The small community of Pormpuraaw on the Western Cape of Queensland has recently produced extraordinary art, particularly in ghost net sculptures and printmaking. For Garland, they now share stories of the Rainbow Serpent that inspire their art.
Rainbow Serpent Sorcery told by Sid Bruce Shortjoe
Rainbow serpents are the creators of all living things including birds, mammals, fish and reptiles. Animals are our totems and originally looked like humans and communicated like us before being turned into animals. Rainbow serpents are the oldest living things in the world. Some are bad others are good. They are like God to us. They travel everywhere and where ever they go they stay there for all time. They live in freshwater including well water, rivers and lagoons. When my people see a rainbow in the sky we look at it, but do not point our finger at it. Some believe you will get crooked fingers or arthritis. When we see a double rainbow we believe the brighter one is the good one and the less bright one is the bad one. We do not let pregnant women fetch water because the serpent is in that water and may cause early birth, miscarriage or pain. If we have young children or toddlers in camp we have to be careful. We have to warm everyone with a special fire made with ironwood and leaf. This protects us from dangerous rainbow serpents or other bad spirits. They can cause earache and belly ache.
When a warrior is out fishing or hunting by himself, he can be swallowed by the rainbow serpent. Women are not taken, only men. The serpent bursts out of the water like a crocodile and swallows him whole. If he is swallowed in the morning he will be spat out later that afternoon. While in the stomach he will be magically transformed into a white spirit. His insides have been cleaned out and reborn again. In my language, I call him noyan or in English “sorcerer”. Sometimes a man purposefully wants to be swallowed by the Rainbow Serpent and become a noyan. The man will cover his skin with nectar or fat from any animal to make himself tasty for the serpent. Once the man has “gone through the rainbow” and been spat out as a noyan, bull-ants will clean the nectar or fat from his body.
Once spat out he is a different person with a different personality and magical powers. He can heal people and communicate with spirit beings. Mostly he protects his people from bad sorcerers who want to hurt others. He stays with his family but would rather spend time alone in the bush. He knows he is a sorcerer and is respected. He can heal sick people who have been attacked by bad sorcery. The noyan can see whatever and wherever he wants: he can see through things. He is able to see what is going on in another community or way out in the bush. He has the knowledge and power to heal sick people and sometimes even those who are near death. He is able to see inside a sick person’s body (like an x-ray machine) to see the exact place or thing that is causing the ailment. The noyan will open his mouth to suck and lick the affected area in order to expel the “poison”. He is like a hungry pup sucking at its mother’s nipples. He will show the relatives of the sick person the item or substance he has extracted. Other clans will seek him out and invite him to their camp to heal their people. If he cannot heal the person he can comfort the family and tell them how long the person has to live. Sometimes the noyan has little “helpers” similar to the red-legged man that assist him with his magic. The “helpers” are only visible to the noyan, but sometimes the actions of the noyan indicate to observers that the helpers are present. They are like the noyan’s sons: they work in tandem with him or do his work for him if the noyan is busy.
His magical powers can be passed down through the following generations. The serpent knows this. When I was a child and into my to teenage years, I knew many sorcerers who were transformed in this way. Their actions could be good or bad depending on the situation. I do not know of any sorcerers left with these magical powers. There are still men who practice bad magic or sorcery but they are not “noyan”. They get their powers in a different way. I am not allowed to say how they get their powers. It came from the north before the great floods that separated us from Papua New Guinea. That is all I can say about that. Celia Peter’s father was a renowned noyan for both Kugu and Thaayorre people. We boasted about his skill. He helped a lot of sick people. He used his powers on many people who were near death; some of them went on to live another twenty or thirty years.
Syd Bruce Short Joe was born in the Aurukun mission 1964. His tribe is Wik Mynah tribe and his traditional country is North East and inland of Pormpuraaw. Syd’s traditional saltwater totem is the bull shark and his freshwater totem is blue tongue lizard. His people are freshwater people. Syd speaks nine languages plus English. Syd is the respected president of the management committee. His prints, paintings and ghost net sculptures celebrate his rich culture and personal wisdom, and tell the stories that inform his unique identity. Due to his printmaking ability, Syd is known as “Mr Lino”. He is also called the “general bull shark” because of his leadership at Pormpuraaw Art Centre. His art is on permanent display at Canopy Art Centre in Cairns QLD, Tali Gallery, NSW, and Alcaston Galley, VIC. He exhibits at the annual Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. The Australia Museum in NSW has purchased his ghost net sculpture titled ‘Mundha’ (Shovel Nose Ray), and this work along with three others are being exhibited at the museum.
Journey of the Rainbow Serpent told by John & Eileen Coleman
The Rainbow Serpent came down to our country from a long way out east. He travelled to Yenenth then across to Jackie Yard, Munyuriw and onto Foote waterhole. He was looking for Bull Lake, Maachank but he still had a long way to go. “That cyclone” crossed Station Creek, Wiirm and followed it down to Yaawathan. From there he followed a small, dry watercourse to Purp on a branch of Chapman Creek. There were rocks in the streambed at Purp and the Rainbow Serpent couldn’t get through the narrow channel. He was too big so he broke the rocks and put some of them inside his mouth. He went back east then, carrying the rocks, looking for a way to get to Bull Creek. There were too many big ridges so he went back and forth, trying to find a way through. He came to the swamp at Nhuninthun. Then he went straight towards Maachank, Bull Lake. He turned and went down alongside Maachank and he saw a bora or ceremonial ground. The Rainbow Serpent was really quiet then, looking about for people. They were sleeping so he patiently waited.
The people woke and one old man started singing. Then they all started clapping their hands and singing. They were really happy. The Rainbow Serpent stealthily moved around and swallowed two men. He frightened everybody. People tried to run away, they ran in every direction but the Serpent’s body was too long. He swept them up with his tail and tongue and swallowed the whole lot. The women and children were camped outside the sacred bora grounds, further along Maachank. The Serpent went over to their camp and swallowed them too. Then he laid down and looked around. The people inside his belly were all talking and making noise, bumping his insides.
The Rainbow Serpent started to move and followed the river westward down to Pulwumpum, the flying fox swamp. Then he went straight down south like a great, roaring cyclone to the open, flat country at Mentuchwarr, the Melaman River country. The Two Brothers had a big humpy at Mentuchwarr. The elder brother was asleep inside the humpy.
The younger brother was dancing outside the humpy. He heard the eerie sound of the Serpent’s approach, “What’s there? Too much!” He woke his elder brother and told him to come outside. Both brothers had a spear. Their dog barked. They heard the big mob of people talking inside the Rainbow Serpent. The Serpent came really close, blinked and swallowed the younger brother and the river. He sang out to his elder brother, “I’m inside the belly!”. The Serpent rolled out his long tongue and grabbed the other brother and flicked him into his mouth. They were both inside now. Everyone gone for good!
The Rainbow Serpent then headed straight west to Chillagoe and swam across to the Mitchell River. He dropped the rocks he had carried in his mouth all the way from Purp at Kunkumthun, the mouth of the South Mitchell River. Then he swam westward towards Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. From there he swam back onto the mainland and travelled south to the big rock/humpy in the centre of the country called Uluru. He vomited all our people out when he reached the rock. They came back out in the form of birds; ibis, crane, brolga, emu, lots of different ones and flying foxes too. They were all turned back into animals. The Rainbow Serpent also vomited out a young woman and a baby. The woman had built a big humpy beside the rock. The Rainbow Serpent crawled in by the fire and fed like a baby at the young woman’s breast. Then he crawled outside and wrapped his long body around the big humpy while the young women fed her own child at her breast. The Rainbow Serpent stayed there then, he finished his journey. He is there now. The lightning seen during a big storm or cyclone is the Rainbow Serpent’s tongue.
Pormpuraaw Art Centre by Paul Jakubowski
Ten years ago very little art was being made in the Pormpuraaw community. Small paintings were done on canvas board with few available supplies and materials. Since then a community of emerging artists has risen—a community that shares ideas and gives encouragement to each other. A community that is growing and inspire others particularly youth. We support positive role models with vision and determination. We enjoy everyone’s work equally. Not because it is good or bad, but because they finished it demonstrating their determination.
I remember people discouraging us to make artworks picturing our totems: that we should somehow jump to abstract expressionism because that is where the “big” money is. Our artists can do whatever they want and are still primarily making works depicting their totems. We respect their process. All artists must find their own truth within and apply it. We encourage them to be brave, to take chances, play, discover, take risks and challenge themselves. Artists are all on their own journey to find meaning and respect for their own individuality. Many of our artists see art as a way to improve mental health through wholesome activity. We encourage them not to worry about making something people would want to buy. The stronger the individual, the stronger the art. Art centres need to take care of their community and foster culture and language first. If this is being done, quality art will come on its own accord.
Pormpuraaw languages do not have a word for art. Language and culture come from country and are all one thing. It is not something to be separated, qualified or turned into a commodity. Art is a new language to be used, explored and experimented with. A work of art made on country is considered to be part of that country. When it leaves to be displayed elsewhere, a part of our country is leaving. Artists often shed a tear when they see a work of art going away. Sharing and selling Pormpuraaw art is kind of like going fishing. Their art is our bait. The better the bait, the better the chance we will catch something good. We do not know what we will catch or where the art will go. We can only catch something if the bait is in the water.
Aboriginals have always used what they could gather from the land to survive and prosper. Making art from recycled materials such as fishing nets found on our beaches or whatever we find at our local tip is akin to that practice. Syd Bruce Shortjoe is one of our most exciting and innovative artists. Syd is currently finishing a 3D work that resembles a window. The work is designed for the viewer to put his head in and take a look around. The work was inspired by Syd visiting the Paris aquarium and looking into a fish tank through a curved glass window. We found a large round tin flange probably used for a wall or ceiling vent. It reminded him of the Paris Aquarium. The work is interactive and celebrates his saltwater totems and his appreciation for all sea life. We are curious to find out what people will think of it when on display at CIAF 2019.
Pormpuraaw artists work in painting, printmaking and ghost net sculptures. Ghost net sculptures have proven to stand out. Part of their success has been the environmental message these works share. Ghost Nets are commercial fishing nets illegally abandoned into the sea by commercial fishing vessels. They should be taken back to land and disposed of properly, but instead they are abandoned and left to drift in ocean currents continuing to catch and kill fish, turtles, dolphins and many other species some endangered “needlessly”. These nets often wash up on our beaches and are collected by our rangers and artists. The quality of sculptures has been instrumental in launching artwork onto the world stage; venues such as the United Nations in NYC and Geneva, Paris Aquarium and Kluge-Ruh in the USA. In Australia, our works have been collected by the National Gallery of Victoria, National Museum of Australia in Canberra and the Australian Museum in Sydney.
During the early years, 2009-2010, we encouraged people to try their hand at wood carving. Their ancestors would carve an effigy and then dance and sing the ceremony that went with it. When the ceremony was done, the effigy had no more purpose and was left behind. When the Europeans came and supplied them with metal hand axes and rasps, a technology revolution occurred improving the quality and quantity of works as well as spear and tool making. Some of our early artists were interested in working with axes and power tools but most were not. Pormpuraaw people have always been weavers—women and men. The women wove intricate dillybags and men wove cord for tools and spears. They needed an art form that was additive, not subtractive. Using ghost net material connected to their needs and identity.
We first made traditional baskets. They looked good, but our artists were capable of much more. We started using coat hangers, wire or cable found at the tip. Eventually, we started using cable ties instead of wiring everything together. We salvaged aluminium power line cable. Hundreds of sculptures have been made over the years. The largest work created so far was a 7.6-metre long crocodile which is on display at the Cairns TAFE College. In 2010, several tapestries or wall hangings were made. They stopped making them for a few years but have recently returned to making more in new innovative ways. Works that hang on walls are more popular with collectors rather than free standing or hanging. They are easier to display and require less room.
An exciting new work to be featured at CIAF 2019 uses a recycled trampoline as its base. It makes for a perfect round canvas. The content behind the tapestries expresses our traditional cultural values a “celebration of totems and connecting to country and sea”. Floats from the nets are key to the design. These floats give a 3D aspect to many of our new works. They can be cut and shaped. The work is a collaborative effort made by Mylene Holroyd, Christine Holroyd and Christine Yantumba.
Our printmaking is an important signature art form and has been greatly developed over the years. We started out by making lino-cut prints and now almost exclusively make etchings. These works help them formulate their ideas and can be redone in other mediums. We are fortunate to have built an excellent printing workshop for ourselves. We wanted to be different from other printmakers and find our own niche. Their printmaking is not about using repeated patterns. It is more like a painting that might make incorporate perspective. Our printmaking continues to develop and become more abstract with a greater mastery of technique. It is an important way of sharing their stories with the outside world.
Pormpuraaw has some amazing painters. All approach their work differently. There is no traditional style. The old ones would paint their bodies with clan identification marks every day. An individual would know what clan someone belonged to by the designs on their bodies. Pormpuraaw did not paint on bark and had no cave walls to paint. They used only red and white ochre. Painting on canvas is a new language for them to explore. Some artists work in dots, others abstract, many love painting landscapes. They like blending colours using wet brush or dry brush. There is a lot of pressure to paint in dots. The average person usually thinks dot painting is indicative of all Aboriginal artists. Our artists are encouraged to do what they believe in and find their own way.
Paul Jakubowski is a professional artist specialising in painting and drawing in a wide variety of styles and techniques. He is a second generation artist raised in New Jersey USA. Most known for large-scale paintings, murals and mosaics created for residential, commercial, corporate and public art. He is a respected educator who teaches a variety of classes in painting and drawing to children and adults. He inspires others in fun and exciting ways. Engaged since 2009 as manager of Pormpuraaw Arts & Cultural Ctr INC, he is responsible for running all aspects of the organisation including agent, administration, training, development, promotion.