During one of my visits to the Central Desert to participate in the women’s ceremonies, several Aboriginal women went hunting for honey ants and took a friend of mine and me along. Before we left I knew very little about these ants except that they had a great cultural significance to the Aboriginal people. In the middle of the day we spent several hours out bush in the sweltering heat hunting and digging for these ants and what we received in return was priceless. Aside from tasting the sweet nectar of these honey ants, I was able to witness the refined perceptive powers of Central Desert people, hear a story that sensitized me to the pain of Aboriginal women, appreciate the nourishing power of one of their bush foods, and see how Aboriginal symbols as found in many of their paintings reflect what we can observe in nature. Shortly after this particular trip to the desert I made the painting above to capture the story of our experience that day.
As we took off for the hunt, the burning sun penetrated our bodies and the red sand drenched in sunlight radiated heat from below. Our pace was slow and we walked quietly and carefully across the land, threading our path through shrubs and low trees and open spaces, catching some shade wherever we could. One of the Aboriginal women seemed to appear and disappear as she blended even in her colorful dress into the landscape. As she walked she held her palm open toward the ground as though she was waiting to sense or read the presence of the ants. I wondered, how she would know where to start digging since the ground beneath our feet seemed to repeat the same patterns of sand, shrub, trees and occasional anthills or termite mounts? Though quiet and often invisible to our eyes she took the lead for the hunt.
The other two Aboriginal women were a mother-daughter pair. They were a bit more talkative and seemed quite keen for the hunt to turn out successfully for my friend and me. While I was a bit worried about the enormous amount of energy they spent searching and digging for honey ants I realized it was not my call to judge what was going on. Over time it became clear to me how precious it was for them to be hunting for honey ants and to enjoy this real desert treat.
Eventually there were indications for a honey ant site and the mother of the mother-daughter pair began clearing the space. The mother asked me to help and I removed the roots of a shrub that seemed to be in the way. Once this was done she molded a u shape into the sand with her hands, sat down cross-legged and began to dig. The seat she had created perfectly fitted her bottom. The joy of realizing what I had just seen traveled through my body like small lightening. The shape of the u she had crafted, looked from above like the Aboriginal symbol for person. This u-shaped symbol is found in many Aboriginal paintings, especially in those paintings that are done in pointillism style which capture landscapes from an aerial perspective. This u-shape is usually represented with some variations indicating if the person is a man or woman or child. A short line next to a u shape is usually a coolamon, a hollowed piece of wood for collecting bush tucker (bush foods), and the long line represents a digging stick. A u shape with a short line or a short and long line symbolizes a woman. A u shape with one or two long lines represents a man. One line is a symbol for a spear and two lines for a spear and a spear thrower.
In the painting I made the placement of the Aboriginal symbol for women indicates the location of members of our hunting party at different times. During the hunt, at one point, the mother of the mother-daughter pair sat down next to me and drew the symbol for a honey ant site into the sand. The nests are shown in concentric circles and the straight lines indicate the underground tunnels between the nests. At the center of my painting I depict the symbol for honey ant sites. This is where we dug for the ants.
Aboriginal painting on canvas is a recent phenomenon. The Aboriginal art movement began in the 1960’s with its initial intention for the Aborigines to keep their culture alive. This movement later developed into a full-fledged art industry that spread across the country and in many ways remains the only way for Aborigines to participate in the western economic process. Papunya, a small community in Australia’s Northern Territory, is named after a honey ant creation story ‘Papunya Tula’ which means “honey ant dreaming”. This dreaming belongs to the various tribes who live there. This is where the Western Desert Art Movement began—several hundred kilometers north of where we were. Before the rise of the art movement Aborigines drew symbols in the sand as a kind of language to augment their verbal communication and stories. Many of the Aboriginal symbols that appear in paintings stem from these sand drawings. Other images originate from ancient cave paintings that until recently were maintained over the millennia by the Aboriginal tribes that were the traditional custodians of the cave paintings.