Bush medicine through art

For 65,000 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have occupied the lands, with distinct cultural boundaries defined by intimate relationships with Country. The exhibition The art of healing: Australian Indigenous bush medicine (19 April to 24 September 2018) follows the premise of Tjukurpa (Dreaming). It looks at traditional Indigenous healing practice as simultaneously past, present and future.

Treahna Hamm (b. 1965), language: Yorta Yorta, Country: Yorta Yorta, artist location: Yarrawonga, Victoria, Dhungala cool burn 2017, acrylic paint, river sand, bark ink, paper, 100.9 × 114.0 cm (each of three panels), MHM2017.2,  Medical History Museum ©Treahna Hamm.

As part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, the Medical History Museum expanded its collections policy to encompass contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Sharing bush medicine stories through art has become one of the ways in which Elders maintain a strong knowledge and culture for their communities. This use of contemporary art underlines the continuing practice of bush medicine, by revealing it through a current lens. It also demonstrates visually the distinct and varied cultures that make up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia.

Some of the artworks have been directly commissioned for this exhibition, while others come from existing projects. Each artist was asked for a work that represented healing practice and bush medicine in their Country. Some have been sourced from artists represented by the extensive network of Aboriginal-owned and controlled art centres, others directly from individual artists. The works use a range of techniques and media, including painting in ochre and acrylic, printmaking, weaving and ceramics.  The diversity of artistic styles and materials echoes the regional diversity.

Rosie Ngwarraye Ross (b. 1951), skin: Ngwarraye, language: Alyawarre, Country: Ampilatwatja, artist location: Ampilatwatja, Northern Territory, Bush flowers and bush medicine plants 2015, acrylic on linen, 91.0 × 91.0 cm MHM2017.3, Medical History Museum © Artists of Ampilatwatja.

The ancestral knowledge of healing of the Yorta Yorta people is celebrated in a major triptych by Treahna Hamm. Dhungala cool burn shows women and girls collecting bush medicine along the banks of Dhungala (the Murray River), placing the medicines in coolamons and in dilly bags that they would have woven. The coolamons in the foreground have been delineated using local river-bark ink, a medium that is also used in bush medicine.

The way plants are gathered and prepared is a major theme of the exhibition. Marilyne Nicholls’ Healing basket is woven from sedge fibre harvested from a freshwater lake near Swan Hill, and includes two medicine plants: Coastal Rosemary and gum leaves, both of which are used for smoking ceremonies to cleanse and heal. Nicholls’ method of coil weaving has been used in south-eastern Australia for thousands of years, to make baskets, belts, mats, eel traps and other useful items.

Judith Pungkarta Inkamala (b. 1948), skin: Pungkarta, language: Western Aranda, Country: Ntaria, Northern Territory, artist location: Ntaria (Hermannsburg), Northern Territory, Bush medicine 2017, terracotta and underglaze, 43.0 × 31.0 × 31.0 cm (variable), MHM2017.17, Medical History Museum © Hermannsburg Potters Aboriginal Corporation.

On her Bush medicine pot, Hermannsburg ceramic artist Judith Inkamala has illustrated the process of preparing bush medicine. The pot is crowned with a depiction (sculpted in clay) of a knunkara (medicine woman) using a grinding stone to prepare bush medicine. Inkamala writes: “The old lady and the old brother will sing, sing, sing and spit into the bush medicine as they mix it. That’s why everyone will get better and everyone will become strong.”

Many of the works in the exhibition illustrate particular bush medicines, and in their accompanying words the artists share with us their knowledge of their uses. The artists of Ampilatwaji have chosen to make bush medicine a major focus of their art, motivated by the wish to share this knowledge with their children and grandchildren. As Beverly Pula Luck commented: “There are lots of different medicines; we know what their stories are, we learnt them from our parents and we teach these stories to our children.” In this exhibition, the acrylic paintings of Beverly Pula Luck and Rosie Ngwarraye Ross depict medicinal plants of their region, finely delineated in a landscape created from a pattern of dots in the vivid colours of the desert.

All the works are linked by the strong connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to Country, and the passing down of cultural knowledge to the next generation. We are privileged that these individuals and communities have chosen to share this rich repository of healing and knowledge with us through their art. The works are a significant addition to the Medical History Museum’s permanent collection, and will continue to inform and engage students, staff and the broader community through their aesthetic value and cultural significance. They also remind us of the importance of cultural and social frameworks for the wellbeing of all communities.

Dr Jacqueline Healy
(BA (Hons) 1976, MBA 1982, PhD 2006)
Senior Curator, Medical History Museum  
and Henry Forman Atkinson Dental Museum

The art of healing: Australian Indigenous bush medicine exhibition is display from April 2018 to December 2018 at the Medical History Museum.