Aboriginal art depicting bush leaves is rooted in the history of the medicinal use of leaves in aboriginal culture. The use of leaves in bush medicine has been practised for many thousands of years for spiritual and physical healing. Today we’ll explore the history of bush medicine leaves and the depiction of the leaves in aboriginal art.
How are bush medicine leaves used?
The aboriginal people are one the oldest groups still in existence today. Throughout aboriginal history, women have collected various plants to be used in medicine. Bush medicine incorporates flowers, bark, seeds, and leaves of certain plants. The women grind the plant matter and leaves to form different medicines.
Plant matter for bush medicine is almost exclusively harvested by women. Often the harvests are done in groups so that the older women can pass down their knowledge to the younger women. The medicine created is used to heal a whole host of physical and mental ailments and is used for spiritual purposes.
Many aboriginal medicines are still used across the world today. Notably, bush medicine is credited with helping the Allies win World War II. Soldiers were being incapacitated by seasickness after crossing the English Channel, rendering them unable to fight on arrival at the beaches of Normandy. To combat this, an aboriginal remedy for seasickness containing corkwood leaves was given to the soldiers, to great effect. Even today, corkwood leaves are still harvested by pharmaceutical companies.
The history of aboriginal art
The oldest intact, surviving piece of Australian art is estimated to be 17,500 years old—a rock painting of a kangaroo discovered in Kimberley. Aboriginal people were making art long before the creation of this painting, with some estimates indicating that this indigenous art has been practised for over 60,000 years.
Traditionally, the artworks were painted onto rock, bark, and leaves. Or they were drawn into the sand and dirt or onto people as body art. Aboriginal art centres around storytelling, used to document and convey knowledge, beliefs, and events.
In the early 70s, schoolteacher Geoffrey Bardon, noticed that aboriginals would often draw symbols into the sand when telling stories, and he encouraged them to paint those symbols onto canvas. This kickstarted the contemporary aboriginal art movement.
Leaves in art
Since leaves are so integral to bush medicine and aboriginal culture in general, the depiction of leaves in aboriginal art seems very natural. However, bush medicine leaves have only been included in art relatively recently. In 1999, aboriginal artist Gloria Petyarre first won the prestigious Wynne Prize (she won again in 2004) with her painting Leaves.
Gloria Petyarre is often credited with developing the style of bush medicine leaf painting, although her cousin, Jeannie Petyarre, also claims she was the pioneer of the style. Both Petyarre women were born in Utopia, an aboriginal homeland in Central Australia. Gloria Petyarre died in 2021, but her legacy has been kept alive by the thriving art of bush medicine leaf painting in the community. Other artists from Utopia that still paint in this style include her sisters, family members and others from her clan group such as Jeannie Petyarre, Rosemary Petyarre, Abie Loy Kemarre, Dulcie Long Pwerle, and Janet Golder Kngwarreye.
Bush medicine leaves are often depicted in artwork using thick brush strokes while small dots can indicate seeds. The subject matter in the paintings often flows, incorporating a sense of rhythm and movement. This is thought to allude to the connection the leaves give to the aboriginals who paint them to the land and life itself.
Which leaves are painted?
The bush medicine leaves that are painted by the artists in Utopia tend to be varieties of the kurrajong tree (Brachychiton) which grow abundantly in the region. There are at least 31 known subspecies of this tree that range in height from four to 30 metres, and the species is thought to date back up to 50 million years ago. In some species of the tree, water can be sourced from their thick trunks.
The leaves of the kurrajong tree, the subjects of the paintings, range from 10 to 15 cm long. The name of the tree, ‘kurrajong’, originates from the Dharak language of the Eora and Darug people from New South Wales and means 'fishing line'—this is because thin strips of the bark were once used for this purpose.
For many thousands of years, women from the region have gathered the leaves to be used in traditional bush medicine. The leaves are known to be used to combat a huge range of ailments including headaches, colds and fevers, coughs, general pain, gastrointestinal problems, wounds, and stings.
After the leaves are collected, they are used in a multitude of ways. Often they are boiled and then mashed in combination with animal fats such as kangaroo or emu—this creates a paste that will last for many months even out in the conditions of the bush. The paste is effective for healing cuts, bites, skin infections, and rashes. Alternatively, the leaves are steeped in hot water to create a healing tea.
The colour of the kurrajong leaves changes with the seasons and also with the subspecies of the tree. This is depicted in the bush medicine leaves artworks. It’s thought that the different colours of the leaves indicate different healing properties. The artists of Utopia use varying brush strokes and colours to depict the leaves at different times of the year.
‘The Dreaming’ or ‘Dreamtime’ are English translations of terms used by aboriginals to refer to concepts of ‘Everywhen’—the belief that the past, present, and future are all interconnected. The Dreaming is difficult to define but to some, it describes the relationship between people, plants, animals and the land, understanding of how these relationships came to be, what they mean and how they ought to be maintained in daily life.
Dreaming stories can refer to physical depictions of the Dreaming. Various aboriginal clans and people will ‘own’ different stories that tell of the meanings of particular places and creatures. Today, many artists in Utopia use bush medicine leaves paintings as their medium to tell their own stories of the Dreaming.