The Story Behind Medicine Bush Leaves
The medicine bush leaves style of painting is perhaps one of the most captivating kinds of art on the planet. The thousands of ‘leaves’ are painstakingly hand-painted one by one, layered on top of one another with thick brush strokes in gorgeous swirling patterns that appear to be rippling on the canvas. Clever use of colours, shapes, and stroke direction can evoke a strong sense of an ebb and flow sort of movement, as though the leaves are blowing in the wind. In this blog, Mbantua will delve into the cultural significance of the medicine bush leaf to the Aboriginal people and explore how this Indigenous art staple has mesmerised collectors all over the world.
The Kurrajong tree
The leaves depicted in medicine bush leaf paintings are the fallen or picked foliage of the Kurrajong tree. The tree itself has many more uses on top of its medicinal leaves, and people of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal origin took advantage of these.
People could obtain water from large trees that by boring a hole in the trunk and squeezing the wood. The soft and spongy wood was used for making shields with the bark acting as a fibre to secure and tie things. There are records of Kurrajong seedpods being used in children’s rattles and other toys, and even of European settlers roasting and crushing seeds to use as a coffee supplement.
How the Indigenous people used medicine bush leaves
Typically, the women gather up bush leaves, boil them, and then combine them with the fat of animals such as kangaroos, goannas, or emus. They mash the ingredients together to make a medicinal paste or poultice, which can last for several months. The paste can be used to heal a wide variety of skin afflictions such as insect and animal bites, cuts and scrapes, rashes, and infections. The bush leaves are also boiled in hot water to make an infused healing tea. Other preparations were used to repel bugs and insects or were thrown into the water to stun fish and make them easier to capture.
How the world fell in love with medicine bush leaf paintings
The fascination with this beautiful painting style can be traced back to the late 90s and early 2000s. It was around then that a medicine bush painting created by Indigenous artist Gloria Petyarre was awarded several highly prestigious art prizes. Her painting, simply entitled ‘Leaves’, sparked worldwide interest in the beautiful, dense patterns of laboriously painted brush strokes. Today there are many talented Aboriginal artists producing medicine bush leaf artwork, many of whom are related to Gloria Petyarre