▲ Peggy Patrick near her Dreaming.

Dreamtime in
Australia

A night with Aboriginal artists leads to creative rebirth.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are warned that the following story may contain images and voices of deceased persons.

“Tonight you dream,” said Peggy Patrick, stabbing her finger at me.

The fire was dying as the circle of senior law women (Aboriginal elders) put away their carved rhythm sticks. My back hurt from sitting on the cold ground too long, listening for hours to the Daiyul Lirlmim song cycle about a ­barramundi fish that swam through a mountain range. The red dust made everyone cough. In the Gija language, these fluid narrative performances are called joonba, an intrinsic expression of Aboriginal art that incorporates song, dance, body painting, and theatrics. The custodians of each story are obligated to teach it to the younger generation, who on that night wanted only to escape, laughing in the darkness to kick a ball around, paint still marking their faces. I wiped off my jeans and walked back across the highway to my room at a roadhouse on the edge of Warmun, an outback town in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

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Sounds of the joonba, recorded during the author’s visit to Warmun.

Both my grandfather and father were artists, and I grew up in a New York household where creative expression was paramount. Dad started out as a classicist; it would take decades for him to fully adopt abstractionism, his true métier, but observing him rebel over time gave me a taste for the same. That led to an appreciation for Outsider Art, perhaps because it exists beyond the boundaries of official culture, often in realms of the self-taught artists’ own making. Henry Darger, Howard Finster, Maud Lewis, Butch Anthony. Peggy Patrick.

A love for that art eventually led me to a night terror in the back of beyond.

Australia’s Aboriginal artists have a complex worldview based on genesis myths describing the Ngarrangarni, or Dreamtime, during which totemic ancestors traveled the nascent landscape, scattering a trail of musical notes that grew into mountain ranges, rivers, forests, deserts.

These places have metaphysical resonance, and every creature—human or otherwise—is eternally connected to a specific aspect of this sacred geography. The Ngarrangarni is both scripture and navigational tool, a moral compass tied to a freaky dreamscape and interpreted for millenniums by ­artists in both song and imagery. In music it’s accompanied by instruments such as the didgeridoo and bullroarer.

When rendering these stories visually, Aboriginals carved petroglyphs and ground paint by hand from rocks, berries, and other natural materials to create cave paintings. (Now artists have switched to store-bought paint and canvas or board.) The basic palette—ocher, white, black, indigo, mustard—remains the same and still echoes the artist’s particular birthplace. Images appear out of swirls, ripples, blobs, dots. A certain vertical shift in perspective reveals this is an uncannily accurate aerial interpretation, captured by painters who may never actually fly over the landscapes they’ve rendered. I first heard of these Dreamtime artists while living in Australia for a brief period during the 1980s, when they were finally gaining recognition from the mainstream art world. But it would be decades before I had the opportunity to meet any.

Dreamtime artist Phyllis Thomas in Echidna Chasm, Purnululu National Park.
▲ Dreamtime artist Phyllis Thomas in Echidna Chasm, Purnululu National Park.

The community of Warmun (population 210) sits beside the Great Northern Highway, the main supply route that passes through a million-square-mile savanna of bottle flies, blackened stumps, and searing light in Western Australia. It takes forever to get there. Poverty is rampant, chronic respiratory diseases common, food insecurity high. The truck stop is the only place to buy basic groceries, fill up on gas, and spend the night in a shabby room with a tepid shower. Down the highway, the Warmun Art Centre is the main exhibition space for ­resident painters. Patrick, the Gija senior law woman and artist I came to meet, has her work displayed there. She draws the ­joomooloony, or boab tree, that members of her clan group died under during the Mistake Creek Massacre, which took place near Warmun in 1915. It’s a personal dreaming, rather than a more traditional work based on the shared mythology of country. Another rebel painter, so to speak, her work is otherworldly.

Children in Warmun preparing for a joonba.
▲ Children in Warmun prepare for a joonba.
Outback in Western Australia.
▲ The Outback in Western Australia.
Dreamtime artists Peggy Patrick (center) with sisters Phyllis and Nora Thomas, nieces of Rover Thomas, one of the first internationally recognized Aboriginal painters.
▲ Dreamtime artists Peggy Patrick (center) with sisters Phyllis and Nora Thomas, nieces of Rover Thomas, one of the first internationally recognized Aboriginal painters.
 Off the Great Northern Highway near the Cockburn Range.
▲ Off the Great Northern Highway near the Cockburn Range.

Children in Warmun prepare for a joonba.

Warmun resident Shirley Drill forages for sugarbag.

The Outback in Western Australia.

Dreamtime artists Peggy Patrick (center) with sisters Phyllis and Nora Thomas, nieces of Rover Thomas, one of the first internationally recognized Aboriginal painters.

Off the Great Northern Highway near the Cockburn Range.

Sound is off

Too often I have parachuted into unfamiliar places without any deep understanding of the culture. Mostly without personal consequence. Not this time. Friends put me together with Patrick, across oceans and continents. We met in the light cast by that fire. Unruly white hair framed her face. Sharp eyes and pursed lips. In her suitcase, a crumpled picture of a giant pink diamond. Born in the 1930s, Patrick worked as a truck driver, teacher, and nurse in the Kimberley before picking up the paintbrush. Over time she also became the custodian of significant song cycles, such as the Daiyul Lirlmim, or Barramundi Dreaming.

That night she practiced it with her friends and their grandchildren under a paperbark tree. I listened, unaware of the regional complexities of land ownership vs. outsider interests, especially involving the world’s largest pink diamond mine in nearby Barramundi Gap, where a Dreamtime fish was once chased by clanswomen with grass nets. Squeezing through a fissure in the rock, it scraped off its sparkling scales to escape.

Patrick’s raw alto soared, wavered, cracked with laughter. When the group finally stopped, I asked how long she had been singing the song cycle. “Since I was a kid,” she replied.

Then that other thing was said. I ignored her, to be honest.

Maybe it was the lumpy bed. Or jet lag. I slept fitfully. Late in the night, a fierce reptile emerged, like lightning on the horizon, glittering gemlike against the darkness of the dream Patrick promised. It vanished just as quickly, a trippy hallucination shattering my subconscious. I may have cried out. The next morning, I left the women of Warmun behind.

Almost at once, the trouble started. A flat tire on a famously dangerous unpaved road. No jack, miles from help. A lost credit card. A lost laptop, thankfully found again.

A few weeks later, driving through a wilderness area in the Northern Territory, I braked sharply and pulled over on the shoulder next to one of those wildlife crossing signs. A jolt of recognition took me right back to the night of the joonba.

On the metal diamond was a symbol of the reptile from my dream. (I looked it up, because I’d never seen it other­wise.) Chlamydosaurus kingii. A frilled neck lizard, spiny orange ruff extended in full display. Binges on butterflies, climbs trees, basks in the sun. Appeared on the Australian 2¢ coin and had a cameo in Jurassic Park. For Aboriginals in the far north, I discovered later, the Frilled Neck Lizard Dreaming is a powerful totemic rainmaker, bringing both emotional storms and cleansing, signifying the unrelenting force of nature and the use of communal energy. An agent of chaos.

More than a decade has passed, and I still think about that night in Warmun as a crossroad. Narratives about indigenous wisdom are so often fraught with privilege and exploitation. Too easily appropriated by those lacking in perspective, for the sake of a trophy trip or an artifact of material culture that loses its relevance when spirited away. On the other hand, meeting those women in that troubled and distant place permanently shifted my worldview. They reminded me to think outside the confines of my own understanding and to listen to histories besides my own. I changed my field of concentration, from lifestyle journalism to cultural anthropology. Wrote a book about it. Embraced the creative chaos embodied by that totem. Certainly not the same way as a Dreamtime artist, because that’s not my medium. Yet they let me in for a second, and that’s probably more than I deserve.

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