Revival of Rainforest Culture – interview with Napolean Oui

Peter Hylands

21 June 2016

Artist Napolean Oui, a Djabugay man, is focussed on his research about his cultural heritage. It is from this research and its findings that Napolean has developed his contemporary art practice and distinctive style of art making.

“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”.

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 include 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 nineteenth and twentieth 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.”

Napolean Oui and Peter Hylands discuss the rainforest culture

Peter: How many people are in the Djabugay tribe nowadays, do you have any idea?

Napolean: I would not have a clue now because we are all mixed and you have people from other tribes living around this area. So it is hard to say now. If you were born in the 70s, like I was, it is only some of the culture you would pick up compared to my mum, my parents.

Peter: So what that tends to mean as you look back on some of those objects from the past… They have had their journey as well, once they were weapons, now we think of them as artifacts. Those objects become difficult to interpret don’t they because of the sorts of gaps that are occurring because of the handing down of culture?

Napolean: Plus the weapons were misplaced when the white man came. The white men would dig a hole and chuck all the weapons into it, because they were scared the men might use the weapons on them. Over time they just forgot about them and then when someone came along to build a house on that land they found all the weapons.

Peter: Do you know from your own research when people stopped living in the rainforest? When did traditional life end? Most people now are of course living in Western style housing.

Napolean: It was when they split the tribes up and sent people here, there and everywhere.

Peter: That is an interesting story in most of Australia I guess, but it is certainly the case in North Queensland where tribal groups are split up and tribes, that would normally have not lived together, are put together on reserves.

Napolean: If you were in the settlement and you did something wrong they would send you to Palm Island.

Peter: And that was the history of moving people around.

Napolean: Depends if you break the law in the settlement, you get sent to Palm Island, if you do something wrong they send you back up this way again.

Peter: And all that and we are really talking about stuff that went on in the past, but not very long ago, it created a bit of a mix up in terms of trying to interpret culture hasn’t it?

Napolean: Yes because you have the gospel, church side of it as well.

Peter: That has added another layer of complexity to the whole thing. So in a way, your contemporary art of rainforest cultures has to deal with all those kinds of issues which we discussed which are multilayered and very complex.

Napolean: Yea, the main reason I do new designs is because no one can say anything about them.

Peter: So you need to interpret the designs in your own way so that you are not crossing into other people’s tribal territory.

Napolean: Yes, even though nobody knows anything about shield designs, it is to be on the safe side. I am doing about 2,000 different designs.

Peter: So you are being sensitive. Some of the work you have been doing is to try and research some of the tribal culture of North Queensland, the rainforest culture. How many tribes were there?

Napolean: Twenty different tribes in this region, that is from Townsville, Bloomfield, Cairns and across to the Tablelands area.

Peter: How would those tribes have interrelated in the past? Do you get a sense of how they would have connected with each other? I guess people would have lived and adapted to rainforest life over thousands and thousands of years.

Napolean: We all lived in the rainforest, I guess trial and error and sticking to your own area and sticking to the rules.

Peter: It can be pretty wet out there. In a way when you travel through North Queensland and walk through the rainforest and you go down to some of the remote beaches, it is a kind of a paradise isn’t it? So people would have lived in a place of absolute plenty. The rainforest is smaller now than it was, a lot of forest has been cut down.

Napolean: Some parts were taken to build houses.

Peter: And towns and some of the animals are in trouble in terms heading towards being endangered. Like the cassowary, there are not many left.

Napolean: Yes, the cassowary, he is a symbol of tribes in this area.

Peter: So people had the totems of the forest, the cassowary, the crocodile?

Napolean: Yes and given to you by the elders, water lily was important to our people. My grandparents would say don’t pull the water lily up as there are fairies living underneath and they will come back and haunt you.

Peter: Do you get a sense that part of the responsibility of the people in the water lilies? So that was part of the culture?

Napoleon: Yes mainly respect. Just take a little bit that you need and not a whole mob of it. My grandparents would say when you go for a swim, don’t chuck the water lilies out, leave them in the water.

Peter: So the idea was to make sure that future generations of people living in the rainforest still had a livelihood and were able to live their lives, eat their food and continue on their traditions? When you think about the way totems were used in Aboriginal society, what is your language name Napolean?

Napolean: Mine is Weika, the quiet one.

Peter: How did you get that name?

Napolean: I asked my grandparents when I first started dancing, so they went to a family called Bannings and they gave me a totem Weika which was named after my great, great grandfather.

Peter: And the quiet one was because you were quiet?

Napolean: Quiet when I was little. Today there are a lot of people giving their kids Aboriginal names. My son’s name is Dilwoy, after my grandfather, which means little boy who played with fire.

Peter: A totem can be represented in a visual form or was it just an idea?

Napolean: My son has a totem, the cassowary, that is his totem because when my partner was pregnant with him we went up to the Daintree and that is all we saw.

Peter: You obviously care about your own culture and it is part of the art creation and the other creative things you do, the dancing and the research you are doing into your own culture. Do you get a sense that there are a lot of other Aboriginal people who are keen to keep culture going, is that the general idea within the community do you think?

Napolean: Yes, up this way a lot of things have been changed, there are a lot more cultural things happening up this way.

Peter: So in the last fifteen or twenty years or so there has been a cultural revival going on?

Napolean: When I was at school there was nothing about our culture. It was mainly about Captain Cook and explorers. Now it is culture at schools everywhere, even the universities up here, James Cook University, they have to learn Aboriginal culture.

Peter: So things have changed quite a lot. I just want to take you back into the rainforest and the way people would have lived in the past, because I expect that, not only in Australia, but around the rest of the world, they do not know about Aboriginal tribes living in rainforests and that rainforest culture which is very much a tropical culture. I think you have discovered things like the use of bark cloth which obviously has its parallels in New Guinea and Indonesia, across the Pacific and in many other parts of the world. The Aboriginal people used bark cloth for various things.

Napolean: Mainly used for blankets to cover themselves. Mainly it was made by the ladies so they would even cut the bark out from the tree. Not the whole bark from the tree. Then they would soak it in water for a couple of days and then they would just pound it. Put it on a log or a rock and just pound it for a couple of days. Put it in water again, take it out and then pound it again.

Peter: Do you know if that cloth was decorated?

Napolean: Well the one that got into the museum had symbols inside which today they do not know what they mean.

Peter: We also think about the weapons that were used, the shields were clearly very important to the twenty tribes across the rainforest regions. The patterns on those shields were very distinctive and they are not patterns like you find in other parts of Australia.

Napolean: They were big and bold pattern designs.

Peter: And it is a reflection, and I understand that you are not using the patterns of those shields, of your own work, those sort of patterns.

Napolean: That sort of design would only be used for ceremony, initiation time.

Peter: When we think about the large swords that were used, would they have been decorated or would they have been plain?

Napolean: No most things would have been plain. Only for ceremonies, weddings, funerals that they were decorated.

Peter: Do you get a sense if everybody in those tribes was an artist? Could anyone do the painting or did you have to be a special person?

Napolean: No you have to learn that side from your father.

Peter: So that skill would be handed down to a few people within the tribe whose role it would be?

Napolean: It depends what weapon you were looking at, because each man had a different role in the tribe. My grandfather, his main thing was making swords, returning boomerangs, cross boomerangs and nulla nulla, they were his four things. One day I asked him about the shield and he just looked at me, he did not say a word. My grandmother said, “What did he say?” He said nothing. Well you know why, because that is not his thing. He probably knew about it, but it was not his thing to say anything about it.

Peter: The elders have really stuck to those cultural requirements, if you like, pretty closely over the years, so you can imagine in difficult times when things were changing so much for them how difficult that must have been to protect those ideas and carry them on, but do so carefully.

Napolean: My grandparents had a piece of land up at Kuranda, when we went up there my grandmother would be making baskets and my grandfather making a sword or something.

Peter: When you think about those cultures as in all Aboriginal societies there was the ceremony and dancing, there was sound associated with that dancing, song. That is something as a practitioner that you have been associated with for quite some time, how do you see the way in which the dance and the music actually work in relation to the visual art that you are doing?

Napolean: The dancing is about stories, stories that have never been told before. Sometimes when I do a dance I think sometimes this might be a good way of putting it on a shield, this dance or this song or even if you are doing an animal dance. Performing and art are two good things to put together.

Peter: One of the things we can think of in those terms is that the two are much more powerful when they are put together. I suppose that is one of the real powers of Aboriginal art and culture as all those things come together in a way that is quite remarkable and powerful.

Napolean: Because everything matches up somewhere along the line.

Peter: Where do you see your own art practice going? You are painting, printmaking and using new techniques that you have discovered along the way. You are using bark cloth for example, and those are prints on bark cloth. You are using oil sticks for paintings and these are all techniques that you have picked up and discovered. So there is quite a lot of research into the work you are doing.

Napolean: Both technical and cultural – two frontiers of research.

Peter: Do you know anything about the sounds people made? Did they have any instruments or ways of making music?

Napolean: Sticks and clapping boomerangs, only song men would use them.

Peter: Did anyone use drums to you know?

Napolean: No we did not have drums. Now up on the Cape (York) they do.

Peter: That is really something that has come in from the Torres Strait. It is interesting because there has been some adaptation of using instruments from other peoples’ cultures or other tribes from other parts of Australia. It is worth saying that the traditional shields had that raised centre to them.

Napolean: Yes, just to show what tribe you are from, tribes might have a round shape or a diamond shape in the middle of their shields. It also represents the elder of the tribe. If you are holding the shield and a spear hits it the raised panel it protects your hand so the spear won’t go straight through your hand.

Peter: So the back of the shield behind that raised plate is where the handle is and you put your hand around that.

Napolean: That is the thickest part of the shield.

Peter: The rainforest shields were perhaps the largest of all the shields?

Napolean: In Australia, yes, some shields were bigger than the person who owned it because rainforest people are short, so they could weave in and out of the rainforest. The shields were nice and big so if they were walking through a rainforest and see another tribe and a fight breaks out they could hide behind the shield.

Peter: The idea of size and height of people, that is clearly a very long terms adaptation and shows you how long people lived in the rainforest for. They actually did adapt to that kind of life.

Napolean: Well imagine trying to chase one of them through a rainforest, they would be gone and there would not be a trace.

Peter: One of the things you know about Queensland rainforests is that they are very thick indeed in terms of the vegetation. People were obviously very good at vanishing so they could just melt away in the forest.

Napolean: Very thick, some parts you would not be able to walk through. If you are chasing one of them blokes through the rainforest, not even a leaf would be moving.

Peter: So they would just vanish? I have seen it happen, people can just vanish.

Napolean: You would be going where have they gone? Sometimes there is not even a footprint left on the ground.

Peter: So there was a great skill to living in the forest.

Napolean: 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.

This article was originally published in Creative i 05, a magazine of Creative Cowboy Films. A documentary about Napolean Oui is available on DVD.  

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See video of Napolean Oui here


Peter_Ooty_IndiaPeter Hylands is a publisher, film producer, writer and conservationist. He is a co-founder of Creative cowboy films. For more than 25 years he was a senior executive with the British media company Pearson Plc, working in England and then internationally for Pearson companies leaving the United Kingdom in 1974. Peter travels the world and his blogs and writing are featured on

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