Murruwaygu : following in the footsteps of our ancestors

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This research considers one particular element of Koori artistic practice in south-east Australia—the unique and continuing use of the line by the region’s male artists. Line-work is evident in a range of imagery, in various mediums, and throughout different generations. This study reveals the cultural importance and unbroken use of the line through changing social, political and cultural climates. The recognition of a continuing south-east aesthetic is significant, as the region has experienced prolonged colonisation, leading to a fragmentation of visual expressions and lack of art-historical research. In this context, the line represents the continuation of culture and the unbroken lineage of Koori knowledge. A key contribution to Aboriginal studies is the development of a Wiradjuri-specific research methodology, named here Yindyamarra Winhanganha, which centres on yindyamarra or cultural respect. This methodology underpins the research. This research is titled Murruwaygu: following in the footsteps of our ancestors. The Wiradjuri word ‘murruwaygu’ refers to the designs carved onto trees and other cultural material unique to the south-east region: repeating lines, patterned chevrons and concentric squares, diamonds and rhomboids, with the inclusion of an occasional figure. Widely recognised as central to south-east identity, murruwaygu can be seen in artistic practices from pre-contact until today, establishing a clear cultural tradition that has endured massive change. This research charts this constant practice by investigating four distinct periods or generations. Referencing south-east kinship systems, each generation is represented by two artforms or artists. This kinship framework, named here Koori Kinship Theory, is understood as a culturally specific living archiving system and thus provides structure for the research. Representing Mumala (grandfather) or first generation is pre-contact material—the carved and designed marga (parrying shield) and girran.girran (broad shield). The second or Babiin (father) generation features 19th-century Koori artists William Barak, a Wurundjeri man from the current Melbourne area, and Tommy McRae, from the upper Murray River near the contemporary border of NSW and Victoria. These artists documented their changing worlds with introduced materials like paper, pen and pencil, continuing line-work as a leading visual principle. The third or Wurrumany (son) generation focuses on self-taught senior Wiradjuri mission artists Uncle Roy Kennedy and the late HJ Wedge. Both use painting and printmaking that features line-work to document their life experiences of growing up on missions in NSW under segregation policies. Finally, the Warunarrung (grandson) generation is represented by professional and tertiary-educated contemporary Melbourne-based artists Reko Rennie (Kamilaroi) and Steaphan Paton (Gunai/Monero), who both work with new mediums while continuing line traditions. Like these Koori artists, this thesis uses the line as its organising principle, both practically and metaphorically, to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors. Focusing on continuity and change, this research provides the first art-historical account of Koori men’s art from pre-contact to today.
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