Talismans for Dreamtime –
40,000 years ago
Fishing for cod and perch
On the edge of Lake Mungo
Warm in their possum skins
Under the Murray Pines
Men, women, children
Living round the shore-lines
For we all wear cloaks . . .
In making a work evocative of Lake Mungo, with its extraordinary significance in cultural, historical and archeological terms, I sought out a form and materials that resonate across time and cultures and give some insight into the lives of the first people to live in the Murray-Darling Basin. Materials include Murray Pine, Mallee and Casurina; tumble weed, red ochre, emu feathers, and a ghost net.
According to Josephine Flood, a renowned specialist in this field and author of Archeology of the Dreamtime: the Story of prehistoric Australia and its People (J.B. Publishing, Marleston SA 2004), the significance of Mungo is encapsulated in evidence that reveals great cultural continuity in Aboriginal society from the Pleistocene to the present day:
‘They had evolved a comfortable way of life on the shores of freshwater Lake Mungo, then teeming with fish and shellfish, they buried their dead and used ochre pigment in rituals. No local ochre source has been found, so it must have come from quite a distance.’ p.2.
‘One of the most remarkable finds is the evidence that sophisticated fishing methods employing nets and traps were used in Australia as long as 30,000 years ago. An important implication is that the people fishing at lake Mungo had the knowledge to make cordage out of plant fibres . . .’ p.54
‘The Mungo sites also provide early evidence of intellectual life. The deliberate transport of coloured pigment more than 40,000 years ago . . . indicates very early development of an aesthetic sense . . .’ p.54
‘Ochre has no utilitarian functions, such as medicinal use; it is simply a pigment used to decorate rock walls, artefacts, dancers’ bodies in ceremonies, and corpses during some burial rites.’ P. 46
Philip Jones in his book Ochre and Rust: Artefacts and Encounters on Australian Frontiers (Wakefield Press, Kent Town SA 2007) states that: ‘Red ochre’s significance is founded in its symbolic status within Aboriginal religious belief . . . Red ochre deposits symbolise the blood of those (Dreaming) Ancestors spilled directly onto the earth (p.347) . . . red ochre is a medium or agent of transcendence, from sickness to health, death to renewal, ritual uncleanness to cleanness, the secular to the sacred, the present reality to the Dreaming.’ (p.349)
In developing the form of the Mungo cloak I also looked to sharmanism which evolved as a magic /spiritual practice to ensure a successful hunt or gathering of food. Sharmanism is present in some form in all cultures across time and place. The sharman’s role was to maintain community wellbeing and manage environmental resources. It was up to the sharman to decide when and how much hunting and fishing could occur. The consequences of breaking restrictions could be dire.
After studying the clothing worn by sharmans of many cultures, I decided to develop symbolic objects or talismans to evoke the ancient environment and life around the Lake Mungo.
Jennifer Gadsden (b.Australia 1965- )
Mungo Sojourn Fragments (2013) Ceramic, mineral pigments, red ochre, yellow ochre, dried water reed Suite of 11 pieces, various sizes, makers mark verso
After a chance meeting with artist, Carmel Wallace, I was inspired to create some ceramic medallions or fragments based on my experiences of Lake Mungo in south-western New South Wales. I have often visited this landscape since the mid-1980s as a painting/printmaking student at RMIT University in Melbourne. It remains my favourite place in the whole of Australia, and continues to inspire. I am drawn to the delicate colours and diversity within the landscape, ranging from the shimmering silvery green-grey saltbush, the warm greys of the kangaroos and emus, the palest blush of colour in the magnificent sand dunes, the subtlety of the palest pink sand formations around the lunette which surrounds the lake bed, the rich clays which have been weathered by wind and rain over thousands of years. The spirit of Mungo is particularly peaceful and gentle, and on a number of occasions I have stood on the sand dunes on a perfectly still, windless bright sunny day, and from seemingly nowhere a soft, gentle breeze will envelope you – soft and gentle – even though not one leaf on nearby trees move at all. Lake Mungo is a very special place, and you sense the incredible history as you look out over the lake bed.
I copied down an excerpt from an article in TIME magazine in 1987 which was all about Lake Mungo… “if Steve Webb had one of H.G. Wells’ time machines he would set it up at Lake Mungo in south-western New South Wales. There, on the huge primordial sand dunes called the Walls of China, he would sit in the twilight of time watching thousands of years unfold. Where now a shallow plain extends to the horizon, he would see an inland freshwater lake, rich in fish, and on its banks groups of aborigines cooking a meal of the eggs from a giant emu, genyornis, on a fire. Turn the dial, focus on the distance. Look there, a burial ceremony is taking place; a tall man is being laid carefully in the ground on his right side, his legs and arms slightly bent…. Thirty thousand years will pass before the bones will see the sun…”
The ceramic pieces I have created are intended as memories, fragments, inspired by the landscape and topography of Lake Mungo and surrounds. I have only recently commenced working in clay, and really enjoy the medium. I work on a small scale and create individual pieces of ceramic jewellery. When I met Carmel we chatted about her exhibition and the cloaks she was creating about Hattah Lakes, Lake Mungo and Lake Hawthorn. Carmel invited me to create some ceramic pieces for the Lake Mungo cloak – my imagination was immediately set into action and I set about working out imagery and colours and giving thought to the forms each of the pieces would take. The resulting clay fragments are quite abstract and are not intended to be literal, but instead evoke aspects of the landscape through my own observations and sojourns to this beautiful, ancient sun-drenched place. The use of clay seemed a natural material to use to create these objects, as they are depictions of the earth, from the earth. It is a lovely medium to work with, and I really enjoy the unpredictable nature of the firing process. Some of the colours changed dramatically once these objects were fired in the kiln, with some areas of colour burning out significantly. To complete the pieces, red and yellow ochre was gently applied by hand after objects were fired.
For we all wear cloaks . . .