The Serpent’s Story—Revealed on Canvas

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Wolfe Creek meteorite crater. Image courtesy Penn Museum

Exhibit | “When I saw this, I was totally flabbergasted,” Dr. Peggy Reeves Sanday says as she points to an acrylic painting of Wolfe Creek Crater by Australian Aboriginal artist Daisy Kungah. “The center was like a Jackson Pollock—the use of colors thrown together to depict an explosion—while the border reflected a Martha Stewart-like concern with the orderly presentation of food. Only, this food was that which Aboriginal women gather in the surrounding desert. Of course, Daisy knew nothing of either Jackson Pollock or Martha Stewart.”  

Titled “Kandimalal,” the name for the crater among the Australian Aboriginals who inhabit the land around it, the piece is one of 27 contemporary paintings in the Penn Museum’s “Track of the Rainbow Serpent” exhibit.

It depicts a story of the crater’s creation during Dreamtime, which relates to the creation of the universe, a time beyond memory as well as ever present, and that also is a spiritual, physical, and moral dictate for how people should live in balance with the universe. 

In the story a star falls to Earth and wrapped around its shaft of light is the Rainbow Serpent, one of the important creative forces in Aboriginal cosmology. The Serpent makes the hole in the new crater its home, burrowing deeply and moving under and through the area around the crater to create waterways, landscape features, and the tunnel connecting the crater to the ancestral homeland on Sturt Creek, an hour’s drive away. It was the Serpent whose movements and creation through the land opened the path for the First Ancestors.

Sanday, the R. Jean Brownlee Term Professor of Anthropology and the exhibit’s curator, commissioned Kungah’s painting in 2000 after a journey back to the place where her father became famous and almost lost his life half a century ago.  

In 1947, Sanday’s father, geologist Frank Reeves, was following up on foot what he had seen from an airplane when flying over the Western Desert from Perth to Wyndham in the Kimberleys. It was a huge crater, and he suspected it was volcanic because of a dark circle at its center. Through mineral analysis, Reeves discovered that he had been looking all along at a meteor crater, what was to become known as the world’s second largest rimmed crater on land, after the Meteor Crater in Arizona.  

The next year, on an expedition elsewhere in the Great Sandy Desert, Reeves and his guide, Billy Dunn, lost their way and ran out of food and water. They would have died had a man named Jabadu and his three wives not found them. Jabadu’s family was on a walkabout in their family territory, an inhospitable land unless one knew its secrets intimately, as Jabadu did. He led Reeves and Dunn back to their base.

Even though Reeves was to become famous for his scientific contribution at Wolfe Creek Crater—even having a nickel-bearing mineral later found there named after him (reevesite)—it was his rescue by Jabadu that most captured his daughter’s imagination and led her to become an anthropologist.  

“It had a huge influence on me,” Sanday says as she points to a photograph of her father with Jabadu. “He [Jabadu] traveled with them for three days, leading them to water and hunting for them with one of the three spears he was carrying. When I heard this story in 1948, I was much more interested in the culture that produced people who could live in that kind of land and knew it so well and so intimately that they could survive with no difficulty.” 

An anthropologist famous in her own right for research on matriarchy in Indonesia and women’s issues in the United States, Sanday returned to the site of her father’s expedition in 1999. “I wanted to meet these remarkable people,” she says. She met Billy Dunn, now in his eighties, and he helped her trace her father’s journey as well as find the family of Jabadu, who was no longer living.

But Sanday’s journey was different from her father’s. Her concern was for how the “traditional owners,” the Aboriginal tribes from the area—the Djaru and the Walmajarri—view the crater.  

“Red Rock (Ngaimangaima)” by Daisy Kungah from Billiluna, 2002.
Image courtesy Penn Museum

People did not want to tell her much at first: The stories are for initiated ears only, mainly certain members of the local tribes, and contain sacred knowledge. Also, explains Sanday, “Words can’t tell the story the way that it needs to be told, namely, in their terms.” It was on a visit to an arts center, where Sanday saw several Aboriginal paintings on exhibit, that she realized the paintings were the appropriate medium for the telling of the stories. Guided by Aboriginal artist Stan Brumby, Sanday went to Billiluna, where she was introduced to the main traditional owners of the crater: three brothers, Speiler, Boxer, and Clancy. Daisy Kungah was Speiler’s niece.

Kungah’s painting, the first Sanday commissioned, interweaves many of the themes of the subsequent paintings: the star falling from the sky as well as the Rainbow Serpent, who represents both Mother and Father, movement through the land, the people and their origins, and the primary creator being. 

As she gained acceptance by the traditional owners, Sanday commissioned more works. While most of the exhibit’s paintings tell stories about the Wolfe Creek Crater, a few are from other regions and show how the artists draw on universal sacred symbols while also depicting the sacred and profane of their own region’s geography and life.

These works call to mind the cave paintings and rock engravings found across Australia, dating back thousands of years. They also share similarities with a more recent art tradition of painting on flattened tree bark with pigments made from elements found in the land. Many of those works are used in sacred contexts, bearing selectively shared knowledge, among the Aboriginal owners of the paintings. The most recent canvas and acrylic paintings are more public and sought out in the international art market. But as Sanday says, “This isn’t just art, it’s part of our human and cultural heritage.”

—Beebe Bahrami

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