The prestigious Molly Holman medal for an Arts PhD thesis was recently awarded to Monash Indigenous Studies Centre student, Robert (Ben) Gunn.
Dr Gunn, who has worked with the Jawoyn Association recording rock art sites, says his research encourages people to look at rock art differently, and to record it differently.
The method involves a combination of known techniques from fine arts and archaeology which haven’t been previously used for this purpose.
“And [this method] has been picked up by some students in University of Western Australia already,” Dr Gunn said.
“Communities want their rock art recorded because it does fall off eventually, and there’s always the problem with site management. Getting it recorded is the baseline for management.”
From a research point of view, Dr Gunn says what he is trying to do is to highlight the different styles [of rock art] to distinguish individual artists.
“It’s to ensure that we’re not just looking at one big group of rock art, we’re looking at the work of people. I’m trying to personalise a lot of rock art,” he said.
Starting his career as an art teacher and practicing sculptor led Dr Gunn to consider how people look at space from a sculptural point of view, and he decided to apply it to how aboriginal people use space in their art.
This led to him becoming a consultant archaeologist specialising in recording Aboriginal rock art. In 2006 while working for the Jawoyn Association in Arnhem Land, their project re-discovered the extensive rock art site of Nawarla Gabarnmang with its huge array of well-preserved rock art.
Seeing that the site had interesting deposit, he approached Dr Bruno David from the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre to come and excavate. Two years later, Dr David managed to form a project with the Jawoyn Association and Monash to find that the site had been occupied for over 50,000 years.
It was a matter of recording the art – of which there were over 1000 motifs – and looking at their superimposition and trying to determine an appropriate timeline for the paintings that were there.
A French geomorphologist from the Université de Savoie, working with the Monash team, determined that the people who had occupied the shelter had intentionally removed a number of its pillars, thus presenting the first instance of massive modification of a rock shelter in Australia.
Aboriginal rock art, says Dr Gunn, is an “amazingly valuable resource” as there are so many aspects of the human condition in the art.
“It’s the sort of thing where you could get 100 people to look at it, and they’ll all look at it differently, and all get something out of it,” he said.
Rock art is one aspect of Aboriginal culture that non-Aboriginal people can easily relate to.
“It’s particularly important from that point of view – presenting it sympathetically and appropriately, and not just having a brass sign down the front of it saying ‘this is a rock art site’, which most sites around Australia still have,” he said.
“They need to be interpreted properly, and to interpret them properly you’ve got to record them, understand them and talk to Aboriginal people about them, so you need to have this full involvement from both sides if we’re going to interpret it properly.”
Currently Dr Gunn is working on a Monash project recording a site in the Garden Range, Victoria.
Dr Gunn, in conjunction with the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre, has been successful in receiving a grant from the Kimberley Foundation Australia for a five month pilot project to use the his methods on a major rock art site in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.