I was meant to be learning to paint. Instead, I got a lesson in time.
Sitting there on the floor of Kakadu’s Crocodile Hotel, mini canvas in one hand and handmade reed brush in the other, I was trying to recreate the intricate x-ray paintings we’d been seeing etched into the sandstone walls of Kakadu’s art sites over the past few days.
Despite gentle instructions from the Bininj (traditional Aboriginal land owners in Jabiru) professional artist painting next to me, I just couldn’t seem to get it right. My Balanda (non-Aboriginal) hand trembled, the thin lines came out wobbly and awkwardly spaced.
I lost patience, my attention wavered. I turned my attention to the Bininj artist’s work for inspiration.
His hand moved swiftly and skilfully, his perfectly spaced lines looked as though they’d been drawn with a ruler. Watching him paint almost put me in a trance. We were completely absorbed, he and I, neither of us saying a word.
I wanted to hold this silence, to let the moment be. But this man’s skill was such that I couldn’t help but ask him, in my Balanda way, how long he had been painting.
“Oh…” he replied, not looking up from his painting or stopping his flow. “Twenty, thirty…” He drifted off.
“Incredible,” I said, assuming he was done.
“…forty, fifty, sixty, seventy years,” he continued.
Huh? There was absolutely no way this man could have been seventy-plus years old. I put him at forty, tops. I considered asking him to explain, but decided better of it and lost myself again in his meditative painting. My mind drifted back to the day before.
We’d been at Nourlangie art site, and one of our group asked (for what must have been the tenth time that day) how old one of the paintings was. Us Balanda needed to know times, dates, figures.
Our Balanda guide had asked our young Bininj guide, who had shrugged his shoulders and replied that one of his ancestors had created it. Simple as that. And in that moment we had understood that time, for Bininj, is elastic. It’s a loose, subjective and often non-linear concept, measured in ancestory and in the land, not on watches or in calendars. Bininj, our guide explained, have a stacked view of time, where the past, present and future are all bound up into the eternal now of the Dreamtime.
So the dating of things doesn’t really matter to Bininj, just like age didn’t really matter to the artist. He was simply trying to convey to me that he had been painting for a long, long time.
It was a powerful lesson. One that shone a light on how limited my linear way of seeing time and history can be, and that got me questioning why I always need to measure everything anyway.
I still don’t really know the answer.
What I do know, though, is that I’ve been a little bit less concerned with it since my trip to Kakadu.