Australian Aboriginal Light: an example

Looking at an Australian Aboriginal example of the way light can be a useful way of comparing the way that light – and our conceptions of its qualities – is related to the earth when it is not part of the trappings of a large scale civilization. Of course Aboriginal life is constantly changing as it adapts to the kind of large-scale civilization that now exists on this land, which makes the way the traditional land-owners of this country think even more important to our understanding of Australian (and global) ecology. I point out elsewhere the pattern often accompanying the symbol of light in large-scale civilizations – with large scale buildings, mechanised traffic, domesticated crops and animals yielding excess profits, centralised forms of authority, writing, and now with fuel and commodity fetishes in brightly lit cathedrals of consumption – the modern city burns bright with yearning to inhabit light permanently, as if the darkness could be banished forever. By comparison, many Aboriginal peoples have an idea that light operates as a spiritual force emanating from within the earth and its interrelating life forces; it is something that flows into and enriches the land and its creatures, not necessarily or only something that shines down on us from above. This idea stands at a great distance from the conception, which becomes predominant in the history of western settlement civilisation, that light emanates from its true home in the heavens (especially from a solar regent).

Over the last three decades anthropologist John Bradley has worked with the Yanyuwa peoples who inhabit a traditionally inscribed topography along the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria in Australia’s Northern Territory. During this time he has, with their blessing, recorded many kujika (or songlines) in a cultural atlas for the purposes of posterity.1

The atlas includes illustrated versions of many of the Coastal Dreaming stories and features some of the spirit ancestors that helped to create the land and sea of the coastal country Yanyuwa people are responsible for. The atlas itself is handmade and only a few copies exist; the one i studied resides in Monash University’s Rare Books Library. I thank the authors and all those involved in the project for the opportunity to discuss this material. Bradley’s aim in this project is to maintain as much of the Yanyuwa cultural legacy as possible for the new generations, who of recent times have moved away from traditional knowledge systems and languages. The Yanyuwa cosmology, however, is also important for what it can teach all people about the interrelatedness of life on earth and Yanyuwa elders have shown openness to having others learn from their traditions. Yanyuwa traditions recognise in relations between humans and their country a consistent negotiation between kin, necessitating listening to country in an enlivened spiritual cosmos.2

The Yanyuwa definition of life is more broadly construed to include land and sea, as well as animate creatures, such that sentience is not restricted to higher primates such as us humans. Kujika are everpresent in country; and although they were placed there by the spirit ancestors (or Dreamings) in the deep past, they are not an endless repetition of cycles always looking back to a pristine age now lost, but wandayarra a-yabala: following a road both pre- existing and alive in the moment.3

Kujika have their own agency, even without being sung, and are not mere expressions of the function of human survival. They travel through the deep sea and inhospitable mangroves, not with human kin in mind but as the song of the country. (‘Singing,’ 29) Humans sing this song as a ritual of re-creation that enables them to experience the world anew. Bradley coined the term ‘supervitality’ to help explain this cultural process in a way that neatly supersedes the dualistic western division between realms of the sacred and profane.4

The performance of kujika, according to this model, takes the vitality innate in the land and concentrates it into a kind of supervitality. In the newly animated DVD of the kujika ‘Manankurra,’ a series of dancing lights accompany the song as it traverses land and water (in this case a coastal river).5

These wirrimalaru represent a permanent and abiding force, created by the continuing presence of the Dreaming ancestors, as well as being symbolic of the supervital power of the kujika. Their brilliance signifies physical, emotional, and spiritual health in the country. Light arises out of the earth and dances within it; it is recognised in the kujika and celebrated as a site wherein human and nonhuman kin can be brought ‘into line.’6

Life is manifest in the body and finds its home here on earth. There is no sense in which transcendence needs to be imagined as if it arrived here from a perfect throne in an eternal elsewhere and no sense that the body must be overcome, whether through denial or worship (at the altar of overconsumption).

Aboriginal light helps us to see and sing the song of the land, but while it signals an alternative way of structuring an ecology, it does not provide the answers required to bring the new urban landscape into line with the ancient and perennial Aboriginal law. For the city, as Bradley points out, is beyond those laws and the systems of negotiation painstakingly worked out by them. (“Landscapes,” 305) The newer, western society in Australia, with its own laws of agriculture, industry and technology, must work out its own way of negotiating within this ecology, as all modern societies must. To do this in ignorance of Aboriginal epistemologies, however, would seem to me a terrible waste of wisdom. I am confident that parallel ideas, of a light of truth, beauty and wisdom that emanates out of and within the earth and does not need to be manifest in a subjugation of it and its other creatures on behalf of the ‘strong anthropocentric’ project of dominion, can be found in many western traditions that run counter to the dominant mode of life. Such creative possibilities, open to contemporary creativity but also historically often found in Ionian (or pre-Socratic) philosophies and Romantic poetics, will be the subject of future essays to be published on this site.

NB: Bradley has now published a book on this subject, called Singing Saltwater Country. It’s a great read, going into more detail about his time with the Yanyuwa people and the way he learnt the complex world of the kujika and how all beings are kin on the country there.

Link: read the classic essay “Some Thoughts about the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews” by Mary Graham, published online and freely available as part of Issue 45 (November 2008), in the Ecological Humanities section of Australian Humanities Review: http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-November-2008/graham.html

1 Yanyuwa families, John Bradley, and Nona Cameron, Forget About Flinders: A Yanyuwa Atlas of the South West Gulf of Carpentaria (Brisbane: published by the authors, 2003). 2 John Bradley, “Landscapes of the Mind, Landscapes of the Spirit: Negotiating a Sentient Landscape,” in Working on Country: Contemporary Indigenous Management of Australia’s Lands, ed. Richard Baker, Jocelyn Davies, and Elspeth Young (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001), 297–98. 3 John Bradley, “Singing through the Sea: Song, Sea and Emotion,” in Deep Blue: Critical Reflections on Nature, Religion and Water, ed. Sylvie Shaw and Andrew Francis (London: Equinox, 2008), 28. 4 John Bradley, “When a Stone Tool Is a Dingo: Country and Relatedness in Australian Aboriginal Notions of Landscape,” in Handbook of Landscape Archaeology, ed. Bruno David and Julian Thomas (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast, 2008), 635. 5 Yanyuwa families, J. Bradley, B. McKee, C. Ung, and A. Kearney, ‘Manankurra,’ DVD, directed by J. Bradley (Melbourne: Monash University, 2008). The animation is not available for public viewing at this time. 6 John Bradley, email to author, June 6, 2008.


One comment

  1. A great read thank you. It would seem that even with all the research I do there are always new things to learn about our amazing indigenous culture 🙂

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