Artworks stand the test of time

It's not hard to make the connection between rock art and Barrie Voorwinden if you visit the farm where he grew up, and where he still lives.

Callemondah is as far along Calderwood Road as you can go, squashed against the high, sandstone cliffs of the southern Illawarra escarpment, perched like an eagle’s nest with views of Albion Park and the ocean beyond.

It was here that Voorwinden’s father, Wim arrived with his wife, Mae Barrie, in 1950 and raised five children.

It was a dry paddock, unfenced and home to a rotting weatherboard house infested with white ants when they arrived.

Over the next few years, the couple built a stone house and later a gallery and filled them with beautiful objects.

Voorwinden learned his love of bushwalking in this high place, and his love of art and beauty from his parents.

His father had fled the Japanese invasion of Indonesia in 1942 and had been a keen photographer and amateur film-maker, documenting the arrival of Allied troops in Australia during the war.

His mother, still alive, still working, still smoking outsize cigarettes at the age of 94, learned sculpture at East Sydney Technical College.

She works mostly in stone and allowing the work to speak for itself, which it did – and vociferously – in 2009, when she won the $60,000 prize for Sculpture By The Sea.

So it is perhaps fitting that Wim and Mae’s son is now showing the first exhibition of his work – photographs of rock art that he has collected in bushwalks since 1989.

Although three images are from the Illawarra catchment areas – discovered through the Illawarra Prehistory Group – most are from his nine trips to the Kimberley in the north-west of Australia.

Led by family friend Mike Donaldson, these trips started out as long hikes along rivers with side-trips to search for rock art dating back 17,000 years or more.

In more than 20 years of bushwalking the area, he has never seen another human,  aside from members of his own group.

During that time, he has found and photographed rock art never before seen by a European.

Donaldson’s walking groups explore gorges, looking for shallow rock shelters with small overhangs, often high up in escarpments, and with irregular floors and therefore unsuitable for occupation.

In recent years, after Voorwinden retired after 39 years as a metallurgist at the Port Kembla steelworks, the focus is no longer about the walking. Now, it’s all about the art.

When he visits the Kimberley now, he no longer lugs a backpack across harsh, sandstone country, preferring instead the soft option of hitching a ride with a helicopter from Mitchell Plateau.

‘‘It’s just wonderful to land on a rock platform by a river and set up camp,’’ he said.

‘‘My personal opinion is that rock is not well known nor well appreciated, and that is one of the reasons for this exhibition,’’ Voorwinden said.

The Kimberley art is confined to a relatively small area, one twentieth of the nation’s landmass, and the style is very different from Aboriginal art found elsewhere, including the Illawarra.

First rediscovered by pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw in 1892, as he was searching for suitable land in the remote Roe River area, the style is striking.

Elegant figures are depicted in fine detail, tassels hanging from their arms and waists, sometimes dancing or running, sometimes holding spears or boomerangs.

Designs are painted on using ochre and crushed rock to make reds, purples, yellows the occasional blue.

Thanks to environmental conditions, the art (formerly called Bradshaw and now known as Gwion) has stood the test of time, and is protected behind a clear desert varnish, in contrast to the figures seen locally, which are rarely more than a few hundred years old.

Voorwinden has visited the original Bradshaw site, lost for a century and only rediscovered 12 years ago.

The photographs that Voorwinden is exhibiting – many of them framed in locally sourced red cedar – are striking not simply because of the mysterious and ancient designs.

They are a compelling mix of the human and the natural, of the ochre and the rock that is the chosen canvas, often with a colour and texture that would be complete even without the paintings.

Although others have speculated that these may have been created by migrants from Asia who came, and then went, Voorwinden resists the temptation to explain his images.

‘‘I am only into esoteric values here,’’ he said.

‘‘I am not into meanings or reasons why they put them on the wall.

‘‘It’s good to let people come to their own conclusions about that.

‘‘Anyway, no one knows.’’

 ■ Ochre & Ink runs at the Shellharbour Village Exhibition Space, corner Wentworth and Addison streets, until tomorrow. 

Details: 0407062527.

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