ABORIGINAL ART & CULTURE

Napolean Oui: Rainforest people

Artist NAPOLEAN OUI, a Djabugay man, is focussed on his research about his cultural heritage.

‘Sometimes they made caves dug out of the side of a bank then they would sweep the ground as they go into the caves and nobody can come past and see the footprints. Especially in that situation there is always someone who walks last with leaves and brushes away the footprints’

I have put together a database of 200 different shield designs and it was during my research that I discovered that the rainforest tribes made bark cloth, a material I have now incorporated into my art practice. All my designs are my own designs but I go back and think about the people and their culture and try to reinterpret that. What I feel about my art is that it is part of my culture, it all sort of goes together. I express our connection to living things and the land in the designs using strong ochre colours highlighted by black outlines as found traditionally on the shields of the rainforest’

It is from this research and its findings that NAPOLEAN has developed his contemporary art practice and a distinctive style of art making. NAPOLEAN’s designs incorporate elements of nature including termites, depicted by white dashes on the bark of trees, ant mounds, fan palms, spiders, spider webs, fish, fish tails, and fish eggs, black bean pods, butterflies, Cassowaries and aspects of culture such as fish traps, boomerangs, spirits, firesticks and various artefacts.

North Queensland’s tropical rainforests covered the coastal region between what is now Bloomfield River in the North and Townsville in the South and inland through the ranges and tablelands.  These forests stretched for 500 kilometers along the coastal ranges, an area of more than 25,000 square kilometres containing some of the most precious rainforest on earth.

Tribal groups living in these extensive rainforests were Banjin, Bar-Barrum, Djabugay, Djiru, Girramay, Gulngay, Gunggandji, Jirball, Koko Muluridji, Kuku Yalanji, Ma:Mu, Ngadjon-Jii, Nywaigi, Warrgamay, Warungnu, Yidinji and Yirrganydji.

Adapting to rainforest life, as Aboriginal people did over thousands of years, meant a great deal of specialisation that enabled life in the dense rainforest.

The patterns of the rainforest, the traditional decorations of these tribal people were also significantly different to those found in other parts of Aboriginal Australia.

The material culture of these tribes included large and broad shields with bold patterns that differed from tribe to tribe, there were large wooden swords, often 1.5 metres long, and there were cross boomerangs. These forest dwelling tribes also made bark cloth, used as bedding, for shelters and in ceremonies.

The distinctive shields were made from the buttress roots of the native fig tree. The shields were used during ceremonies and in battle. They were precious objects and gave the owner status and power. Shield designs were individual and reflected the owner’s totem and kinship. The decoration of ochres and charcoal often contained the blood of the owner to enhance the shields potency in battle.

‘Only certain men had shields, having a shield was like having gold in your hands, shields were something you had to earn’

As part of the process of dispossession during the 19th and 20th centuries much of the cultural knowledge from these rainforest peoples was lost, what remains in museums across the region is often poorly documented. Cultural practice was discouraged and as people were moved off their land and into reserves and missions, large areas of the rainforest was destroyed, much of it becoming agricultural land.

Many artefacts were destroyed during this period as little value was attributed to these unique cultures and their histories. Weapons were typically taken away from the men and many were buried or destroyed as a way of disempowerment.

What artefacts do remain today, particularly the rainforest shields, are regarded today as extremely precious objects.

‘The rainforest was our backyard and the ocean was our front yard’

The dry and the wet seasons influenced migration patterns in the various tribal territories. People lived in family groups, the women gathering food and the men hunting and defending their territory.

Rainforest dwellings were constructed from branches, fronds and paperbark. Paperbark and fronds were used extensively to keep people dry from the heavy rain during the wet seasons. Women and children typically slept in these shelters while the men slept by the campfire. NAPOLEAN says:

‘Sometimes they made caves dug out of the side of a bank then they would sweep the ground as they go into the caves and nobody can come past and see the footprints. Especially in that situation there is always someone who walks last with leaves and brushes away the footprints’