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The Art of Healing: Australian Indigenous Bush Medicine

The Art of Healing: Australian Indigenous Bush Medicine exhibition follows the premise of Tjukurpa (Dreaming) and looks at traditional Indigenous healing practice as simultaneously past, present and future.

Iiawanti Ken basket

The Art of Healing: Australian Indigenous Bush Medicine exhibition is currently on display (14 May - 28 June) in the Arcade, Bush House. It is held in partnership by the Menzies Australia Institute, King's College London and the University of Melbourne

For 65,000 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have occupied the lands now known as Australia, with distinct cultural boundaries defined by intimate relationships with Country.

The exhibition, The Art of Healing: Australian Indigenous Bush Medicine follows the premise of Tjukurpa (Dreaming). It looks at traditional Indigenous healing practice as simultaneously past, present and future.

Through contemporary art, the exhibition presents examples of healing practice and bush medicine from many distinct and varied Indigenous communities across Australia. The artworks tell stories of bush medicine from many parts of Australia, as an introduction to a vast bank of knowledge that precedes and parallels other great healing traditions.

This use of contemporary art underlines the continuing practice of bush medicine, by revealing it through a current lens. It also demonstrates visually the distinct and varied cultures that make up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia.

Many of the works in the exhibition illustrate particular bush medicines, and in their accompanying words, the artists share with us their knowledge of their uses.

Bush medicine has always been with Aboriginal people. It was before, and we will always be making bush medicine. There are all kinds of bush medicine and they grow all over. You’ll find they’re different in each place, and we have these ones that I’ve painted.– Judith Pungkarta Inkamala, 2017

On her Bush medicine pot, Hermannsburg ceramic artist Judith Inkamala illustrates the process of preparing bush medicine. The pot is crowned with a depiction (sculpted in clay) of a knunkara (medicine woman) using a grinding stone to prepare bush medicine.

Inkamala explains: 'The old lady and the old brother will sing, sing, sing and spit into the bush medicine as they mix it. That’s why everyone will get better and everyone will become strong.'

Elder and ngangkaṟi (healer), Ilawanti Ungkutjuru Ken has created a basket based on observing birds' nests, to show the power of family and community for a person’s wellbeing. She says: ‘My basket is like a nest.'

Treahna Hamm
Dhungala cool burn, 2017 by Treahna Hamm

The ancestral knowledge of healing of the Yorta Yorta people is celebrated in a major work by Treahna Hamm. Dhungala cool burn shows women and girls collecting bush medicine along the banks of dhungala (the Murray River), placing the medicines in coolamons and in dilly bags.

Marilyne Nicholls' method of coil weaving has been used in south-eastern Australia for thousands of years, to make baskets, belts, mats, eel traps and other items. Nicholls' Healing basket is woven from Sedge fibre and includes two medicine plants: coastal rosemary and gum leaves, both of which are used for smoking ceremonies to cleanse and heal.

Senior Gija Elder and artist Shirley Purdie have been working for several years with linguist Frances Koford to document medicinal and other plants of the East Kimberley, identifying individual species and recording their Gija, Latin and English names. Preserving vital information and cultural memory for future generations, through written records and individual artworks.

'Biriyal (Conkerberry or Carissa lanceolata) is used for smoking people to get away bad spirits. Used for all ages when they are sick – if they are dreaming about anything or not eating.'

Details of images:

Judith Pungkarta Inkamala (b. 1948)
Skin: Pungkarta
Language: Western Arrarnta
Country: Ntaria, Northern Territory
Artist location: Ntaria (Hermannsburg), Northern Territory
Bush medicine, 2017
Terracotta and underglaze
43.0 × 31.0 × 31.0 cm (variable)
Medical History Museum, University of Melbourne

Ilawanti Ungkutjuru Ken (b. 1944)
Language: Pitjantjatjara
Community/location: Amata, Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, South Australia mother’s Country: Arula
Father’s Country: near/south of Wataru
Artist location: Ingkerreke Outstation, Rocket Bore, Northern Territory
Tjulpu wiltja: bird nest basket, 2017
Tjanpi, wool, raffia, emu feathers, wire
50.0 × 60.0 × 50.0 cm
Medical History Museum, University of Melbourne

Treahna Hamm (b. 1965)
Language: Yorta Yorta
Country: Yorta Yorta
Artist location: Yarrawonga, Victoria
Dhungala cool burn, 2017
Acrylic paint, river sand, bark ink on canvas
100.9 × 114.0 cm (one panel)
Medical History Museum, University of Melbourne

Marilyne Elizabeth Nicholls (b. 1957)
Language: Dja Dja Wurrung / Yorta Yorta / Baraba Baraba / Wadi Wadi / Jupagulk
Country: Murray River region
Artist location: Swan Hill, Victoria
Healing basket, 2017
Sedge grass, Eucalyptus
Leaves, Coastal Rosemary, bark, ochre
20.2 × 22.0 × 21.0 cm
Medical History Museum, University of Melbourne

Shirley Purdie (b. 1947)
Skin: Nangari
Language: Gija / Kimberley Kriol
Country: Gilburn (Mabel Downs Station)
Artist location: Warmun, Western Australia
Biriyal / Conkerberry / Carissa lanceolate, 2016
Natural ochre and pigments on canvas
45.0 × 45.0 cm
Medical History Museum, University of Melbourne