The Gwion or Bradshaw Paintings are incredibly sophisticated examples of rock art found predominantly in the Mitchell Plateau and Gibb River sections of Kimberley region of Western Australia. This art form, known to the local Aborigines as Gwion Gwion or Allarwhro, was first recorded by Joseph Bradshaw in 1891, when he was lost on an expedition through the Kimberley with his brother.
Bradshaw published an illustrated account of his findings in 1892 ('Notes on a Recent Trip to Prince Regent River'). Of them, Bradshaw said, "The most remarkable fact in connection with these drawings is that wherever a profile face is shown, the features are of a most pronounced aquiline (eagle-like) type, quite different from those of any native we encountered." In 1938 Doctor Andreas Lommel, a member of the Frobenius Institute, lived for several months in the Outback of north-west Australia in the Kimberley, with the Unambal tribe, with the aim of copying Aboriginal rock paintings. On his second expedition to the Kimberley in 1955, he was joined by his wife Katharina. After that expedition, Dr. Lommel stated his belief that the rock art he referred to as and is now commonly identified as the Bradshaw Paintings may well predate the present Aborigines.
Since the initial find by the Bradshaw brothers, over 1,000 paintings have been discovered. The painting sites extend in an area of about 50,000 square kilometres. Based on aerial photography and field visits, an additional 10,000 to 50,000 vaults of Bradshaw Galleries are likely to exist in the Kimberley ranges. The figures are found in raised small caves at cliff faces of substantially horizontal bedding, and in the protection of overhanging rock ledges. Each painted site offers magnificent views of the rugged landscape. Many pictures were painted on the ceiling; the artist laying on the back, as Michelangelo did to paint his frescos.
The Bradshaw Galleries cluster along and adjacent to the seven river systems of Kimberley Ranges, with concentrations around rocky river flats, which were certainly covered by large alluvial deposits during the glacial periods. The art is of such antiquity that no pigment remains on the rock surface, thus it is impossible to use carbon dating technology. The composition of the original paints cannot be determined, and whatever pigments were used have been amazingly locked into the rock itself as shades of Mulberry red, and have become impervious to the elements.
Over a few decades Grahame Walsh has explored the inhospitable environment of the Kimberley Region of Western Australia, mainly on foot, and has discovered thousands of these magnificent Bradshaw Paintings. The Bradshaw Art website presents a summary of the data Walsh has collected. Fortuitously, in 1996 Walsh discovered a Bradshaw Painting partly covered by a fossilised Mud Wasp nest, which scientists have removed and analysed using a new technique of dating, determining it to be 17,000 plus years old.
These small rock paintings are of human figures. Their location varies: sometimes they are to be found in the immediate vicinity of the larger Wandjina paintings, but sometimes they stand entirely on their own, as if they had been dropped at random into the landscape. Invariably painted in monochrome dark red, the part-human part-animal figures have agile, sinuous bodies, that are generally represented in profile, leaping, dancing, running, fighting, love-making, often carrying a barbed spear or a boomerang. Some are adorned with elaborate hair style and body ornamentation, presented in stunningly elegant, finely choreographed poses that seem to depict social events, or groups seemingly floating in space. Others, believed to be the most recent, are harsh, stick-like in character and contain none of the carefree imagery of the older figures.
Similar figures occur in the Upper Yule Valley and the Upper Shaw River as far as Nullagine in the east, and as far south as the Hamersley Range, but in a diminutive form, and near the coast around Dampier, on Depuch Island and as far north as the De Grey River. The origin of this style of painting is relatively obscure as it is unlike the rock art from another other region of Australia. A measure of outside influence is often assumed, as the depletion of movement is wholly uncharacteristic of indigenous Australian art, although the weapons - the multi barbed spear and boomerang - remain typical.
In his survey of the subject, Walsh examines the question of stylistic derivation and priority, pointing out that both types of painting unique to this area, the Bradshaw and the Wandjina, are often found at the same site. In such cases, the central picture is always the Wandjina, with the Bradshaws distributed round about in small niches and alcoves. Sometimes there is an element of continuity between the two styles.
Who created the Bradshaw Figures?
The early paintings are extremely old; 60,000 years or probably much more according to anthropologists, but their absolute age cannot be determined as the iron oxide pigments have lithified, mineralogically assimilated into the rock to become part of the rock itself, rather than a surface covering. If they are as old as they appear to be, chronologically they would predate the pyramids of Egypt and the Palaeolithic cave paintings of Europe, in fact they may well be the oldest art form of mankind in existence. The broad-shouldered, realistic representation of humans infers an origin of Egyptian culture in the Kimberley Ranges, while the slanted prolific features of the human face, reminiscent of Mayan pictures, suggest that the Kimberley Ranges may have been the cradle of all pyramidal cultures.
The Bradshaw Paintings differ in style from and, by archaeological evidence, appear to predate the art work of the ancestors of the Australian Aboriginal tribes of the Kimberley region, whose history goes back to about 40,000 years. Some scientists believe the figures were created by a race that populated the area long before the Aborigines migrated to Australia. They point out that the Aborigines' stature does not show even a remote match with the graceful homo-form of slender Bradshaw figures, and therefore they could not have possibly been the subject of Bradshaw figures.
The Aborigines of Kimberley region at one time supported this notion. Since the late 19th Century until recent times, their elders stated that the Bradshaw images were "before their time" and referred to them as "rubbish paintings". According to Aboriginal legend, the Bradshaw images were painted by birds who pecked the rocks until their beaks bled, and then painted the images with their tail feathers. In recent years some Australian Aboriginal communities have had a change of heart, laying cultural claim to the Bradshaw Images in support of land claims involving the Kimberley region.
Anthropologist GL Seymour M.Sc has observed that the early Bradshaw images are depicted with representation of abundant plant material that suggests the Bradshaw People lived in a relatively lush environment in sharp contrast with the present hostile and desolate conditions of the region. "As the Bradshaw Paintings progressed in time they displayed a distinct trend of decline into barbarism. The decline is noticeable in artistic skills, composition, themes, motives and aesthetics. There is a noticeable increase in imperfect figures, and short stocky human forms appear together with the slender Bradshaw figures. Both homo-forms are clad in the Bradshaw tradition. The finely choreographed graceful postures gradually transit into wielding of weapons.
"The cause of multilateral decline is seen in the emergence of an external pressure, infiltration, inherent internal decay and eventual annexation by barbaric and warring new comers, probably the earliest wave of invasion (from the Indian sub-continent) by what is referred to as the Australian Aborigine. Such a quiet conquest infers the Bradshaw People were peaceful and hospitable, unaccustomed to deceit." Seymour surmises that the invaders eventually overtook the rule and overwrote the sophisticated culture, concluding that what the British did to the Aborigines, they themselves appear to have done to the Bradshaw People upon their arrival in Australia.
Although the Bradshaw Pictures are timeless, the culture which created them was not, according to Seymour. "They had their beginning. The Bradshaw people displaced another culture of rock painting or philosophy as evidenced by abundant cupules (chipped pits), which cover large sections of rock surfaces. The cupules predate the Bradshaw pictures and served probably to obliterate previous rock paintings that the Bradshaw people may have perceived "pagan" or undesirable to their own spirituality and culture.