Lesson 7: Memory and Cosmology: Creator/Ancestors: The Wawilak Sisters Bark Painting, Australia

Summary and Objectives. Study of a bark painting produced in the 1960s introduces students to Aboriginal peoples of Australia and to their histories as revealed through art. The students will investigate and interpret Australian creation stories and use the featured bark painting to explore the changing roles of the arts in Australia, especially as related to issues of women, commerce, and ritual. Students will

  • Explore the history of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia through a study of their creation stories.
  • Consider the changing roles of women, commerce, and ritual through the lens of bark paintings and then create their own “bark” paintings as documents of their lives.
  • Discuss and study areas of conflict between immigrants and native peoples of a country.
  • Compare and consider the many non-written ways that culturestransmit a sense of history and belief.
  • Express points of view about the experiences of European migration into Australia, considering multiple perspectives.


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Lesson 7: Wawilak Sisters Bark Painting Lesson Plan (PDF, 1 MB)

Background Information

Background Information

Visual works of art often act as “story starters.” They remind the viewer of the traditional stories that have been retold over the generations and they stimulate the telling and retelling of these stories in the present.

Before 1930 the Aboriginal peoples of Arnhem Land in northern Australia painted designs only on the interiors of bark dwellings and on men’s bodies. The designs were sacred symbols that linked a clan’s origin stories to the rights of its members to use particular lands.

In the 1930s Christian missions were established and missionaries encouraged the production of indigenous art forms, which were then sold or given to Australian museums. In the 1950s this effort expanded considerably with missions acting as art dealers, paying cash for paintings, and creating professional “artists” where none had previously existed. Paintings for the first time were labeled as to their authenticity and an international art market for the paintings grew. Painters were encouraged to create designs that “had a story” and would appeal aesthetically to non-Aboriginal buyers. They ultimately retained control over what they chose to paint, however, and more importantly, how much (if any) of the sacred knowledge associated with the designs they chose to reveal.


About the Artist

Dawidi Djulwarak (1921–1970) produced this bark painting in the 1960s. Like many other Aboriginal painters, he was encouraged in his art endeavors by Christian missionaries who then acted as dealers to sell the artist’s work. They authenticated the paintings, labeling them with the artist’s bio and sometimes with information about the stories told. In earlier periods, art was typically executed by groups of painters and no one person could designate himself (artists were typically men) as the creator of the artwork. This bark painting was purchased by the Fowler Museum in 1967.

Suggested Activities

1. The Dreamtime

The Aboriginal peoples of Australia tell of a time when the Ancestor Spirits formed the land, the waters, the sky, and all they contained. The Spirits came to Earth and gave names to all these geographical features and to all the creatures formed therein. This was the time during which all things were created—a time before time.

As they traveled across the land, Ancestor Spirits created stars, rivers, creeks, forests, hills, and other landscapes. At the end of this time—the Dreamtime—the Spirits changed into these features and into all the creatures they named. Still powerful, the Spirits are present today in these forms and, as in ages past, creation stories of the ancestors are told. They tell of the continent’s many animals and of ancestral beings like the Wawilak Sisters who helped create and name the universe, established the rainy and dry seasons, and gave the people their law.

Activity. Writing creation stories can take many forms and students will appreciate the diversity as they research creation stories of a wide variety of peoples. Although most were communicated orally, they are now also in written form. Compare stories of the peoples of Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. In their readings students should look for different explanations for the origin of specific animals and/or natural phenomena.

Activity. Students should look at pictures and learn characteristics of Australia’s wide variety of animals—many unique to the continent. They will use the information to tell tales of how the creatures came to be. The kangaroo, wallaby, koala bear, bandicoot, bush-tailed opossum, duck-billed platypus, emu, echidna, kookaburra, crocodile and various spiders, lizards, snakes, and sea creatures would all be fair subjects.

Activity. Indigenous peoples of Australia also transmit their stories in songs and dances, and by painting on the ground, rock walls, canvas, their bodies, and like our example, pieces of bark. Can students interpret a story in one of these media?

The drawing of the Wawilak sisters in Memory and Cosmology (fig. 2.3) was painted on bark. To make this and similar works, Aboriginal artists took sheets of bark from trees and removed thin layers that they cured by fire and flattened with weights for many days. The paints they used were basic earth pigments of red, black, yellow, and white, and these were mixed with fixatives (egg yolk, honey, bees’ wax and flower extracts). They made brushes from strips of bark or green twigs that were then whittled or chewed into shape to make the bristles.

To make simulated bark paintings, students may use crumpled brown wrapping paper, softened by dipping in water, to imitate bark. Students may choose to use animals in their stories and should notice that Aboriginal artists often use crosshatching and linear designs to fill the simply outlined animal shapes. Sometimes the skeleton or a baby animal is drawn inside the animal outline.

Activity. Retelling history assures Aboriginal peoples that their ancient past has ties to today and their cultural heritage will be made known to future generations. Consider paintings, song, and dance as you compare the efficacy of these arts with the means by which our students may learn of and transmit their history.

Which of the arts do students consider to be most effective as mnemonic devices? Have them recall if they have ever been helped to learn something through a song or a rhyming game. What is meant by the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words?” Do they agree? Discuss what criteria should be met to make an oral presentation successful. Do the same for a written narrative and for visual and performing art presentations.


2. Land Rights

While naming the land, Ancestor Spirits established relationships among individuals and groups, and granted humans the rights to both the land and the bark paintings that told the stories of the relationships. Indeed, paintings have helped establish Aboriginal claims to land and sacred sites, and have been officially recognized as evidence in land claim suits. Since the people were nomadic their territorial boundaries were not spelled out. Landforms and natural boundaries—including rivers, hills, and rock formations—served as property boundaries. The names of these features, as well as the knowledge of which territory belonged to which person or group, was information that parents expressed to their children, and group elders communicated to the younger generation, thus perpetuating the creation stories and the rights to sacred sites. It is important to remember that the original settlers comprised hundreds of different groups and though they shared much, each had beliefs, traditions, and Dreamtime stories specific to them.

Students can imagine how people new to an area would see a hill as an ordinary hill and a lake merely as a body of water. To Aboriginal peoples these and other geographic features were sacred and have meaningful histories belonging to groups with special knowledge of them. These sacred sites and boundaries were threatened as the region was colonized by Europeans who had their own interests, such as the need to procure grazing lands, the search for mineral rights, and the access to connecting roads.

Activity. Talk with the students about the meaning of “sacred” and what they, or others they know, would regard as sacred. Religious objects and buildings will probably be addressed in their discussion. Then have them consider likely responses to the planned destruction of a cathedral to make way for a new movie complex, the cutting down of a “sacred” tree to give access to a desired superhighway or a needed school, or moving a burial ground for a planned shopping center.

Activity. Native Americans and other groups on this and other continents have encountered similar conflicts. Locally, ancient burial grounds have been discovered to be in the way of construction of new schools, museum buildings, and commercial centers. Students can look up information about local events and document the methods used to address the conflicts and the resolutions. Native Americans in and around Los Angeles have fought to retain the sites as part of their cultural history.


3. Changing Roles

Using the brief chronology included here students may discuss the changing roles of the arts in Australia, focusing especially on issues related to women, commerce, and ritual. The history of Europeans in Australia has, of course, impacted the original inhabitants, their lifestyles, traditions, and art. A few pertinent dates are listed in Handout CHANGING ROLES.

Activity. Over the period covered in the chronology spelled out in the handout, there were many changes. The following should provide points of discussion among your students.

  • The Role of Women. Women traditionally were not allowed to paint on bark paintings, but when, in the 1960s, large orders were placed by businesses catering to tourists, women were encouraged to help meet the widespread demand. Students may investigate the changing roles of women brought about by commercialism and other human-influenced factors such as conflicts and wars, as well as by naturally occurring events.
  • The Role of Commerce. Several aspects of the interest in bark paintings merit consideration. Although artworks were a commodity, they were also the means by which the Australian population at large learned about their Aboriginal neighbors, who were often the subject of ridicule and misunderstanding. As the works appeared in museums and galleries the public became better informed of Aboriginal traditions. This was particularly so as stories were written to accompany the paintings. Problems arose when commerce demanded more information for accompanying stories and the artists felt pressure to reveal restricted knowledge. (Ultimately the artists did retain control over what they chose to paint, and more importantly, how much, if any, of the sacred knowledge associated with the designs they would reveal.)Have students or their families ever brought back a souvenir from a vacation that led them to learn more about the people who produced it, the techniques or traditions associated with its manufacture or use, or the local geography under which the raw material became available? If possible, have them bring in the object and tell the class stories associated with it.
  • The Role of Art. Aboriginal peoples use art as a way to communicate. Their drawings and paintings usually tell a story—a dreaming—important in their lives, and explain why things happen the way they do. With groups of symbols, paintings become an artful map of the Dreamtime and of today, filled with information about ancestral beings, animal life, and landscape features such as water holes, kangaroo tracks, and edible plants. With these symbols, painters make song maps telling the stories of ancestors and the paths they took on their travels. Today’s painters, as they tell their stories, also address land rights, the need for environmental protection, and both historic and current political and social issues. The lessons taught via the painted stories are complete with morals.A group of painters often work collaboratively, painting on large canvases flat on the ground, and as they paint, the images they create appear on canvas as in former times they evolved in sand. While working, painters may listen to stories and sing songs related to the Dreamings.Let students use their own drawings to show their travels. With symbols that they devise for specific buildings, trees, and other local highlights, they can describe the route from their home to school, or from any familiar location (or room of their home) to another. They should be mindful of landmarks and incidental sites they pass, directions their footprints travel, and anything else one might encounter en route. This teaching tool could be accompanied by a story indicating the importance or significance of any of the locations, such as experiences or people they encounter there, etc.
  • The Role of Ritual. Rituals are integral to Aboriginal culture but history has not served to perpetuate many practices. Recount (or have students investigate) some aspects of Australia’s history including those listed in the handout that would have affected Aboriginal ritual life.Aboriginal ritual events, as in the past, offer opportunities for trade, entertainment, socializing, and the transmission of sacred knowledge to the young, especially during the stages of young men’s initiations. Older generations transmit values and knowledge through art, songs, dances, and rituals, thereby connecting the ancient past to living present. Such practices and events take place in remote Aboriginal lands, but also in the larger cities and towns. One of the most important, the Djungguwan, tells the story of the Wawilak sisters. In 2002 it was held for the first time in twenty-five years.Other peoples throughout the world perpetuate their heritage with tradition-based activities. Students can compare these, including in their study Native American pow-wows still held locally, Hopi Katsinam dances, and Haida potlatch ceremonies, the latter two addressed in the Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives exhibition.


4. Points of View

Activity. Have students research and write a point-of-view essay about a person’s experience coming to Australia from Europe. They should assume the role of a member of government, a settler coming for economic reasons, a missionary coming to teach and “convert the natives,” or a convict being banished to this land. Their thoughts can be recorded in the form of a letter to a relative or friend back home. At the same time students should also consider the points of view of Aboriginal peoples whose lifeways were radically altered by encounters with colonizing Europeans.

Useful Readings

Caruana, Wally
2003 Aboriginal Art. London: Thames & Hudson.

Finley, Carol
1999 Aboriginal Art of Australia. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company.

Morphy, Howard
1991 Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Notes to the Teacher

This lesson is part of the curricular materials developed to accompany the exhibition Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives. Although this and companion lessons are self-contained, each will be enhanced when used in conjunction with others in this resource. Addressing several lessons within each unit will facilitate the incorporation of the study of world arts and cultures into your curriculum.

The lesson is based on works in the second section of the exhibition called Art and Knowledge. In this gallery works are introduced that served to make things happen. See “Unit Two—Art and Knowledge” for an introductory statement on the unit, along with some provocative “Questions for Thought,” and suggestions that will inspire the students to relate the unit to their own lives.

Images of objects to be shown to students may be printed as handouts (from within each lesson), viewed online at the Intersections web link http://collections.fowler.ucla.edu, or downloaded from the curriculum page on our website.

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