life-giving movement, relational ontology, and ultimately a foundational agency for cultural integrity. There is living ceremonial power in those rocks.