The rock art of Injalak

Gary Djorlom, tour guide
Gary Djorlom, former senior tour guide for Injalak Arts and now guide mentor. Photo: Richard l'Anson

This is a story of exquisite ancient art and its living custodians and interpreters who generously share the rock art galleries of Injalak with visitors. First-time visitors to Gunbalanya (Oenpelli) are always gobsmacked by the sheer beauty of the landscape. The fifteen-kilometre dirt road leaves Kakadu National Park via Cahill’s Crossing and enters West Arnhem land to skirt the edge of floodplains opening up panoramic vistas to the north of green meadows punctuated by billabongs, while to the south and east is the dramatic escarpment of the “stone country” stretching into the distance. 

Arriving at Injalak Arts and Crafts, the scenery continues to awe. Beckoning from across Adjumarllarl, 
the billabong 150 metres from the back fence of the art centre, is Injalak (hill), an outlier of the sandstone escarpment after which the art centre is named. A ten-minute drive around the southern end of Adjumarllarl takes guests to the base of the hill. “The Arnhem Land plateau is considered to be the most significant of Australia’s rock art regions. It is estimated that there may be 20,000 or more rock art sites.”[1] Injalak is one of the most accessible to visitors with numerous assemblages, all open to the public, illustrating continuous occupation over a period of more than 40,000 years. 

Injalak and Gunbalanya are within the traditional lands of the Mengerrdji people. This clan group has lived here for generations and their living descendants, the Gumurdul family, still reside within our community. With the establishment of the Oenpelli mission in 1925 many neighbouring clans began to settle in the community and all of us can speak the common language of Kunwinjku.

In an area rich with spirit and song, Injalak is a special place, that of the creation ancestor Wurrkabal (Long-tom fish, Strongylura kreffti). Wurrkabal are found in waterways throughout the region. Injalak is part of a complex of Djang (ancestral creation stories) within the region that includes the two-closest stone outcrops that rise above the floodplain. To the north is the flat-topped Nimbabirr, created by baladj (Leech) and to the west is the more conical Arguyluk (manimunak or Magpie Goose) that also gives its name to the suburb that nestles at its base. 

Injalak, which means shelter, provides bininj (people) with a place to stay, an abundance of different foods and water, as well as a place to share our stories, songs and dances. These activities are reflected in the myriad bim (paintings or art) that overlay each other in numerous shelters around the hill created by overhanging rocks. The creation of rock art in the region has been undertaken by generations of Aboriginal people who have always been here. Explanations of the creation of country, fauna, flora and the presence of clan groups is described through stories and images and an image of Yingarna (ancestral creator) depicted in a delicate painting on Injalak Hill, is central to this. Contained too are explanations of the creation of 
the Arnhem Land plateau, shifting sea levels and changes in the environment. 

The rock art sites on Injalak have been visited by non-Indigenous people for more than a century, with or without the permission of the traditional owners. In the first half of the twentieth century Oenpelli and the hill attracted researchers including Baldwin Spencer, Donald Thomson, Charles Mountford and Catherine 
and Ronald Berndt. Photographs and sketches of rock art images made during those visits made the site famous in ethnographic, archaeological and art history circles. A reproduction of a painting of Ngalyod (the Rainbow Serpent) was put on the new decimal currency one dollar note in 1966. 

We’re working for the future, to take care of country.
Christina Djorlom

Roland Burrunali
Roland Burrunali, Injalak Arts tour guide. Photo: Richard l'Anson
Injalak rock art detail
Injalak Hill rock art detail. Photo: Richard l'Anson

In the 1990s Injalak Arts and Crafts was made a djungkay (custodian) for the rock art and cultural heritage sites on Injalak hill by Donald Gumurdul, senior traditional owner (now deceased).  He made this decision out of concern that non-Kunwinjku were going to the hill and moving around on it without adequate respect or guidance. While most members of the association belong to other clan groups, including Djalama, Ngalngbali and Bulurmo clans, they continue to share the responsibility of looking after the hill. This relationship and honour bestowed arose because of kinship, family and reciprocal relationships. While most of the traditional djungkay are Kunwinjku speakers from neighbouring clans they are also connected to the Mengerrdji clan and Injalak Hill itself through ceremonial ties. With representatives of both moieties, Duwa and Yirritja, our art centre undertakes this important role with deep respect. Mr Gumurdul felt that Injalak Arts and Crafts was best placed to “take care” as it was already supplying and training Hill Tour Guides.

We carry the ancestors with us – you can feel your father apa and grandfather mawah on your shoulder [when taking guests up the hill].
Garry Djorlom

Injalak Hill
Views west across the floodplain from Injalak Hill. Photo: Richard l'Anson
View west across the floodplain from Injalak Hill
Views west across the floodplain from Injalak Hill. Photo: Richard l'Anson

Employing guides and managing hill tours evolved largely from circumstance rather than design. The art centre was built in 1989 to house the activities of the newly formed Injalak Arts & Crafts Association Inc. (NT). The art centre quickly became a community hub with arts, crafts and manufacturing activities six days a week. The centre also became an attraction for business visitors and occasional tourists who would source permits to cross the East Alligator River. Many artists chose to work on site and watching them create superb figurative paintings of animals, plants and spirits crosshatched with delicate strokes of grass brushes continues to be a source of great interest. Although the art centre was set up to focus on screenprinting on fabric and support local artists and craftspeople, it quickly became the default place for people seeking a local Aboriginal guide to take them “up the hill”. 

It makes us feel good and fresh, giving and teaching about the rock art.
Roland Burrunali

At first this arrangement was informal and the rate charged was nominal. Visitors would arrive at the centre 
and if a painter fancied a walk and chat he’d escort them for a negotiated fee (the tour guides were exclusively men in the early years). During this time, tour operators began to seek partnerships with Injalak Arts to visit the art centre and some wanted to include hill tours on their itineraries. Over time, the guiding became more organised and in 1998 and 2002–3 training and support for the guides was arranged through NTU (now Charles Darwin University) and a number of guides achieved accreditation. A more recent training session was held in March 2016 where senior guides mentored junior and new guides. While nearly all our guides continue to be active as artists they now regard guiding as an important vocation and take the role very seriously.

We are not doing it for the money. [It is] good to pass this message on – we make a life to keep culture strong, keep it alive. 
Roland Burrunali

The response from guests is strongly positive and documented in social media forums such as Trip Advisor. People report transformative experiences and it is worth hearing their voices:  

A recent visit to Kakadu enabled a day excursion to Arnhemland … and it did not disappoint. The highlight for me was the guided walk around Injalak Hill itself. Rock paintings wherever you turned! Just spectacular, and to have these interpreted by a local, Roland, was magic. 
Barbara R., Sydney, October 2015

I would go out on a limb and say that this is one of the best single-day tours I have done in my life. Thommo [Thompson Nganjmirra], our Indigenous guide, took us on a climb up a rocky hill that is absolutely loaded with ancient rock art and some very special sites. This place is to Ubirr Rock like the Tate is to a regional gallery. I am counting the days I can return to Arnhem Land and again immerse myself in the magic of Injalak Rock. 
Segelflieger60, Canberra, October 2015

The images we paint now at Injalak Arts and Crafts and also our designs for fabric printing are a contemporary expression of our culture and heritage that comes from the rock art. The baskets and objects we make today from pandanus and string are also painted there by our ancestors. It’s all part of the same story. The fish we eat and the animals we hunt are all there. Taking guests to Injalak is teaching respect and understanding. For those who visit us, Injalak is one of the few places in the world where rock art that is millennia old can be experienced with the ancestors of the original artists.

Footnotes

  1. ^ From an essay by George Chaloupka, edited by Sally May, ‘Contextualising the Rock Art of Injalak’, unpublished manuscript.

For more information about Injalak Arts and Crafts and how to visit the rock art of Injalak see www.injalak.com.

Injalak Arts and researchers Melissa Marshall and Sally May are currently working on a publication about Injalak (hill) that will be a resource for visitors, ethnographers and art historians alike and will be published mid 2016.