Bush Medicine is an important subject for many paintings by Aboriginal women.
For thousands of years, Aboriginal people have known about the healing qualities of plants. Aboriginal women gather these plants, ground them, sometimes mix them with oil and use in traditional medicine, and ceremonies. Expression of abundance in life and nature is another feature of the spiritual responsibilities of Aboriginal women.
The leaves, flowers, bark or seeds of certain plants are harvested in season or as needed. This is often done in groups so that skills and knowledge of the tradition is passed down from older to younger women.
The plants are grounded to a pulp and boiled to extract the resin. The resin is mixed with fat to make ointments. Traditionally the stomach fat of kangaroos or emus were used, and would be keep for months in the harsh conditions of the desert. Today butter or olive oil is sometimes substituted for fat. The medicine is used to heal wounds, bites, rashes, and as an insect repellent.
Leaves may also be steeped to make an infusion, applied to wounds to prevent infection. Sometimes a plant is powdered and applied to the chest to heal congestion. Leaves may also be laid over a fire and the smoke inhaled. Bush medicines are used extensively in traditional midwifery.
Native lemon grass, mint, fuchsia (emu bush or eremophila), and Ti tree are common cures for coughs, colds, bites and scratches, and may also prevent infection. Gloria Petyarre says that she would inhale the smoke or odor from the clematis vine to cure a headache or sometimes she adds it to a liquid and drinks it. Another common name for clematis vine is 'headache vine'. These are just a few of many known remedies.
Aboriginal people also recognise the therapeutic value of many regular food sources and used them in different dosages as tonics to relieve pain, fever and respiratory problems. They recognised the healing qualities of honey, known to be a natural antibacterial, and rich in vitamins. Traditional medics even made a paste from witchetty grubs, a rich source of protein, to rub on the gums of teething babies.
Traditional healers both male and female (sometimes referred to as Ngangkari, bush doctors or medicine men) were held in high esteem. Even today there are designated traditional healers like Patricia Rambler Kemarre or George Ward Tjapaltjarri (often called Doctor George). Since European colonisation, however, much traditional plant knowledge is being lost.
"Bush Medicine Dreaming" paintings are one way to sustain this traditional knowledge. They often depict the leaves of the plants used in medicine with thick brush strokes. Small dots can represent seeds such as native millet or grass seed which are used in medicine and also an important part of the traditional food supply. Paintings can depict various illustrations of these healing medicine as well as abundance in the nature.
Bush medicine ceremonies are exclusive to women and carried out at certain times of the year when seasonal changes or rain might increase the harvest of a particular plant. These sacred ceremonies involve the painting of women's bodies with paint made from ochre, fat, ashes and even the plants themselves. Ceremonies always include singing and dancing, often at a special site related to that plant.
Plant knowledge forms an important part of Aboriginal culture and reflects the complexity of Aboriginal people's relationships to land. Paintings play an important part in the cultivation and maintenance of traditional knowledge about bush medicine.
The women artists from the Utopia region celebrate bush medicine in many of their paintings. Gloria Petyarre is a well known creative artists from this region whose iconic Bush Medicine paintings illustrate her interest and believe in the value and healing power of bush leaves. Another artist, Abie Loy Kemarre depicts the curative properties of the bush leaf that grows in the swamps near sand hills of her country around Utopia, which is used to cure colds, headaches and sores. Anna Petyarre celebrates the healing qualities and abundance of yam seeds as eye soothers in her Bush Yam Seeds works.
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