Thursday, 12 June 2008

At Prison Gates Only The Keys Sing

(my title quote is a piece of Surrealist automatic writing)

I love Surrealism. I love the art and I'm especially amused/disturbed/suspicious in equal measures by/about automatic writing. Truly, who can really come up with some of the quite profound madness the surrealist writers claim they did spontaneously? Take Andre Breton's "Nadja" for example, founding father of Surrealism he may be, but was it really "pure psychic automatism?" Perhaps that's why I paint and don't write for a living!

Anyhow, there is a reason for me posting today, and not just because I'm feeling argumentative! I was clearing out the spare room yesterday- not a place we usually venture unless we're feeling brave or compelled to try extreme sports- and I came across some old sketch books, one dedicated to a strange mixture of carousels (at the time I was trying to build one out of clear plastic-needless to say it didn't work) and Aboriginal Dreamtime stories. No I don't know why either. All the same, here's some pics- first up the Lyre bird from the story of the bubble in the stream.

In the spirit of honesty I should point out this is my version of an illustration I found in a book on Aboriginal Tales given to me by my dad called "Old Man Fire." (I believe its out of print now-I've had it since I was about six, but it may be available on Amazon should you be interested. Basically its a fairly frightening book telling children what happens after death, what can happen when you play with fire and the dangers of being too proud). All pictures that follow are my own- created in a similar style to illustrate other stories.

Dreamtime stories are very much ancient morality tales. Each tribe had their own set of stories, or "Dreamings" which related the stories of their ancestors who emerged from the earth during its creation. The "Dreamings" include tales about the land on which they lived.

It was believed that until the ancestors came the world was a flat silent place, the spirit of life asleep below the surface. Once the ancestors broke through the Earth's crust the sun came into being bringing light for the very first time. The ancestors could change form at will, becoming plant, human, animal or land form- everything was created from the same source. The ancestors travelled the land, their journeys created the landscape, the elements and celestial bodies, as well as new beings to populate the land. Eventually some grew weary and chose to become part of the landscape themselves, while others sank back into the earth to sleep.

The land on which the tribes lived was therefore very sacred to them, they believed that the "Dreamings" were passed to them from the ancestors dwelling on it as spirits in order to keep their stories alive, guide them to sacred areas and show them which animals they were allowed to hunt.

The Aboriginal people had a complex system of language, passed down through generations, and their art in most cases was created via a hierarchy. Each piece of work is composed of symbols sacred to the tribe, the most important symbols added by the most senior member. These works were rarely meant to survive, they served a temporary purpose, whether it be a hunting scene designed to draw prey to them, or to mark the death of a family member. The fact that so much did last is a testament to their skills as is the ability to survive the apparent determination to drive out their entire culture.

As with all Aboriginal stories there's usually a few lessons and rules to live by woven into the tales, warning against such things as pride, disrespecting ones elders or in the case of the story of the bubble in the stream-boastfulness. This is also the story of how the frog got it's voice. The short version of the tale is that the frog started life as a tiny bubble in a stream, but being more ambitious than the other bubbles it wanted more from life. The Great Spirit knew this, so the bubble became a frog. The frog wasn't finished though, he wanted to sing, and it just so happens the Lyre Bird was one of the greatest singers in the land, and so became the frog's teacher.

Having learned everything the Lyre Bird knew the frog became boastful, soon he was telling the other animals in the bush he could sing the moon down from the sky, and while they were gathered around to watch he started singing. Eventually his voice dwindled to nothing but a croak, while the moon stayed put. As punishment the Great Spirit refused to return the frog's voice and so all frogs are forced to croak in remembrance of their ancestor's mistake.

At first it does sound somewhat unfair to punish all for the mistakes of one, but the theory goes that everything we have ever been on the way to becoming what we will eventually be, we still are. We are made up of memories, of our families and ancestors and anything that has ever influenced us at any stage of our evolution- so it is not inconceivable I suppose that if you follow that way of thinking the punishment was merited.

How the cockatoo got its crest: It was once believed that the cockatoo was completely white, and as such was found ugly for having no colours. One day the cockatoo found three coloured feathers, and thinking that he would be accepted if he wore them he placed them in his tail. The other birds recognised the feathers as their own, and so attacked the cockatoo. In an attempt to escape he flew, flying so high he was burned by the sun's rays and fell back to earth with a yellow crest on top of his head. Perhaps this story shows that while sometimes wishes do come true, it doesn't always happen as we would think?

This is the story of how the Kookaburra got its laugh. Kookaburra was very fast and proud. So much so he would tell all the other birds just how much better than them he was, until one day the Emu offered him a challenge. Although Emus can not fly, they can run, so she offered him a race, one he was so confident he would win he offered her a head start. As soon as she began to run he realised his mistake and began to regret accepting her challenge, much less offering her the head start. With no other choice he began to fly-so fast Emu became a speck on the horizon.

Since Kookaburra was too busy watching for her he inevitably hit a tree, and realising he didn't recognise his surroundings he panicked. He began trying to communicate with the strange creatures around him, calling out loudly, but to them it sounded like laughter.

The Eagle and the Crow- a story about jealousy and revenge. There were once three friends- a magpie- Urrakuli, a crow named Wakarla, (both had white feathers) and an eagle called Wildu. They would share food, laughter and happy times until one day the magpie and the crow disappeared.

After two days of not seeing them the eagle went to find them, and was surprised to discover they were together. Enraged they would spend time without him he decided to exact revenge. He threw a party in a nearby cave, inviting all the birds in the area -including his friends. Once he had lured all the birds to the cave a great fire broke out, and great wings at the mouth of the cave blocked the only way out.

Eagle told the magpie and the crow that the eventual deaths of the other birds would be their fault, he felt betrayed and this was their punishment. After they begged him to spare the lives of the other birds the eagle relented, allowing them to fly to freedom in exchange for the lives of his friends. A fight ensued, and although both the magpie and crow escaped both left with their feathers charred black, and this is how their descendants are today.

Extreme, yes? Its interesting to note that the site this story took place still stands, and the cave is shaped like an eagle with its wings draped around the entrance- spooky or coincidence?

No comments: